Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why full-time NS can’t be shortened

18 June 2013

According to a government poll conducted in 2011, over 90 per cent of those surveyed said National Service (NS) is necessary. Arguments that it can be shortened, however, are regularly made.

These arguments typically rest on two assumptions. The first concerns time. Some argue the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) uses it too inefficiently. “Hurry up to wait”, or “wait to rush, rush to wait” is often used to describe one’s experience in NS. They reason that NS could be shorter if time were more efficiently used.

Others assume NS should be shorter because the advanced military technology that the SAF actively seeks is ostensibly a force multiplier that should reduce the amount of manpower required to maintain a high level of capability, as well as the time required to train individuals.

In fact, it was because of the increased efficiencies achieved through technology and innovation that the length of full-time NS was standardised to two years for all ranks almost a decade ago.

The second assumption is that if other developed countries conscript their citizens for shorter periods of time, surely Singapore can too. Supporters of this argument point to countries such as, inter alia, Finland, Denmark, Austria and Norway where conscription is shorter, often only a few months long.

These assumptions and their related arguments are not intrinsically illogical. They do not, however, sufficiently account for the functional objectives of NS.

NS does not exist for its own sake, but as its first principle states, it “must be to meet critical national need for security and survival”. It does so by providing a large body of highly-trained front-line troops for the SAF, a conventionally structured deterrent force.

Singapore’s approach to defence dictates its function and therefore its form. As such, arguments that full-time NS should be shortened cannot be merely guided by internal logic alone, anecdotal observations or the experiences of other countries. They must fully recognise what full-time NS is expected to deliver.


Singapore’s defence policy rests on the twin pillars of defence and deterrence. The SAF provides the means to achieve the latter.

More than half of the active-duty Singapore Army, the biggest service in the SAF, is made up of full-time NSmen (NSFs). Few countries, even the aforementioned ones with long traditions of conscription, have such a high conscript-to-regular ratio.

NSFs fill a wide variety of vocations and appointments across the SAF and are trained to the same exacting standards as their regular counterparts. The high quality of NSFs was amply demonstrated in 2009 when a Leopard tank crew of three NSFs led by a young regular, having only trained with the vehicle for six months, beat seasoned regulars from Australia and the United States in a friendly tri-nation competition.

It is more often witnessed in the complex, high-tempo overseas exercises, such as Forging Sabre or Wallaby, that the SAF regularly conducts.

Such standards are typically not expected of conscripts in other countries because of the different doctrinal structure and lower technological sophistication of the militaries they serve in. In many instances, conscripts operate in a more evenly mixed military manpower system and augment the regular core of the military, rather than form it, as is the case in Singapore.

The training they consequently receive reflects this. Given the difference in what is expected of each country’s conscripts, it is unfair to suggest full-time NS can be shortened simply because other countries have shorter periods of conscription.

NS cannot be benchmarked against conscription elsewhere as each system is fit for its own specific purpose.

The skills conscripts are expected to acquire dictate the time needed to train them well and, more importantly, train them safely. This in turn determines the length of full-time NS.


Training to such a high standard cannot be rushed. While technology can indeed be a force multiplier in allowing more to be done with fewer men, it can also be a double-edged sword as its complexity also demands more extensive training.
Technology-assisted training can mitigate this, but a learning curve still remains because of the technological sophistication of the equipment used. There are often multiple levels of instruction before overall proficiency is attained. Furthermore, these skills have to be applied in cooperation with others — within the unit, and the unit itself with others in a larger formation.

Acquiring group — in addition to individual — competency takes time. Rushing through the different phases of training may result in the boxes being ticked on paper but an ineffectively trained soldier, as well as unit, in reality.

Training also needs to be sequential and incremental for reasons of safety. Often a new experience unlike any other, military service can be emotionally and physically challenging. Assuming a soldier can transit seamlessly between roles without allowing sufficient time for the transition to take place can be dangerous.

Full-time NS is therefore intentionally incrementally structured, even if this requires more time. For example, the Physical Training Phase to help recruits meet the fitness standards of military service is almost as long as Basic Military Training itself.


While the SAF should investigate if there is any basis to the claim that NS training is excessively inefficient, a certain amount of inefficiency in NS might actually be desirable.

An apparent inefficient use of time can, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, provide opportunities for camaraderie to be built. Esprit de corps is developed through shared experiences; war or intense physical action typically comes to mind. But a common refrain heard, at least since the World War I, is that war, and by extension military service, is actually mainly boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror.

This reality of military service suggests unit cohesion is not generally built during the intensity of action, for this is limited — but in the boredom of daily routine when soldiers interact and bond with one another while engaged in the mundane, or while awaiting orders.

Arguably, it is precisely because men are not busy with demanding tasks that they can afford the time and attention to actually get to know one another at a deeper level. These “wasteful” pockets of time also allow individuals to decompress during the intensity of training.

The value of periods of idle time must be appreciated. What may appear to be a waste of time may not actually be so.

The regularity of calls for full-time NS to be shortened suggests their supporting arguments and assumptions have not been adequately addressed. Engaging them is important because ensuring that there is common agreement on — or at the very least, understanding of — why full-time NS cannot be shorter is crucial to securing commitment to it.

It is crucial that this discussion acknowledges the practical objectives of NS and the constraints it faces in achieving them. Until Singapore’s defence policy changes — an important but separate issue for discussion — the length of full-time NS will always be guided by these practical considerations.


Ho Shu Huang is a MPhil/PhD candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is currently on study leave from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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