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Volunteers in green: Has the army gone soft?

The Straits Times | Jermyn Chow | Thursday, Oct 23, 2014

Colonel Mike Tan, who is in charge of the newly set up SAF Volunteer Corps.

Singapore's early settlers set up its first military volunteer corps in 1854. Amid bloody clashes between rival Hokkien and Teochew clans, the European Community needed to bolster internal security.

The European residents, led by British officers, formed the first corps. The Chinese and Indians also joined the Corps later. Called the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps, it was initially run on private funds, and members had to use their own weaponry.

Since then, tens of thousands have served in the corps, which was later renamed the Singapore Volunteer Corps and reorganised to become the People's Defence Force.

They fought alongside the British during World War II, repelled the communists during Konfrontasi and helped quell riots in the 1960s. The volunteer corps was disbanded in 1984 due to a lack of resources.

Today, the military volunteer movement is being revived, in the form of the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps.

But this time round, it is not forged out of necessity.

Singapore has been fortunate to have had 49 years of peace since Independence. The Singapore Armed Forces has become one of the most advanced militaries in the region.

Full-time National Service (NS), or military conscription of males at age 18, first started in 1967. Today, 98 per cent support NS, as shown in a recent Institute of Policy Studies survey.

The aim of the SAF Volunteer Corps is to give those who are not liable for National Service but want to contribute to the nation's defence, a way to do so. This includes women, first-generation permanent residents and new citizens who are aged between 18 and 45.

But before it even enlists its first recruits in March next year, some critics have already started to question if the efforts are worth the time and money.

With a fighting strength of 300,000 career soldiers and national servicemen (NSmen), some wonder if there is a real need for the SAF to recruit more people to take up tokenistic advisory roles in airbases and medical centres or carry out mundane tasks like patrolling Changi Airport.

With more than 900,000 young men who have gone through NS since 1967, some say a more flexible volunteer scheme belittles the iconic institution.

Singapore males spend two years doing full-time NS. After that, they are due for annual military training of up to 40 days for at least 10 years.

Volunteers, however, go through only up to four weeks of basic training and are required to serve only up to seven days a year.

They also get the leeway to drop out of the volunteer corps at any time.

Those resentful of first-generation PRs argue that the Volunteer Corps is a piecemeal effort to reduce the perceived inequality between those who do NS and those who do not.

But these objections miss the mark.

Not a must-have

First, the argument that SAF does not need further reinforcements is beside the point. The volunteer scheme is not, in the first place, aimed at bolstering manpower.

While it is true that SAF volunteers are being taught the art of war, SAF volunteers are not likely to be caught in the heat of battle.

This is unlike their counterparts in other military volunteer schemes like the United States National Guard, the Australian Army Reserves and UK Army Reserves, who get called up for active duty in a war or national emergency.

For instance, more than 890,000 reservists - and counting - have been activated for US-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

In Britain, defence planners are doubling the army reserves to 30,000 to make up for the shortfall of troops as full-time soldiers are being axed due to cost-cutting measures.

The SAF, on the other hand, will continue to depend on its regulars and NSmen to be the main force defending Singapore, as Singapore has enough of them to make up the full fighting strength. They are also better trained than volunteers can be.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said as much when he first announced the volunteer arm a year ago. Volunteers, he stressed, are not a "strategic asset".

"Whether you have it or you don't doesn't critically determine how effective your military force is," said Dr Ng.

No perks

Second, the idea that volunteering is meant to help first generation PRs and new citizens "close the gap" between regular citizens is misguided.

Signing up for the volunteer corps does not entitle them to any additional benefits.

Those working get their salaries paid by the Government when they get called up to serve, while the self-employed get an allowance to make up for lost earnings. But beyond this, they get nothing more than the satisfaction of volunteering. In fact, the converse is true: These people step forward to serve not for benefits, but because they want to feel part of this country and want to contribute.

As Dr Ng put it: If there are individuals who want to contribute, "we should make space for (them)".

Simply put, the SAF Volunteer corps is not a must-have, but rather a good-to-have.

A recent Institute of Policy Studies survey of 1,251 people on NS, showed that eight in 10 said they wanted to serve "in a professional role" or as a volunteer to "help out in NS events".

Good response

The response has been positive so far. More than a week after registration opened, more than 200 have applied, surpassing the estimated 100 to 150. Among them, four in 10 are non-Singaporeans and a quarter are women.

If these people are willing to don military fatigues and fight alongside career and citizen soldiers, why should they be denied the chance?

As defence strategist Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart put it, "to foster people's willing spirit is often as important as to possess the more concrete forms of power".

Of course, those keen to play a more active role must acknowledge that military service is serious business, in which all servicemen and women are trained to defend every citizen. They should also be mindful that their service as volunteers does not put them in the same category as full-time national servicemen, or NSFs, who go through a lot more.

As it is, a huge amount of money, resources and time will be invested to house, feed and train SAF volunteers going through the month-long course to teach them basic soldiering skills, like firing a rifle and throwing a grenade.

This is part of the reason why volunteers take the same Oath of Allegiance as the soldiers. Once called up for service, they face disciplinary action if they skip duty without a valid reason.

As SAF Volunteer Corps commander Mike Tan said: "The moment you put on a uniform and proclaim that you are ready to be deployed... we will expect you to uphold our ethos and our military professionalism. For any reason, if you are negligent in your duties... military discipline will be administered."

Critics are right in demanding those who step forward must contribute meaningfully.

The last thing anyone wants is for the SAF Volunteers Corp to be seen by parents and teenage girls as an adventure camp to stiffen spines and have volunteers leave once they have had enough of green fatigues. Worse yet, for citizenship-hopefuls to exploit the Corps as an expedient solution to get their pink ICs.

There are some filters that are in place to weed out those looking to exploit the programme. Volunteers have to go through face-to-face interviews that one hopes will be rigorous.

Another suggestion that has been frequently mooted is making volunteers serve a minimum period of, say, three years.

But it is counter-intuitive for a volunteer scheme to impose a minimum term of service if well-meaning PRs or women genuinely feel they cannot put up with more. Putting more roadblocks and tying down volunteers who no longer believe in the cause does not guarantee their loyalty and commitment.

As the SAF celebrates its Golden Jubilee next year, whether it will continue to secure peace for another 50 years will depend on how the SAF can successfully tap into the aspirations of those who step forward to serve.

Even if they join the army for just a brief spell, this new corps of volunteers will leave knowing the sacrifice and privilege of being part of the military service - and just for that, the nation will be better off for it.

jermync@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 23, 2014.
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