Singaporean Benjamin Matchap recently graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts with a diploma in broadcast media, an occasion where newly credentialed graduates would normally leverage their new skills to enter the work force and launch upon career paths.

But for Matchap and the other young men in his graduating class, there’s another high hurdle to clear before they may enter the city state’s professional working class: National Service, commonly known here as NS, a long-standing policy of mandatory conscription of males into either the armed forces, police force or civil defense force.

Most conscripts complete a two-year full-time stint, followed by annual in-camp training obligations. It’s trumpeted by the Ministry of Defense as critical for the tiny country’s “continued survival and success” and “freedom to act in Singaporeans’ best interests” in a geography long vulnerable to big external threats and often volatile neighbors.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the policy’s birth, triggering glorifying state-led commemorations throughout the year collectively branded under the banner of “NS50.” But new generation graduates’ reactions to the mandatory obligation are mixed.

“I just graduated and instead of being excited and dreaming of taking on the world and doing work, I have to try to still stay relevant when I book out [of NS] to refresh my videography and photography skills,” said fresh graduate Matchap.

Grumbling is common over social media but rarely crystallizes into real resistance to the policy.

Although the percentage of defaulters from National Service is minuscule—a 2006 parliamentary speech by the then defense minister stated that an average of 12 defaulters are charged in court each year—the High Court set out a new more severe sentencing framework for defaulters in July after upping the sentences for three offenders.

Armed police and soldiers patrol Changi Airport's Terminal Two in Singapore October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Armed police and soldiers patrol Changi Airport’s Terminal Two in Singapore October 4, 2017. Photos: Reuters/Edgar Su

Under the new framework, the starting sentence point for conscription evaders for two to six years will be two to four months in prison. The penalties then increase to a starting point of 24 to 36 months behind bars for those who have evaded National Service for over 17 years.

A young man was sentenced to 10 weeks imprisonment on October 10 for failing to report for enlistment and remaining overseas without an exit permit, even though he had been raised in the Philippines from the age of nine after his Filipino mother split up with his Singaporean father.

Beginning with the enlistment of just 900 of the 9,000 eligible male citizens in 1967, National Service has since grown into a core component of Singapore’s defense policy.

Long-term government projections into the year 2040 indicate that the Singapore Armed Forces would in an emergency be able to mobilize around 300,000 soldiers, made up of regular full-time personnel as well as citizen soldiers. As Singapore has not been in a state of war since achieving independence, such a large-scale mobilization has never occurred.

“Institutionally, the Singapore Armed Forces—and especially the Army—is organized around conscription,” said Chong Ja Ian, assistant professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“Any changes to this structure of staffing and planning necessitates significant organizational restructuring, which will almost certainly be complicated given the relatively small number of professional volunteer service members.”

Singapore, Singapore - March 16, 2013: At the end of the day, a sailord goes through the lowering the country flag ceremony on board his modern navy vessel. The sailor is seen as a silhouette in front of a interestingly shapped cloud lit up by the last rays of the sun. The image was taken in Singapore.
A Singaporean sailor lowers the national flag at an end of day ceremony on board a modern navy vessel. Photo: iStock/Getty Images.

National Service’s objectives, of course, aren’t just about national security. When then-minister for defense Goh Keng Swee argued for the policy’s introduction in 1967, he emphasized its utility in fostering a sense of belonging in an island country still finding its feet after splitting from Malaysia in 1965.

“Nothing creates loyalty and national consciousness more speedily and more thoroughly than participation in defense and membership of the armed forces,” he said. “The nation-building aspect of defense will be more significant if its participation is spread over all strata of society.”

That nationalistic message still rings true in many quarters of Singaporean society. “A lot of the experiences of the citizen population is built around National Service, whether this has to do with people actually serving or having family members who do so,” said academic Chong.

Some men find their yearly in-camp training obligations put them at an early disadvantage in an increasingly competitive work force

“There is a common understanding that National Service is a great social leveler. Service is mandatory regardless of class, confession, or ethnicity. For much of the citizen population, this makes National Service look and feel like an emotional, cultural, and political anchor for being Singaporean.”

At the same time, the male-only policy is under growing scrutiny, particularly in regard to gender relations. As Matchap observed, the two-year obligation is not negligible; it puts Singaporean men two years behind women when it comes to entering university or the job market. The labor force participation rate for Singaporean women is around 60.4% and 76.2% for men.

Some men find their yearly in-camp training obligations put them at an early disadvantage in an increasingly competitive work force. Indeed, the fact that women do not have National Service obligations has complicated issues of gender justice and equality, making it difficult for women to talk about sexism and patriarchy without being told “but you didn’t serve NS.”

Happiness woman smiling in Singapore
Women professionals in Singapore. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Those gender-related tensions sometimes boil over. In 2013, when the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), a local nongovernmental organization, raised concerns over a military marching song’s lyrics that say “kill the man, rape my girlfriend, with my rifle and my buddy and me”, they became targets of outrage and harassment.

Singaporean men referred to them on Facebook as “feminazis” and even “sensitive little bitches.” Aware and their supporters were also harassed online and via phone calls, with one supporter lodging a police report after the backlash led to the publication of her personal information online.

“For some people, conversations on other areas of gender inequality should be silenced because NS is taken to eclipse and perhaps justify all other gender inequalities that women face,” said Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at Aware.

“For some people, conversations on other areas of gender inequality should be silenced because NS is taken to eclipse and perhaps justify all other gender inequalities that women face” – Jolene Tan, head of advocacy at Aware

“As women are sometimes held to benefit at the expense of men because of NS, this can create sensitivities for how we are perceived when we discuss [the policy],” she said. To level the playing field, Tan suggests National Service should include more options than military service, and the roles of those serving should be decided by a combination of need, interest and aptitude rather than strictly gender.

The allowances paid for National Service, meanwhile, are extremely modest in Singapore’s otherwise high-wage context: a recruit or private’s allowance begins at S$560 (US$412) per month, with an additional ‘combat’ stipend depending on the assignment.

The government emphasizes appreciation of its citizen soldiers by providing them benefits in basic necessities like healthcare, education and housing. But some say that such support should be available to all citizens, rather than doled out as a perk only for military service.

Discussions of the need to reform National Service continue in fits and starts, popping up occasionally on social media before dying down again. But no matter what is said online, for young men like Matchap, like every Singaporean son, enlistment remains a mandatory obligation, not a freewill choice.