There’s this story of an 18-year old boy, Brandon, who is a citizen of both Singaporean and New Zealand, is facing the prospect of fines and jail time if he does not do his National Service in Singapore. The story reports that the Brandon’s mother is a Singaporean with permanent resident status in New Zealand. Brandon was born in Singapore, but had left Singapore for New Zealand with the entire family when he was eight years old.
Brandon does not want to serve his NS because he doesn’t see the point of it. It appears that Brandon has no intentions of staying on in Singapore and would rather make New Zealand his home. And since he left Singapore at such a young age, it seems that Brandon doesn’t seem to have any identification with Singapore at all.
The story was reported in Straits Times. Unsurprisingly, it got people up in arms. A good number of the comments fall into these four categories: (1) Brandon is a traitor, (2) we did NS, so must this white boy because he is Singaporean, (3) We cannot allow any exceptions to the rule that all Singaporeans do NS because that will open up floodgates for other people to game the system, and (4) NS would be good for him and thus he should do it.
Is Brandon a traitor for not wanting to do NS in Singapore? In order to answer this question, we need to consider, piece of paper notwithstanding, if Brandon can truly be considered a citizen of Singapore. What does it even mean to be a citizen of Singapore? That he has benefitted significantly from the public services provided by the state? That he has significant emotional ties with the country? That there are enough people within this country that he has a duty to protect and defend? Judging from what has been reported, it seems that Brandon spent most of his life outside of Singapore. He owes New Zealand more than he does Singapore. He left when he was eight. So it is unlikely that he has significant memories or strong emotional ties with the country. It is likely that most of his friends and relatives that he’s closer with would be in New Zealand, not Singapore. So even if Brandon doesn’t do NS, what or who is he betraying?
The idea that just because we “suffered” through something therefore everyone else needs to go through the same suffering is a very stupid argument for getting people to do something. We did our NS because we benefitted significantly from the peace and stability of Singaporean society as well as the various social services that the Singaporean government provides. Most of us did our NS because it would be in our interest that this way of life that Singapore affords us can continue into the foreseeable future. Most of us did our NS because there are people in Singapore that we do want to protect and defend against potential aggressors. Those are the reasons that we suffered in NS. But, as mentioned above, it is unlikely that any of those applied to Brandon. So why should he “suffer” as we did? No. NS cannot just be about making people suffer for no reason. The suffering we endured in NS must be for a larger purpose, a sacrifice for something greater than ourselves.
Will allowing Brandon to not do NS open the floodgates for other people to game the system? I think it’s naive to think that our policies are such terribly blunt instruments that don’t have any room for nuancing. The key considerations of our NS policy is to ensure that there are enough people to fill the different roles and positions needed for Singapore to mount a credible defence should our sovereignty be threatened in any way. That’s why it is understandable why we would be averse to a true Singaporean trying to find a loophole in our policy to wriggle their way out of having to do NS. Is that what Brandon is doing? Notwithstanding that piece of paper stating that he is Singaporean citizen, is he really a Singaporean? Should we even trust someone like him, who is essentially an outsider, with the sacred task of defending us? I am sure cases like Brandon’s are few and far between. And if there are, where the boy is only a Singapore citizen on paper, but has spent most, if not all, of his life outside of Singapore and is unlikely to make Singapore his home in the future, then the policy ought to be that these outsiders should not be trusted with the sacred duty of defending our land.
Lastly, it may well be that NS would be a good experience for Brandon. It certainly was for me. I suffered, kena tekan like mad, tore a ligament, but on hindsight, I had a great experience. I made really good friends in those years in NS, learnt a lot (about myself and other things too). But does not NEED to do NS to necessarily get the benefits of NS (e.g. make great friends, being toughened up, learn new skills). Instead of NS, he could spend two do other things to get those ‘benefits’ too.
I really can’t think of any good reasons why we would want an outsider like Brandon to do NS. It makes us seem petty and paranoid. I think cheapens the sanctity of NS. But perhaps there are good reasons why MINDEF/SAF wants Brandon to serve. If there are, it would be useful for MINDEF/SAF to clarify. In fact, this could be an excellent opportunity to clarify all the key considerations of our NS policy.
[Featured image: Screenshot from STUFF.CO.NZ]