Thinking about thinking soldiers: Egalitarianism in National Service

Posted on December 4, 2017


by Timothy Goh Jin Kwang

This year, Singapore celebrated 50 years of NS[1] to much aplomb: a massive Army Open House held at the F1 Pit, an extended NS50 dynamic defence display at the National Day Parade, distribution of $100 vouchers to every NSMan[2] in Singapore, and much more. To any casual observer, it would appear to be a good time to be in the uniformed services in Singapore.

And yet, the other day over dinner, my sister regaled us with tales of her male classmates doing their best to get downgraded from active service in the military. They (along with thousands of other boys their age) just received their enlistment notices to go for a medical examination in order to determine their fitness for service –which many of them deliberately failed in hopes of escaping their enlistment duties. One suddenly ‘developed’ rhinitis a day before the checkup. Another ‘rediscovered’ an old foot injury from when he was six. And so on. Plenty more cases exist, if threads like this one on hardwarezone[3] are any indication. Why are locals, in spite of all the recent campaigns to support NS, still reluctant to serve? Is there something inherently unjust about the NS system despite all the changes that have been made to it? If so, how can it be corrected?

The answer to these questions can be observed through an egalitarian lens. I first examine efforts by MINDEF[4] to distribute “positions of authority and responsibility (and) also complex work”[5] (PPO) in an egalitarian fashion. I then examine the lack of egalitarian distribution of “hard work” and its rewards, exemplified by the gender divide and the differences between conscripts and regulars. Afterwards I argue that since it is impossible to distribute PPO beyond a minimal level in NS, and since there cannot be an equal distribution of hard work or its rewards, there is a need dignify hard work in the manner of Walzer’s Kibbutz – however, recent policy changes have inadvertently made NS seem easier, removing some of this dignity. I then conclude with some proposed solutions.

Given the brevity of this article, I leave aside other prominent egalitarian concerns like discrimination against Malays in NS. I also focus on NS served in the SAF[6] (rather than SPF or SCDF) – most of my knowledge comes firsthand from my experience there; thus it would be most appropriate for me to centre my discussion there. What I am trying to do here is examine the justness of the current NS system, and whether there is a way to make it more just. While I hope that a focus on justice will improve NS’ appeal to locals, that isn’t my main goal – after all, there will always be individuals who try to keng[7] for a variety of reasons regardless of the solution offered, and there is no sense in trying to craft social policy around them.

I begin with distribution of PPO. Arnold argues that, as PPO are the social bases for an individual’s social capacities and self-governance, an egalitarian distribution of PPO is necessary in order for a society to be just,[8] and for individuals to live their lives as free and equal in a Rawlsian sense. Jobs within the same occupation should contain equal amounts of responsibility and complexity to the greatest extent permitted by the difference principle, as this kind of work “is an important social basis for the internal resources of intelligence and virtuosity.”[9]

MINDEF’s recent shifts towards a “3G SAF” mirror much of what Arnold advocates. In the past, the line between menial “grunt” work and complex commander roles was clearly demarcated – as a majority of the populace was not as educated at the time, hokkien peng[10] were expected to follow unquestioningly the orders of their commanders, and were given no responsibilities beyond the simplest of tasks: digging trenches, cleaning latrines, etc. Today, however, the SAF has put an emphasis on the need for “every soldier to be a leader”. Soldiers are to be “thinking soldiers” and exercise more independent thought and creativity in their responses to situations. Chief of Army (2009) Major General Neo commented that “rather than just teaching (soldiers to do things), we are also telling them the reason behind it.” More complex roles and decision-making authority are given to non-commissioned-officers and previously “in-name-only” leadership positions, such as section commanders[11] and machine-gun commanders.[12] Recruits are also encouraged to not just blindly follow orders, but question the rationale behind them and apply their own critical thought to instructions. Low-ranking troops in administrative positions are also given the opportunity to contribute to their units on a larger scale through initiatives like WITS, which source for solutions to everyday problems from soldiers across all ranks.

However, the nature of the military means there’s only a very limited extent to which complex tasks and authority can be distributed in an egalitarian manner. As mrbrown[13] put it: “You leader, he leader, who follower?” I personally witnessed incidents of this during my service, where constant questioning of the rationale behind orders leads soldiers to second-guess their superiors, and for WOSPECs[14] to openly challenge higher-ranking officers, leading to disunity in their units. When it comes to an egalitarian distribution of PPO, the SAF has reached its limit and can go no further. And while Arnold may be alright with the present distribution of PPO in the SAF as it fits the difference principle (for a more equal distribution of PPO would lead to breakdown in combat-effectiveness), it is insufficient to alleviate the resentment enlistees feel at doing “grunt” work.

This unhappiness is exacerbated by male-only conscription in Singapore, whereas females do not have any NS obligations.[15] On this I turn to Walzer, who notes that “hard work is distributed to degraded people” and that there is a correlation between “negative good” and the “negative status of the people into whose hands it is thrust.”[16] So long as hard work is not distributed evenly, the people who are assigned to do it acquire a negative status relative to those who are exempt – in Singapore, the former are local males; the latter females. Lest this be dismissed as pure conjecture, I invite readers to explore the comments section of any Straits Times article on womens’ rights or NS – you’ll be sure to find a mass of vitrol surrounding the fact that women are exempt from NS, which leads local men to feel treated as second-class citizens.

Perhaps female conscription would alleviate some of this resentment? Walzer notes that in peacetime, the purpose of conscription is to “universalize or randomize the risks of war”[17] – that is, that there is a certain egalitarian purpose behind conscription, to equally distribute the hard work of soldiering. Even if one believes that women are ill-suited for “hardcore” soldiering, Rosseau argued that conscription should be extended to other forms of hard work in society.[18] In the local context, this could take the form of women conscripted as nurses, or in less physically-demanding vocations in the military (e.g drone operator). But the state has shown little interest in pursuing this idea over the years, so we must treat it as a dead end for now.[19]

Compensation for hard work is not distributed in a just manner either. Consider the difference between three enlistees: Adam, who grew up wanting to be a soldier and signs on as a regular in the middle of his BMT,[20] Bob, who is of average fitness and doesn’t mind serving his time, and Charles, who is unfit and hates NS. All three will become soldiers and go through the same BMT, but inevitably face different levels of challenge. Adam will enjoy himself the most and Charles the least. According to Cohen, justice requires we compensate Charles the most and Adam the least, for we should “compensate for disadvantages which are not traceable to the subject’s choice and which the subject would not choose to suffer from.”[21] And yet in reality, upon signing on Adam will receive a much higher salary than Charles, whereas no distinction will be made between Bob and Charles. As unjust as this may be, there is no way to make this distribution more egalitarian, due to moral hazard and the need to encourage more soldiers to sign on as regulars.

I have thus far established that there cannot be a more egalitarian distribution of the hard work or its benefits and that it is impossible to distribute PPO more equally. The solution lies elsewhere – in dignifying of hard work, in the manner of the Kibbutz, which “…exalted not the power of the workers but the dignity of the work… a callused hand was a badge of honour.”[22] Here lies the crux of our problem: the recent shift towards a military that is more lenient and respectful of its soldiers and relies on technology to compensate for physical weakness has diminished the honour associated with soldiering. Technology has prevented recruits from earning their “callused hands/badges of honor” because it provides them with good gloves and mine-clearing vehicles that negate the need for a shovel. The perception that NS has gotten easier over the years has led to fathers telling their sons that NS today will never be as tough as “back in the day” – be it the implementation of safety standards, improved accommodation, an easier IPPT,[23] etc.  I could go on for hours explaining that this is not true – each generation faces a new battlefield with new challenges, and the rigour of being disciplined and regimented remains a constant challenge regardless of the tools one is given – but that isn’t the point of this piece.

Rather, I propose that the solution to reluctant enlistees starts here. Walzer presumed that if we could, we’d be getting rid of hard work – but this assumes that hard work is a complete “bad”, ignoring the good components that it produces such as the dignity associated with it. In Singapore’s case, in order to correct the perception that soldiering is a waste of time or an easier (and thus less dignified) endeavour than it was before, it wouldn’t hurt to emphasise the fact that military service remains a form of hard work which is important for the nation’s stability, and is thus deserving of dignity. MINDEF has already done its part to distribute the burden of NS more justly – now it is time for the populace to respond. It makes no sense for the SAF to return to the “good old days” of cruel and unusual punishments or using inefficient technology – instead, there is a need to restore the dignity of enlistees through helping Singaporeans understand that, though the tools may have changed, the work of soldiering is still a hard one, and our troops deserve honour and respect for doing it.


Works cited:

Arnold, Samuel. “The Difference Principle at Work.” The Journal of Political Philosophy, 20 (1): 94-118.

Cohen, G.A. “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice.” Ethics 99 (4): 906-944.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Basic Books, 1983.


[1] National Service.

[2] Here I use “NSMan” to refer to all National Servicemen, which includes both National Service Fulltime (NSF) troops, as well as reservists. I have included explanations in the footnotes of phenomena or slang which might be unfamiliar to foreign readers.

[3] A popular online forum which locals often use to discuss issues such as NS.

[4] Singapore’s Ministry of Defence.

[5] Samuel Arnold, “The Difference Principle at Work,” The Journal of Political Philosophy, 20 (1): 114.

[6] The Singapore Armed Forces.

[7] Local slang meaning to malinger or to try and avoid a task that one has been assigned.

[8] Arnold, 95.

[9] Ibid, 103.

[10] Literally “Hokkien Soldiers”, local slang referring to uneducated soldiers of a lower socio-economic class.

[11] Low-ranking soldiers such as Lance Corporals, placed in charge of three soldiers.

[12] Usually a Private or Lance Corporal, technically only in “command” of one soldier.

[13] Local blogger famous for his critiques of Singaporean society.

[14] Warrant Officers and Specialists, a category of non-commissioned officers in the SAF.

[15] I leave aside the issue of foreigners being exempt from NS, itself a prickly issue given the amount of foreign talent Singapore relies on.

[16]Arnold, 165.

[17] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1983), 169.

[18] Ibid, 171.

[19] I note that Walzer later states “soldiering is not a radically degraded activity” as “there is always the chance that they will one day appear as the saviours of the country they defend (in wartime).” However, this is problematic – just because there is a chance that a sewage worker may one day save the entire nation from a massive explosion of fecal matter doesn’t mean that they aren’t looked down on (perhaps even by themselves) on a day-to-day basis.

[20] Basic Military Training.

[21] G.A. Cohen, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics 99 (4): 937.

[22] Walzer, 172.

[23] Individual Physical Proficiency Test. All soldiers, unless exempt, need to take this test as a measurement of physical fitness in the military.