The Toxic Contradictions of Single-Gender National Service in Singapore

Introduction

National Service (NS) is one of the most distinct characteristics of Singaporean society. Under Singapore’s single-gender[1] conscription policy, all male citizens and second-generation permanent residents are required to undergo uniformed service for 22-24 months when they turn 18[2], with most going to the military[3]. Failure or refusal to enlist may be charged with up to both three years’ imprisonment and a fine of S$10,000.

The government has never indicated any intention to budge on this policy[4] . To be fair, there has never been a sustained public discourse about the policy, nor a single concerted movement for reform.

In this essay, I argue that the policy results in unequal and unjust conditions when analyzed through the concepts of ‘complex equality’ and ‘dominance’; furthermore, it has toxic effects on gender relations. Thus, it is imperative for Singapore to move towards a gender-equal National Service[5].

Popular arguments against gender-equal National Service

We may begin by broadly categorizing popular arguments against gender-equal National Service as follows:

  1. The Sexist Argument: “Men should protect women, and women can’t fight anyway.”
  2. The Practical Arguments: “It would be a logistical nightmare; it would affect the workforce; it is a political impossibility anyway.”
  3. The “Double Suffering” Argument: “Why make women suffer as well, especially when our defense needs are already fulfilled!”
  4. The “Compensatory Treatment” Argument: “Soldiers are (and should be) recognized for their sacrifices, partly by direct state-sponsored compensatory treatment, partly by status elevation above civilians. This makes things at least tolerable, if not equal”.
  5. The “Alternative Service“ Argument: “Women contribute to nation-building in other ways, by participating in the economy[6] and/or by performing the informal social duties of childbirth and domestic care, so it balances out.“

In this essay I will address arguments 4 and 5; responses to 1, 2, and 3 have been made elsewhere. With regards to number 2, I believe that the fundamentals of ‘why’ must foreshadow the details of ‘how’ in this situation; however, some practical considerations are addressed in the conclusion.

‘Complex equality’ and ‘dominance’

Despite granting that arguments 4 and 5 may be understood and accepted by a significant part of the population as sufficient ‘equalizers’ in the context of national obligations, I will show how policy and beliefs based on arguments 4 and 5 lead to unequal conditions and toxic gender relations.

However, I first want to introduce a framework that may help us understand how wider inequalities can arise from an apparently ‘just’ distribution. We may borrow the concepts of ‘complex equality’ and ‘dominance’, described by political theorist Michael Walzer in 1983 in his book, “Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality”[7].

Walzer describes society as a collection of distributive ‘spheres’; each sphere consists of a set of social goods (material resources, positions of authority, access to services and opportunities, etc[8]) which should be distributed according to some appropriate internal criteria, and nothing else. For example, money would be inappropriate in the context of allocating political leadership. People do not have to be equal in all respects, as inequalities in different ‘spheres’ of society and life are only natural.

However, some goods tend to ‘dominate’ – i.e., influence the distribution of – goods in other spheres. For example, money may sometimes be used to ‘buy’ political influence, or political status may grant access to superior medical care. This is the main problem for Walzer, because the inequality of particular goods (i.e. money) is multiplied by its dominance across spheres.

Thus, redistribution cannot be the answer. Even if we redistributed wealth to a completely equal level – what Walzer calls ‘simple equality’ – things would inexorably destabilize again as a result of market exchanges, and dominance will again multiply inequality.

‘Complex equality’, in contrast, allows for diverse local inequalities, but prevents excessive dominance by protecting the boundaries between spheres. For example, by enforcing laws that limit or ban donations to political institutions. Ultimately, in preventing dominance, we want to ensure that “no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by [their] standing in some other sphere with regard to some other good” (Walzer, pp 19-20).

At first glance, the current situation seems compatible with complex equality. We may express the premises underlying the policy as follows:

1.1 We have a set of nation-building objectives that need to be fulfilled, via the performance of various social responsibilities (such as military defense, domestic duties, governance, etc).

1.2 These social responsibilities must be fairly distributed amongst citizens.

2.1 We have a pre-existing unequal distribution of general physical ability (strength, endurance, etc) between individuals. This is natural and acceptable.

2.2 We may distribute the social responsibility of military defence to citizens with greater physical ability.[9]

We see in premises 2.1, and 2.2 that the conditions of complex equality appear to be fulfilled. However, we will observe that “compensatory treatment” leads to explicit dominance of the sphere of social responsibility of military defence (which I will simply call service status) over other spheres. Furthermore, we find that the belief in  “alternative service” leads to implicit domination of service status over other spheres. This is inherently bad, but it also produces toxic effects on gender relations.

Against ‘Compensatory Treatment’

Firstly: we see the explicit dominance of service status over the other spheres of money and basic needs such as education, housing, through the actual compensatory treatment of NSMen[10].

There is general consensus that men should be compensated for their service in various ways. Even though NS is a national duty and obligation, it is also recognized by the government as a huge personal sacrifice. The compensatory treatments that NSMen may receive from the government, subject to eligibility, include: direct deposits into funds usable for education/housing/retirement (up to $15000 over a lifetime), tax relief, ‘celebratory gifts’ (vouchers) at life milestones, and access to exclusive clubhouse memberships[11].

There is also anecdotal evidence of unspoken norms for companies to pay new male graduates more than female graduates ostensibly to ‘compensate’ for the time disadvantage due to NS, although it is unclear how pervasive this practice is. 9 This obviously worsens the gender wage gap and is highly questionable[12].

These are forms of explicit dominance; that is, a male citizen’s standing with regard to basic social goods – education, housing, etc – are dominated by his standing in the sphere of service status. This is bad because it multiplies inequality across spheres.

Indeed, compensation creates a void of entitlement that cannot and will not ever be filled satisfactorily, because for many NSMen there is simply nothing that can compensate the two ‘golden’ years of their lost youth.

This essay does not condemn compensation per se. Sacrifice should be recognized. But how much is enough? Sacrifice does not need to be arbitrarily, unsystematically and unaccountably compensated, if duties are equally distributed in the first place.

Against ‘Alternative Service’

Secondly: the main problem with “alternative service” is that it turns what should be lifestyle choices into social expectations.

If we were solely considering a utilitarian distribution of social responsibilities, we could perhaps grant that distinct types of service may be comparable and considered equivalent, and thus reasonably fair and tolerable.

But because of the implication of gender identity, the distribution of social responsibilities inextricably shapes gender relations. When assigned to groups identified by gender, the social responsibility of military duty, and of informal domestic duties, transform from responsibilities into roles: namely, the heteronormative, stereotypically sexist roles of “independent protector” and “dependent caregiver”.

Thus, a female citizen’s standing with regard to the social goods of some spheres – such as autonomy of lifestyle choices, social treatment, and positions leadership and authority– are undercut by her standing in the sphere of service status (i.e. being a non-serving civilian).

One manifestation of the toxicity of this relation is the silencing of discourse on women’s rights. According to Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research): “For some people, conversations on… gender inequality should be silenced because NS is taken to eclipse and perhaps justify all other gender inequalities that women face[13] (emphasis mine).

Conclusion

As we can see, the twin arguments of compensatory treatment and alternative service lead us into a double bind – a toxic contradiction, if you will. Women must serve at home, but it will never be comparable; and men must be compensated for their sacrifice, but it will never be enough. We cannot continue to allow the fundamental inequality of single-gender conscription to perpetuate domination of service status, and poison our gender relations.

We must begin to normalize the idea of a gender-equal service in society. But it may be a chicken-egg problem, one that requires strong-willed governance as opposed to popular support. Therefore, the Singapore government must commit to take the first step towards policy reform in the long term.

With regards to concerns about physical ability, there are vast opportunities for non-physical, or non-combat military vocations. The notion of service itself can and should also be expanded to ‘alternative services’ such as such as healthcare, social work, research, civil defense, etc. Ultimately, the key ‘equalizing’ factor should be the time commitment of service, which is far more quantifiable and comparable than the current unsystematic compensatory mechanisms.

We may look to the experiences of countries such as Finland, Israel, and Norway in designing more expansive, flexible and gender-neutral notions of service. The situation in these countries are not perfect, but they show that a different way is possible.

References

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

Notes

[1] In fact, the criteria for conscription appears to be a combination of gender identity and biological sex, although no official protocol is publicized as far as I could find. See https://transgendersg.com/ns/ for unofficial information. This essay will primarily address issues of the binary genders while acknowledging that inclusion of non-binary, trans identities and sexual minorities are essential to the discourse.

[2] Deferment for education or early enlistment is possible.

[3] Conscripts are assigned to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Singapore Police Force (SPF), or the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). This essay applies to National Service in general, but will usually refer to the military (SAF).

[4]  Recently, initiatives such as the SAF Volunteer Corps and Women’s Boot Camp have been introduced, but these are auxiliary forms of voluntary wider engagement and participation rather than intermediate steps towards policy reform. See https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/national-service-army-women-only-boot-camp-10622730.

See https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/as-ns-turns-50-what-is-its-future for further background and context on NS.

[5] Note that an underlying premise of my argument is the necessity of a conscripted army for Singapore’s survival, due to its small size. Discussion of alternative models of national defense (e.g. combination of a professional army and volunteers), or the inherent patriarchy of military institutions and warfare, will be outside the scope of this essay.

[6]  In addressing this argument I will focus primarily on the belief that women contribute via social duties as opposed economic participation, as it is more relevant to my main thesis. Also, ‘alternative service’ in this context refers specifically to informal services, as opposed to formal civil or social service roles, which are sometimes also referred as such – in fact I discuss such formal roles in the conclusion.

[7] Incidentally, I would be remiss to neglect that Walzer wrote a chapter specifically about the distribution of forms of ‘hard work’, or negative goods – including military service – in the same book. Unfortunately, the chapter does not recommend a clear solution to the problem at hand. Furthermore, none of his broader observations – elevation of hard work through cooperative ownership, democracy and communalism – apply specifically to our case. Instead, I analyze conscription as a social responsibility.

[8] It is important to note that Walzer defines social goods expansively – he describes ‘offices’ as a category of social goods to be distributed, under which I introduce the social responsibilities of citizens.

[9] For the sake of discussion, we present these premises charitably, ignoring in particular inaccuracies in 2.3, namely a) we conscript by gender rather than physical ability (which obviously does not map), and b) roles in military service require various combinations of physical and non-physical qualities.

[10] An NSman is a male citizen or PR who has completed his national service, and only has periodic ‘reservist’ training commitments. An NSF is a male citizen or PR undergoing national service full-time. These are official terms.

[11] See https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/vouchers-gifts-insurance-more-recognition-for-singapore-s-nsmen-8062078 and https://dollarsandsense.sg/6-ways-literally-pays-nsman/ and http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/nsmen-get-more-perks-healthcare-housing-education.

[12] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mindsets-need-to-change-to-bridge-gender-pay-gap-ong-ye-kung?fbclid=IwAR1dHHioMP5a1ZQx2P9JqGOwEnEa1wZJFUR2eAyhr-X5Iy96Uie9dk4t_kE “Some employers offer men higher starting salaries to compensate for two years of full-time military service”, and, “…men’s contributions to NS should be compensated through improved pay and benefits during NS itself, rather than a lifelong wage differential in unrelated spheres…”

[13] http://www.atimes.com/article/military-service-force-division-singapore/

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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