Saturday, 1 August 2009

Singapore's National Service, Private Mohan Das and Social Harmony

A little background information for those not familiar with Singapore's recent history. The nation seceded from the Malaysian federation in 1965 and formed the independent Republic of Singapore. The population is majority Chinese (75%) but it contains significant Malay (14%), and Tamil (9%) minorities. The nation, by virtue of its strategic location as a port, is a melting pot of various cultures and religions.

Hall At Singapore

Singapore in 1960

Successive governments have worked hard to maintain racial and ethnic harmony (always having to keep a wary eye on events in Malaysia which may have local consequences especially for the Singaporean Malay population). It is in that context that the government implemented a conscription policy. Although unique to Singapore's social conditions, the Enistment Act is modelled on the Swiss and Israeli draft / reservist systems.

Singapores Prime Minister Speaks About SARS

Former Singapore Prime Minister (1990 - 2004) and current Senior Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong. Mr. Goh had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore, as Prime Minister

Singapore's National Service (NS) requirement is a vital pillar of the nation's integration and defense policy. For a 'Red Dot' with a small population of approx. five million, the conscription system also provides the resources necessary to create and maintain an adequately manned army.

NS is a great leveller. Putting all young Singaporean males through a disciplined military training system for two years at age 18 helps break down social barriers and creates a 'Singaporean Consciousness.'

Singapore Skyline at Dusk

Singapore is today the fifth wealthiest nation in the world based on GDP per capita (purchasing power parity basis)

It rises above socioeconomic differences and reminds all participants of the basic essence and constitution of a human being. Sons of wealthy businessmen are trained, eat and sleep alongside the sons of those less fortunate.

To be sure, NS is not a panacea that will suddenly remove all social differences among diverse sections of a society. But it does reinforce the notion that dissimilar cultural and ethnic groups have a stake in the stability of their own society and must work together to maintain a cohesive social environment.

Thus, when a full time National Serviceman suggests that military food is unfit for a Brahmin priest to eat, the implications of making any concessions are serious. As for cutting hair, short hair is not a permanent condition and it will grow again after the soldier returns to the temple.

The military's resolve to maintain organizational discipline and unity by penalizing Private Madana Mohan Das for not complying with the lawful orders of a superior officer are to be applauded. It sends the right signal to all segments of society, including other NS men. It informs all and sundry that the creed of equality is sacred and will not be sacrificed for short term expediencies.

Most religious codes are practical and generally allow for deviations from the norm in extraordinary circumstances. Training and preparation for war is no ordinary feat. It is unlikely that temple cooked rations will be available to any private (or officer) on a battlefield.

It will make a travesty of the NS system if concessions are granted to individuals on the basis of their social status within a particular group.

A well implemented military enlistment program is an important tool in constructing a harmonious multicultural society in any post colonial nation and Singapore is no exception.


  1. "Sons of wealthy businessmen are trained, eat and sleep alongside the sons of those less fortunate."

    Please Google "White Horse" in relation to 'NS' in Singapore.

  2. Hi Chee Hoew,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    I am happy that you have brought the matter of 'White Horses' to my attention. While I was not aware (it's not part of any citizenship course they give here!) I guess it is not surprising to read about it.

    Unfortunately, complete equality is an ideal and even within the NS there may be distinctions between recruits. But let's not allow this to take away from the NS system completely. The NS still dictates that a certain degree of discomfort and physical rigour be brought to bear on everyone - irrespective of whose son they are. In most societies, this will never happen and the wealthy elites generally have no clue about how an 'ordinary person' lives.

    As an aside, in Turkey where conscription is practiced, families / individuals have the ability to 'buy' their way out of serving. In other words, you make a lump sum payment to a cash strapped govt and are exempt from National Service in Turkey. How many Turkish sons of industrialists do you think have ever lived in a barracks? Or done physical training and drills for the good part of a day - let alone for two years?

    In no way am I condoning the special treatment of individuals in NS but it is important for the socialization of Singaporeans. It is not a perfect system but, in my opinion, it is better than not having one.

    I am sure many readers will find the information on 'White Horses' as enlightening as me. I do hope you will continue to visit my blog and post comments from time to time.

    Kind regards,