I find much of Singapore’s public policy praiseworthy. I’ve written a book about it. But one big exception are its conscription policies, which is perhaps its most draconian yet rarely talked about.
Jailing people for doing drugs is deplorable. But conscription is far worse. At least with drugs, there is some element of free choice involved. You knew the laws, yet you did it anyway. You should’ve known better. Conscription on the other hand, does not avail you a choice. If activated for war, there is a very real risk of death or at best, permanent injury. Conscription therefore in some ways is tantamount to slavery, and is far more morally objectionable.
There are many ways Singaporeans defend the status quo of conscription. There are the plainly stupid ones like, “It teaches boys to be men” and“It teaches them self-responsibility”. Right. Because billions of men in the world who have never been enlisted in the army endure their lives as irresponsible half-men?
Then there is the realpolitik reasoning, where we have to defend Singapore from potential invaders, or use our army as a powerful diplomatic bargaining chip. Cue an impressive sounding Lee Kuan Yew quote about ruling with an iron fist.
This argument was a lot more plausible during the heights of communism and the Cold War. But today? We live in one of the most peaceful times in the history of the world, and there is no serious threat of a geopolitical war forthcoming. This is a widely acknowledged fact of the 21st century.
This is not to say that we are enjoying world peace and that we can do without an army force — which is not what I am advocating. But it does beg a justification for maintaining one of the most expensive and militarised armies in the world.
At this point, some Singaporeans will concede that we may currently live in peacetimes, but “we need to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances”. This would be a halfway decent argument if only it wasn’t such an arbitrary and vague precautionary principle that could be applicable to almost any circumstance.
First, wars do not break out overnight. If there was any realistic chance of a war happening, its earliest signs would emerge years beforehand, leaving the government ample time to ramp up militaristic measures.
Second, Singapore’s value lies in its commercial hub, not its natural resources. What are the incentives for invading Singapore? This is not a James Bond movie, where villains sit around plotting world domination. It makes zero economic sense to invade Singapore, much more so to trade with us.
Third, no one is saying abolish the army. If the objective is to be well-prepared, maintain an army by all means, but the current state of the army by which it exists in is completely unjustifiable. According to the Global Militarization Index 2019 by the Bonn International Center for Conversion, Singapore has the fifth most militarised army in the world, far ahead in terms of militaristic power compared to Indonesia or Malaysia if you’re worried of their potential aggression. The largest chunk of Singapore’s government spending — 30% in 2019’s National Budget — goes to defence and security, the second highest in the world.
Even if we don’t agree in abolishing conscription, there should be wide ground for agreement in at least downscaling it, alleviating the injustices of mandatory conscription for Singaporean men, and considering alternatives. For instance, we can start by:
- Paying conscripts market wages rather than the paltry 500$ monthly allowances they are entitled to
- Gradually reducing the duration of conscription down from two years across-the-board, and reduce them even more based on good performance
- Allowing more flexibility to serve National Service (e.g. serving it at a delayed age, in intervals, or exceptions for males who need it in time-sensitive occupations such as athletes)
- Providing conscripts more pathways to segue into corporate career options
- Outsourcing the military to private mercenaries (if the idea of privatised armies horrify you, consider that we already do that to some extent with the Gurkha regiment, and many countries do something similar such as in France, the United States and Australia)
In my experience with speaking to Singaporeans in favour of conscription, even these very moderate keyhole solutions are not well-received and are disregarded as silly and unnecessary. I find this disappointing. Singaporeans who object to even the slightest suggestion of downsizing the army or reducing the burden of conscription demonstrate one thing to me. A staggering willingness to bend over for the flimsiest justification they can reach for in order to preserve the status quo because, well, Mahjulah Singapura?
I suspect that there are Singaporeans on all sides of the political spectrum who are in favour of reducing (if not abolish) conscription. But pro-PAP and Opposition voters hate each other too much to be seen in any form of public agreement with one another.
If you’re worried about the economy, cutting down two years of conscription reduces the delay that Singaporean men take to join the private sector, and given Singapore’s ultra-low fertility rates, we could really use the added labour force. If you’re worried about rising GST prices, reducing defence spending means a smaller tax burden on the average taxpayer. If you’re an intersectional feminist, the army is one of the most toxic-masculinity-fueled environments, which is a great reason to want less of it.
So why aren’t we talking more about the problems of conscription?
Donovan Choy is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Adam Smith Center Singapore. He is co-author of the book Liberalism Unveiled: Forging a New Third Way in Singapore, a classical liberal analysis of Singapore’s policy discourse.