Choose your own NS adventure: Warning, disappointment ahead

Sep 12, 2016 02.00PM |
 

by Kwan Jin Yao

IF YOU’RE enlisting for National Service (NS) next year, and will therefore get to pick your vocation, don’t be too happy yet.

You’re likely to be disappointed – both during and after you’re assigned your vocation.

During, because your choice is just an indication of interest that’s just one of the many factors used for deployment.

After – even if you get one of your chosen vocations – because there is only so much that the online videos and handbook can reveal about training, roles, and responsibilities.

Starting in November this year, pre-enlistees entering NS from November 2017 will get to choose from 33 different vocations across the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), and the Singapore Police Force (SPF).

But this is just a stated preference; in fact, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) has already stressed that “operational requirements to keep Singapore safe and secure will remain the primary consideration in the deployment of servicemen.”

Yes, giving pre-enlistees a way to communicate their desired vocation is a good move. After all, it’s one of the most complained about things about NS – that people are thrown into roles they have little interest or aptitude for.

But at the same time, it is also a little odd that pre-enlistees are asked to make this decision before they have actually served, instead of making a decision after they have gone through some basic training.

Right now, to help pre-enlistees make more informed decisions, videos and a handbook have been published on the website of the Central Manpower Base (CMPB).

Across the 33 vocations, the explanation for each vocation in the handbook follows the same format: an introduction, the training involved, a typical day in a unit, the skills and qualities needed, and quotes from full-time national servicemen (NSFs). The complementary videos – presented and narrated by the same NSFs who provided the quotes – are very well-produced, offering valuable glimpses of the vocations pre-enlistees can choose from.

I was a infantry reconnaissance trooper during my 2009 to 2011 NS stint (the “Intelligence” vocation, under the SAF), and the information provided did not differ too much from my experiences. The combat intelligence skills in survival and navigation, we did pick up. And across months of training we also learnt to operate in small-unit reconnaissance missions.

Yet it is hard to explain how gruelling training and operations can be through an online video and handbook – especially since pre-enlistees have different physical attributes and preparedness – and how hard some tasks may be.

In other words, it may be difficult to ascertain the actual demands of each vocation – and by extension, whether one is suited for it – until he experiences military training for the first time.  

In other words, it may be difficult to ascertain the actual demands of each vocation – and by extension, whether one is suited for it – until he experiences military training for the first time.

After pre-enlistees go through the online information, they will indicate interest in vocations on the day of their medical screening at the CMPB. The 33 vocations are divided into seven categories – three from the SAF, two from the SCDF, and two from the SPF – and pre-enlistees may indicate interest in two or more vocations in each category. They may also indicate that they have no specific interest, though it is not clear whether this means pre-enlistees would be able to leave a few categories blank, or whether they can only leave all seven categories blank. As it stands, options will not be ranked.

Some background: This recommendation for pre-enlistees to indicate their NS vocation interest emerged through the Committee to Strengthen NS endeavour in March 2013, when it was observed that many NSFs found no meaning in their deployments, and that – based on a person’s skills, specialisations, or education backgrounds – there might have been mismatches.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, moreover, pointed to conscription systems in Finland and Switzerland, where soldiers were given some freedom to choose units so as to optimise their contributions. Yet an expression of vocation interest, as MINDEF noted, should “[encourage] servicemen to take greater ownership of their roles and responsibilities.”

NSFs are informed of their postings a week after the end of their basic military training. In general, vocation choices are not offered, except for a survey which allows them to indicate whether there is interest to enter command school: the Specialist Cadet School (SCS), or the Officer Cadet School (OCS). Within the SCS and the OCS, at predetermined stages, the to-be sergeants and officers can indicate vocation preferences, though choices are not guaranteed.

Mindef did not explain why it is getting pre-enlistees to indicate their interests at CMPB – even before they start their NS stint – instead of doing so after they have gone through basic military training. Administrative reasons seem to be the most plausible explanation at the moment, but there is also a sizeable number of pre-enlistees who are not channelled first to Pulau Tekong for basic training, and instead are posted directly to units within military camps.

The announced changes, I think, are going to largely benefit those with applicable skill-sets: those with an engineering background to the combat engineers vocation, or those with a nursing or medical background to the medical or the emergency medical services vocations.

This is an important development, in the context of making NS more meaningful or productive for servicemen, and improving the operational effectiveness of units in the SAF, the SCDF, and the SPF. Yet for most, before more tweaks with each iteration, the deployment experience is not likely to change much – for now.

 

Featured image Singapore National Day Parade 2011 ceremonial guns by Wikimedia Commons user Strange Passerby. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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