By Mun Ling Koh
Whenever we think about Singapore, one of the first things that comes to mind tends to be that it is a highly developed country, with modern, and sometimes absurd, architecture and structures that make up its cityscape. However, we often overlook Singapore’s high level of military expenditure. According to the Singapore Budget for 2017, the total estimated receipts for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is $13,604,442,000 (SGD) or £7,528,290,070 (GBP), making up 3.24% of Singapore’s GDP. On top of this huge expenditure on defence, National Service (NS) is a statutory requirement for all men, at aged 18, to serve the military.
This two-year conscription is often reflected very positively in Singapore media and culture, as top-grossing movies such as “Ah Boys to Men”, a five-part film which narrates the comedic experiences of growing men in NS, are embraced by the Singapore government claiming that it “[touches] the heart of every Singaporean… and underscore the public’s support for NS.” As I proceed to show that there is positive attitude of NS in Singapore, this article will argue that the narrative on the importance of a strong military force is problematic as Singapore frames its vulnerabilities by accompanying a calibrated nationalism, whereby serving NS is valued as national pride and seen as vital to national defence.
The perceived advantages of NS
For many it appears intuitive to maintain NS in Singapore. Since Singapore’s break away from Malaysia in 1965, it has been claimed that as a newly independent and small state, Singapore needs a credible defence force to protect its sovereignty. Furthermore, serving one’s NS is seen as a source of national pride for many. It is ingrained in NSmen to take their roles with pride as they are sacrificing themselves to protect parents, wives, friends, neighbours and ultimately, the state. The NS policy also does not discriminate based on race, education or background, which is greatly beneficial to the Singapore’s Armed Forces (SAF), as it can draw on a broader segment of talent within society. Moreover, by providing the SAF with a large and consistent manpower, it is also beneficial for the image of the Singapore government, as compulsory recruitment of all men promotes an image of a common identity amongst people from diverse backgrounds and, more importantly, permeate the idea of Singapore as a harmonious multiracial, and multi-religious society. In recent years, speculation that Singapore might include women being conscripted for NS has promoted supporters of such change to argue that this would increase gender equality in Singapore.
The results of a 2013 study by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in National University of Singapore exploring Singaporeans’ social attitudes of NS showed that it was seen as a social mission beyond its defence mandate and that women were significantly more positive about the NS experience, claiming it as essential to transforming Singaporean boys to men as well as nation building. This rhetoric feeds into the a gendered assumption whereby a hypermasculinist notion of protect is ever so prominent; a man’s role is to be the protector of the state while women continue to be relegated as vulnerable and in need of protection. All of these perceived advantages of NS can be explained by the government’s framed vulnerabilities, as it continues to promote militarisation as vital to the statehood of Singapore.
The claim that Singapore suffers from numerous vulnerabilities has been frequently used by policymakers and consequently, a culture of militarization and violence has been perpetuated. Seceding from Malaysia as an independent state in the 1960s, the introduction of conscription in 1967 was notably justified because of the political and ethnic tensions between Malaysia and Singapore, as a series of water and territorial disputes took place.
However, 50 years later, the traditional justifications for NS seem unconvincing. The MoD in Singapore contends that NS is still relevant today, stating, “Post-9/11, there was a shift in the security landscape, which widened to include non-conventional threats such as terrorism and piracy.” This, as a result, continues to legitimise the need for NS as it argues that contemporary threats are just as substantial as threats pre-9/11. To put the threat into perspective, a report from the Ministry of Home Affairs suggests that that “ISIS has already plotted to carry out two attacks against Singapore that authorities are aware of.” On the other hand, the UK government had already thwarted 20 plots in the last four years. Yet, anti-terrorism measures seem much more dramatised and continues to paint a picture of Singapore as a vulnerable state that needs protection from its armed forces.
Take, for example, the 18-hour anti-terrorism exercise as shown on the left. This anti-terrorism measure was justified as a response to the “growing terror threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group and self-radicalised lone wolves to Singapore and the region, which is at its highest level in recent times.” The government’s reliance on local media, such as the Straits Time and Channel NewsAsia, to suggest the advantages of anti-terrorism measures have also successfully achieved positive attitudes of Singaporeans as one FaceBook user writes, “The Sons Of Singapore! Kudos to you guys….. Keep up the good work and thank you!”. The fact that the 2013 IPS report also suggests huge enthusiasm for NS, hence, the militarisation of Singapore, this is reflective in the public’s support for a strong military as core to national defence. Whilst the government needs to take adequate steps to prevent terrorist activity, it is important to acknowledge that its reliance on local media to publicise these anti-terrorism measures is merely a nationalist façade behind the claimed insecurity, as it successfully provide the narrative of the necessity of a strong military by framing Singapore’s contemporary vulnerabilities.
There exists a problematic narrative surrounding NS and the military in Singapore. While I do not suggest that Singapore abandons its military practices entirely, it needs to reassess the justification for a strong military force, which is not based on framed vulnerabilities supported by local media to promote positive attitudes toward the wider public. This continues to promote a rhetoric of national pride whereby men are protecting Singapore’s sovereignty, thus continue to permeate positive attitudes towards a culture of violence within the state.
Mun Ling Koh is a third year International Relations undergraduate. Interested in gender studies, she hopes to explore the nuances surrounding gender and nationalism.