A proposed benefits package for Singapore National Servicemen in housing, education and health would be a step in the right direction for Singapore, despite opposition from the gender advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).
Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen recently indicated that The Committee to Strengthen National Service is considering a “meaningful package” of benefits, and suggested that these could be tied to housing, education and healthcare. In response, AWARE released a statement on its Facebook page stating that it “disagrees strongly with any link between support for fundamental needs and an individual’s status as a National Serviceman, especially when the military may not be suitable for many people, regardless of their gender. AWARE has long maintained that military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In a subsequent newspaper interview, AWARE’s Executive Director Corinna Lim added, “the solution to address this is not to provide substantial housing, health or education privileges, as those are fundamental needs central to social equity.”
Continuing, she said: “Arguments are already made against women’s equal rights in other areas and resentment is expressed against migrants on the basis that they haven’t done National Service (NS). Tying it to access to fundamental social goods and services may make it an increasingly divisive factor as it will signal that the state sanctions different tiers of belonging and entitlement.”
While the (largely) healthy debate around the NS benefits package is a positive sign, AWARE’s argument does not hold up under closer inspection.
Defense as the Foremost ‘Public Good’
First, AWARE suggested that it is wrong to link National Servicemen’s status in society with privileges for fundamental needs. However, the specifics of the package have not been disclosed yet, so to claim that the proposed healthcare, housing or education benefits are “fundamental needs” is premature, particularly given that discourse on what actually are fundamental needs is open to debate and constantly evolving.
Second, decoupling privileges conferred upon certain groups would not necessarily lead to outcomes that are more fair, as AWARE intimated. Their argument, if pushed to its logical extreme, could produce unexpected results. Is it wrong to reward Singapore’s seniors for their sacrifices with the Pioneer Generation Package? Should generous packages for would-be parents be removed since they privilege certain groups? What about more subtle forms of appreciation? Is it wrong to reward top students with book prizes and bursaries, and allocate resources only for needy students? Should we do away with transport concessionary fares for the elderly and students? While AWARE’s goal of reducing inequality in society is commendable, it is risky to advocate equality at all costs.
Third, AWARE takes issue with privileging military service over other contributions, and argues this would create a more stratified society. Recompensing and incentivizing producers of vital public goods is part of a broad range of tools to ensure the continued, professional delivery of social goods. Society should reward producers of positive public goods because society if better off with them. It is also worth remembering that defense is an irreplaceable public good, which all other public goods are contingent upon. Ensuring certain groups of people are well taken care of – be they National Servicemen, mothers, seniors, social workers, etc – is a sign of equitability, not unfairness.
Fourth, it is worth considering that National Servicemen bear the greatest cost in providing Singapore’s most vital public good. Using AWARE’s logic, are we not denying our National Servicemen’s “fundamental needs” in education, housing and healthcare through opportunity costs in the form of time that could be used studying, income that could be earned while working and greater healthcare risks associated with training?
Gold Standard of Citizenship
Being a part of the NS should not be held as the gold standard of “citizen belonging.” While it is true that there is no single measure of “citizen belonging,” it should be noted that NS is one of the defining features of Singaporean society. While a price tag shouldn’t be placed on NS, we should never depreciate the effort and sacrifices made, and give them recognition just as society has done for other groups. A fair NS benefit package would reflect that.
When then Defense Minister Goh Keng Swee asked Parliament to pass the National Service Bill in 1967, he said: “Nothing creates loyalty and national consciousness more speedily and more thoroughly than participation in defense and membership of the armed forces.”
His words ring true today, 47 years later.
Dylan Loh is a research analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.