Should women be enlisted for National Service (NS)?
This is a question that has plagued Parliament and the r/Singapore Reddit page since the beginning of time. But the Defence Minister is here to say: no, women should not be enlisted.
Before the keyboard warriors begin their attack, let’s look at the reasons he provided for this controversial opinion.
Women Should Serve in Non-Military Roles
Nee Soon’s Carrie Tan suggested expanding the scope of NS during the debate on the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development in Parliament last month.
She suggested that NS could include care vocations, where both men and women would be enlisted.
This could help support the community with caregiving needs, given the rise in demand for caregiving roles in an ageing population. It could also help care work be seen as a shared responsibility.
Similarly, in her third IPS-Nathan Lecture in 2021, the executive director of AWARE, Ms Corinna Lim, called for NS to be expanded beyond traditional domains.
She also called for NS to be made gender-neutral.
NS Should Only Serve Critical Needs of Security and Defence
NS is compulsory for Singaporean men because it serves a critical need of national security and defence.
If we enlist our citizens for any other reason, the societal costs will outweigh the benefits, whether it is for men or women.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen responded to Ms Tan and Ms Lim’s suggestions in Parliament on 9 May, and said that women should not be conscripted.
The enlistment of women would delay their entry into the workforce, which would cause an immediate effect of decreasing our local workforce and household incomes.
Reader Bao: Eh, but we are delaying men’s entry into workforce also what?
Yes, but the reasoning is that this is necessary in order to ensure we have forces to defend Singapore. On the other hand, conscripting women isn’t necessary because there are already enough soldiers.
Dr Ng noted that enlistment mandates that one must suspend their civilian liberties and give up two years, with the only other option being to go to jail for defaulting on NS. Is sending a signal of gender equality worth women going through all these, especially when they aren’t needed in NS?
Even if women are enlisted for non-military NS roles, like in healthcare or social services, it may just make manpower shortages in other industries even worse. Why fix one manpower shortage, only to cause another?
In the long run, conscripting women would lead to great societal costs. In the eyes of the Government, such costs aren’t justified by reasons like reversing stereotypes.
An Age-Old Debate
Dr Ng acknowledged that this debate isn’t new, and has been around since 1967 when conscription was first introduced.
The Enlistment Act of 1970 does not exclude women, but the Government felt that it wasn’t worth the extra work needed to enlist women. This was because of the acute shortage of trainers and commanders back then.
This issue was brought up again in 1983, when it was assessed that the Singapore Armed Forces is able to cope with the manpower shortage.
Additionally, the use of technology and optimising usage of resources has produced a more effective and deadly SAF, despite a smaller number of soldiers.
So no, you can’t use the “Singapore’s birth rates are falling” argument anymore.
Will Conscript Everyone If Faced With Existential Threat
Dr Ng added that if Singapore is ever threatened by an aggressor that could completely take over Singapore, there will of course be a sudden need to boost our military.
If that’s the case, the Ministry of Defence and the SAF will call on the government to enlist everyone: women, teenagers, and older men.
He then cited the case of Ukraine, which did exactly that when Russia invaded.
Don’t Need To Enlist: Women Already Contributing to SAF
There are over 1,600 uniformed servicewomen in the SAF, which is 8% of its regulars.
5% of SAF regulars holding senior ranks are women, and more than 500 women have been trained and deployed in the SAF Volunteer Corps in 2015.
This shows how women are already contributing to national building as regulars and volunteers, even without mandatory enlistment.
Stepped Up Recruitment of Women
Sembawang’s Poh Li San, a former helicopter pilot with the Air Force, asked if Mindef had plans to recruit more full-time servicewomen.
Dr Ng said that the SAF has stepped up their recruitment of women, establishing the SAF Women Outreach Office in July 2020.
Additionally, the SAF has set up “work near home” sites islandwide, and are looking at more work-away-from-office arrangements, to help women juggle family and military commitments.
Responses from Ms Tan and Ms Lim
Ms Tan said on Facebook that her suggestions were not driven by just an ideal of gender equality, but rather to meet caregiving needs in an ageing population.
She wrote that if NS means to serve the nation, then it should evolve to meet the most pressing needs of Singapore.
AWARE’s Ms Lim also said that her suggestion to make NS gender-neutral was driven by the need for more manpower in areas like healthcare.
She agreed with Dr Ng’s response that enlisting women would have negative impacts on society. If Singapore does enlist women in the future, it must be done with other mitigatory measures.
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