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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Revisiting Military Conscription (aka National Service) in Singapore

Revisiting Military Conscription (aka National Service) in Singapore | Military Studies at RSIS

"Lee Kuan Yew outlined in his memoirs the scenario in which he would, as Prime Minister, would have had to activate the SAF – and it had to do with a scenario in which Singapore’s water supplies, which were in the past heavily dependent on Malaysian sources, had been severed by unknown third parties. Clearly, in his scenario, it would not have been the Malaysian government that severed water supplies, but for a number of reasons too complicated to go into here, the Malaysian government would have been unable or unwilling to re-establish water supplies thereafter. At this point, Lee Kuan Yew admits, he would have no choice but to use the SAF as a leverage to compel the Malaysian government to honour the international agreement between the two states.

In other words, if the SAF needed to go to war to protect Singapore, the casus belli or cause of war would have been the severance of water supplies. In this scenario, the structure of the SAF begins to make sense – a land force component comprising 2PDF whose function is island defence, and 4 manoeuvre combined arms divisions, an air force comprising both air combat as well as heavy air lift capabilities, and a naval force component that included heavy sea lift. If you think through the strategic logic of Lee Kuan Yew’s scenario, therefore, I suspect you would come to the conclusion that the SAF would have had to practice a limited military offensive against Malaysia, impose a temporary military occupation of parts of Malaysian territory, and subsequently use that temporary occupation as a political leverage to compel Malaysia’s government to honour the water agreements.

Here’s the thing, therefore – the first of the two water agreements between Singapore and Malaysia lapsed a few years back, without any angst from the Singapore government. The simple point is that Singapore is moving increasingly towards a self-sufficient potable water policy, utilising desalination and recycling technologies. Water, in other words, is no longer the casus belli of the hypothetical war that the SAF might need to fight!...

The SAF reflects the Lee Kuan Yew scenario, which may no longer apply in 21st Century Singapore. In other words, the 4 manoeuvre combined arms divisions, the heavy air and sea lift capabilities, were necessary in Lee Kuan Yew’s scenario because the SAF would have had to invade and occupy a limited portion of Malaysian territory. But what cause of war today would require the SAF to still invade and impose a limited and temporary occupation of Malaysian territory?

Because the Lee Kuan Yew scenario involved the severance of then-absolutely essential water supplies, it was probably possible to portray an SAF invading and occupying limited portions of Malaysian territory as politically and strategically defensive in nature, even if the type of military operations would have been inherently offensive. Presumably, Singapore could have then justified to the United Nations that this hypothetical war was consonant with UN principles of just war – war as self-defence and last measure.

Maybe, jut maybe, the SAF can envisage other war scenarios today that still compel Singapore to adopt this limited operational offensive capability. Certainly one could use the strategic geography argument – that Singapore lacks strategic depth – to begin to justify such a limited operational offensive capability. But with an air force that is widely regarded as the most modern, most well-equipped and most well-trained in the Southeast Asian region, surely this air power, augmented by an increasingly professional and well-trained naval force component, could have imposed a cordon sanitaire of sorts around Singapore that would have prevented ay enemy forces from being able to bring deadly force to bear on any part of this densely populated and over-crowded island! In other words, surely an artificial and temporary strategic depth can be acquired without the need of ground forces to occupy another country’s territory?...

If my preceding analysis is correct, then maybe Singapore no longer needs National Service. If the wars the SAF is likely to fight in no longer require the temporary occupation of another country’s territory, then maybe the SAF no longer needs to maintain such a large land force component. Maybe the Singapore Army no longer needs 4 manoeuvre combined arms divisions. Maybe all the Singapore Army hereafter needs is sufficient soldiers (volunteers) to perform island defence against potential enemy invasion. As my friend and colleague, Professor Paul Mitchell of the Canadian Forces College has argued, the SAF will need to maintain a seriously professional and well-trained air force and navy, but guess what, it seems like the current air force and navy are already professional and well-trained!

There is another argument to support the abandonment of conscription. It is an argument that taps into the Revolutions in Military Affairs thesis that was so popular in the late 1990s through to the early 2000s. The RMA, as most scholars argued, was never going to be easy: it demanded very high technological competencies and technical skill-sets of soldiers, it was doctrinally sophisticated which therefore demanded soldiers who were very well-trained and well-educated (and this, by the way, was why these scholars concluded that conscript-based armed forces would not be able to do the RMA)."

This assumes, of course, that the overwhelming reason for National Slavery is military/strategic.

If political reasons are significant (or possibly even primary), then it is another story.


Ho Shu Huang: "1. Like war, NS is ultimately a political construct. So, its continuation or end hinges as much as the other elements of politics outside the military realm. In other words, even if it doesn’t really make military sense, it may still continue for other reasons. Or, it may still continue simply because of political inertia. The conscription debate in Western Europe began in the early 1970s which from the start highlighted the practical illogic of maintaining a mass army of conscripts. Yet it was only in the mid-1990s that conscription began to finally end on the continent. Germany only did away with it in 2011, even though some had identified it as being at the forefront of the debates in the early 1970s. The point here is political will to change is vital to end any institution that is as deeply entrenched in society as conscription is. There wasn’t any in W. Europe till the 90s so it continued there. That said, the moment there is sufficient will, conscription can end quite quickly. Taiwan’s a good example, though not a perfect one. Until NS rises to the top tier of the country’s political agenda, I don’t see a dismantling of the institution any time soon.

2. Military service has historically been a key form of political participation and expression. Sure, this is an observation made of a different era, but conscription still has political value to its participants. Those who are obligated to serve the state have enhanced political agency and legitimacy, if only because they’ve “paid their dues.” In Singapore, we see various political claims made simply because NS was served. The most noticeable one is NS is a marker of “Singaporean-ness” in the whole Singapore-foreigner debate. NS in this sense grants Singaporeans more political power and has been used to legitimise opposition to certain government policies. I’m unsure if Singaporeans would want to surrender this at this point in time."

Bernard FW Loo: In fact, I personally see your second observation as the only plausible justification for the retention of conscription.
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