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National Service’s crucial role in fight against terror

10 Aug National Service’s crucial role in fight against terror

The recent spate of terror-related incidents around the world has created an atmosphere of alarm and pessimism in many quarters.

Due to the geographical spread of the attacks, which include those directed or inspired by the so-called Islamic State terror group, Singapore’s leaders have sought to reinforce the idea that it is not so much a matter of if Singapore is attacked, but more a question of when. An evidence of this is the recent arrest of terror suspects in Indonesia who had plans to fire a rocket on Singapore’s Marina Bay from Indonesia’s Batam island.

The attack in Nice in France also raises the spectre of a more insidious type of attack, one that does not depend solely on explosives or guns, but where everyday objects such as a civilian vehicle can be turned into a weapon.

These attacks are not new to the world, with some countries such as Israel having already experienced them for many years. But they represent a significant concern for Singapore. The city-state is largely able to safeguard against more conventional terror threats thanks to its small size and relatively limited and non-porous borders, but it remains vulnerable to other forms of attack that are unpredictable and virtually undetectable until they actually commence.

In the build-up to this year’s Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day on July 1, Singapore’s Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen and Chief of Army Major-General Melvyn Ong delivered messages that focused heavily on the role the armed forces play in the new security environment, where terrorism takes centre stage.

Dr Ng detailed plans for the new Army Deployment Force, designed to provide a fast response to terrorism and other threats, working in tandem with other units. Major-General Ong said that full-time national servicemen and operationally ready national servicemen will also be activated to help maintain homeland security and restore public confidence in the event of an emergency.

These efforts will be coordinated with Home Team forces, which are expected to take the lead in any domestic attack.

While the increased physical presence of our security forces and their increased focus on counter-terror operations are reassuring, it is worth noting that National Service (NS) plays an important role when it comes to security in this new normal that Singapore and the rest of the world are facing.

NS allows many Singaporean men and women a chance to come up close and personal with the tactics, equipment and training that have been created and deployed to safeguard the country. In Singapore, about half of the citizen population have been exposed to some form of tactical scenario or environment during NS.

Given the need for a whole-of-nation approach to tackle the rising threat of terrorism, this will not only hold in good stead those called upon to serve in the face of a real threat, but may also play an important role for those who are involved as civilians.

This could come in the form of a relatively greater level of calm and confidence in a crisis. As we saw in the mass shooting incident in Orlando in June, this presence of mind could mean the difference between life and death for an individual and those around him or her.

Basic training in how to deal with armed threats, how to evade and escape, or provide emergency medical treatment, can be invaluable in such situations as well.

Besides bolstering national defence, the experience of NS has the benefit of allowing Singaporeans from all walks of life to come together and live, train and socialise closely with one another for a significant period of time.

As the country gears up to commemorate 50 years of NS in 2017, it is timely to note that NS has brought generations of Singaporeans together in a shared experience that shapes much of Singapore social and cultural identity.

The bonds that are formed through NS can play an important role in the aftermath of any attack.

The risk of racial, religious and social fractures occurring in the wake of an attack is an after-effect that has been highlighted by Singapore’s leaders as being a major concern.

In Singapore, NS is a shared rite of passage. The mutual understanding that this engenders, while not necessarily always resulting in lifelong friendships, can help ensure that the broader community can stand together in the face of threats to social order and cohesion.

The training and discipline to work together as a unit, and stand as one in the face of a common foe, is an important building block of Singapore’s social cohesion, regardless of race, language or religion. At a basic level, this is driven home by the universal truth that a people standing together is stronger than individuals standing alone.

These positive effects are also being extended beyond the usual demographic of male Singaporeans to include new citizens and women who choose to join the SAF Volunteer Corps programme.

Some feel that NS is simply two or more years of communal misery. But that experience of shared hardship has created very real bonds among people, and it has been held up as a critical and unique feature of the Singapore way of life.

As Singapore and indeed the rest of the world gears up to face an evolving security environment, the role of institutions like NS will probably continue to be a crucial element of stability, cohesion and security in the foreseeable future. The efforts to develop greater support and understanding for NS should thus be encouraged and sustained in the years to come.


Nicholas Fang is executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a former Nominated Member of Parliament. He was a member of the “Support for NS” Working Group under the Committee to Strengthen NS set up by the government in 2013. This commentary was originally published in TODAY on 10 Aug 2016.

Photo Credit:
 Ministry of Defence, Singapore (MINDEF)