“Rabble we may be, but we are now a rabble in arms…” (The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress)
This is part two, read part one here.
In 1965 Singapore was tossed out into the cold by Malaysia. Few countries get their independence in such a fashion. They were on their own in a very bad neighborhood.
China was preparing to submerge into the “Cultural Revolution…” North Vietnam had started sending regular forces into South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Indonesia was running a border war against the Federation of Malaysia since 1963 (when Singapore was a part of the Federation) as it was coveting some of that new nation’s territory. Domestically, Singapore was subject to riots organized by (when not totally spontaneous) Communists, Malaysian agitators, religious fanatics, and those preaching racial hatred.
The British and Australians and New Zealanders had some forces in Singapore, but they were not much more than a “tripwire” force… and while friendly to Singapore, they had their own agendas. Most disturbingly, Britain’s days “East of Suez” were clearly numbered. Sooner or later Singapore was going to wind up on its own.
Singapore’s population did not see itself as a nation. They were a rabble… and if the country was to survive, they would have to somehow be incorporated into its defense. Some saw this concept as “…arming the factions…”
While some regular forces would be a necessity, a purely professional force was a danger to a newborn faction-ridden Parliamentary Republic with no democratic roots. Many infant “republics” lasted only until the first coup could be organized.
Lee Kuan Yew wanted conscription… as maximizing defensive potential, as a “firewall” against a military coup… and especially as a means of processing lads from very different racial and religious groups into an entity that would come out of the experience with a sense of nationhood.
In 1967 conscription was mandated. Upon reaching the age of 16 1/2 years, all male Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents (including those whose Singapore citizenship is a second citizenship) have to register for National Service. This includes male children who are granted PR status under their parents’ sponsorship. Evasion was punishable by three years in prison and a fine of 5,000 Singapore dollars. Soon after high school graduation (or turning 18 otherwise) the NS conscripts were assigned a reporting date.
Like Israel’s new arrivals, Singapore’s population had no military traditions of its own. Israel at least had a population of the same religion… and active enemies routinely crossing its borders. Its population willingly took up arms. In Singapore there were anti-conscription riots.
Ethnic Chinese saw better uses for its sons (and they were the majority faction). Minorities also viewed any participation as not unlike Jews in Tsarist Russia whose young men were conscripted by the Tsar’s forces for 20 years. The Malays and other Moslems feared that their sons would soon be fighting their co-religionists in nearby Indonesia or Malaysia.
Malaysia had shxt-stirred when Singapore was part of the Federation. Anti-Singapore Chinese propaganda to Singapore Malays… and a desire to put large Malaysian garrison in Singapore itself. So while Moslems might be called up for NS, for the first decade the Malay Moslems were not.
By 1977 the Singapore Malay families had changed their view of National Service. Young men with National Service had much better job opportunities. Danger of war with Malaysia and Indonesia faded. At first Malays started being conscripted only for Police and Civil Defense (such as the fire brigade). By the 1980s some conscripts were even serving in the Commando units and much later they were sending the first ethnic Malays to OCS.
Security screening is intense and Moslem citizens with much time in particularly hostile Moslem countries… or Islamic (religious/political) schools not called up for National Service. Singapore is particularly loathed by ISIS and would be considered a prime target if some sort of attack could be worked up that had a chance of succeeding.
Singapore tried to get advisers from countries with Universal Military Service to advise them. No one was interested until Israel stepped up. Given Malay minority and hostile (at the time) nearby Moslem countries, it was decided to keep the involvement of the Israelis at high level and need-to-know.
Lee Kuan Yew remembered the early days prior to the Israelis: “To disguise their presence, we called them ‘Mexicans’… The ones they sent looked swarthy enough…”
As time passed and the first groups of National Service lads passed back into civilian life (carrying a reserve obligation with them) the population started to get used to the idea. When sons returned to their families apparently “uncorrupted” by being exposed to other ethnic and religious groups, grudging acceptance came. Later NS recruits being called up whose fathers had served… and now grandfathers. Pride among most of the conscripts and most of their families is routine… and Lee’s gamble paid off. The NS program has — more than any other effort — produced a “Singapore identity” among its citizens.
SINGAPORE ARMED FORCES BRANCHES
Comparison between Singapore and Malaysia armed forces:
The Air Force of Singapore is equipped with F-16s, F-15s and many other modern aircraft of all types. Essentially it is impossible for an enemy to destroy all of Singapore’s aircraft in one attack. Many are thousands of miles away.
As might be imagined, national air space over Singapore very limited. So many squadrons are constantly rotating overseas where they can use friendly facilities and wide open spaces for full training. Australia often hosts, and sometimes even Mt. Home AFB Idaho — 50 miles from Boise.
Their naval vessels are often overseas training with friendly naval task forces, including U.S. off Guam… and Iraq.
SINGAPORE POLICE FORCE
The Singapore Police Force has over 38,000 members including National Service Police Officers. Singapore has been ranked consistently in the top five positions in the Global Competitiveness Report in terms of its reliability of police services.
National Service Police Officers were added after a terrorist incident in 1974 involving Japanese Red Army faction members and Palestinians.
Back in the bad old days of race and religious riots, Gurkhas were deployed by the British proved invaluable. From Wikipedia: “The GC troopers were again activated when major rioting erupted all over the country between the ethnic Malays and Chinese on Prophet Mohammed’s birthday from 21 July 1964 till September that same year.”
At that time, their presence as a neutral force was important because local police officers were often perceived to be (or were even expected to be) biased toward their own ethnic groups when handling race-related issues, further fueling discontent and violence.
Officers who attempt to carry out their duties impartially and in full accordance with the law also faced social backlash from their own ethnic communities, a difficult situation which can even lead to physical harm to individual officers.
In his autobiography, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew recounted the use of the Gurkha Contingent as an impartial force at the time when Singapore had just gained independence. He wrote:
When I returned to Oxley Road [Lee’s residence], Gurkha policemen (recruited by the British from Nepal) were posted as sentries. To have either Chinese policemen shooting Malays or Malay policemen shooting Chinese would have caused widespread repercussions. The Gurkhas, on the other hand, were neutral, besides having a reputation for total discipline and loyalty.”
Today there are 2000 Gurkhas serving as para-military police in Singapore. They handle special security assignments, have been sent by Singapore to training in various friendly countries and have been deployed on peacekeeping assignments to places like Timor. Headed by both a British serving officer as well as a Singapore commander, these Gurkha police troops are designed to be “neutral.”
After six years service they can bring their wives and children (under age 21) to Singapore and educate their children in Singapore schools. However, the wives cannot be employed there and the children must leave the country after turning 21. The Gurkhas are not eligible for citizenship nor permanent resident status. This helps insure their “neutrality” and acts as an extra check against any contemplated coup by any group in the SAF.
The Singapore Army has all the standard branches ranging from intelligence to engineers, to military police. I have decided to deal with one group because while certainly “specialists,” they have “stages” that illustrate training in other units of the Singapore Army.
SINGAPORE NS COMMANDO TRAINING
Training to be soldiers
Fight for our land
Once in our lives
Two years of our time
Have you ever wondered?
Why must we serve?
Because we love our land
And we want it to be free.
I have chosen the Singapore NS Commando training course as opposed to “The Guards” or other fine NS units. The main reason is that the Commando unit runs its own basic training, and that training is both very similar in some ways to standard basic — with some built-in differences.
The Commandos prefer to run their own basic to help them spot traits that will later determine the future course that each trainee will take if he graduates from recruit training. That training will be somewhat harder than standard basic training, but not massively so. They are looking for a higher “base” number.
Recruits for the NS Commando training course are all volunteers. They are reasonably fit. National Service isn’t dealing with bone-dumb hardened peasants; Singapore is generations away from that. But some lads may have spent too much time with computer games, and NS isn’t going to let them “flab” their way out of service.
Those determined by initial examination to not be up to reasonable entry standards for recruit training get called up for “pre-service” of up to 19 weeks of intense physical training before being sent on to recruit training. All but the most hopeless cases will eventually wind up in NS training even if just Civil Defence (Civil Defence NS has a lot of Malays for reasons mentioned earlier… if you see an ethnic Chinese in CDNS, it’s likely physical fitness problem…).
Singapore has a far different philosophy re recruit training — even the boot camp run by the Commando unit — than that found in many militaries. British and American graduates of recruit training would be surprised — American Marines certainly would be.
Westerners who haven’t closely followed the training see it as “easier.” Hard to get one’s head around the concept… but simplified, brand new recruits are treated more like high school ROTC cadets in their first couple of weeks of training. The idea is that they are in fact boys and will be processed into men. “Shock treatment” with R. Lee Ermey types in recruit’s faces is not on the menu. At least that’s the theory.
Oddly, it is more likely to be strictly adhered to in recruit training run by Commandos than “routine” NS basic. Most likely because “routine” basic training had some NS members as some of the instructors and some of them were more likely to ignore regulations and “haze” when they should have been training. Commando basic is taught by true professionals who are not only jump qualified commandos, but many are graduates of the very elite Ranger course.
Note: As of March, 2018 all regular NS training will take place at fewer locations and, except for the Commandos and a couple of other units, no training at destination unit. This enables them to concentrate their veteran instructors and avoids abuse. While discipline is strict instructors are to “…shout encouragement… and privately deliver harsh criticism…”
On the first day of training, recruits and their parents arrive at the Commando basic training facility. They have modern barracks rooms, though recruit areas not air conditioned. Recruits are then processed while parents/family are given a tour. The recruits will then fall in after dark, and after a brief address from the Commanding Officer… the families leave.
Recruits at assigned times on some days — usually 15 minutes before lights out — to make a brief phone call to their parents/family. Recruits are instructed to keep a “log” with their observations, comments, and complaints. While reviewed once a week, instructors do not get in the recruits’ faces about anything written.
Part of this is “national character.” With the exception of the odd ethnic European, the recruits are literate Asians and massive denigration and abuse are likely to have harmful effects (“face” issues) unlike the results in U.K. or U.S. One way to get a grip on this concept is to picture Union or Confederate recruits having Prussian Grenadiers trying to run their recruit training using Prussian methods… to include flogging. Simply impossible with the American “national character” of that time.
This doesn’t mean that training is easy or any kind of a joke. The early “mentor” personas have a definite limit. All that it takes to have the gloves removed is disobedience, disrespect, a flip in attitude, or any kind of safety violation — especially regarding weapons handling.
As with all NS recruits, Commando recruits are issued their rifles and swear a special oath two or three days after they arrive. But the Commando recruit ceremony is held at night.
Eventually the training becomes more like “recognizable” military training as the recruits get a handle on what is expected of them. One major difference from the “normal” recruit training courses is that to graduate from Commando basic their physical and other scores will need to be high — on average, 15% higher than regular NS units.
Partway through the training, the recruits are taken out of barracks and take a ferry to an island where they’ll sleep in small tents in the rain and mud for the next two weeks. Various exhausting field training runs at all hours. Halfway through that time recruits are handed mail from families (all but emergency comms are held back for the first week on the island). Morale goes up noticeably.
“Training to be Soldiers” marching song:
At graduation the former recruits remove their camo caps and are issued floppy camo bush hats. They have to forcibly remove them from the parade officer’s hand pulling hard two or three times to symbolize their completed efforts. Families are present at their graduation.
Soon the Commando recruits will be split up for a number of months. They are assigned to one of five schools:
After the “MOS” type schools, the lads will be sent to jump school. Singapore has an uber-modern computerized indoor training facility where all training conducted until time for the actual jumps. Graduates of this course get their jump wings.
Then the original training company reassembles (minus those at OCS) at the Commando training school to go through the Commando course itself. The course is not “abusive,” but it is incredibly “intense” and nobody would confuse it with a scout camp or ROTC training.
Singapore is not equipped for jungle training on site for obvious reasons. Troops are sent to Thailand, Taiwan… and in the case of the Commando trainees, to “snake-eater” training (literally) and then to the gawdawful jungles of Brunei for a ghastly field operation of extended duration with all the fun of raw jungle — including making 100 yards in two hours progress through deep mud and a very dense jungle as part of the daily grind.
At the end of the Commando course the company completes their year-long training with a 72 kilometer route march with weapons and full packs on Singapore island with little rest and no sleep (by both day and night in Singapore’s high heat and humidity). At their graduation parade they are issued their red berets.
Regular force Commandos train around the globe with elite units including with the U.S. Navy Seals.
~ ~ ~ ~
Singapore has some 72,000 regulars and approximately 500,000 reservists of whom 80% were from NS channels.
In 2014 the SAF created the SAF Volunteer Corps. These are reservists who serve in support roles only, from bridge guards to mechanics to computer specialists. Because of their citizenship status (recent citizenship or Permanent Residence after the age of 18) they are given compete security vettings.
Some (like one former Dutch Marine) have prior combat experience, but because of citizenship status are restricted to support roles only (though all are weapons trained). All are given two weeks initial training followed by various schools and training courses. By volunteering they assume a ten-year obligation in the reserves.
Eligible groups are: Men and women first-generation PR or new citizen; between 18-45 years old; no NS liability; physically and medically fit and active.
As you might imagine, this went viral… not just in Singapore, but around the globe. SAF regs on the subject are probably something referring to bringing “scorn or disrespect” upon the uniform (SAF personnel are not even supposed to smoke anywhere where civilians are present while in uniform).
Photoshop artists have gone wild — images of columns of SAF soldiers followed by columns of maids (very likely of Filipino nationality) or a tank in combat with a maid hauling a pack behind.
I have included the image not to “pile on,” (has anybody seen images of a handful of National Guard Staff NCOs in camos who weigh 12 Danish tons? Yeah… exactly…) but rather to point out something very positive that most people seem to miss.
It is not uncommon in Singapore to see maids carrying a pack loaded with school books as they accompany a grade school child to his school and later… home. I rather imagine that most of these lads upon enlisting manage their own packs… not being victims of “affluenza” (at least he is a Singapore reservist… not Swiss or Israeli reservists… who are sent home with their weapons and ammo… she would have had to carry those as well…).
But what is missed is that this gomer is a reservist… if he were a regular, he could take his expensive car and park it on post… reservists can’t. Nor is he an officer, who could also bring a vehicle on post. This means that he was conscripted into NS and did his two years of active duty before being assigned to the reserve… and is still an enlisted man.
Guessing by his maid that he has a “silver spoon” and is spoiled or not, he could not avoid being conscripted… not by his family’s money, and not by any political connections that they might have. National Service is a great “leveler” and even if he was disliked by his fellow conscripts, their morale was improved by him and people like him… simply by being in the same boat.
I am concerned about one trend in Singapore regarding its lads in NS service. While maybe their families — and the families of close friends — are proud of them, in general the average civilian population of Singapore, especially those past National Service age, tend to look down on them as second class citizens.
Maybe it’s an Asian thing. Maybe it’s because they don’t make much money. Away from immediate family and friends, money counts for a lot in many Asian societies.
Too many citizens post complaints about “…NS soldiers on pass being picked up by their families outside the gate slowing down commuter traffic,” while at the same time, “Too many on public transportation.” And precious few civilians would think to offer a seat on a bus or train to a tired looking soldier. Complaints about soldiers caught in rain stepping into stores to get out of the deluge… “dripping water all over the place.”
In Western societies this too often the fate of regular soldiers in the past (in many states in the early 1900s, criminals, the insane, and soldiers not allowed to vote). But these are conscripts… the sons of the population of Singapore — essentially everybody’s sons serve. It reminds me of a high school senior… her father wouldn’t let her write to anybody in the military, including graduated seniors that she had dated the year before. Meanwhile, he had two sons who had been drafted and were serving.
There are corrosive elements in Singapore that would like to see National Service be abolished. Die-hard haters from various racial and religious elements… members of the far left. Those who feel no responsibility to their country (at least they have universal military service, not selective). For some reason, a noticeable number of these are young women close to the age of the NS soldiers. Some have even posted up snarky e-mails when an NS lad dies, say of heat stroke. “I guess our soldiers are weak… hah!”
The strongest group in the country that believes in the value of National Service are the young men who have completed their training and their two years. But if enough people — especially too many of those whose service is long behind them — lose respect, then like Sweden they will abolish conscription, and like the Swedes today they may one day wish that they had not been so foolish as to believe that “there are no tigers in the world anymore…”
Between Two Oceans
Defending the Lion City
From Boys To Men
Featured image: NS trainees finish Jungle School in Brunei (Image SAF)