National service in Singapore
This article possibly contains original research. (April 2020)
National Service (NS) is the national policy in Singapore mandated by statutory law that requires all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents to serve a period of compulsory service in the uniformed services. It was first instituted in 1967 to help build Singapore's military forces soon after its independence, and has since been expanded to involve the police and civil defence force as well.
Upon enlistment, male citizens of Singapore and second-generation permanent residents (PRs) serve for 2 years in active duty as full-time national servicemen (NSFs) in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Police Force (SPF) or Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), following which they transit to an operationally-ready reservist state as operationally-ready national servicemen (NSmen).
A two-month reduction in full-time National Service is offered to all pre-enlistees who are able to pass their (now-modified) three-station Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) consisting of push-ups, sit-ups and a 2.4km run, with a minimum of 61 points (previously, the IPPT consisted of six single stations, which were the 2.4km run, sit-ups, pull-ups, standing-broad jump, sit-and-reach stretch and shuttle-run).
The majority of NSFs serve in the Army as part of the SAF. The reasons for this include the relative manpower needs of the Army compared to the Navy and Air Force, the SPF, and SCDF. Moreover, as compared to the Army, the Air Force (RSAF) and Navy (RSN) are smaller armed services composed primarily of regular servicemen. As the manpower requirements of the RSAF and the RSN tend to be more specialised, the constant periodic turnover of NSFs is considered to be very disruptive.
The statutory age cap for reservist obligation is 40 for WOSEs (Warrant Officers, Specialists, and Enlistees) and 50 for commissioned officers (second lieutenants onwards in the SAF and the SCDF and police-inspectors and above in the SPF) and they are known as ex-NSmen.
The NS (Amendment) act was passed on 15 March 1967, making National Service (NS) compulsory for all 18-year-old male Singapore citizens and permanent residents. The Singapore government felt that it was necessary to build a substantial military force to defend itself. The country had only about 1,000 soldiers at independence. In the late 1960s, the British government had decided to withdraw its troops and bases from the East of Suez, including troops stationed in Singapore. That prompted the government to implement a conscription programme for the country's defence needs. It adopted a conscription model drawing on elements from the Israeli and Swiss national conscription schemes. Some 9,000 male youths born between 1 January and 30 June 1949 became the first batch of young men to be called up for NS. Singapore had sought assistance through official diplomacy from other countries, but their refusal to provide help prompted Israeli diplomats to extend a helping hand to the new sovereign nation in the establishment of the Singapore armed forces.
The stated rationale behind conscription is twofold. Firstly, because Singapore has a population of about five and a half million (as of 2014), an army solely of regulars would not be practical to defend the country. Secondly, national service is supposed to support racial harmony among the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities. The Malays were virtually excluded from conscription from the beginning of the draft in 1967 until 1977 and, after the policy was eased, were assigned mainly to serve in the police and civil defence (fire brigade), not in military roles.
In 1987, Lee Hsien Loong (then Second Minister for Defence) stated that "If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion".
In the past, the duration of the conscription for a typical Singaporean male spanned over a period of either 2 or 2 years and six months depending on his educational qualifications. In 2004, the duration was reduced to 2 years, driven by the technological transformation into the 3rd Generation SAF and the surge in NS intake for the next 10 years. As a bonus incentive, the NS duration can be cut by a further 8 weeks for combat-fit enlistees (PES A or B1) who pass their IPPT prior to enlistment. However, non-combat-fit enlistees (PES B2 and below) will still serve the full 24 months of NS.
|Time Period||Rank||Full-Time NS Duration1||Qualifications||Remarks|
|1971 till Nov 2004||Lance Corporal or lower||2 years||O Level, N Level and ITC or lower|
|1971 till May 2004||Corporal and higher||2 years 6 months||Full A Level and Diploma qualifications or higher||Will be administratively promoted to at least the rank of Corporal.|
|Jun 2004 till Nov 2004||Corporal and higher||2 years 2 months||A Level and Diploma qualifications or higher||NSFs serving then had 2 months reduction instead to compensate them for the policy change|
|From Dec 2004||All ranks||2 years||All qualifications||Performance-based system|
|1. Combat-fit (PES A/B1) pre-enlistees who pass their IPPT before enlisting will have their full-time NS duration reduced to 1 year and 10 months.|
According to the Enlistment Act, conscription is mandatory for all "persons subject to [the] act", defined as those who are not less than 16.5 years of age and not more than 40 years of age, with some exemptions and with no specific bias to gender (not limited to males).
Male Singapore citizens and second-generation Permanent Residents (PRs) who have registered for their NRIC are required to register for National Service upon reaching the age of 16 years and six months, during which they would also be required to undergo a mandatory medical examination (PULHHEEMS) to determine their medical status, known as Physical Employment Standards (PES) status, which determines which vocational groups the pre-enlistee is physically able to be posted to.
Pre-enlistees who ran afoul with the law and sentenced to Changi Prison are never released back into Singapore Armed Forces.
There is a voluntary early enlist scheme by the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) for pre-enlistees who opt for early enlistment, with the consent of their parents, to begin their full-time national service at the earliest age of 16 years and six months.
Mono-intake refers to a type of enlistment where conscripts are directly enlisted into an active battalion unit and undergo their Basic Military Training in Pulau Tekong before returning to their battalion. As of November 2017, the 1BMT programme was fully implemented with the exception of the Naval Diving Unit, Commandos and support vocations. Before November 2017, conscripts underwent their basic military training at their battalion's camp and not in Pulau Tekong.
Second generation male Permanent Residents
Sons who take up permanent residency under the sponsorship of their Permanent Resident parent, are required by law to serve National Service, just like Singaporean male citizens. The rationale is that they too enjoy the socio-economic national benefits of schooling and living in "peacetime" Singapore. Their failure to serve NS will be taken into account should they decide to study, work or travel in Singapore in future. The government advises of such consequences at the point of renunciation. After completing mandatory full-time national service, they can qualify to apply for the accelerated Singapore citizenship scheme. However, citizenship is not guaranteed for all applicants, as there are certain criteria that must be met such as educational qualification, income qualification and NS work performance/ conduct appraisal in the NS Certificate of Service issued upon ORD. From 2006 to 2010, about 2% of 3,000 Second Generation Permanent Residents who completed full-time national service and applied for Singapore citizenship were rejected.
If the person is not granted Singapore citizenship but still holds Singapore permanent residency, he is still obliged by law to serve the national service obligations, i.e. operationally-ready reservist duties/in-camp trainings 
Singapore Permanent Residents who served national service but did not acquire Singapore citizenship will be treated equally to those permanent residents without service obligation; they would not have access to the privileges granted to Singapore citizens.
National Service in Singapore is based on principles of universality and equity, and these principles must be upheld so as to ensure Singaporeans' important support of and commitment to national service. If Singapore citizens are allowed to choose when they want to serve national service, it would not be fair to the vast majority of our national servicemen who serve the country dutifully, and the institutions of national service will be undermined.
Pre-enlistees are allowed to defer NS to complete full-time tertiary studies, up to the 1st pre-university qualification bar (GCE 'A' Levels or Polytechnic Diploma, or their equivalent) before enlistment for Basic Military Training (BMT), following these criteria:
- JC students will automatically be granted deferment, if less than 19 years old (Sec 4) or 20 years old (Sec 5)
- Polytechnic students from secondary school will automatically be granted deferment – if less than 19 years old (Sec 4) or 20 years old (Sec 5)
- Polytechnic students from ITE will automatically be granted deferment if less than 21 years old, or 22 years old depending on the academic stream (Students entering into ITE immediately from Higher NITEC (DPP, Direct Poly Progression,EAE, Early Admission Exercise, and JAE, Joint Admission Exercise) will be given priority, longer routes will not.)
- ITE students will automatically be granted deferment depending on the entry of certificate level.
- Students under the ITE Traineeship Scheme will be 19 as the cut off age for deferment.
- For Technical Engineer Diploma and Technical Diploma at ITE, deferment will be granted for the academic phase of the courses only.
- Cross-ITE streams (NITEC to Higher NITEC) will be granted deferment if less than 21 years old. A grace period may be issued if you are entering the 2nd year Higher Nitec if you are just reached 21 years old before the entry date.
- Private schools will be granted deferment if less than 19 years old (Sec 4) or 20 years old (Sec 5)
Those granted approval in national sports teams to compete in national/ overseas events will be drafted as soon as they returned from one of the national level events. As of July 2018, only three people (national sailor Maximilian Soh and national swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen) had been granted deferment.
Under special circumstances, Singaporean males are able to leave National Service before their completion, if they fulfill one of the following conditions:
- Accepted an offer into a local undergraduate medical school (there are only two in Singapore, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine and Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine) and wishes to begin tertiary studies. Upon completion of the curriculum, as well as a mandatory year of Postgraduate Year 1 (PGY1) work, they would then be required to complete the remainder of their National Service as a Medical Officer after going through the Medical Officer Conversion Course (MOCC). This form of disruption falls under the Local Medicine Disruption scheme, and is offered to those who:
- Have more than a year of National Service obligation
- Have less than a year of National Service obligation, but must extend their duration of service until a total of one year remains.
- Be a recipient of a Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarship (Overseas Merit Scholarship included). NSFs awarded the PSC Overseas Merit Scholarship (OMS) are granted disruption in the first year of full-time NS to pursue their university studies.
Complete NS exemptions are rare, usually resulting from permanent disabilities or severe medical conditions to be graded PES F by the SAF Medical Board. National policies have been progressively tightened to close up any loopholes that are exploited by draft evaders.
Failure to enlist
Those who are liable to serve national service as a national duty to the country but refuse are charged under the Enlistment Act. If convicted, they face up to both three years' imprisonment and a fine of S$10,000. Some NS pre-enlistees will be denied entry into the country if they are in overseas while some NS pre-enlistees are court-martialled for their failure to enlist or refusal to be conscripted. Most of them were Jehovah's Witnesses, who are usually sentenced to three years' imprisonment by default at the SAF detention barrack facility, and are separated from other conscription offenders. The government does not consider conscientious objection to be a legal reason for refusal of national service.
Public opposition to the national service is also punishable by fine and imprisonment.
Defaulting: draft evasion
Similarly to enlistees failing to enlist, defaulters would be charged and faced with up to three years' imprisonment and/or a fine upwards to $10,000.
In 2006, there was a public outcry on the "lenient" sentence Melvyn Tan, who was born in 1956 in Singapore, received a composition fine for defaulting on his National Service obligations in the 1970s after attaining British citizenship, when there were other cases being given maximum fines or imprisonment duration. Clarity over how judges would sentence a defaulter was clearer in successive landmark cases. In 2010, Seow Wei Sin was initially given an 18-month sentence, which was lowered to S$5,000 on appeal after the courts had determined that Seow had little substantial connection to Singapore except being born here, and thus had a low culpability for committing the default. In 2016, Brian Joseph Chow was initially handed a S$4,500 fine, which was set aside for one-and-a-half month jail time upon appeal. Chow had a substantial connection to Singapore, having been born and raised here, thus the jail sentence instead of just a fine. Additionally, by delaying NS obligations, it would violate "the principles of equity and universality and undermined the fair share agreement,” under which all males had to serve at the same time. In the case of Chow, Justice Chan Seng Onn listed the factors which would determine the sentence given:
- number of year the defaulter evades NS
- whether the surrender is voluntarily made
- one's performance during NS
- whether the defaulter had pleaded guilty during trial.
In 2017, Singapore's High Court set out new sentencing benchmarks for those who default on NS, which had been described as "more onerous" than the guidelines laid down by Justice Chan. In a written judgment, the court said that the length of sentences should be amplified for those who have defaulted for a longer period of time, to "reflect the decline in a person's physical fitness with age" and also to create a "progressive disincentive" for defaulters to delay their return.
There are four tiers of punishment, which vary in severity according to the length of default period:
- Those who evade NS for two to six years face a minimum jail sentence of two to four months.
- Those who evade NS for seven to 10 years face a minimum jail sentence of five to eight months.
- Those who evade NS for 11 to 16 years face a minimum jail sentence of 14 to 22 months.
- Those who evade NS for 17 or more years face a minimum jail sentence of two to three years.
- Benjamin James Davis - a footballer who chose to continue with a second professions contract with Fulham Football Club in 2018, and default on his enlistment in 2019 after failing in his applications for deferment.
- Kevin Kwan - author of the novel Crazy Rich Asians which was adapted into a film. Kwan allegedly had entered Singapore multiple times without being arrested, to which the Ministry of Home Affairs refuted.
- Lim Ching Hwang - a Malaysian swimmer who became a permanent resident of Singapore. Lim left Singapore in July 2015 and failed to report for national service in November that year. He returned in June 2018 and enlisted in April 2019.
Type of services
There are several types of Basic Military Training (BMT) conducted by the SAF at its Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) on Pulau Tekong, an offshore island off the north-east coast of Singapore, or at selected battalion units which directly draft mono-intake recruits. Combat-fit NSFs with higher education undergo a 9-week Enhanced BMT program. NSFs with other educational certificates and mono-intake recruits undergo a similar programme (standard BMT programme), less a Situational Test (Sit Test), for assessing recruits in the selection posting to command schools, the Specialist Cadet School (SCS) and Officer Cadet School (OCS). Also, a selected handful of top candidates are transferred to the Singapore Police Force to get accelerated advanced training as an Inspector at the Home Team Academy for a period of 9 months, likewise for the Singapore Civil Defence Force where a few are also carefully groomed to become lieutenants. Recently, selected NSFs having at least NITEC certificates who perform exceptionally well are recommended to undergo the Situational Test model to deem assessment suitability for commander training.
NSFs who are medically graded PES C and E (non-combat-fit) go through a 9-week Modified BMT where they are trained for combat service support vocations NSFs who are graded PES A and B1, but did not pass the pre-enlistment IPPT, will have to undergo an additional 2-month Physical Training Phase (PTP), making it a 17-week BMT programme for additional physical conditioning. Conscripts who are considered medically obese go through a weight-loss 19-week BMT. The obesity of a conscript is determined by his body mass index (BMI) during the pre-enlistment medical checkup. A BMI of above 27 is considered indicative of obesity, as opposed to the World Health Organization's guideline of 30 and above.
Though a majority will serve in the SAF (predominantly in the Army) for their National Service, a number of enlistees will serve their NS years in the Singapore Police Force (SPF). Those who have been chosen to serve in the SPF undergo training at the Home Team Academy where they study the Penal Code and standard police protocol. After training at the Academy, they will be posted to various departments of the SPF, such as Special Operations Command (SOC), Logistics, Land divisions, Airport Police Division (APD). Those posted to the Police Coast Guard (PCG) or Protective Security Command (ProCom) will undergo further training. Selection of Officer Cadets (OCTs) to undergo the NS Probationary Inspector Course (NSPI) is a stringent process for Police National Servicemen (Full-time). A very small number, usually one who is awarded the Best Trainee Award, from each cohort will be selected, with the majority of the OCTs being carefully chosen from the Singapore Armed Forces' National Servicemen (Full-time) who have completed their Basic Military Training (BMT) forming the senior officers corps for the Singapore Police Force.
The national service ranks in the SPF differ from the Military and Civil Defence forces slightly and official usage within official correspondence within the organisation clearly differentiates an NS officer versus a regular.
Civil defence service
The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) is the emergency rescue force of Singapore and they provide firefighting, rescue and ambulance services, and has been one of the three National Service postings since 1972. Those enlisted into the SCDF typically undergo 4 weeks of training at the National Service Training Centre (NSTC), where they are given basic rescue training (BRT), exposed to regimental discipline, and trained to maintain a level of fitness required of all NSFs in Singapore.
Much like the SAF's SISPEC course, selected NSFs are also posted to the Civil Defence Academy (CDA) to undergo the Firefighter Course (FFC) or the Section Commanders' Course (SCC) within the first two weeks of their BRT stage, passing out as Firefighters for FFC trainees, and as Fire & Rescue Specialists for SCC trainees who would also simultaneously be conferred with the Sergeant rank (Firefighters mostly pass out as Lance Corporals prior to station posting). Firefighters would typically be posted out to the various fire stations island-wide after passing out, while Fire & Rescue Specialists would be posted as Section Commanders at territorial division, fire stations or at the Special Rescue Battalion; based largely on rankings at the time of course completion, a small number may also be posted as Instructors back in the CDA to staff the Command and Staff Training Center (CSTC), Specialist Training Center (STC), or Firefighting Training Center (FFTC).
While a certain level of health and fitness pre-requisites are expected by both the FFC and SCC administrators before one can be selected for these courses, admission into the SCC course typically requires a certain set of additional qualifications, namely either a minimum of a GCE Advanced Level certificate, a Diploma or a Higher Nitec Certificate. These added pre-requisites are viewed as necessary in the light of a Section Commander's operational and administrative role when posted out. One marked difference between the FFC and SCC is the added rescue and emergency training received by Specialist Cadet Trainees (SCTs), as well as the General Command & Control Term, which includes the Basic Home Team Course held at the Home Team Academy and an outward-bound Brunei trip which serves to equip and develop the necessary leadership skills required of a specialist junior officer. In terms of administration and duration, the FFC is under the charge of the FFTC and lasts three months, while the SCC is under the purview of the CSTC and lasts five months.
In addition, there is also the Rota Commanders' Course under the charge of the CSTW, designed to train NSFs and regulars as Senior Officers of the SCDF, with NSFs graduating as Lieutenants (LTA). While the RCC is traditionally largely made up of NSFs from the SAF who had just completed their Basic Military Training (BMT) at Pulau Tekong, the top 5-10% of the SCC will also be offered to cross over to the RCC to be trained and commissioned as Senior Officers after passing out, spending the last three months of the RCC together with Officer Cadet Trainees (OCTs).
NSFs who undergo the full 4-week basic rescue training at the NSTC are subsequently posted and trained to become medical orderlies (medics), dog handlers, provosts, information and communications and logistics specialists or instructors (such as Physical Training Instructors) among many other vocations upon passing out from the NSTC.
Alleged racial discrimination
Military analyst Sean Walsh who authored The Roar of the Lion City (2007), claimed that "official discrimination against the Malay population remains an open secret".
The Ministry of Defence contests the charge, noting that there are "Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel" and stating that "the proportion of eligible Malays selected for specialist and officer training is similar to the proportion of eligible non-Malays."
Alleged preferential treatment
Janil Puthucheary, a PAP MP, did not serve national service, as first-generation new naturalised citizens are exempted. Having been compared to Chen Show Mao, a foreign-born new candidate of the Workers' Party who volunteered for national service at naturalisation, Janil retorted that he has instead spent the last 10 years saving kids' lives. He was criticised for his comment due to the advantages of a professional career compared with national service. His candidacy has led to Low Thia Khiang, the leader of the Workers' Party, to call for an amendment to the Singapore constitution to allow only male candidates who have served their national service to run for elections.
During the lead up to the 2011 presidential election, PAP's endorsed candidate Tony Tan's son, Patrick Tan, was accused of receiving preferential treatment because he received 12 years disruption from full-time NS and was deployed as a medical scientist in the Defence Medical Research Institute (DMRI) when he resumed for national service. The Ministry explained that Patrick Tan had been granted exemption along with 86 other candidates between 1973 and 1992 under a scheme to train medical professionals.
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