May 27, 2014

    Give members of SAF Volunteer Corps a real fighting chance

    WATCH out, Singaporean men. National service, a long-time favourite calling card when we need to prove how we have it worse than Singaporean women, will soon no longer be our exclusive domain.

    Women, along with new citizens and first-generation permanent residents, will soon be able to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps.

    That's right: We may find our girlfriends, wives and sisters serving in uniform alongside us one day.

    The Volunteer Corps, which will be set up in the middle of next year, will take up supporting roles such as protecting key installations, and can join other specialist fields like the legal, medical, information and engineering branches of the armed forces.

    Members will receive four weeks of training, after which they perform their military duties for one to two weeks annually, for a minimum of three years.

    The intention behind this initiative, which was announced on Thursday alongside other proposed changes to NS, is no doubt noble.

    More people can get to contribute to this key institution and also learn about something that forms a significant part of the lives of generations of NSmen. It will also go some way towards dispelling the perception that women and those who are not born here enjoy the free ride of a peaceful Singapore on the backs of those who give up two years of their time for NS.

    The Volunteer Corps will lead to an increase in personnel - although only time will tell by how much - and this may not necessarily be a good thing.

    I argued in a 2013 Sunday Times column that what the armed forces needs is better deployment of the people it already has, and not even more boots on the ground. Some full-time national servicemen find themselves stuck in vocations that they have no interest in. Others don't even seem to have a proper job in their barracks.

    With the fresh injection of 100 to 150 volunteers that the SAF is targeting for a start, the challenge would be to make their service a meaningful undertaking.

    Their subsequent annual service commitment of one to two weeks for a minimum of three years must also have the same focus and intensity.

    If members of the Volunteer Corps aren't gainfully employed, a new group of people will become cynical about serving in Singapore's citizen army.

    This, in turn, will make it easy for detractors to say that the corps is just paying lip service to getting more Singaporeans to pull their weight in the country's defence.

    After all, the volunteers serve only a fraction of the time that those doing mandatory NS must go through.

    But at least it seems the SAF is clear on its purpose for establishing the corps.

    The recruitment target of 100 to 150 for the first batch of volunteers indicates that this remains unchanged and the SAF's goal is more about boosting stakeholdership than enlistment numbers. By starting small, it is also easier to find a tangible role for the unit.

    If manpower is indeed tightening, then the Volunteer Corps will have the opportunity to be meaningfully deployed.

    To honour the commitment of those who stand up to be counted, the same purpose must be brought to bear on the Volunteer Corps. Our future sisters - and brothers - in arms must have a fighting chance of being more than just a novelty; they should be actual fellow soldiers.