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     2nd Defence Minister speaks on NS deferment & disruption

Continued from FrontPage of Article

Mr Leong Horn Kee, Dr Ong Chit Chung and Dr Loo Choon Yong raised various issues on deferment, disruption, flexibility on call-ups for in-camp training and the role of women for full-time National Service. Recently, this House debated the issue of NS defaulters following the Melvyn Tan episode. It was a useful debate because it allowed MINDEF to explain the fundamental basis for National Service, it also caused Singaporeans to examine what the SAF call NS-liable men to service, and under what terms do we implement the Enlistment Act. Let me summarise what Mr Teo has articulated. There are three fundamental messages. First is that National Service must be for meeting a critical national need of national security and survival and to the nation. The second and third principles are universality and equity in implementing the liabilities and duties of NS men. Why universality and equity? Because otherwise it is very difficult to impose this liability to Singaporeans. These same three principles also govern our approach to issues related to deferment, disruption, flexibility in call-ups and women in NS.

NSF Deferment

Let me first touch on deferment and explain the basis for deferments that we have previously allowed and the recent changes that have been put into place.

Under the Enlistment Act, any NS-liable male can be called up for NS as soon as he turns 18 years old. There is a reason for this enlistment age. We should be clear that the SAF must be able to maintain and project a credible force to achieve the critical need to ensure our security and survival at all times. And it has to do so with a conscript army because of our small population. In other words when the button is pushed, who do we depend on? We depend on ORNS men, they form the backbone of our SAF. Not only do we require them to be trained to be soldiers and leaders within the two years of NSF, they also play a critical role as operationally ready soldiers during their remaining NS liability. For many, this means that they are required to serve up to the age of 30 plus. By enlisting them around 18 years of age, we optimise the ability of the SAF to fulfil its missions with an energetic and able-bodied defence force.

Despite the legislated enlistment age and operational requirements, MINDEF had exercised flexibility in the past by allowing some groups of students to complete their studies before serving their NSF.

MINDEF had granted deferment to those who could start their full-time course of study before the age of 18 for local courses and before 17½ for overseas courses, and this was assuming that such courses would not last more than 3 or 4 years. Similarly, pre-enlistees are granted deferment for ¡®A¡¯ levels and polytechnic diploma courses if they are below 19 years old as at 1 January of the year of commencement of the course.

Such exceptions were workable if the majority of NS-liable males entered into a few institutions with fixed starting terms. We could predict quite reliably the proportion and number of students that would be deferred. But educational opportunities have expanded exponentially in the past few years. We now have a proliferation of institutions with a variety of modules in Singapore. New compressed integrated courses have also been introduced, so that students could theoretically start anytime within the year. The opportunities to study abroad and at different times of the year have also increased as Singaporeans have become more affluent. Many more Singaporeans would be able to start universities or other courses before ages 17½ abroad or 18 locally.

It is no therefore no longer tenable to grant deferments based on past criteria. MINDEF has therefore decided to get back to basics, rationalise our deferment policy based on operational needs and the primary goals of National Service¡ªthis is a starting principle and a fundamental one. In rationalising our policy, it was understood that NS is a sacrifice which may mean that Singaporeans would have to defer their university studies till after they have completed National Service. We applied the key principles of universality and equity to ensure that everyone within the same cohort would receive more or less the same treatment in allowing them to attain their educational qualifications.

Therefore, MINDEF will only grant deferment for pre-enlistees to gain their basic educational qualifications of ¡®A¡¯ levels, polytechnic diploma, or below. This is reasonable as most of our 18 year old NS enlistees would either have completed their basic qualification programme or are about to complete it. As university degrees are considered higher educational qualifications, deferments for university studies will no longer be allowed. This new policy for deferments has been in place from the end of last year.

Now, the vast majority of our enlistees will not affected by this rationalisation. Our past records show that under the old previous deferment policy, less than 100 a year were granted deferment for university studies in the past¡ªthis is a special 100. Moving on, this will no longer be allowed. For those affected, what it means is that they have to serve NS like the rest of their peers before going for their university studies. This is the norm, even for those who do their pre-university studies overseas. More than 75% of those granted deferment for pre-university studies in the past returned to serve their NS before proceeding to university.

As part of our rationalisation, ITE students will now be able to proceed to undertake a polytechnic diploma course ¨C a basic educational qualification ¨C before enlisting for NS. Even then, we will only allow such deferments if they are below 20 years old as at 1 January of the year of commencement of the course.

Now I know there are many NSFs with ITE qualifications who are already currently serving in the SAF. We will allow early disruption to all those who have completed their BMT to pursue their polytechnic diploma in Apr 2006 or Apr 2007, provided that they qualify for the deferment under the new policy.

NSF Disruption

Now let me talk about disruption. Mr Leong, Dr Ong and Dr Loo called for greater flexibility in granting disruption from full-time NS for tertiary studies. Dr Loo asked, some of the members have asked that disruption from full-time NS to be granted to all scholarship holders.

Let me qualify that disruptions not only affect the training and operational readiness of the individual; it also impacts the unit as a whole ¨C because the army fights as a unit. It will compromise unit standards and its operational readiness. This is especially so because the duration of NS has been reduced to 2 years.

MINDEF therefore allows disruption only in selected cases and based on the three principles. First it must be subject to the operational readiness of their units not being compromised. For equity, we will allow disruptions for those who are enlisted for NS in later intake batches, so that they are able to start university in the same year as their peers or of the same school cohort, who were enlisted earlier. Now, let me give you a few examples so you can understand what I am saying.

For example, NSFs belonging to the same ¡®A¡¯ level or Polytechnic cohort are typically enlisted over two intakes¡ªwe can¡¯t bring them all because of the flow ¨C so they are split over two intakes due to capacity constraints at the training schools. ¡®A¡¯ level holders are typically enlisted in the December and March intakes¡ªthere are basically two intakes, while Diploma holders are typically enlisted in the June and September intakes.

In each of these cases, MINDEF will allow disruption of up to 2 months to those who were called up in the later intake so that they could enter university in the same year as those who were enlisted in the earlier intake¡ªthe principle of equity.

Allow me to illustrate this with an example because it can get quite confusing. An ¡®A¡¯ level NSF enlisted in December 2005, will complete his 2-year NSF liability in December 2007 and be able to commence his university studies, if he wanted to, say in February 2008, if he starts in an Australian university. But his classmate who was enlisted in April 2006 will only complete his NS liability in April 2008. In other words, the classmate who was enlisted late and his peers can now start university in February 2008. For such cases due to different call up dates, MINDEF may grant a 2-month disruption to pursue his university studies.

However, MINDEF does not allow disruption to those who are trying to start an overseas course or a local course one academic year ahead of their male peers within the same cohort. This is the very example that Mr Leong brought up. Mr Leong has suggested disruption of up to 3 months for tertiary education. Using the same example, we would not allow disruptions for an ¡®A¡¯ level NSF enlisted in December 2005 to start university in September 2007. That would be unfair to his peers of his cohort in Singapore who can only commence their studies in 2008. It is in fact untenable. Because of the expanded choice of universities both here and locally, almost all students could find a place to start at some university earlier and apply for disruption.

As for disruption for scholarship holders, only PSC scholars have been given special consideration for disruption after serving 6 to 10 months of NS to do their university studies, before returning to complete the remainder of their full-time NS. Now annually, only about 30 are granted such early disruptions. This is not extended to other scholarship holders as early disruption has significant impact and needs to be minimised. Such special consideration is only given to PSC scholarship holders as it is an important conduit for bringing key talent into the Public Service.

NSmen - Deferment for ICT

Dr Loo asked for greater flexibility with regards to deferment for In-Camp Training for NSmen. There is already a high degree of flexibility and we have granted deferments for those who have just started a new job or are getting married during the ICT. But for operational reasons again, such deferment cannot be free for all. Every NSman has a role to play and the unit is affected if he is deferred from in-camp training. There is thus a need to strike a balance between the inconvenience caused to the NSman by the In Camp Training and the impact on the unit if the NSman is granted deferment. The commander on the ground is in the best position to make that judgement, and rightly so, because it is the commander who is held accountable for the readiness of his unit. All requests for deferment are therefore decentralised and put up to the unit commanders for consideration.

NS for Women

Dr Loo also asked for women to be called up for NS in non-combat roles. As stated by our Minister before, we currently have no operational need for women conscripts to serve in the defence force. NS, yes, must be for the critical need of security and survival. While National Service can help in national education and character building, these are not sufficient reasons in themselves to call up women for NS. Dr Loo will also be interested to know that indeed there are volunteers, women volunteers in the SPF as well as the Civil Defence. There are presently about 5,666 volunteers out of which 36% are women.


Mr Chairman, let me now move on to Record IV, and I have spoken at length on how MINDEF balances its operational and training requirements. All male Singaporeans are called to serve National Service. Despite many competing demands for their time, our national servicemen understand the need for NS and have remained committed in fulfilling their duty to the nation.

I am therefore happy that the Government and MINDEF has accepted the key recommendations put forth. We have circulated the report, but I won¡¯t go into details. As Dr Loo had said, it¡¯s not quid pro quo to register our thanks. It is a simple way of saying thank you for all their sacrifices.

The key recommendation was to give more to NSmen in the next surplus sharing exercise. This additional sum is called the 40th Anniversary NS Bonus and is part of the ¡®Progress Package¡¯. The Prime Minister has announced details of this in his budget speech. This is a strong recognition of the role our NSmen have played in the defence of Singapore.

We have also announced several other RECORD IV recommendations that the Government has decided to implement immediately. This includes the Operationally Ready NS Completion Award, where NSmen who complete their training cycle from 1 January this year will receive a monetary award of $300. The first payment will be made in April 2007. Thereafter, MINDEF will give this award on an annual basis to those who complete their training cycle in the previous work year. The Prime Minister also announced that the Government has agreed to the additional tax relief of $2,000 for NS key command and staff appointment holders.

MINDEF has accepted RECORD¡¯s recommendation to relax the Mindef Notification Centre requirement. Currently NSmen who go overseas for 24 hours or less are required to notify MINDEF of their trip. Henceforth NSmen who have already completed their Operationally Ready NS training cycle and have been phased into MINDEF Reserve will now be exempted from MNC notification, even if they are below the statutory age.

MINDEF has also agreed to relax exit control measures for full-time national servicemen. Currently, NSFs are required to apply for an Exit Permit whenever they travel overseas, regardless of the trip duration. With the change, they will be required to apply for Exit Permits only for overseas trips of 3 months or more.

MINDEF will also improve the convenience of other exit control measures recommended by RECORD. As these changes to exit control take time to implement, details will be announced in the next 4 months or so.

We also strengthened the Total Defence effort and as a start, the role of the Advisory Council for Community Relations in Defence will be expanded to engage more Singaporeans in Total Defence.

In the area of recreation, RECORD IV has recommended that a SAFRA clubhouse be developed in Jurong to cater to the needs of NSmen living in the West, this has been accepted. In addition, the committee has also recommended that the existing Toa Payoh clubhouse be upgraded so that it remains relevant and attractive to NSmen and their families. SAFRA has agreed to the recommendations and will announce its development plans in due course.

By fully accepting all the RECORD IV recommendations, we hope to underscore again the Government¡¯s and the people¡¯s appreciation of the role of National Servicemen and the contributions they have made. They are the bedrock of our defence. They remain as critical as ever in light of the changes in the security environment.

Research and Development

Sir, let me now address the comments raised by Dr Teo Ho Pin on defence Research & Development.

Key Functions of DSTA and DSO

Apart from its key function of acquiring systems to meet the SAF¡¯s requirements, the Defence Science and Technology Agency, or DSTA, undertakes R&D in building protection and developing critical real-time command and control (C2) systems for the SAF. It also manages the defence R&D budget for MINDEF by investing in promising R&D activities with potentially high payoffs for defence in the DSO National Laboratories, our universities, our defence industry and other research institutions.

It is DSO which does the bulk of our front-end defence R&D. It undertakes R&D to sharpen the cutting-edge for our defence in areas such as sensors, electronic warfare, guided weapons, information systems, and chemical and biological defence.

Delivering High-Payoff Capabilities For The 3G SAF

An excellent illustration of how our R&D capabilities have multiplied the fighting capabilities of the SAF is in the development of the combat management system (or CMS for short) for our frigates. The ship may have been designed and developed in France but the CMS, which is the brain of the ship, was developed locally by our own defence scientists and engineers from DSTA and DSO. This Combat Management System fuses the information from the myriad of combat sensors, evaluates the threats faced by the ship and matches the appropriate weapons to neutralize any threats. The CMS enables the commander to make superior decisions to deal decisively with any operational situations. Without it, the commander would have required a much larger crew, taken much longer to understand the situation and decide on the appropriate response, and thus put the ship and its crew at greater risks. The force multiplying effects of a system like the CMS is therefore clear. And this also helps to explain why we are able to reduce the ORNS full time national service from 2½ to 2 years.

DSTA also works closely with our defence industry to produce platforms and capabilities to meet the unique requirements of the SAF. Some examples of such successes are the Bionix vehicle, the Primus self-propelled howitzer and the Pegasus Lightweight howitzer.

These products, together with the CMS of our stealth frigates, are but some of numerous high-payoff capabilities which has made possible for the transformation of the SAF into 3G SAF. Such capabilities have resulted in sensors and weapon systems which are more effective and better networked, resulted in platforms and combat systems which have better survivability, enabled our commanders to have better situation awareness and make better decisions, and enabled our soldiers to enhance their combat effectiveness.

R&D Is A Long-Term Investment

Sir, defence R&D is about building up expertise in our people and building up intellectual capital. It is a long-term investment therefore, we have commited about 4% of our defence budget to defence R&D and a further 1% to experimentation of new operational concepts.

Commercialisation Is Not The Primary Focus

Dr Teo also asked about whether there are plans to commercialise the output of our R&D efforts. Let me just say that the primary purpose for us to undertake defence R&D is to create knowledge and build up new defence capabilities. While there are dual-use technologies that we have built up that have commercial potential, we have indeed explored commercial opportunities for them.

Examples of technologies that have been licensed to commercial companies include a portable biochip system to detect pathogens, originally developed jointly by DSO and NTU for biodefence, and an intelligent information search and analysis software developed jointly by DSO and a US research institute. A consortium comprising of DSO, NUS and two A*STAR institutes had also successfully developed a multi-layer substrate packaging technology that can be commercialised. However, in pursuing such commercial spin-offs, we are mindful that our engineers and scientists must not be distracted from their primary mission of defence R&D.

We have to rely upon our defence industries to produce the commercial spin-offs. Indeed, ST Engineering now earns more revenue from their non-MINDEF work than they do from MINDEF. But ST Engineering would not have the capability to successfully win non-defence contracts if not for the core competencies they have built up in developing systems for MINDEF. For example, ST Engineering has made breakthroughs in selling C2 systems to customers in Hong Kong in recent years. Its C2 capabilities grew due to C2 work done for MINDEF.

In summary, we have strong capabilities, R&D capabilities, strong R&D capabilities in DSTA and DSO to ensure that SAF¡¯s unique requirements are met. Commercial spin-offs will be generated as and when there are opportunities.

R&D is a Long-Term Investment

Sir, defence R&D is about building up expertise in our people and building up intellectual capital. It is therefore a long-term investment. Today, we commit about 4% of our defence budget to defence R&D and a further 1% to experimentation of new operational concepts. This is a necessary investment to ensure that the SAF is at the cutting edge, and sustain it.



Source: News Release 6 Mar 2006