Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the NS50 Launch Event on 7 Feb 2017 on Pulau Tekong

2nd Minister for Defence, Mr Ong Ye Kung
Senior Minister of State for Defence Dr Maliki Osman
Service Chiefs
Deputy Commissioner of Police
Deputy Commissioner of Civil Defence
Guests from the Ministry of Home Affairs
Pioneers of 3 and 4 SIR
ACCORD members
Enlistees
Fellow Singaporeans

Introduction

First, 祝大家新年快乐,大吉大利,心想事成. It is a beautiful day and we are still in the midst of our Lunar New Year celebrations. I am glad the enlistees were enlisted - I presume - after Chinese New Year. But this year is a very special year because we mark two great events in our history. It is 50 years since the introduction of National Service (NS), and the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 1942.

These were momentous events as we look back in our history and both these historical events I think provide valuable lessons for all of us, even today. Some of you seated here will remember that in 1942, Singapore fell to Japanese invaders. Some of you may have even been physically around or have relatives who were living through that difficult period. But after Singapore fell, those living on this island learnt two very painful lessons quickly and vividly. One, you cannot depend on others to defend Singapore, and second, victors do as they please and the vanquished suffer what they must. History teaches us time and again that freedom and independence for any country are never free. Freedom and independence must be purchased by the commitment of its citizens to defend what they value, their way of life, and their ability to forge their own future. 50 years ago, we in Singapore pledged to pay that price through NS for all sons of every family.

Countries, especially small countries, that forget this need or are unwilling to pay the price to build a strong defence, often end up with regrets - some even too late. Let me give you one example. Following the end of the Cold War, countries like Lithuania abolished NS. Lithuania is a country which some of you know fringes the Baltic Sea. During the Cold War they had real threats but at the end of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall came down, there was this belief in Europe that it was time to reap the "peace dividend". So they abolished NS and they were not alone. Other states around there too. Instead of stability, barely two decades after the end of the Cold War came the annexation of Crimea and the troubles in Ukraine. Today, Lithuania wants to re-instate NS in the face of bold aggression, but finds it almost impossible to raise a strong military especially when they need it most. There is a lesson in there for all small countries.

I give you another example. In 1990, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. Kuwait did not have a military adequate to defend its sovereignty but was fortunate that the United States (US) and other allies pushed Iraqi forces out, and Singapore contributed to their post-conflict stabilisation. We were part of the force that guarded the Al Başrah Oil Terminal (ABOT) and I remember visiting that particular terminal.

But Singapore cannot depend on others to rescue us, if we are ever caught in a similar predicament. We seek to be friends with all countries - whether they are big and small – but we, we Singaporeans alone, are responsible to defend Singapore. As an independent nation, we are not beholden to or dependent on any one country for our survival and prosperity.

Our society is made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians and other races, but as Mr Lee Kuan Yew declared in 1965 when he announced our separation from Malaysia, "This is not a Malay nation, this is not a Chinese nation, this is not an Indian nation". And so every National Day we sing these words - "we are Singapore, Singaporeans, a nation strong and free". We are a Singaporean Singapore.

Some say small countries should not waste time. Waste your time, waste your effort, waste your resources because as a small country, you will never be able to protect yourselves adequately anyway. So just learn like Kuwait; learn like the Baltic states and abolish NS. After our nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) were detained by Hong Kong (HK) authorities, some Singaporeans did indeed ask if this would have happened if we were a big country; they compared it to the US drone. I think all of us here are very glad that our Terrexes are back home to celebrate Chap Goh Meh with all of us. And I am particularly proud of how Singaporeans rallied together during this episode, stayed calm and carried on, confident that this issue with HK would be resolved amicably.

We can never change the fact that we are a small country, but today, after 50 years of NS, we have built an SAF capable of defending Singapore. From time to time, relations with other countries - big and small - may not be completely smooth but our relations with big powers like the US, China and India are fundamentally sound and healthy. Our international standing is high; our defence ties with other countries through the Five Power Defence Arrangments (FPDA) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus are strong and growing. A strong SAF and partnerships with other countries with like-minded interests gives us the confidence in Singapore's stability and security for the future.

But the responsibility to defend Singapore ultimately rests on Singaporeans and Singaporeans alone. 50 years ago, we pledged at the founding of our nation that we would never allow the circumstances that occurred in 1942 to recur. NS for all Singaporean males was started so that we could build a strong SAF that can defend Singapore. Since 1967 when the first batch - some of you are here today - enlisted for NS, more than a million national servicemen have done their duty. More than a million. Today, we are gathered here at Pulau Tekong to witness the enlistment of another NS cohort that will continue this duty. This is a special cohort. Together with the nation on the 50th Anniversary of NS, young and old, parent or child, new recruit or old soldier, we want to re-affirm our collective and unwavering support for NS.

To represent the pioneers who have done their service above and beyond the call of duty are people like Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) (Ret) Albel Singh. LTC (Ret) Singh was the first in line to register in March 1967. Is LTC (Ret) Singh here? Why don't you take a stand and take a bow. He has kept his old uniform for 50 years now. LTC (Ret) Singh first signed up as a national serviceman much like yourselves today but subsequently decided he was going to become a Regular. He guarded the beaches of Changi in the aftermath of the Konfrontasi and kept peace in Tai Seng when the racial riots broke out in Singapore in 1969; we also have LTC (Ret) Ee Cheng Huat, SSG (Ret) Jita Singh who enlisted in the first batch in 1967; Master Warrant Officer (Ret) Ho Wat Lam who trained that first batch of National Servicemen Full-time (NSFs); retired commanders from 3 and 4 SIR: COL (Ret) Maurice Ambrose Phillips, COL (Ret) Quek Koh Eng and Senior Warrant Officer (Ret) Ali Pawiro. Can I please ask them to stand too. Thank you very much.

In their time, Singapore was threatened by Konfrontasi, the communist insurgency in Malaya, and the possible fall-out from the Vietnam War. To meet these challenges, that pioneer generation had to build up the SAF from scratch. Because remember, the SAF did not exist or was very young. And the mundane things we take for granted today were big challenges for them. What do I mean by mundane things? Remember we were a poor country. We were struggling to house citizens, to give good health and build schools. So simple items, whether our NS men had good uniforms, socks and boots, these were actually not that easy to come by. The training camps were not like this. They were rudimentary. In fact the training camps were actually makeshift buildings before the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI) and other camps were built. And that generation of pioneers approached their problems with resolve, resilience and resourcefulness even as the Government continued to devote a significant portion of its Budget to the SAF.

The result of this unwavering commitment to defence over 50 years is what we witness here today at the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) and SAF camps all over the island. So today, our camps are far more comfortable and equipped than those in the days when your fathers served their NS. I am sure that the parents who have gone around the bunks will have seen the beds that your sons will sleep in and the recreational facilities they will play in. I am told by my commanders that some parents asked, "Why the mattress so thick? My time only one-third the thickness." We believe that you have to rest well so that you can train well. It is a new philosophy.

Personal equipment has improved significantly too. When we started, it was like what LTC (Ret) Singh is wearing. Very starchy uniforms. In fact, we used to starch our uniforms and march in starched shirts. Why we did that I do not understand but we did it anyway. And we used to polish boots. The load we were carrying was heavier. When you run with your Skeletal Battle Order (SBO) you have to find special strings so that the tin cans and the mess tins do not keep clanging around. The Physical Training (PT) kits and the shoes are among the best in the market and NS men enjoy huge discounts from the bulk sales we have. In fact every time we introduce a new pair of running shoes, NS men who are now in the MINDEF Reserve (MR), who do not have those benefits, actually say I wish I was still part of the SAF so I can buy these shoes. I think the recruits will be getting these new PT shoes. But more importantly, the SAF today is a joint, integrated and modern Army, Air Force and Navy with a full range of capabilities able to protect our interests on land, air, and sea.   

So today, you 100 Basic Military Training (BMT) recruits represent your generation of national servicemen. The pioneers and preceding generations of national servicemen have done their duty. The NS50 logo "From My Generation To Yours" captures this commitment and the handing over of that responsibility to your generation - this new generation of national servicemen.

Your generation inherits a better Singapore, a stronger SAF and a greater support for NS than the one the older generation started with. And there is much more to protect in Singapore. We are a modern metropolis with the highest per capita GDP in Asia. We are a City in a Garden. 90 per cent of Singaporeans own homes in HDB towns with fully developed amenities. I am a Member of Parliament (MP) for Toa Payoh Central and I know that my town has undergone tremendous change over 50 years. We are among the best in schools and healthcare of any country; we are a world class transportation hub, on the island and connected to the rest of the World; we are a secure nation, with our Home Team and SAF able to protect us.

For the past decade, SAF troops have been combating terrorism in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. National servicemen regularly participate in overseas missions, whether it is against pirates in the Gulf of Aden, fire-fighting operations in Sumatra or Thailand, or helping victims in the Nepal earthquake. Some of you when you complete BMT may be privileged to be involved in those missions. We do not exclude national servicemen from those missions if we need them or if they volunteer. In Singapore, national servicemen join members from the Home Team to guard against terrorists attacks and protect key installations like Changi Airport and Jurong Island.

Indeed over the past 50 years, NS has become an institution through which Singaporean males define themselves in their formative years, a crucial period where close friends are made for life; where values and character are deeply forged; where they begin to understand why and how they protect those that they love and what they cherish on this island home. NS - National Service - is part of the Singaporean identity; part of being Singaporean.

This is the reason films and plays like "Army Daze" and "Ah Boys to Men" do well, because national servicemen, young and old, can easily identify with these characters and what makes us Singaporean. But it did not start that way. When we started NS, there was not great acceptance, there was some fear. But what Dr Goh Keng Swee saw in 1967 has become so true and let me quote you what he said in 1967, "Nothing creates loyalty and national consciousness more speedily and more thoroughly than participation in defence and membership of the armed forces." So true is it not? He saw this and it was his vision that NS one day will be a bonding experience for Singaporeans.

We will continue to find meaningful ways to recognise the contributions of national servicemen, to help them perform their duties more efficiently and effectively. We have revamped the NS HOME awards so that you have better support for your houses, your healthcare and your education needs, including an additional Medisave Grant. We updated the IPPT system to be more relevant and provided more convenient avenues for national servicemen to fulfil their fitness requirements. Today, NSFs can indicate your vocational interest. As you complete your BMT, you will be asked to indicate the vocations that you want to serve your NS in based on your aptitudes and interests so that you can maximise your contributions. We have reduced waiting time for enlistment. For most, we will enlist you within four months after your studies so that you reduce the downtime. Last year, we introduced life and personal accident insurance coverage for all national servicemen. These and other initiatives by the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS) have brought about significant improvements to NS.

Today, I am happy to announce an additional package to commemorate NS50. All national servicemen, who have performed or are doing their NS duties, which includes you, will receive this package. The package with $100 worth of vouchers is a small token to thank every national serviceman for their role in defending Singapore. I said there are more than a million national servicemen who have done NS so every one of them will get an NS50 package. The last NS45 package was very well received. Most men as you know, if you are like me, we receive something in the mail, we give it to the wife. So if you receive the package and the vouchers, give to your family. Many spouses were very happy because we have a lot of outlets that are also giving discounts when you use these vouchers and they can use them to purchase for family needs. In addition, the package will provide a one year free SAFRA membership for SAF servicemen, and a one year free HomeTeamNS membership for Home Team servicemen. Please enjoy these vouchers and facilities with your families.

I am also pleased to launch the NS Gallery today, which will be a permanent facility here - very apt - at the BMTC for the enlistees and their families. This interactive Gallery, which you can see later, will tell the on-going story of NS and how each generation must fulfil its duty to keep Singapore independent and strong.  

A shared responsibility and commitment by all

I began this speech reminding us that freedom and independence for our country can only be purchased and assured by the commitment of its citizens. While national servicemen in the SAF shoulder the primary responsibility to protect the sovereignty of our nation, I am glad to report that our entire nation is united and committed to Total Defence. Employers, workers, parents and other family members are also doing their part to keep Singapore strong and safe. Let me thank them for their support and contributions.

Today, a new batch of Singaporean sons continues the NS duty of another generation. Sons follow the footsteps of their fathers to shoulder that responsibility to defend Singapore. In this NS50 year, let us all commit ourselves anew to protect our independence, our families and our way of life in our beloved Singapore. If we can maintain the same commitment to build a strong defence for another generation, then Singapore's future remains bright.

Thank you very much.