Wednesday, February 27, 2013

NS 2065: NS By Invitation Only

In the light of all the recent attention on the population white paper and how it has become linked to National Service (NS), I thought it might be interesting to share a little story I wrote. Some years back when I was contemplating the twin trends of a falling civilian population and the decline of conscription around the world, I tried to envision what Singapore could do to maintain a defence force in the future. I was also inspired by this essay by Ho Kwong Ping.

To my amazement, the fun little fictional piece I wrote won the COA Essay Competition, probably the only time a short story has won over all the other academic essays submitted. It's probably also the first entry to start life as a Facebook note.

This is a vision of the future, and I ask the reader to contemplate whether we can get there, and how? Ultimately, how can we continue to ensure the security and sovereignty of this little island, in a way that is fair and desirable to those serving to defend it?

XiaoMing Jones could barely contain his excitement at the flashing green man in the corner of the frame. His Oakleys immediately detected the movement of his pupils and the incoming message filled his lens. He had been selected for Military NS!

Within minutes, he was exchanging status updates with friends. Some would be spending the rest of the year in government ministries; some had opted to do social work. Still others would be joining Singapore Volunteers Overseas, helping to project Singapore’s soft power in the mini-Singapores around the world. But only a select few had been invited to serve an extended three years in the SAF. In the year 2065, national service with the SAF is strictly by invitation only. For the lucky few, the skills learned and networks built during these three years were a head start to future success, and would open the doors to practically any university and employer they desired. Even his non-Singaporean friends around the world were full of congratulations – they knew what a privilege it was to be invited to enlist.

But NS had not always been this way. Wai Gong (Grandpa) often spoke of the time, 50 years ago, when Singapore citizens first fell below 50% of the population. There was much discussion about how citizens were giving others a free ride at great personal expense, how it was unnecessary and impractical to have such a large standing Army, and how technology should be used to substitute for manpower in many roles. In response, the government had decided to change its policy of universal conscription to selective conscription. A 75% reduction in headcount had allowed NS salaries to be tripled, while still reducing manpower costs, and was hailed as a win-win for both conscripts and taxpayers. The SAF began positioning itself as a first employer, offering soldiers meaningful opportunities for personal development and work experience with a decent salary. Immediately the number of Permanent Residents taking up citizenship shot up, and increasing numbers of citizens volunteered for NS even if they were not conscripted. For some, it offered a good wage to meet their financial needs and for the more patriotic, it allowed them to fulfil their desire to serve the nation, without too much disadvantage vis-à-vis their peers in future careers.

These changes were also in keeping with global trends around the world, as many other countries were rethinking and reducing conscription, or introducing alternative forms of national service. There were even talks of increasing the size of the regular corps and shortening the NS duration further to a year. And after a while, there was a constant clamour for further increases in wages.

But everything changed with the war of 2021, also known as the Work-Week War. A regional aggressor, jealous of Singapore’s success, had begun sabre-rattling as our new Prime Minister and his cabinet took over office. Over a fateful weekend, Singapore’s entire male population aged 30 and above and 25% of those in their 20’s were mobilised. On Monday morning at 0800, the first planes entered hostile airspace and by Tuesday, land forces had made massed all along the borders. The aggressor’s massive military machine was caught off-balance, and was unable to keep up with the SAF’s IKC2-enabled war-fighters that swept across its territory, occupying key nodes and outflanking or bypassing the strongest defences. After some isolated skirmishes, the SAF scored a definitive swift and decisive victory with little bloodshed. Negotiations were begun, diplomatic and economic concessions were imposed, the aggressor promised never to do it again, and the men were home by the weekend.

Not one enemy soldier intruded into our soil, yet overnight Singapore changed. The emergence and quick disposal of a real military threat awakened an outpouring of nationalistic fervour, as Singaporeans around the world rediscovered a sense of national identity and pride. The soldiers returned as heroes and the videos on the Nets still sing of that great victory today. SAF was no longer the "best Armed Force in the world that had never fought a war"; it had finally cut its teeth. Suddenly young men and women did not wait to be conscripted, they were volunteering to join the military and do their part to secure the future security of the nation.

We are just getting to Wai Gong's favourite part of the story. In 2022, he was a research fellow at the Robotics Institute in Carnegie Mellon University. Like many of his colleagues, he was contemplating a move to Tsinghua, where “all the fun was happening”. Then he received a job offer he could not refuse: the Army wanted to recruit him as a Military Domain Expert. He immediately packed his bags and headed home.

The SAF’s problem was that while they now had no lack of volunteers, everybody wanted to be planners and strategists. The young men and women felt they had a greater capacity to contribute than just crawling around in the mud. They wanted to exert an influence on the battle that went beyond two range sticks and an arc of fire. This was understandable given that almost all citizens were now degree holders, and even foreign talents came in with at least post-secondary education. It was understandable, but it was not practical to fight the next war, because someone still had to hold the ground.

Wai Gong joined and eventually led the team that was developing the world’s first autonomous anti-personnel micro-UAV. Nicknamed the SWARM, each inexpensive UAV was no larger than a dragonfly, and capable of securing wide swaths of terrain by incapacitating any enemy personnel within. SWARM came in surveillance, communications and the most common stinger configuration, which employed a non-lethal nerve agent developed by famed Singaporean scientist Nguyen Tan in the Biopolis (Halong Bay). By combining cells from the Rafflesia flower with a potent extract from expired SAF combat rations dating back to the 1990’s, Nguyen developed a non-lethal nerve agent called Crie Palin that caused muscular paralysis of the entire body for 12-24 hours. SWARM allowed the targeted delivery of this nerve agent to strike enemy combatants, thus avoiding the complications of civilian casualties.

Combat rations could incapacitate you ... who knew?

Wai Gong's invention effectively made the infantryman obsolete, and greatly reduced the need for a long logistics tail. It had been hailed as the start of a minor revolution in military affairs because it fundamentally changed the way war was fought. Many other countries had sought to acquire these technologies because of the wide-ranging applications for both conventional war and low-intensity conflict. In fact, Nguyen had been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize because of the immense potential of Crie Palin to reduce the lethality of warfare. This had also made ST (Entobotics) one of the largest defence contractors in the world.

CIA's Insectothopter (2011)

For Singapore, this had allowed another fundamental change to national service, by removing the need for boots on the ground. NS was now by invitation only, because the complexity of the modern battlefield could only be handled by the sharpest minds, and the depth of expertise required entailed three full years of training, compared with other forms of NS that only lasted a year. Both male and female were equally represented because while men had a greater affinity for warfare, women had some mysterious ability to multi-task better. And they were no less patriotic. Many of these men and women eventually chose to join the SAF for a full career, but others would leave to become leaders in the public sector, or MNCs and NGOs around the world.

XiaoMing ended his reminiscing and began to contemplate the future. He had always dreamed of being a Ranger, like his father before him. But even the Special Forces had evolved dramatically. If he made it past the gruelling physical training, he would still need to pass the aptitude test for the SAF-NTU programme in Electromagnetic and Molecular Warfare. The days of waving machetes in the jungle were long gone, and he would need special skills to circumvent the plethora of sensors, shooters and shields behind enemy lines in both urban and vegetated terrain.

Given his slight physical frame and good grades, it was more likely that XiaoMing would join the more mainstream cyberwarriors. He smiled to himself at the prospect of being issues a pair of cutting-edge Panda Eyes; finally he could put his antique Oakleys away. Panda Eyes went far beyond visualisation into the 3D realm. And with the Panda Claw (militarised version of the popular Panda Paw game controllers), his hand movements could be digitised in high resolution as they interacted with the magnetic field around him. This allowed NSmen to perform almost any function remotely, from playing their role in the command post, to overriding the controls of any of the unmanned vehicles or platforms throughout the battlespace.

Google Glass (2012)

The cyberwarrior concept had originally evolved in the 40's, as a solution to distributing the command post to make it less vulnerable to physical attack. But when Wai Gong's colleague invented the Synapse, which eliminated transmission lag and enabled instantaneous end-to-end communication, the true potential of cyberwarriors was unleashed. Like many of the world's great inventions, this was an answer to one of SAF's evolving challenges. With almost 70% of the population living around the world, and less than 10% of knowledge workers working from any fixed country, the archaic concept of In-Camp-Training (ICT) had been replaced by Anywhere Training (AWT). All NSmen now carried a keychain that encapsulated SAF's terabit encryption as well as whatever VR modules the cyberwarrior needed to effectively execute his role. It connected seamlessly to the Panda Claw through the wireless personal area network (PAN). 

When the green men flashed, most of them would be operationally ready within 30 minute, tapping on to the ubiquitous Nets for a secured link back to the Cloud, without undue disruption to their lives. Most NSmen would be analysts and planners, each playing an essential role in the distributed decision process. It had long been recognised that computers were incapable of handling the complexity of the fog of war, unknown unknowns and n-space problems. Even ten year old children with the right training now routinely beat the best computers at Weiqi, the traditional Chinese strategy game. Hence the SAF now tapped on its global pool of brilliant minds to derive dynamic strategies in parallel.

The hoverbus came to a smooth stop and it was time to get off. Two friends were already sitting inside KFC, and beckoned him to hurry. They couldn’t wait to shake his hand and congratulate him in person. Like his father and grandfather before him, XiaoMing Jones was a big fan of KFC. The simple pleasures in life never change.

This is not an essay about how technology changes NS. It is about how the world is changing, how NS will be forced to change and in some cases, how technology can help. It may seem far-fetched; but 2065 is still very far away. Dare you say any of this is impossible?

Beyond the technology, perhaps the first question to ask in the current context is whether it is possible to have an NS system that is voluntary? (Especially if there is no war.) Could we build a system in which the recruits choose to join, not only because they want to protect their country, but also because they value the developmental opportunities, and of course with decent remuneration?

What would it take to make you volunteer to serve your country?

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views of any other person or organisation.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Happy - Movie

Happy is a 2012 movie about - what else - the things that make us happy.

It combines interviews with real-life happy (and a few sad) people, together with cutting-edge research from psychology and neuroscience, to teach us how our own happiness is very much under our own control.

I highly recommend this movie to everyone. It is worth every one of the 72 minutes we spent watching.

So what's the movie about? I will summarise some of the key points made here, but you should watch the full thing and listen to all the interviews to really get the message convincingly. There are many poignant stories, such as the beauty queen who was disfigured after being dragged under a truck, but still managed to rediscover happiness and is now sharing it with others.

Your Happiness is Up To You

The first point that the movie makes is that your happiness is under your own control. Scientific research has found that there are a few key factors that determine our happiness. Genetics makes up 50% of this. Our immediate circumstance - standard of living, work, etc - only makes up 10%! The remaining 40% comes from Intentional Activity - regular actions you can choose to do, to make yourself happier. In particular, we should vary the routine of life, rather than just adapting out our surroundings.

What Makes Us Happy?

Money does not make us happy. Beyond meeting a certain basic level of human needs, more money does not buy us more happiness. Another point the movie makes more implicitly is that the happiness we derive from economic success tends to be relative - it all depends on who you compare yourself to.

One thing that does make us happy is physical activity, especially fun things like sports. Biologically, this is because it encourages the production of dopamine, which makes us happy. And like a muscle, the use it or lose it principle applies here.

There are three extrinsic goals: Money, Image, Status. These are goals which derive happiness from seeking the approval of others.

There are also three intrinsic goals - Personal Growth, Close Relationships, and Community Feeling (making the world a better place). Intrinsic goals are inherently satisfying of themselves because they have to do with intrinsic psychological needs that all people have.

Research found that people more oriented towards extrinsic goals are less happy than those meeting intrinsic goals.

The largest part of the movie is devoted to exploring these themes, of how we can better orient our lives around meeting intrinsic goals, and making ourselves happier in the process. Spend more time with friends and family, pick up a new skill, do something meaningful ... spend less time in the rat race!

The Role of Governments

Governments also play an important role in setting the foundation for the happiness of their people.

The movie first looks at Japan, one of the least happy nations in the world, where the single-minded focus on economic development in the post-war years bred a toxic culture where work is placed on a pedestal above all else. The Japanese spend all their time at work, and as a result, family life suffered. The workers suffer too; they have a special word specifically for people who die from overwork: Karōshi.

In contrast, Bhutan since the 1970s has pursued a policy of Gross National Happiness. It is difficult to quantify the success of this, but qualitatively it does appear that the people there have become very happy.

Denmark is often rated as one of the happiest countries in the world, and it stands out from others like Bhutan or Vanuatu because it managed to achieve this despite being developed. One factor the movie focusses on is how their society is organised around communal living, which reinforced the intrinsic importance of close relationships. In contrast, how many of us really know our neighbours?


It's a great movie! Everyone who wants to be happier should watch it, then think about whether you want to continue living your life the same way. Some small changes could go a long way to making you happier.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Population White Paper: Thoughts in a Nutshell

It's difficult to know where to begin a discussion on the recent Population White Paper, because there are so many facets to this policy. So instead, I thought I would share some of the best things I have read, written by friends who are much more thoughtful than I.

The White Paper sure has some great pictures!

Firstly, I think Gaurav Keerthi has framed the issue very nicely.
Population forecasting makes 3 key assumptions: (1) fertility, (2) mortality, and (3) immigration. It is not true that fertilityand mortality are fixed - a government can implement policies that are more family friendly to raise fertility or (in China's case) reduce fertility by restricting families to just one child. Mortality is a factor of medical standards. Immigration is famously controlled by the government. So all 3 factors can be varied, but it is true that immigration is the easiest to control and more responsive lever to pull. 
As economies develop, fertility reduces and mortality reduces. This link is so well-known that it has its own name: "Demographic-Economic Paradox". So as we develop further, it is almost inevitable that we will shrink as a Singaporean core. 
Why does the government have to care about a shrinking population? As we shrink, there will be fewer working age Singaporeans and more elderly to take care of. This will put a big drain on resources (personal as well as government) and is difficult to sustain. Also, our economic growth will reduce and the government may not be able to afford building new hospitals and paying for top-quality doctors because the workforce is smaller (and as a natural result, fewer companies may be here). These are all assumptions, but they have merit and are likely to apply to Singapore too. 
In order to continue having the level of infrastructure and development that we have, the government is eager to ensure that the working population size remains large enough to sustain corporate activity. 
However, there are many who feel that the societal costs of this may outweigh the economic benefits. It is difficult to quantify the "societal" costs, hence the debate tends to be had on emotive terms by most people. Nevertheless, there is merit and the concept of "externalities" is worth researching further to understand this. 
There is unlikely to be a right economic answer in this debate. However, many are arguing about what process should be used to derive the answer, as well as the answer (and the assumptions about fertility/mortality/immigration) itself.
It is noteworthy that the NTPD has greatly simplified all these factors for us in putting out their current proposal. The question perhaps is whether they have oversimplified it.

Secondly, I agree with Yawning Bread that the white paper appears prematurely fixated on maintaining growth of 2-3%. I am disappointed because I thought it was a very refreshing approach to help Singaporeans understand the tradeoffs of the choices we make using the approach of alternative futures (i.e. the IPS Prism Scenarios).

There is also the ongoing Singapore Conversation. But before we finish conversing, there is already a proposal on the table. In parallel to this, "NPTD embarked on a year-long public engagement effort to gather the views and suggestions of Singaporeans"In fact, the summary of feedback they received seems to indicate that GDP growth is low on most peoples' priorities. (Of the feedback themes, "Economy and Workforce" only comprises 12% and even within this, there is no mention of GDP in the summary.) Again, are we jumping the gun by putting this upfront as a key consideration?

If we are trying to maintain "a strong Singaporean core", shouldn't this be about having more Singaporeans by birth rather than new citizens? Perhaps we should also consider policies allowing more parents to become fulltime caregivers, to promote an increase in birthrates rather than rely on immigration. Many parents decide not to have kids because they cannot balance work and family, or because they do not want to outsource them. This would come at the expense of our GDP of course, and this is one of the alternative scenarios we should consider. Today, most almost all the policies are centred around helping dual income couples manage childcare options for their children. For example, instead of just child-sick leave, why not have spouse-sick leave? Why not promote flexible work options for stay-at-home mums? Can the government provide a maternity leave-equivalent for such mothers?

In the words of The Economist, "the government now has to show not only that it can run Singapore’s economy but also that it can answer the question: what and whom is its success for?"

I should also add that I do not endorse everything Yawning Bread has written. In particular, his suggestion of draconian tax policies which seems designed to open a future debate on whether singles should be allowed to have children. "Marriage should not be a pre-condition. Married or single, everybody has to raise 1.5 children." A separate LGBT agenda perhaps?

So what is wrong with being focused on GDP?

Lastly, here is a thought- provoking quote form Soon Sze Meng, amended from a 1968 speech by Robert Kennedy. It is good to reflect on the GDP as a useful national goal at all.
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross domestic product ... if we should judge Singapore by that - counts increasing expensive housing and cars, and more air conditioning to cool our shopping malls. It counts tuition for our children and the counseling services to comfort them. It counts the destruction of our mangrove swamps and the loss of our heritage buildings due to more high rise. It counts bankruptcy filing cost for those who lost everything in the casinos, and funeral services for those who lost their lives in senseless accidents. It counts Rolex watches and Prada bags, and the advertisements which promotes material wealth in order to sell more branded goods to us.

"Yet the gross domestic product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the ties of our extended family and the strength of our friendships; the belief that all have equal opportunity to succeed or the integrity of our leaders. It measures neither our work ethics nor our respect for all races and religions; neither our shared grief nor our shared happiness; neither our compassion for the poor and disabled nor our devotion to national service; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about Singapore except why we are proud that we are Singaporeans ."
There has been a lot of outcry and debate over this population paper. I hope it helps us come together, rather than dividing us. It would be useful, I think, to clearly paint the picture of a Singapore without continued GDP growth to see if we can stomach it.

BMT Memories

Finally watched Ah Boys to Men on DVD and it brought back a flood of memories from my own BMT. I enlisted on 19 Jan 1999, so this is almost exactly 13 years to the day I first booked out from BMT confinement, as depicted in the movie. The first days transitioning from a civilian to a soldier were strange and exciting. I also learned a lot about the Army, and myself in a few short weeks.

It's interesting what sticks in your memory after thirteen years

  • I don't really remember my parents dropping me off at Nee Soon Camp. No such thing as spending the day touring the resort facilities back then. I guess it was over in a flash.
  • I remember the first time I met my section mates. I was disappointed that there were no Hokkien pengs. I thought I would meet Singaporeans from all walks of life and learn Hokkien. The closest thing to a Hokkien peng was the guy from JJC, or so I thought. Later I discovered that the biggest ah beng was certainly one of the guys from RJC.
  • I remember waiting for my turn to shave off all my hair. I was reading Lianhe Zaobao with my JJC and RJC ah beng friends. We took turns reading at laughing at each other's Mandarin.
  • I remember that after we shaved our heads, everyone looked the same. I had just made all these new friends and suddenly I couldn't tell them apart.
  • I remember the first time we booked out on a Saturday morning, we all headed to a hawker centre in Ang Mo Kio and had a great lunch together. My section mates were all great guys. No siao on people or wayang kings like in the movie. Most of us wanted to go to OCS if we could, but more than that we wanted to get along and find friends in an alien environment.
  • I remember watching the sky for dark clouds and praying that we wouldn't have to do SOC.
  • I remember how much trepidation I had every time I wanted to report sick, for fear of being accused of being chao keng. When I finally saw the doctor, my fever so high I was sent home. (At least not the hospital.) We were all quite terrified of the medical officers.
  • I remember Bean did not report sick a single time during BMT. Unlike me - I was a sickly recruit.
  • I remember one evening when Two Princes was on the radio and Joel started singing along. Then the power tripped and the radio went out, but he kept on going. Some time later, the power came back on and the radio resumed - he was still right on key and in tune. Amazing.
  • I remember there is no better feeling than a shoulder massage from your buddy after a full day in the field.
  • I remember moving our entire company from Nee Soon to Pulau Tekong - we had the privilege of making that historic move. And the first welcome sight of King Koil mattresses and fitted sheets.
  • I remember almost collapsing during the passing out parade - because I fell asleep. And getting suaned by my platoon sergeant.
Hanging out with my mates after a hard week in camp

I will never forget one of the most valuable lessons about myself, about the power of the mind.

One afternoon while doing a field exercise, I was running in the tall grass doing a flanking manoeuvre when I stepped into a hole. I heard a crack as I fell to the ground and pain shot up my leg. So I was carried to the rover and sent to the medical centre where the MO examined my ankle and pronounced me unfit for duties for two days. Two days later, I still could not put weight on the foot and I saw the MO again. This time it was a kindly NSman who gave me two weeks. After two weeks, I could limp around. I managed to complete BMT (of which the scariest part was jumping off the SOC ramp and only daring to land on one leg instead of two). I went to OCS. 
Three years later, I injured the same ankle in a snowboarding accident at the top of White Face. It was quite fun, being stretchered all the way down a double black. The doctor who X-rayed my ankle pronounced it fractured - and then he asked me when was the last time I fractured it because he could see where the bone had repaired itself. 
It amazed me then how much pain I had put up with when I could very easily and legitimately gotten myself downgraded to spend my NSF time as a clerk. And I would have done it too, if I had known. (That ankle had continually been getting twisted and sprained ever since the accident.) But ignorance is bliss, and the mind is a powerful machine. Since I didn't think I had any excuse to quit, I pushed on all the way. And since then, I have always thought twice about the temptation to quit any endeavour, because it seems too difficult.
Lastly, I did BMT long before Facebook came about. So if any of my former mates see this ... please get back in touch!