Monday, June 17, 2013

Should Women Serve National Service (NS) in Singapore?

Before I delve into this potentially controversial topic, let me emphasise the usual disclaimer up front. These are my opinions only and do not represent the views of MINDEF/SAF. As a regular Army officer, I think my wider experience in the Army provides me a perspective that someone who only serves NS does not have - but neither do I know everything. My aim in writing this is to provide factual clarifications to common misconceptions, deepen the debate, highlight certain constraints and open up new possibilities.

A writer for Men's Health argues that women should do NS

I also owe guanyinmiao a more detailed reply after the comment I left on his blog, but this is much too deep a topic to be addressed in a single comment. So here goes ...

Question 1: Why should women serve NS?

Most of the recent discussions have centred on whether women should serve NS, and we should first ask why we want them to serve. It is not difficult to identify the main underlying reasons most people seem to agree on. The first is that the men suffer, therefore to be fair, the women should suffer too. The second is a variation on the first, although not so vindictive: so the women will be more understanding of what the men go through. A third newer reason is that women are patriotic too and should be given the choice to serve NS. This is somewhat similar to a trend in other countries, where women are taking on more roles in the military for gender equality.

The latest suggestion is to let women decide whether to serve NS (Photo Credit: The Straits Times via guanyinmiao)

To address the first point of equal suffering, the crux of the issue is really why we conscript the men and not the women? I think it boils down to how many people we need in the SAF, because taking women out of the workforce as well would double the drain on the economy, and the training and deployment of twice the number of NSmen would greatly increase defence expenditure. For example, we would need at least one more BMTC, more camps, more equipment, more trainers and more training space; possibly reclaim another Pulau Tekong? It is not impossible, but is that what we really want to do with our national resources?

On the second point for better understanding, I do agree women should be given a better understanding of what the men go through, but again I don't think an extreme measure like conscripting them is the best way to use national resources. Movies like Ah Boys to Men are a great way to get a conversation going, and perhaps we could encourage more NSF to talk openly about their experiences, both good and bad. I have often seen comments on the SAF Confessions that it has opened up a woman's eyes to NS. I feel the key to solving this is communication and not conscription.

Third, I think it is a joke to suggest that women should be given a choice. NS is not Outward Bound school, and the men don't get a choice. If a woman feels patriotic and wants to get a taste of SAF life, she can sign on. When I was an NSF more than 10 years ago, I had an ex-classmate who signed on and she went through BMT and OCS alongside us. But eventually, she decided the life was not for her and pulled out midway through OCS. To offer the choice to serve NS to any woman looking for ways to kill time before university would be a severe drain on the SAF's resources - resources which should be dedicated to strengthening the defence of the nation. It is wonderful that today many women are looking for ways to contribute, and this should definitely be encouraged. But we shouldn't confuse it with NS.

Women who want to experience Army life can always sign on! (Photo Credit: Army Recruitment Centre)
Find out more about what women do in the SAF from Flickr.

Question 2: Can women serve NS?

This is not a question of legality, because in the first place the Enlistment Act oes not distinguish between genders. Rather the question here is whether women are physically able to serve NS? Do they make good soldiers? Is there a difference between male and female?

In my years in the SAF, I have worked with some excellent female regulars. In fact, I would say that on average, the women in the SAF are more patriotic, more intelligent and more capable than the men. They have no lack of courage or determination and have excellent work ethic. There are many roles in which these women can perform as well if not better than the men. And women have shown they can excel even in traditionally male roles, such as that of Regimental Sergeant Major. However, there are some key differences, and this boils down to physiology and psychology.

MWO Jennifer Tan has served as a Brigade Sergeant Major and NDP Sergeant Major (Photo Credit: AsiaOne)
"She is someone I respect a lot and consider a privilege to have served under." - Derick W J Tan

I had my first close encounter with women in the military when I was training in the US. As the sole Singapore trainee, I always tried to represent the country with pride, including for fitness. By the end of the course, I was in the top 10%, and I will never forget one particularly difficult test for which I had to run 2 miles (3.2 km) in less than 12 minutes. And I will also never forget that one of the few people in front of me was a woman. The other incident I remember was not a personal one; it was the news coverage and public response to the capture of Jessica Lynch (more on that below).

The U.S. DoD’s recent Jan 2013 decision to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule has re-ignited the debate on what roles women are physically capable of in the armed forces. Because women already serve in most parts of the US military, most of the discussion has been about how well women will perform ground combat roles, in particular in the Marines/Infantry. At the moment, the approach that the military is taking is that women will not be excluded from any role based on gender – but they would be subjected to the same physical standards as the men. And as a result, women are still effectively excluded (e.g. they must do 3 chin ups to join the Marines, same as the men, and no woman has passed the officer course), although there is currently a review underway to ensure that these standards are accurate proxies for operational requirements and not artificial barriers. In summary, the findings so far suggest that the majority of females cannot meet the physical demands of Infantry/Guards/Armour-type combat, which is the core of what our NSmen do. This is pretty much what I would say from my own experience as well.

There will always be a few women of exceptional physical strength, but these are exceptional (Photo Credit: MilitaryTimes blog)

There is also a psychological dimension to this which is less discussed and has been losing ground. In the words of US Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, “men have emotions when you see a woman in harm's way”. The concern is that the protective instincts that men feel for women might compromise their mission if their female comrades become casualties. Apparently, it is more difficult to leave an injured comrade behind to complete the mission, if that comrade is female. It is not just the men directly around the female casualty, but even the public reacts differently, as evidenced by the case of Jessica Lynch, who was captured in Iraq in 2003 and eventually rescued in a special forces raid. I don’t think any male private ever warranted that in recent times. However, as this Foreign Policy article discusses, the number of armed forces that put women in harm’s way is on the increase, as women take on a variety of roles closer to the front line (the definition of "front line" is also becoming increasingly blurred). Hence it would appear that the psychological objection is now of less concern around the world than the physiological one. And anyway, it's not really the fault of the women what the men think.

Severely injured while in a maintenance convoy, PFC Jessica Lynch was captured and later rescued in Iraq in 2003 (Photo Credit: Wikipedia – “Jessica Lynch”)

Question 3: Israel does it, why not Singapore?

Israel is the only country that practices universal conscription for women. So perhaps the question should really be why does this country conscript its women, when no one else does it? It seems rather counter-intuitive to say that we should conscript women because this other country does it, ignoring the others that do not.

The prominent Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has studied the IDF’s conscription of women across history, and found that even in Israel they traditionally played a very limited role. In his article “Armed But Not Dangerous – Women in the Israeli Military” (War in History, 2000), he traces the role of women across history and explains in the abstract that:

Over the years, the fact that Israel has been the only country in history to conscript women for military service has given rise to many myths. This article will separate those myths from the facts. The facts are as follows. During pre-state days, women formed about 15% of the armed movements that opposed the British. When the War of Independence broke out, however, women were taken out of combat units. They were never allowed to return; instead, as in other armed forces, they filled ‘traditional’ slots. The expansion of women’s role in the military, which took place during the late 1970s, was the result of the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) desperate quest for manpower. This expansion of women’s roles coincided with the incipient decline of the Israeli Army as a fighting force. As first the Lebanese adventure and then the need to put down the Palestinian Intifada accelerated that decline during the eighties, more women entered the IDF; the more women entered the IDF, the more its prestige declined. Thus, in the IDF as in the armed forces of all other developed countries, the entry of women into the military, far from representing a feminist triumph, is both cause and symptom of the decline of the military.
"Publicized by pictures of busty girls with submachine-guns at the ready, the Israeli experience with women in the military is often misunderstood." – Martin van Creveld (Photo Credit: IDF Blog)

If we want to learn from Israel's experience, the first question is whether we are facing the same "desperate quest for manpower" that the IDF was. And the second question is whether there is merit to the assertions that it led to a decline in the IDF, and whether we would face a similar outcome. One clear pitfall that needs to be carefully managed is the heightened risk of sexist and sex-abuse cases that many other established armed forces with women are facing.

Question 4: What should women do in NS?

So if we made all women serve NS, what would they do? I don’t have an answer to this one. If you agree that they are not suited to ground combat roles, then what would they do? We already have more than enough clerks. Some people raise suggestions of social or medical work, but is there really a national need in these areas or are we just trying to find something to fill their time so we can conscript them? And would they be contributing meaningfully towards strengthening the defence of Singapore?

This goes back to my first question. For all those calling for women to serve NS, what do you think they should do? And please keep in mind that there are costs to the woman, the taxpayer and the economy in doing this. As a country, we’ve paid this price with our men to secure our defence, what more do we gain by doubling down with the women?

Women already "serve" NS

Personally, I like to think that women already "serve" NS. They are alongside many of our NSmen during many parts of the journey.
They are the girlfriends that have to bear with separation during the week, and the boyfriend who falls asleep during the rare phone calls - or even face to face. 
They are the wives who have to manage the household when their husbands are on ICT. This could include caring for sick babies from morning to night, or ferrying children to school and back by public transport. On top of their own work and responsibilities.
And they are the mothers who turn their sons over to the SAF, who cannot help but worry if they will be safe for the next 2 years.
Without the support of women in fulfilling their corresponding roles, the men will be unable to perform their NS roles effectively.

Even for women, serving National Service is not just getting a check in the box. Just like for the men, you can serve with distinction or you can do the bare minimum and make everyone around you miserable with constant complaints. I hope more Singaporean women will choose to play their roles with distinction – understand what the men go through and make an effort to support them. And men, rather than trying to find new ways for women to serve, perhaps we should appreciate them for the ways they already support us?

What options do we have?

While I think the status quo is still the best policy for now, what are some of the options we can consider, and what are some of the implications of each? I've already pointed out that the universal conscription of women will require tremendous resources in money, manpower and infrastructure. I think this blog post is long enough already, but I will take suggestions of other possible options and if there is enough interest, I will continue this in another post. In particular, if you are a woman, I would be very interested to know what type of NS you would “volunteer” for.

You can also read my previous posts on NS.