Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The late Dr. Goh Keng Swee and I (part 2) - National Service

This post, as with the previous one, may seem unabashedly about me and not the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee. Quite unintended, really.

I don't know Dr. Goh Keng Swee personally. Yet much of what he was directly involved had a direct influence in my development as a Singaporean.

This post is about one other great foundation that Dr. Goh laid down for generations of Singaporeans -- National Service (NS).

I do not entertain any romantic notions about military service.

No way would I want to repeat my two-and-a-half years full-time stint and the subsequent 13-year 'reservist' cycle of NS, in the Army.

And yet I truly and deeply believe I would be a lesser person if not for NS.

"National service imposes not only a great sacrifice of time and money on the young men called up. It is also unpleasant as military training aims to push the soldier to the limits of human endurance. Yet in every election since national service was introduced, its abolition has never been an election issue.

...The average Singapore citizen knows the dangers that he faces are real and not hypothetical. A kind of folk wisdom has grown on the need to defend ourselves.

... Having said this, while we must prepare for war to keep the peace, we must not get paranoid about this. The worst policy is to arm ourselves to the point where our neighbours misread our intentions. We are not Israel and South-east Asia is not the Middle East."
- Dr. Goh Keng Swee. Sept 25, 1984 (as cited in The Straits Times, May 18, 2010).

I feel war is a great economic and social waste. But I also accept that defence spending, for deterrence, is a human necessity.

At a personal level, there's a confidence that comes from knowing how to handle a basic infantry assault rifle. At the societal level, NS is a modern-day rite of passage.

But what NS really gave me was an education that formal schooling could never impart.

In the army, I experienced first hand that street savvy-ness, human decency and intellect has no direct correlation to education and economic backgrounds.

In the confines of army rules and regulations, between the whims of sargents and officers, I got to know -- and learned how to live with -- people whom I would never have been exposed to in my civilian life.

In civilian life, you can choose your friends or acquaintances. Or, you could avoid them. In the army, you have a lot less say in who you're assigned to work with.

Some of the people I met were real rough in language and behaviour. Now, I'm no prude and I've heard swearing and have been known to swear as well. The difference was that when those other people swore and cursed, they sounded like they meant it. Very intimidating for a person like me, who grew up relatively sheltered from these rough and tumble manners.

And yet once I got to know them, I enjoyed their company. There isn't any secret to it. Treat other people decently, they are likely to show the same to you.

Of course, the rule that "anyone can be an a**" holds true. I don't have misplaced notions that all 'rough and tumble folks' are nice people. Some are just plain mean on their inside as well as outside. As I said, there's no correlation between education and economic background and whether one acts decently or not.

Beyond the basic necessities the army provided, anything else was what I made do with it. The lesson was that I should not leave my own future to "other people".

Before I went into NS, I naively thought that obtaining a diploma was good enough. I didn't think taking up a degree course was necessary.

It was NS that made me realise I had to better myself.

Nearer the end of my full-time stint, I heard some of my peers boast of how they were going overseas to study. They spoke of grand career plans after getting a job with their degree.

I didn't think I was any less capable than them. Yet the stark reality was without equal qualifications, they would likely to be my bosses (also, I'd like to restate that some people would just be a**holes no matter what, heh).

That realisation strengthened my resolve to upgrade myself. I found my way to a degree programme. That degree eventually landed me in librarianship. Would never have become a librarian if I had not started down that path, I guess.

From The Straits Times, Saturday Special Report, May 15, 2010. "Corporal who built an army" by Goh Chin Lian:
What he knew of military affairs then was learnt only as a corporal in the British-led Singapore Volunteer Corps, but he rose to the challenge of building up Singapore's defence, one which people at that time did not think was possible.

He took a decade to accomplish his mission. From August 1965 to August 1967, he headed the Ministry of Interior and Defence which also handled Home Affairs.

His initial plan was to build up a regular army of 12 battalions between 1966 and 1969. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs that as the Prime Minister, he disagreed and proposed a small, standing army with the capacity to mobilise the whole civilian population, who should be trained and put in the reserves.

The revised plan gave the blueprint for today's national service and SAF - mobilising a large part of the population, while keeping regular forces at 12 battalions.

During my Basic Military Training, one of my platoon mate remarked that the army stint was no different from his jail time. He should know what he's talking about. He had been in and out of Juvenile reformatory several times.

What he said was true in many ways, when I think about it. As a conscripted soldier, you could not quit from the Army. Your personal freedoms wasn't exactly curtailed, but there were restrictions whenever you put on that uniform.

Here's where I'll allow a romantic indulgence about NS: one does not really know what is freedom, until one experiences its absence.

It may not have been the primary intent, of the late Dr. Goh, for NS to be a social leveler or to serve as a "school beyond school".

But the way I experienced it, NS was more about defence. It was an education in itself.

Thank you, Sir.

More references:


  1. I believe Spore men of my age group were among the groups most affected by GKS' policies; esp. full time NS.

    I remember too reading about his famous band of system engineers which really shook things up at MOE. It was big news at that time, but we were not directly affected becos by that time we were in the U.

    Nevertheless, we were at an age that did not think very much about such issues. Thus watching that documentary about him proved highly educational and informative to me. I also enjoyed the history part of it; esp. seeing those 'lost images' of NS and Jurong. It immediately brought to my mind the nights when we did our guard duty at the magazine tower of the old Safti With nothing to keep us company but our thoughts, seeing those night lights of Jurong left a lasting impression.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Chun See. As I read the various blog posts and emails from your generation, I'm struck by how different generations view Dr. Goh -- and effects of his policies -- differently.


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