S’porean women would be serving NS today if LKY got his way in the mid-1960s
Things might have turned out very differently.
*Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the updated call up of male youths for NS in 1967.
Singapore marked 50 years of National Service (NS) this year, and much has been done to commemorate how far NS has come over the past months.
Since 1967, serving NS has been a key milestone in every male Singaporean’s life, as he embarks on what has become a rite of passage into adulthood.
Much has been publicised this year regarding how the National Service (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament in 1967, which made NS compulsory for all 18-year-old male Singapore citizens and permanent residents.
It is also well-noted how some 9,000 male youths became the first batch to be called up for NS 50 years ago.
But did you know that the original plan was to build up a regular army first?
In the The Singapore Story, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said that Goh Keng Swee had initially proposed to build up a regular army of 12 battalions, but LKY disagreed with the approach:
“Keng Swee’s original plan was to build up a regular army of 12 battlions between 1966 and 1969. Disagreeing with this plan, I proposed a small standing army plus the capacity to mobilise the whole civilian population who should be trained and put into reserves. Keng Swee argued that we had first to train a good number of regular and non-commissioned officers in his 12 battalions before we could train civilians on such a large scale.”
But LKY saw beyond Goh’s approach though, as he saw how NS could shape people’s minds towards patriotism and defence.
“I did not want money spent on the recurrent costs of a large army: it was better spent on the infrastructure we needed to raise and train national service battalions. National service would bring political and social benefits. Keng Swee took the professional military view that an immediate threat from Malaysia had to be countered by a solid regular fighting force raised in the next three years. I said the Malaysians were unlikely to attack us while British and Commonwealth forces were in Singapore. Their presence would be a deterrent even without a defence treaty. I wanted the defence plan to aim at mobilising as large a part of the population as possible, in order to galvanise the people in their own defence while they had this strong feeling of patriotism as a result of their recent experiences.”
Women for NS?
Since its implementation in 1967, NS has always been exclusively for males only.
But the idea of women serving NS had been raised before in the early days when NS in itself was just an idea yet to be implemented.
And it was LKY who wanted women to serve, as he recorded it in his memoirs:
“I was keen to have our women do national service as Israeli women did, because that would reinforce the people’s will to defend themselves. But Keng Swee did not want his new ministry to carry this extra burden. As the other ministers in Defco (Defence Council) were also not anxious to draft our women, I did not press my point.”
Nevertheless, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in 2013 that the SAF would not draft women for NS, but opportunities for them to volunteer would be expanded.
NS50 might have been celebrated very differently this year, had LKY pushed on with his idea.
Top image from Cyber Pioneer.