When Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen announced earlier this week that the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) will be redesigning its Medical Classification System and Physical Employment Standards (PES), there was a collective groan from the thousands of NSFs and NSmen who thrive on doing less than they can.
The PES system
For those who aren't familiar with the PES system: Currently, soldiers have a PES status from PES A to PES E. Broadly speaking, PES A and B are suitable for combat fit roles PES C through E are non-combat fit, and are generally assigned to combat support vocations (like drivers) or service vocations (like clerks).
It goes without saying that the lower PES status are generally seen as more lepak (relaxed), if you will.
Now, it seems, that after so many years, the binary classification of Combat-Fit and Non-Combat-Fit — itself a stalwart of the Singapore Armed Forces' rich history — is at risk of becoming irrelevant.
The SAF wants to move away from that because newer combat vocations in response to the evolving threat environment — like cyber specialists — don't actually require "combat-fit" soldiers — at least not in the way we current think of combat-fit soldiers.
"The old binary classification of Combat-Fit or Non-Combat-Fit makes little sense when applied to roles such as unmanned vessel operators," said Ng.
And indeed so.
Who's to say that an PES E Excuse-Uniform, Excuse-Live Firing type cannot jiggle a joystick better than his ultra-fit PES A buddy who bench presses the weight of a medium-sized adult for sport?
Low birth rate = fewer NSFs
A not-insignificant reason for this change is Singapore's low birth rates. Fewer babies = fewer eligible males for National Service, and subsequently, fewer combat-fit guys to take on operational roles.
In 2012, the Defence Minister estimated that the Singapore Armed Forces would still be able to mobilise about 300,000 soldiers in 2040. This includes regulars, Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) and Operationally Ready NS men (ORNS).
The reallocation of manpower is already happening.
As of 2019, NSFs were operating unmanned aerial vehicles in the Navy — a role previously held by regulars. Non combat-fit soldiers have also been manning operation centres at naval bases, which were previously manned by combat-fit counterparts.
What looks likely in the future
We don't know the exact changes that will befall the PES classification but Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How assured that the end result is to (hopefully) have each soldier engaged in a "meaningful operational role" (what is considered "meaningful" anyway?).
What might be concerning about this news, though, is what was left unspoken — that those who have grown accustomed to 2-hour tea breaks and air-conditioned offices might one day find themselves tasked with — gasp — combat work.
But as every dude who has passed through the hallowed gates of the SAF Ferry Terminal knows, when a chao keng warrior has a will, the chao keng warrior has a way.
The way of chao keng
All of us have heard tales of chao keng (which means malingering) warriors before, regaled by their tenacity and resilience in doing the bare minimum (or absolutely nothing at all).
But the truth is: Everyone is a chao keng warrior at heart.
Be it the dude who sneaks in a bit of a nap when no one's looking or the baller who takes a one-week MC for wisdom teeth extraction even though his chompers are in mint condition: There's a chao keng warrior in every soldier just waiting to burst out of that well-pressed Number 4.
As an soldier stranded on Tekong, I heard of an NSF who rubbed toothpaste in his eyes just so that he could get out of the morning 5BX. He definitely saved himself from the morning exercise. Can't say the same for his sight.
A colleague's chao keng warrior cousin managed to get himself a psychiatric MC after he claimed he had "PTSD" from finding a dead cat in his tank.
Then there are the Excuse Kings. From the more mundane "Excuse Pushups" and 'Excuse Running and Jumping" to the more far out "Excuse Sunlight", "Excuse Cleaning Toilet" and this stunner — "Excuse Sergeant Major".
As someone who managed to down-PES from PES B to PES C and clinched both "Excuse Grass" and "Excuse Dust" — due to legitimate allergies, I always add hastily — I've had my fair share of people smirking "Chao keng lah!" to my face.
Look who's laughing now, I always smirked in return when they dashed off to fall in, while I returned to my clerk duties in the comfort of my air-conditioned office.
The way of chao keng continues even after ORD.
There are the reservist chao keng warriors who always seem to encounter a family emergency/important work meeting/car breakdown right at the moment they have to return to camp.
And then, this ironic twist of fate, when a colleague remarked: "Wah, I hope they call me back for reservist soon sia. I seriously need a break."
This is the reality: The chao keng warrior has existed since time immemorial and will continue to be around for a long time, with or without a PES revamp.
The PES grading system may change; the office may become an operation centire, but the chao keng warrior will evolve with the times.
Who knows — perhaps we might see, in the not too distant future, "Excuse Drone".
Top image adapted from BMTC/Facebook.