26 May 2013

Two Years Of Our Time

(Maybe I should have started doing this earlier, because most of those who I know care about this have already booked in back at their respective camps...)

Alright. I read that commentary in today's Sunday Times, regarding National Service. Yes, that one talking about ways to help our servicemen feel more appreciated during the mandatory service we have to complete. Somehow I feel obligated to comment on this. It won't be easy, knowing I could step on quite a few toes if I'm careless, and put myself under the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

Then again it seems that MINDEF is becoming more receptive to suggestions and opinions. The topic of NS has – at least to me – popped up in parliamentary sessions and newspaper forums (technically fora but that sounds kinda weird) more frequently in recent times, without invoking any wrath from the powers that be. It's Probably partly due to submitters of STOMP that have the ability to blow up any uniformed personnel's actions to non-proportionate levels, whether said actions are good or bad.

Apart from that hot topic of ensuring soldiers' safety during training, another issue has come up regarding the fact that the newer generation of soldiers are asking for more from their service. And it's no longer merely a problem of the allowance. Not many of us Gen Y/YZ/Z guys like to do things without reason or meaning anymore, myself included. (I really don't like that Gen Whatever label though.)

The newer generations of soldiers who ORD'ed consist of people who tend to toss about words and phrases like "sian", "boring", "brain rot" and "ill-fitting vocational job", to describe their experience across the two years. Of course they'll follow up with "necessary", "deterrent", "protect our peace" and "ensure our vulnerable country's survival": we all recognise that we cannot do away with NS completely.

So what do most of us who get stuck with jobs we really don't like end up doing? Either we plead as much as possible to persuade the relevant authorities to redeploy us into more favourable positions, or when that utterly (and very frequently) fails, we attempt to psyche ourselves into loving our jobs or get involved with as little in the jobs as possible. The psyching solution isn't really super effective unless you've got some unusually positive learning attitude and a high tolerance for all the unlikeable stuff that'll come your way. And when I say reducing your involvement with the jobs, it's not just about physical absence granted by your medical certificates. I know some, perhaps most of us would just shift our focus somewhere else entirely: the looming weekend break ahead even when you're still in Sunday night, or the night classes you attend and actually are interested in participating, or that book you're reading while having breaks.

In the end, we hardly get to do what we really excel in. We are denied from giving back to society through NS the way we want to and the way we'll be much better at.

And this isn't just affecting physically fit people who are denied the technical jobs they may be experts in just because they're physically fit and supposedly put to better use on the field. What makes you think there aren't PES E or C people who're really passionate and want to be involved in military intelligence, but are denied because they have physical ailments like back problems? Or recruits who have a penchant for community projects but instead have to settle for being terrible scouts? Or brilliant musicians and actors who aspire to perform and boost the morales of soldiers, but are "too fit" to join the troupe of artistes? It's silly.

"So what?" I expect to hear from some employees working in their civilian jobs. "This all helps to prepare you for the reality of the big world out here. Don't expect to find yourself in a job that you have a strong passion and skill in when you're back in the civilian world, even with your academic qualifications!"

That's actually becoming more and more untrue here. I feel it's becoming increasingly easier for university graduates to get hired for jobs that are relevant to both their certificates and their interests. Not every top-scoring student always aims for the standard "golden careers" of the doctor, lawyer or businessman for instance. If we don't nail our ideal jobs on the first try, we tend to job-hop anyway to better align our needs of wealth with our interests and specialties, and hardly get stuck in the occupations that we at most have a subpar relationship with... unlike in NS where we'd quite likely be in uninteresting or even hated jobs, but we can't quit from just so. At best we could find a way to shift ourselves to a slightly less dreadful job, or if circumstances are drastic, get ourselves released from NS altogether.

So how do we improve the NS experience? The author rightfully mentioned that it has to go beyond monetary incentives or positive media, instead promoting the idea of finding better job fits with the recruits, even if those jobs don't exist within the SAF. Open up opportunities for volunteer work in other feasible areas, for example in healthcare where recruits may instead serve their national service as volunteer nurses. Maybe let them volunteer as caregivers at old folks' homes. Or as volunteer assistants in government-endorsed community projects. Whatever the options, they are certainly plenty and available outside the scope of the military force. Besides, the options mentioned above are actually more visible to the public, so the servicemen's efforts are more likely to be recognised and appreciated too. That's not to say we completely disregard enlisting people to be soldiers, but military defense is only one aspect of total defense.

Serving as military personnel doesn't have to be the only way for a male Singaporean to appreciate the necessity for vigilance, or understand what we're defending. It's certainly very effective, but not a one-size-fits-all treatment. You can tell from the polarized reactions upon ORD: those who are reluctant to abandon their military lifestyle, and those who're glad to be rid of it and return to their status as citizens.

The need for a more meaningful NS has never been more pressing. Newer generations are increasingly seeking meaning and value in their actions, in part thanks to our education system that encourages more critical thinking. We don't want to be led into doing stuff we would never do willingly if there is hardly any relevant meaning to us. And it's no longer merely pragmatism that rules our heads.

I admit that being the office clerk I am right now already seems like something I should be really comfortable with on the surface, but I hate it. Instead I'm still desperately eyeing for a spot in the MDC, even if that would mean longer travelling times and occasionally having to perform on Saturdays. It's because music is my element. Perhaps after struggling for the next year or so I might eventually be barely okay with handling the office work, but why do I even need to put myself through the struggle? And even after that, would it make me hate the job any less? Maybe a little bit, but probably too insignificant to matter. Why not instead put me in a position that I'll have a much greater chance of excelling in? I'd be serving the rest of my service doing something really meaningful to me, and I'll be able to contribute much more for the SAF, thus establishing a win-win situation.

Heck, it doesn't even need to be stage performance, I can do song arrangement or composition if the situation requires. I can even be a stage hand for all I care, because at least I still get up close with the performers and can learn some useful things from them that are relevant to my interests. It still beats my current situation in my opinion. I'm stuck in the same office for nearly four months and I'm still nowhere near settling down. In fact the situation in the office is getting more hectic, and I'm unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And I'm sure there are a sizable portion of other servicemen who are stuck in similar situations. It's unfortunate that we get stuck hating on NS just because we are misallocated. Throwing money and rewards at us only tries to dull the symptoms, but does absolutely nothing to cure the source.

So basically, more avenues to serve NS both inside and outside SAF + tighter fit between job requirements and interests/talents = more meaningful NS that more of us at least wouldn't mind serving.

End of rant.