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What Life is Really Like for Conscripts Doing National Service in Singapore

I talked with a young Singaporean guy who taught me about the compulsory two years of national service he’s doing.

I was marveling over the fact that the subway train that I was riding in didn’t have a driver, and the guy sitting next to me seemed to have found this amusing. We began talking, he told me his name was Anil. He was 19 years old, thin, trendy-ish, middle class (Who isn’t in Singapore?), was registered as Indian, and said that he was going to work his night job at a cafe. We began talking about travel.

“I can’t go anywhere now because I’m still finishing my national service.”

“What do you mean?”

“All boys in Singapore must do national service. We have to go into the army, the police, or something like that.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m a clerk.”

“Wow, that sounds like it sucks.”

“Yes, it does suck, but there is nothing we can do about it,” he admitted with a wry smile.

“Do girls need to do it?”

“No, they don’t.”

“So they get a two year head start on boys with going to college?”

“Yes,” he replied while shaking his head.

“What do you think about that?”

“That really sucks. It doesn’t make us very happy.”

Though, ultimately, he seemed very subdued to being conscripted. It’s normal here, and every male does it — his father probably did it, his father’s father . . . Singapore as a nation is only 47 years old, and the national service requirement began when the country did as a way to build the military after the British skipped town and independence. So Singaporean men of his generation just accept the fact that they’re going to have to put in two years with the military or the police — or work as a clerk. So it’s not as big of a deal for them as it would have been for me just getting out of high school and being surprised by a draft card.

“So what happens if someone refuses to do their national service?” I asked, thinking of what probably would have happened to me.

“That is not possible, everybody has to do it.”

While his response wasn’t necessarily correct, it was right enough. I found out later that I would have been charged under the Enlistment Act, fined 8,000 bucks, and sent to prison for three years. This really happens. Conscientious objection is meaningless, and Jehovah Witnesses, in particular, are slapped with automatic three year sentences when they come of age. And, no, conscriptees cannot leave the country to escape military service — it will be waiting for them when they return, and if you happen stay out past the age of 40 (the statute of limitations on conscription) there are big penalties.

I then asked Anil about the logistics of this service, and what he told me was a little surprising.

“I go during the day all through the week,” he said, “but many people only go on the weekends.”

“And you get to go home at night? You don’t need to live in a barrack or dormitory or something?”

“Oh, no, no!” he exclaimed while laughing. “It’s not like that. I go home each night, and some people only have to show up on the weekends.”

Basically, compulsory national service is like having a day job: conscripts wake up, go out and serve, and are back home by dinner.

I asked Anil if he at least got paid during his service. He said that he did. “They pay me the lowest possible wage,” he said.

“So you make minimum wage?” I asked, a little surprised that he would actually be paid a real salary.

“Singapore doesn’t have a minimum wage, but we get the amount that the lowest paid workers get.”

He gets around US$800 per month.

That didn’t seem to bad. Or, I’ll rephrase that: not as bad as it initially seemed. While national service is very much for real in Singapore, it’s nowhere near as for real as it is in a country like Israel. The more Anil talked about national service the more it seemed like compulsory job training. “If you want to go into the army or the police, you just do your national service with them and they train you.”

It’s true. All through Singapore you see these squads of cops that are essentially herds of clueless looking young men, standing around in subway stations or on street corners, bored out of their minds.

I asked Anil if he learned how to shoot a gun, and he just kind of squirmed, “Only a little. I’m just a clerk, but other people I know got to learn how to shoot.”

The practical aspects of countries having some form of national service could be extremely beneficial. Imagine if a country was to take its young people out into the woods for a month or two per year for a few years, and taught them how to survive, how to protect themselves, how to navigate, how to use advanced technologies, and basically how to do the basic life essentials — the stuff that all populations would benefit from having their members know in a time of crises. Unfortunately, national service is rarely like this. In most places that are not actively at war, conscription seems to merely be a way for governments to condition and indoctrinate their citizens, letting them know who’s in control. Though all this usually accomplishes is the instilling of resentment towards the government. I once asked a Turkish friend what he did during his national service: “I polished boots for 12 months, it was a big waste of time.”

Countries that have military conscription (in red).

Countries that have military conscription (in red).

Thirty two countries in the world have obligatory military service, which is something that tends to happen behind the scenes of a culture — you can easily travel to a place and not notice that all the 18 year old boys just happen to be missing.

Anil was in the middle of giving two years of service to his country. When he finishes he will be classified as “operationally ready,” and he will automatically be inducted into the national reserves, which make up 80% of Singapore’s military.

In 2014, at the height of the globalism era, forced military conscription seems archaic, it seems like something that only happened in the dark days of history, like something that would set the young people of a country back, making them less competitive in the global market — it seems like something that shouldn’t be happening anymore. But it is. Globally speaking, national service is alive and well.

Though Anil could be considered lucky: prior to June 2004, conscription in Singapore was for 30 months.

Filed under: Singapore

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3546 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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