National Service Through the Years
When Singapore became independent in 1965, one immediate task was to build up our defence.
Before the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was formed, there was the Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps (SVRC) that was formed in 1854 following violent riots in Singapore. It was later renamed the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC) in 1901, and eventually became the People’s Defence Force (PDF) in 1965. The defence force back then depended on volunteers to supplement the local constabulary for internal security and to defend Singapore against external threats. However, Singapore could not depend solely on volunteers for its security.
Group photo of the SVC taken at Beach Road Camp, circa 1959. Image: David Ng Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (NAS).
As Singapore has limited manpower, we cannot have a regular armed force of sufficient size to deter external aggressors. It is also highly unlikely that voluntary National Service (NS) would provide a sufficient number of capable volunteers who would complete full-time NS and In-Camp Training (ICT). Neither can we rely on mercenaries or soldiers who are paid to fight for us. In a real crisis, mercenaries cannot be trusted to defend a country that is not their own.
Hence, the government decided to introduce compulsory conscription of male youths as the best way to build up Singapore’s defence force. The NS (Amendment) Act was introduced in 1967 and a call-up was initiated for 9,000 youths born between 1 January and 30 June 1949. The first batch of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) enlisted into the SAF, the PDF, the Vigilante Corps and the Special Constabulary.
Registration exercise of first batch of National Service recruits. Image: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore (NAS).
Since the inception of NS, more than a million people have gone through the NS rite of passage, serving in the SAF, Singapore Police Force (SPF) and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). The SPF took in their first batch of NSFs in 1975 and the SCDF followed suit in 1981. During the Hotel New World collapse in 1986, SCDF Operationally Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) were mobilised in the nation-wide effort to conduct search-and-rescue operations to save lives – 17 people were rescued.
When NS was first introduced, officers served three years and other ranks served two years, followed by 10 years of reserve service. In 1971, the length of service was changed to two-and-a-half years for servicemen holding the rank of Corporal and above. In 1983, the reservist training cycle was extended from 10 to 13 years to meet operational needs. In 2005, because of improvements in training and technology, the duration of full-time NS was reduced from two-and-a-half years to two years. The Operationally Ready National Service (ORNS) duration was also shortened from 13 to 10 years in 2006.
To further complement the regular force, volunteer SAF schemes have also been set up as the SAF expands operational capabilities. For instance, operationally-ready national servicemen (NSmen) have been able to take on roles such as legal advisers, dentists, nurses and radiographers in the SAF. In 2014, the SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) was launched for non-NS-liable Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents (PRs) – such as women, first-generation PRs and new citizens. This allows a greater number of Singapore citizens and PRs to contribute to national defence, show support for NS, and deepen their understanding and ownership of national defence.
National Service: The Cornerstone of Our Defence and Security
Conscription through NS is the only viable option to build up a strong and credible defence force to ensure the independence and sovereignty of Singapore. As the bedrock of our fighting force and national security, NS is critical for Singapore’s continued survival and success.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a dinner commemorating 50 years of NS in 2017, NS and the efforts of servicemen have enabled the country to “enjoy decades of peace, and a safe and secure home”.
Our NSFs and NSmen fight alongside SAF regulars and are able to deploy sophisticated weapons, use powerful systems and pick up soldiering skills quickly. As is required in an evolving threat landscape, they protect Singapore not only from armed conflicts but also from non-conventional threats like terrorism, render aid in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) efforts, and provide manpower to assist in times of an epidemic, such as during SARS in 2003 and more recently, COVID-19.
Over the years, NS has become a national institution and part of our way of life. It has touched Singapore citizens and PRs in one way or another and is the cornerstone of our national identity. It brings people from diverse racial, religious, language, and educational backgrounds to train, live and serve the country together. NS has since become a rite of passage, where boys grow to become men and life-long bonds are forged. Such common life-shaping experiences have helped to foster greater cohesiveness and national identity among our people. The support shown for NS by the rest of the nation has also been critical in ensuring that our servicemen are able to train and perform their operational duties with peace of mind. As security threats become more subtle and insidious, it is important for the nation to continue rallying behind and supporting our national servicemen.