Serving Singapore

5.30am wake up. 

5.45am drink 500ml of water.

6.00am physical exercise. 

6.45am free time. 

7.00am breakfast.

7.30am training starts. 

For two compulsory years, this is the routine of a Singaporean national serviceman. 

“I was held back for two years…I missed out on the so called ‘prime of my life’,” Herald Narayanan says, imagining what could have been. 

Singapore’s conscription model was established in the National Service Bill, passed on March 14 1967, just two years after Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia.

According to the Singaporean Ministry of Defence , before Singapore was a declared a sovereign and independent nation in 1965, it was under British colonial rule for more than 100 years, and then faced two tumultuous years under the Malaysian Federation. During this time, Singapore depended on Britain and then Malaysia for its defence needs. 

At the time of gaining its independence in 1967, Singapore’s military consisted of approximately 1,000 soldiers, MINEF reports. Subsequently, the government felt it necessary to build a substantial military force to defend the country. And so, Singapore’s conscription model was formed, drawing on elements of the Israeli and Swiss national conscription schemes. 

Pursuant to the Bill, national service is mandatory conscription and every male citizen and second-generation permanent resident must undertake it at 18. It must be served for two years full time in the Singaporean Armed Forces, Singaporean Civil Defence Force or Singaporean Police Force. To date, more than 900,000 male Singaporeans have completed national service, according to Singapore’s Central ManPower Base (CMPB)

Singapore incorporated National Service just two years after gaining independence. Graphic: Ike Adesanya.

For Curtin University student Herald Narayanan, the two years he spent completing his service meant him missing out on what he believes were the two highly formative years of his early adulthood. 

Narayanan, right, during his time serving National Service. Photo: Supplied.

Narayanan was born in South Sulawesi, Indonesia – his mother Indonesian and Father Singaporean. Due to the nature of his father’s job as a pilot, Narayanan spent the first few years of his life sporadically living in various countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, India, and Bangladesh, before moving and settling in Perth, Western Australia at the age of 11. 

“Before moving to Australia, we lived in each place for give or take one or two years.” Narayanan says. 

Narayanan frequently visited Singapore as a child, with the biggest chunk of time he spent in the country being two years of primary school.  From the age of 11, Narayanan was aware once he turned 18 he would be expected to return to Singapore to serve NS. Although he was a Singaporean citizen, Perth was where he considered home. Like many Singaporean male citizens living overseas, Narayanan was required to leave Perth Western Australia, for a country that felt somewhat foreign to him.

“I was apprehensive,” he says.  “I did it to clear my name.”

Once Narayanan turned 18, he travelled to Singapore to complete national service. If he chose otherwise, he could be considered Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL), which is an offence under Singapore’s Enlistment Act. Those who fail to register for service are liable upon conviction to a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for a term of up to three years, or to both. 

“I have a couple of friends that were in a similar position to me, where they migrated to Australia and never went back for NS, so they can’t go back to Singapore,” Narayanan says.

And so, Narayanan completed his two years of service in the Singaporean Police Force as a public transport security command. This role entailed him overseeing and managing policing efforts on Singapore’s bus and rail networks.

“My perspective definitely changed,” Narayanan says, reflecting on his experience. “It wasn’t that bad, and the two years went really fast, but I think one year would have been perfect.”

Once the hurdle of completing service is overcome at the age of 21, male Singaporeans must then choose whether to retain or renounce their citizenship.

To remain operationally ready (i.e. to form the main fighting personnel of the Singapore Armed Forces upon wartime or any national exigencies) Narayanan and all other National Servicemen are required to complete 10 years of reservist. Reservist can be up to 40-days and involve returning to camp for various physical trainings, refresher courses and medical reviews.  These reservists are compulsory, so for those living overseas this means taking the time off work, leaving personal commitments, and travelling back to Singapore on a yearly basis. 

For Narayanan, the thought of reservist made his decision to renounce his citizenship an easy process. 

“Reservist can be a hassle if you live overseas,” he says.

Consequently, when faced with the decision at the age of 21, Narayanan made the choice to renounce his Singaporean citizenship, and acknowledge Australia as his home. 

Aaron Tan carries his National Service ID as a reminder of his time serving. Photo: Ike Adesanya.

Former military policeman Aaron Tan says for Singaporean men living in Singapore, reservist is often viewed as a break from life’s stressors.  

“It’s a holiday from work to catch up with your friends,” he says. 

Like many Singaporean men, Tan’s perspective of national service drastically changed his overall experience.

“It’s a trade-off,” Tan says.  “Yes, it’s two years of your life, but you just have to make the best of it.”

This is not an uncommon attitude, according to founder of Elevate Performance Coaching Arthur Tong. “As each Singaporean son grows up and starts to contribute back to society, sometimes their view on national service changes,” he says.

Founder of Elevate Performance Coaching Arthur Tong. Photo: Ike Adesanya.
Listen to more from Arthur Tong.

“As a fresh 18-year-old boy you view national service as more of a chore, but as you grow up and start to contribute back to society, you realise how important that framework is,” Tong says. 

For Tong, his national service journey began when he received his enlistment letter, after completing secondary school in Vancouver, Canada. Despite receiving an offer to University of British Columbia, returning to Singapore for service was a given.  

Tong says completing secondary school in Canada meant a lot of his peers were alien to the concept, leaving him to explain why Singapore still subscribed to conscription.

“This is the way of life for Singaporean males so that’s something I have to do,” he’d often explain to his Canadian peers. 

Tong has participated in various memorable experiences through National Service. Photo: Supplied.

Tong found the military was his calling, and so went on to pursue a career as a full-time regular service man in the Singapore Army for 13 years. Although it is no longer his profession, he still serves in the army as a deputy intelligence division officer. 

“Having left the service doesn’t mean your obligation to the armed forces and to your country is done,” he says. “For myself, 10 years of reservist might just be the beginning.”

Tong says being in a leadership position in Singapore’s Armed Forces differs to other countries armed forces. 

“To lead individuals who did not choose to be in the army requires leadership of a different trade.”

Arthur Tong

“The typical idea of a military leader being very tough, straightforward and not very empathetic, doesn’t really work in a Singapore Armed Forces because the individuals are not choosing to be there,” he says.

But what happens when expectations match reality, and you ‘don’t want to be there’ for the entire two years?

For Oxford University student Dylan Yeo this was the case. 

Oxford University student Dylan Yeo. Photo: Ike Adesanya.

Yeo, who was born in Singapore, relocated to New Zealand at the age of 12. Like many Singaporean boys growing up, he saw his dad return for reservist, and so the concept of national service wasn’t unfamiliar to him.

“It was an expectation because it’s what everyone goes through,” Yeo says.  “The pressure is mostly legal. If you don’t come back, you have to renounce your citizenship…you’ll face many barriers in Singapore.”

Before going into national service, Yeo lived what he describes as a ‘normal’ life for any teen in New Zealand; he went to school, spent time with friends, and participated in various extracurricular activities. 

Yeo, left, during his two years of National Service. Photo: Supplied.

For Yeo the transition to life in Singapore’s Armed Forces reconnaissance department was tough. 

“You leave your friends and family, shave your head, and meet a whole new group of people,” he says. “I expected it to suck, and it sucked.”

From spending long periods of time in the jungle, to undergoing torture training, life as an infantry personnel was both physically and emotionally demanding.

Yeo says living outside of Singapore prior to being enlisted for service contributed to the difficult transition. 

“If you’re in Singapore everyone’s gone through it,” Yeo says. “But living in New Zealand no one understood.”

Despite his experience being unbearable, the prospect of a future career and life in Singapore motivated him to retain his Singaporean citizenship and commit to returning to Singapore for reservists for 10 years. 

Post contemporary artist and administrator of the anti-conscription Facebook group Val Palay says he is disheartened by the burden national service puts on Singaporean men raised or living overseas before enlistment. 

Post contemporary artist and administrator of the anti-conscription Facebook group Val Palay. Photo: Ike Adesanya.

Palay says he currently oversees the anti-conscription Facebook group as “a small flicker of hope for young people in Singapore, children of migrants and those living overseas that don’t want to do national service because it’s not even their country”.

“It disrupts your education, your work life and your relationships,” he says. 

For Palay, his personal experience with national service wasn’t the smoothest. 

“When I was in high school, I started listening to a lot of alternative forms of music, which includes punk. In those songs were lyrics about anti conscription, anti-arms, anti-military,” he says. “I spent my teens listening to that and then to know I was going to have to join the army I was quite apprehensive.”

Before going into national service, Palay was passionate about art, reading and dreamt of pursuing these interests as a future career. However, he had to leave his normal life to serve Singapore, despite conscription opposing his personal beliefs.

“I have a strong non-violent, passivist stance.”

Once he entered basic training Palay refused to bear arms due to his passivist beliefs. This meant potentially being placed in the army prison with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who also refused to bear arms. Due to an underlying medical issue, he was excused from bearing arms. Furthermore, the uniform he was made to wear didn’t sit right with him. Within the first few weeks of NS, he withdrew and isolated himself from friends and family, struggling with his mental health.

After five months of service, Palay was excused from his duties/obligations and was deemed ‘unfit for service’. Within a matter of days, he packed his bag and returned home and was then able to pursue his dreams and enrol in art school.

Despite now being able to pursue his dreams, Palay now bears the weight of not completing NS. 

“It takes six months to get a certificate of participation, and I was kicked out after five.”

Palay says this has now affected his future, with many stereotypes and assumptions being made about him by prospective employers.

 “If you don’t have your national service documentation it just seems like you’re not a complete man,”

Val Palay

“As if you’re unable to participate in the workforce effectively.”

Palay says although the Facebook group was created to be a safe space for those with anti-conscription beliefs, there is still a lingering fear to speak openly in the group.

“They don’t even believe Facebook is a safe place,” he says.

Listen to more from Val Palay.

“I think it should be optional.

“If you really feel patriotic, and you care so much about the country, then you’d probably be a good soldier because when the war comes, you’d be highly motivated.”