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National Service is a rite of passage for all Singaporean males, and the controversial issue of conscription has never been far from Singaporean minds. For a long period the defence of national security has been invoked to justify conscription.
However, growing shifts in official stance from the original “national defence” argument to the more current “common NS experience to build a more cohesive society” argument has increased suspicion as to whether NS is just a guise for another social engineering tool in the Government’s arsenal.
Under the argument of defending national security and protection of secrets, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has made use of the SAF Act, which governs all NSmen, to silence any opposition or criticism. There have been reported cases of servicemen being forced to remove blog entries, and even entire blogs, because of alleged violations of the Act.
Disciplinary action have been taken against these “offending” entries. A deeper look at cases reveal disturbing parallels between the use of libel lawsuits to silence political opposition and the use of disciplinary actions to silence criticism from its own servicemen. Singapore is known for its use of its libel laws to silence political oppositions, and has come under heavy criticism from international bodies like the International Bar Association and Amnesty International.
Servicemen are being taken to task for writing critical entries on the Internet about the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF. Some have spoken up against the censure but many more have chosen to remain silent for fear of further reprisal.
The double standard of selective punishment points to the undeniable fact that MINDEF is only interested in punishing servicemen who criticise SAF but ignore those that do not paint a negative picture of the organisation even the complimentary ones still violate the Official Secrets Act (OSA). A look at many online blogs and networking sites reveal many pictures taken of SAF camps and/or their activities.
According to the OSA, the revelation of SAF activities is a threat to the nation’s security and is a punishable offence. However, MINDEF turns a blind eye to all these, focusing instead on warning bloggers about negative postings and punishing those that they can find when many of these blogs or entries did not reveal any security-related information.
This leads to several questions. Is MINDEF and SAF allowed to violate international laws and rights by having laws and punishing servicemen for having negative or critical views of the organisation? In this developed world, which organisation punishes its own people for holding dissenting views?
Given that MINDEF and SAF are public organisations, what right do they have to control what the public thinks about them? On the contrary, should they not be subjected to even greater public scrutiny and criticism given that they take up the biggest portion of the national budget?
By silencing the opposition and servicemen, is the Government trying to censor questions about the real intent of NS in today’s Singapore? Are the authorities bent on keeping out discussion on whether NS exists solely for national defence or does it exist to serve a “greater” purpose? More broadly, is NS being used to build a nation of followers rather than thinkers, a society of compliant and unquestioning Singaporeans? Is NS a Government tool to perpetuate a climate of fear in our youths?
MINDEF and SAF have come a long way since 1967. Cover-ups that were common in the past are increasingly not accepted by Singaporeans who demand a safer training environment for their sons. It is time that MINDEF and SAF examine their roles in Singapore today, and re-evaluate their policies of banning servicemen from voicing out criticisms publicly.
The notion of “dirty linen should not be washed in public” should be discarded. If the Government has nothing to hide and everything is above board why fear criticism, especially from their own people?
Public accountability should be of paramount importance when it comes to asking citizens to risk their safety and lives in defending the country, and spending huge amounts of the public’s money. In this regard, draconian bans and punishment on servicemen airing their views in public should be removed.
Andy Tang recently completed his fulltime National Service stint and contributed this article to the website.