Saturday, September 02, 2006

Citizenship, Loyalty and National Service

The Kwayteowman has an article on 'Citizenship, Loyalty and National Service'. Here's a brief summary:

  1. He says that "citizenship and loyalty are orthogonal issues, though they are likely to be correlated". In other words, if you're a citizen, it doesn't mean that you're more likely to be loyal.
  2. He succintly defines loyalty in concrete terms: to "put Singapore's interests ahead of other nations", like reporting for mobilization in the even of a war, not badmouthing Singapore if you're overseas and joining in the civil debate if you're in Singapore.
  3. NS is a not about loyalty. It is a cost-effective way of maintaining a significant military. He also acknowledges that male Singaporeans would be better off without NS.

My comments:

Sure. Citizenship is a legal status. Loyalty is a choice. Unfortunately, as he mentions, most of us had no choice in our citizenship. There really isn't much for me to say on this issue.

The KTM is honest in saying that he is not sure what "put Singapore's interests ahead of other nations" actually means. I think that the main problem is in defining what Singapore's interests are. Obviously, security is an interest as evidenced by the need to for a military. He also mentions that if you're contributing to the economy by holding a job, you're being loyal. Hence, the state of the economy is also an interest. Personally, I think that there are other kinds of interests like social justice, a strong national identity, inter-racial harmony, etc.

NS is of course not about loyalty. But, in the country, it is sold as such. The burden of national defence falls disproportionately on a certain demographic group of the country: male Singaporeans. NS is highly unequitable even among Singaporeans. For example, naturalized Singaporeans over 27 need not perform NS. Female Singaporeans also don't have to. Handicapped people don't have to. The commonly given reason - a national myth really - why medically-fit male Singaporeans have to do NS at 18 is because it is some kind of national rite of passage for male Singaporeans to do their part for the country.

Once you move past the assoicated hubris about NS, then certain demographic group may start asking questions like: why do I have to pay more (2 years of my prime) for Singapore's national defence? In dollars and cents, they are penalized more than any other group. Cost-effectiveness and fairness are separate issues. NS as it is practised in Singapore is cost-effective but not equitable. For example, there can be a national defence tax on people who have not undergone some form of NS which will can be used to provide benefits and gratuities to people who have completed NS. That way, NS remains cost-effective but not inequitable. After all, national security is a public good enjoyed by everyone. People who do NS don't enjoy it more than people who don't.

Think of it another way: it's like people with O-type blood being asked to pay more for their hospital bills. Why should people pay more if they receive the same medical treatment? If people with O-type blood are paying more for their hospital bills, they are effectively subsidizing the non O-types.

Of course, the government is not going to implement a NS tax just for the sake of equity. Taxes in Singapore are generally considered anti-business and bad for the economy. Moreover, it is not going to add to the revenue of the government. Morally speaking though, I don't think anyone should have any objections to a NS tax though if you delink NS and loyalty.
So, NS has to be sold as an issue of loyalty so that a particular demographic group can bear the bulk of the burden of national defence.


kwayteowman said...

Hello Fox,

Packaging is a very important component of public policy.

How do you think Bush managed to sell to the American peasant that it's good to lower taxes? Are lower taxes really better for the middle-class Americans? Who come such policies can sell? It's all packaging. :-)

Fox said...

Hello KTM,

I agree with you that packaging is important. However, the problem is that nowadays, people are getting better at seeing through the packaging, especially when they feel that they may be overpaying for something inside the packaging or when they see people getting the same thing for a lower price.;)

I think public discussion about NS tend to degenerate into jingoistic discussions about loyalty versus extreme cynicism and loath towards the NS versus gender inequality.

However, if we see NS as what it is - a cost-efficient way to maintain a certain troop level i.e. an optimisation problem (maximising effective troop levels) with certain constraints (costs) - I think that discussion can be more fruitful.

The problem really boils down to what different people think the constraints ought to be. Everyone thinks that defence and security are important but disgree on what the constraints should be i.e. who ought to pay what for security.

For the average NSman and their families, the constraint is of course personal convenience and opportunity costs. For the government, it is defence spending and the cost to the economy. For people who don't do NS, the constraint is the amount of taxes they are willing to put up for defence. In reality, the constraints are a mix of these factors with different weightage.

My position is that we have to reevaluate how the various factors in the constraining function should be weighted. Actually, I think it is being reweighted all the time because of improving military technology and the increasing cost of manpower. However, I feel that the reweighing still places the bulk of the cost on male Singaporeans.

kwayteowman said...

Hello Fox,

So sorry that I forgot to come back to this entry to respond to you. :-P

The KTM agrees with everything you've said, except the KTM isn't too upset about the sexual inequality of exempting the females.

The KTM doesn't have sisters, but if the KTM had, he wouldn't want to see them do NS. Neither does the KTM want to see Mrs KTM called up for ICT. :-)

Remember that the females actually have to do their national service of sorts at some point if they get married.

As for the foreigners who come later, we have to practical. If we force them to do NS, they just wouldn't become citizens. Not sure what the advantage to us for having them become citizens, but imposing an NS requirement on citizenship is clearly quite pointless. ;-P

Fox said...


Actually, if you read what I wrote carefully, I never mentioned anything about having new citizens or female Singaporeans having to perform national service. Perhaps, you read too much into the paragraph:

For example, naturalized Singaporeans over 27 need not perform NS. Female Singaporeans also don't have to. Handicapped people don't have to.

The last line in bold indirectly suggests my opinion of whether naturalised citizens or female Singaporeans ought to do NS.

I think everyone should pay for NS though. There is this Hokkien phrase which goes something like: Have strength, give strength; have money, give money.