Sunday, May 4, 2014

On AWARE and Military Service

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Singapore commented on an article on the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) considering "recognising" NSmen in the form of "giving them a bigger stake in the country, such as in the areas of housing, healthcare and education".

AWARE said in a post on their Facebook page:
Every person deserves access to housing, education and healthcare, because these are basic requirements for human sustenance and social participation. AWARE disagrees strongly with any link between support for fundamental needs and an individual's status as an NSman, especially when the military may not be suitable for many people, regardless of their gender. AWARE has long maintained that military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging - an approach which this proposal threatens to intensify, creating different tiers of people with different social entitlements and worth.
As for the reactions, well, to sum up, the men weren't happy to learn of this.

First and foremost, we have yet to hear the details of this "recognition" that MINDEF is considering. So, it's good to wait and find out how much of a "stake" the government will be giving to those who serve.

Given National Service (and the majority of those who serve) is compulsory, I personally see this "recognition" as compensation in the context of 'choiceless-ness' as opposed to incentivisation in the context of 'choice'. This definition of compensation here sits in the context of a lack of choice, mainly (not entirely) for many Singaporean men. The action of one's commitment to National Service cannot mask the reality of compulsory conscription and the penalties that come should one choose not to serve.

Moving on another tangent, National Service discriminates. Not specifically referring to the disproportionate representation of Malay-Muslim Singaporeans in certain sectors within MINDEF, but the forms of discrimination are based on sex (not gender by the way) and physiology, among other things.

Having male sex organs will generally qualify (in a compulsory sense) you to be part of an organisation that leverages apparatuses of violence in the name of a flag. History is also used to further justify male participation in violence in the name of the nation. The absence of these sex organs exempts you from compulsory service, but you may choose to serve. In view of this, there are different contexts in which NS is done.

As for physiology, it is about finding the most desirable Singaporean body to perform various demanding tasks required across different segments of national defence.

That said, AWARE is right in saying that the military may not be suitable for many people, based on the above and other traits. There is discrimination based on things we mostly do not have control of - sex (I said "mostly"), physiology for instance.

I also agree with AWARE that "military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging". People of different bodies, persuasions, creeds, physical abilities, talents and opportunities, all deserve to claim a stake in defining citizenry. In addition, we have to put aside prejudices to create opportunities for different people to define citizenry - level the playing field a little.

One may argue that the many institutions that bring about the general stability and comfort most of us have enjoyed throughout the years could not have done so without National Service. But I believe that national defence is an interdependent unit as are all institutions supporting one another, rather than a super-set.

Now, let's look at housing, healthcare and education. These are the critical variables of social stratification in Singapore.

In giving a "bigger stake", it is implied NSmen will be given a slight advantage over non-NSmen when it comes to access to housing, healthcare and education. As an NSman, I'll gladly take this and say "thank you", since it directly benefits my family and its state-condoned family structure.

I believe the issue of contention is that the idea of compensation for compulsory (and discriminatory) conscription intersects that of what should be universally and equally accessible to all in Singapore.

Alternatively, it will be better if conscripts and NSmen are paid the same as regulars of the corresponding ranks. For reservist training, NSmen should be paid their rank pay, on top of their compensated salaries, regardless of where they work. This way, the compensation or incentive (however you see it) symbolically remains within the confines of the institution (NS), even though the monetary "advantages" have implications beyond it.

Again, this still does not address the issue of NS' position in Singaporean citizenry and defining it, simply because bigger compensation or incentives (however you see it, again) are still thrown in that direction. Since you can't put a price on the 2-2.5 years of lost youth, the state-imposed absence of husbands/fathers/brothers/sons, we'll probably not know what's the right amount and the right avenue through which it should be disseminated.

On every level, there's a lot of discrimination: The unquestionable sacred cow of the Singaporean male-ness being intricately tied to nationhood therefore justifying compulsory NS, tax "incentives" given to NSmen whose circumstances are in fact based on choiceless-ness, etc.

To stand up and say, "Shut up you women. Why don't you get conscripted first, then come and talk?" still does not address the issue of discrimination and the implications of (gender) discrimination on socio-economic stratification - since we're talking about housing, education and healthcare here.

Having women conscripted may solve some downstream grievances, but does that mean upstream problems are solved? NS then remains unquestioned.

I honestly have no idea how this can be best approached. I guess we have the capable leaders in the Cabinet (with disproportionate representation of men and women) to come up with the right solutions, huh? But you've got people in there who'll answer your questions with the same question "what do you think" hehe.

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