SINGAPORE — As Singapore marks the 55th anniversary of national service (NS) this year, Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Chief of Army, Brigadier-General David Neo, was asked by reporters about the impact of NS obligations on the ambitions of elite local athletes.
During the recently-concluded SEA Games in Hanoi, the city-state's lone Olympic gold-medallist Joseph Schooling - who is currently serving his NS after being allowed to defer his obligation to train for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which was held last year - had called for a "national dialogue" on expectations on NS-serving athletes like him, as it had been challenging juggling NS and sports training commitments.
Meanwhile, former Singapore youth footballer Ben Davis made the headlines too when he scored the opening goal for Thailand in their 5-0 rout of Singapore at the SEA Games football competition. Davis had been unsuccessful in applying for NS deferment in 2018, when he signed a professional contract with English club Fulham, and subsequently defaulted his NS commitments and switched his nationality.
Responding to media queries, BG Neo, 44, began by saying that this issue is close to his heart, as he had been a former hurdler during his junior college days, prior to joining the army.
"As a hurdler, you're trained to be focused on yourself. Which is why the idea of sacrifice resonates very strongly with me. It’s about coming together to put aside what's important to us to work for the needs of the larger group, the defence of the nation,” BG Neo said on Wednesday (26 May) ahead of the Army Open House 2022, which will be open to the public from Saturday to Monday at the F1 Pit Building.
“It's always a big sacrifice. But we willingly do that, because we understand this is required to maintain our way of life, to defend the nation, to make sure that Singapore continues to exist as an entity.
"Obviously, the army is supportive of all national sportsmen... I just want to caveat that fundamentally national service is still for the critical need of defence. When it comes to critical training, such as Basic Military Training and vocational training, that training has to come first.”
Overseas training exercises to resume amid reopening
BG Neo was appointed as Chief of Army in March this year, taking over Major-General Goh Si Hou. He is the first commando officer to assume the post, and has held key positions such as Commander 3rd Singapore Division and deputy secretary (technology) at the Ministry of Defence.
He was also Head of Joint Plans and Transformation Department and Director of Joint Operations, overseeing SAF's contributions to the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic in the past two years.
As Singapore eases border restrictions and safe management measures amid the pandemic, BG Neo said the Singapore Army will also resume more overseas training exercises and on a larger scale, with training safety as its top concern.
"We recognise that it's been two years of lower tempo training. A lot of these large-scale exercises that we are resuming could be things that actually nobody has done amid the pandemic," he explained.
"We will send a larger group of commanders to do the ground recces, making sure the training grounds are all safe. No effort is spared on every last detail."
While training, including in-camp training and mobilisations, has already returned to 84 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels, BG Neo says the army is looking forward to a full return by the year end.
BG Neo believes the valuable lessons and experiences gained from SAF's COVID-19 operations must be retained. More than 6,000 people from the army were deployed in operations ranging from getting surgical masks to every Singaporean household, to getting teams into migrant worker dormitories to control the outbreak.
He recalls that several army officers volunteered to help manage the dormitories despite the risk of infection. In another instance, when he had to communicate to medical professionals from three local hospitals to help SAF manage the dormitories, he had worried about how to communicate its operations to them "in a nice way".
"Very quickly, one of them said, 'Sir, we are NSmen, you don’t need to explain too many things to us. You just tell us what's the ops plan, and we will get it done,'" he said.
"So that’s sort of the power of national service in a moment of crisis. You see our NSmen everywhere. There's this common language, common lingo, common ethos, and the common idea of being mission-focused to just get our nation out of the crisis.”
National service of critical importance for small nations
As NS enters its 55th year this year, BG Neo believes that it has been generally accepted by Singaporeans as a necessary personal sacrifice for the defence of the nation.
The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia has also shown how important it is for small nations to be able to defend themselves, he added.
"There are some countries who used to have national service, did away with it, and now wish they hadn't. There are also countries who never had national service, and now wish they have," he told reporters.
"National service is something that is critically important to Singapore. It is a way in which a small country, in an uncertain world, can defend itself. It is also the construct by which we get a lot of tangential benefits.
"In the 55 years that NS has taken root in Singapore, it has been passed on from father to son, and gradually we are seeing grandfathers passing on to sons and grandsons. Such commitment to the defence of Singapore, the sacrifices we make to put aside the needs of a few for the needs of the many, is something we have to guard zealously."
BG Neo has therefore issued a challenge to the public - find five NSmen they do not know, preferably in uniform, and tell them, "Thank you for your service".
"A very simple thing to do, but it will mean the world to them," he said.
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