'Why the National Defence Duty will not work'

Siew Kum Hong

Singaporeans participate in a protest against the Population White Paper released late last month by the government. (Yahoo! photo)


I've wanted to blog about the Population White Paper for a week now. But I have very complicated feelings about it, and couldn't figure out exactly what I would say. Until I read Hri Kumar's suggestion about a National Defence Duty on foreigners and PRs (with the catchy tagline of "we do duty, they pay a duty"). Things clicked immediately (more on the White Paper on a later post).

Hri Kumar's suggestion makes perfect sense -- if you see the world through the lens of rational economic theory and you think of people as homo economicus. Male Singaporeans suffer a disadvantage because of NS, so let's apply a tax to make male PRs/foreigners equally disadvantaged. Perfect economic sense, and true to the PAP's technocratic bent.

Except that the world is about much more than economics, and people are homo sapiens not homo economicus. We've traditionally talked about NS as a noble sacrifice, a ritual that turned boys into men. More recently, we've seen it also as a great social leveller that helps Singaporeans from different socio-economic classes mix and understand each other in a way that schools no longer allow (I totally agree, but have to wonder about female Singaporeans then).

And now an MP wants to put a price on it. It makes cold hard rational sense, but humans are warm-blooded; we become cold and hard only after we die.

This proposal encapsulates why the PAP as a whole is struggling so much today. It has become too transactional in its philosophy, the dollars and cents have become too entrenched and central in its thinking. Again, it all makes rational economic sense -- but we are real human beings, not abstract economic units.

This transactional worldview also explains why, despite the PAP's best efforts to "sharpen the differences" between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, Singaporeans remain so unhappy and unappreciated. That is because these efforts would work, only for Singaporeans who truly love schadenfraude.

If I am unhappy because I think I am being badly treated, would I really feel better just because the Government treats someone else equally badly? I mean, relatively speaking the other person may no longer be better off than me, but it does not improve my own position in any way. Imposing the National Defence Duty makes foreigners and PRs worse-off, but do not directly improve the lot of Singaporean males (at least not by much, and certainly not in any meaningful way), and most importantly does nothing to address their main concerns, in particular the complaint that employers discriminate against Singaporean males because of their NS liabilities.

In the same vein, charging PRs and foreigners more for public education and public health services (and even, bafflingly enough, horseriding fees at the Turf Club -- an American told me about this) has not made Singaporeans feel better, and not surprisingly, because it's not like they are paying less. Seeing my fellow inhabitant of Singapore suffer as much as I do does not make me suffer any less.

In economic terms, these policies can make sense. The National Defence Duty seeks to quantify the opportunity cost of having to serve Full-Time National Service, and then impose it on those who do not have to serve. Heck, the formula can probably even be tweaked to include some proxy measure of the opportunity and other costs of NS liability. Similarly, differentiated fees for Singaporeans vs PRs/foreigners means that Singaporeans are better-off than PRs/foreigners, even though Singaporeans are actually not better-off at all.

But in all these cases, the Singaporean's life does not become better in a meaningful way. This is the flaw of the PAP's transactional worldview -- it is a view of the economic world, and not of the real world.

Instead, if we want to make up for the cost and burden of defending the country, we should give those who have served NS even more benefits than they receive today. More, much more than the tax relief and the SAFRA membership. This is not to compensate them for what they have given up for NS, which is frankly something that can never really be done, but to do what we can, as a country, to recognise their contributions and express our appreciation.

For example, we can waive polyclinic consultation fees and public hospital C-class bed charges (or apply an equivalent discount for those who opt for more expensive classes), in full for everybody who has completed Full-Time NS and the 13-year NS cycle, and at 25% or some other percentage for those who completed Full-Time NS but did not have NS liability. And yes, that's for life.

And/or do the same for public school fees and miscellaneous fees. And/or public transport charges when they become senior citizens. And/or discount other medical charges in public hospitals. And/or give them priority queues in public government agencies.

The possibilities are nearly endless. Yes, these measures can be costly and/or inefficient. But the goal here is not to be economically efficient or precise, but to express our true gratitude to those who have given up part of their lives to serve and defend Singapore and Singaporeans. And honestly, we spent over S$12 billion on defence in 2012; anything we do will almost certainly be less than a drop in that ocean of money.

Similarly, sharpening the differences between Singaporeans and PRs/foreigners should be done not be making things more expensive for PRs/foreigners, but by giving some positive benefit to the Singaporeans. Instead of increasing the school fees and polyclinic charges for PRs/foreigners, why not reduce them for Singaporeans. It may cost more to the Government, but it will also be much, much more likely to achieve the desired results of making Singaporeans feel cherished.

The author is a corporate counsel and former Nominated Member of Parliament, writing in his personal capacity. This post first appeared on his blog, here.