The National – Thursday, December 16, 2010
A FAST-TRACK strategy to populate mass foreigners, including well-paid professionals who are in Singapore just to earn a living, is putting strain on its concept of a citizens’ army.
The sensitive topic has been swirling around for some time but only privately because no one wants to be accused of undermining the country’s defence.
Already, falling birth rates had long been reducing the number of 18-year-old recruits since national service (NS) was launched in 1967.
Not helpful is the government’s ambitious population expansion plan, which brought in two million foreigners since 1990, most of whom owe no loyalty to the country.
Today, the presence of 1.8 million foreigners, who make up 36% of the populace, augurs long-term ill for the NS spirit.
“What it means is that a smaller Singaporean army will have to defend a bigger population during conflict, including fighting for foreigners who actually compete with them for jobs,” a retired officer said.
The biggest bugbear is that – unlike an estimated 20,000 locals every year – foreigners and permanent residents (PRs) need not do NS or report back for in-camp training for 10 years. Only children of PRs do.
Enlistment is not only obligatory, but in war Singapore’s reservists are activated to be a frontline army.
Locals complain it is giving immigrants a big head-start when they compete for jobs.
Predictably, grumblings are loudest among NS youths, who ask, “Do we have to defend them?”
Recently, the controversy became public during a university dialogue session that senior minister Goh Chok Tong held with 1,000 university students.
Aerospace engineering undergraduate Lim Zi Rui, 23, who is still serving NS, spoke of how immigration and other changes were creating uncertainties among the young.
“When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,” Lim told the senior minister, “but with all these changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really do not know what I am defending any more.”
Many of the NS men he served with shared this view, he added.
The Nanyang Technology University (NTU) student asked Goh: “Why must I defend foreigners? I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth. We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.”
Goh, a former prime minister, replied: “This is one early sign of danger. If this is happening, it is very serious.”
He wanted to know why the final-year student felt disconnected.
The youth said he was still serving as an officer “and I definitely would love to defend Singapore. But, I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.
“My question (is), how are we going to help the younger generation feel a sense of belonging to Singapore? I do not think it is about integrating foreigners.”
(Second minister for defence Ng Eng Hen quickly dismissed talk of a decline in morale, saying surveys showed 95% servicemen would step forward to defend the country when under threat.)
This latest exchange has revealed a chasm in thoughts and understanding between aging leaders and a segment of young citizens unhappy with the way the country is governed.
Compared with the hard-hitting Lee Kuan Yew past, recent university dialogues with current ministers had been more challenging, less compliant affairs.
*Seah Chiang Nee is a former newspaper editor in Singapore. He now writes a weekly column for The Star in Malaysia