Speech Transcript by Second Minister for Defence Mr Ong Ye Kung at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2018

Speech Transcript by Second Minister for Defence Mr Ong Ye Kung at the Ministry of Defence Committee of Supply Debate 2018


Mr Chairman Sir, I thank the members for all their questions. Dr Maliki Osman and I will try to answer all of them. Last year, we commemorated 50 years of National Service (NS) in Singapore. Mr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim asked about the continued importance of NS. It remains the bedrock of a strong and credible Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that we have today.

Since 1967, more than one million Singaporeans have invested their time, blood, sweat and tears, in faithfully performing their NS duties. Their families and their sacrifices keep our country safe and secure, and as Singaporeans, we can decide our future.

One of our greatest defence assets is that Singaporeans are strongly behind NS. Mr Cedric Foo asked about this. Support for NS cannot be one-off during NS50 but has to be sustained for the long term. Some countries in fact struggle to maintain public support for their conscription system. Dr Ng Eng Hen mentioned Lithuania. Another example is Sweden, which got rid of NS a decade ago, only to have to reinstate it as they re-evaluate their security environment.

Our key challenge today is twofold. The first challenge, which is a question by Mr Zainal Sapari and Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef, is demographic - falling cohort sizes and shrinking enlistment pool. The second challenge is the evolving new unconventional security threats, such as terrorism, cyberattacks and also disinformation campaigns or fake news. Mr Amrin Amin asked about this.

So the imperative is to do more with less, to work with fewer but more capable servicemen. The future capability and effectiveness of the SAF will not be based on the quantity of people we have, instead it will be based on their quality and their ability. We will achieve this by enhancing three things. One, individual ability, two, strengthening system efficiency, and three, leveraging technology. Let me explain.

Enhancing Individual Ability 

First, enhancing individual ability.

The foundation for operational readiness is first and foremost, physical fitness. Fitness is also very personal - unique to the individual, with its impact on the individual's health extending well beyond their time with the SAF. 

We will leverage technology to deliver targeted and effective training for every serviceman. The new Centre of Excellence for Soldier Performance (CESP), Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef asked about it, is adopting a scientific, data-driven approach to optimise the performance of every soldier. That is the key purpose of the Centre. It uses wearables and data to better understand each individual soldier's physiological condition, and then prescribe more effective and progressive training, while minimising the risk of acute injury. The training can in fact be customised to what the soldier is supposed to do, the vocation and the task. So, we can now administer training to fit a soldier's physiological condition, as well as the responsibility that he has been tasked with.

We will also provide servicemen with better tools to keep fit, and increase the choices and accessibility of fitness training. 

We are partnering SportSG and Health Promotion Board to introduce the Quick HIIT Programme. HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training. Operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) will be able to attend the Quick HIIT programme at community spaces and sports facilities.

Starting this week, we are also piloting the use of wearable technology at SAF Fitness Conditioning Centres and SAFRA gyms. Rather than adhering strictly to the SAF-conducted Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) Preparatory Training, or IPT regime, NSmen will now be able to choose the type of exercise they prefer or need - can be cycling, running, doing weights or interval training - and then clock in their fitness progress via wearable devices. 

As long as they achieve the required calories and intensity, we will consider it a valid IPT session. This is a significant shift, giving NSmen choice, convenience and empowerment in improving their fitness. After all, fitness is an individual, and not an SAF responsibility. 

Individuals can only be effective if units are cohesive and servicemen have a strong sense of camaraderie forged through common experiences, which Mr Teo Ser Luck talked about.

Basic Military Training (BMT) is a large part of this shared NS experience. Since the establishment of the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) in 1987, it has become, as Mr Teo Ser Luck put it, a rite of passage for many male Singaporeans to complete basic training overseas - on Pulau Tekong. 

However, many full-time national servicemen (NSFs) do not go through BMTC. They are enlisted directly into combat units, in what is commonly known as mono-intake units. From this year, we will fully implement the One-BMT programme, where practically all combat-fit NSFs will undergo the Pulau Tekong experience. 

Hence, mono-intake units will now be enlisted to BMTC on Pulau Tekong for a common nine-week BMT and stay together as a unit from the start of their NS journey. These NSFs will benefit from BMTC's dedicated training experience, infrastructure and the use of technology. Most importantly, they will share a common experience, within the unit, as well as within the larger SAF tribe. 

Strengthening System Efficiency

A second major thrust is to strengthen system efficiency. This means improving the way the system deploys the right serviceman to the right job, to maximise his contribution and potential. 

The most important initiative under this thrust is the review of vocation requirements. Mr Ong Teng Koon asked about using technology to maximise the potential of servicemen. Indeed, it is because of technology that we are now in a position to review vocation requirements. 

So with technology, you can no longer draw a firm line between combat-fit and non-combat-fit. Take for example, the personnel operating autonomous systems in the control room - they are in combat, even though they are not physically exerting. So many more servicemen can now perform what could have only been done by servicemen who used to have to meet the most stringent physical requirements. For example, physical requirements and demands for vocations such as combat engineers and security troopers are now much less as we leverage technology. 

This has opened up opportunities for us to more meaningfully deploy national servicemen according to their fitness and abilities. Since last year, the SAF has deployed more than 600 servicemen to vocations that they were previously ineligible for. And the number will rise.

Mr Baey Yam Keng asked about the Vocation Interest initiative, where pre-enlistees will indicate their interest in 33 NS vocations across the SAF, Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Singapore Police Force. There is no guarantee that servicemen will get the vocations they indicated interest in, because the primary consideration is still our defence operational requirements. But we will take their interests into consideration during the deployment process and try our best to match them. Mr Baey Yam Keng mentioned that one group has passed their BMT but actually they have not. They have indicated their interest, and they have enlisted. Next week they will have their Passing Out Parade - complete and pass out of BMT.

Servicemen have found the initiative helpful. More than 80% of those surveyed felt that the initiative encouraged them to take greater ownership of their NS roles and responsibilities. Many asked for tough vocations, like infantry and guards. The inaugural intake of about 4,000 NSFs who indicated their vocation interest will be deployed to their respective vocations later this month. We will continue to refine and improve the system as we go along. 

We are also leveraging NSFs' talent in niche areas, such as cybersecurity through the Cyber NSF Scheme, which Ms Low Yen Ling asked about.

This was announced two weeks ago. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response, with numerous pre-enlistees writing in to express interest. We will be putting the applicants through a rigorous selection test on their skills and their aptitudes. We will not focus purely on their academic grades. The scheme has been launched as a pilot trial for those enlisting in the later part of this year.

Leveraging Technology 

Finally, throughout the SAF, we will deploy technologies that can reduce the demand on manpower, and yet maintain or enhance operational effectiveness. In recent years, we have taken many leaps forward.

Dr Ng Eng Hen has given a few examples. Another example will be our Smart naval bases. It uses a next generation screening system, using technologies such as biometric authentication, facial recognition, and automated threat analysis system. These improvements will reduce the number of security personnel required in the naval bases by 70%, while maintaining the same or even better level of security.

Mr Ong Teng Koon asked about leveraging technology to enhance the NS experience. Indeed, besides enabling manpower savings, such technologies can also create wonders on the ground, make NS a better experience, and raise morale.

Last year, we introduced an e-fitting system at Central Manpower Base (CMPB). Pre-enlistees no longer have to go through the tedious process of measuring all their body dimensions manually. This now will be done by infra-red body and foot scanners, to quickly and accurately fit pre-enlistees to their uniforms and sports shoes. The e-fitting system has also successfully reduced kit exchanges at BMTC from 20% to 6%.

We are embarking on a trial to further enhance the experience at CMPB during pre-enlistment screening. By using facial recognition and real-time queue management technology, we will optimise visitor flow and shorten waiting times.

Another innovation, which is quite cute, is an AI-enabled chatbot called "NS Buddy". I never had this when I was an NSman. At any time of the day, the serviceman could pose a question to the NS Buddy. For example, he can ask "What is BTP?" The Buddy will then explain that it stands for Basic Train-fire Package, and it will present the facts, and then also advise him to "Aim properly. Don't be a bobo shooter. Safety First!" We will be enhancing the NS Buddy in the next phase of the trial, expanding its content base and adding more SAF lexicons.

Support for NS

Mr Chairman Sir, for NS to continue to be the cornerstone of Singapore's defence, we need Singaporeans' support.

Ms Joan Pereira and Mr Cedric Foo asked about the community support for NS and recognition for national servicemen. Many of us must be heartened to witness the high level of public participation in NS50. Members of public, retailers, employers, government agencies, the arts community, and more, poured forward to contribute to the NS50 commemorations. 

I recently took over the Chairmanship of ACCORD from Dr Maliki - the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, and was so inspired by the enthusiasm and passion of its members. This is one of those Government committees where members after serving many years still say, "Can I please continue serving?" and they do not want to step down. 

We will continue to ride on the NS50 momentum to rally the community to support NS and recognise our servicemen. We have launched the "We Support YOU in NS" initiative to do so. Switzer Alliance is one of the participating merchants of this initiative. The owners felt that they had greatly benefitted from their NS experience and wanted to pay it forward - by offering special discounts to national servicemen on SAF Day and organising free seminars on topics of interest to national servicemen. We will continue to encourage employers like them to do so.

We will also encourage employers to have NS-friendly HR policies. We have made good progress since the launch of the NS Mark Accreditation Scheme in 2016. About 2,000 companies and organisations came on-board to pledge their support for NS. More than 35% of these companies have also attained NS Mark (Gold). 

Dr Teo Ho Pin and Associate Professor Randolph Tan asked about preparing our NSFs for life after NS. Earlier, I talked about improving individuals' performance in terms of fitness and operational skills. These are very basic, useful life skills. Further, in the process of developing these skills, our NSFs also learn valuable competencies such as leadership, discipline, resilience and teamwork. These are useful qualities that will help our NSFs perform well in their careers after full-time NS. In fact, I always advise male students that, of all the leadership programmes in the market, the best is the one that the SAF conducts, and that you acquire during NS. 

In January this year, we enhanced the Certificate of Service to recognise these qualities, as well as skills through a statement of attainment for Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) accreditation. Today, about 96% of our NSFs will go through NS training that will be WSQ accredited, especially those in areas such as Signals, Supply, Logistics, Maintenance, even Commanders' Training. ACCORD will continue to work with industry partners to expand the accreditation of NS skills and help employers recognise the value of NS. 

But having said that, we should be mindful not to lose sight of the fact that ultimately, NS is about ensuring the operational effectiveness of the SAF, it is a service to the nation, and it cannot become transactional. 


Mr Chairman, Sir, in conclusion, we must cherish our current level of support for NS, and do whatever we can to maintain or raise it even further. This is psychological defence at its finest, where the entire population lines up behind a national cause. When our enemies see our resolve and our unity, they will think twice. Thank you.

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