Mr Chairman, Minister for Defence Dr Ng had just spoken about the need for national servicemen to train well and to train safely. Indeed, the strength of National Service (NS) is contingent on the fighting spirit of our national servicemen. Our servicemen must undergo tough and realistic military training for the SAF to be an effective fighting force capable of safeguarding Singapore's sovereignty. At the same time, a strong SAF that can defend Singapore must be built without compromising the safety of those serving.
The SAF Safety Procedures and Protocols
Mr Charles Chong asked about balancing operational readiness and safety. We understand the anxiety of our soldiers and their families, arising from the recent training-related incidents. MINDEF and the SAF take the trust, confidence and expectations that Singaporeans have in our NS system seriously.
The SAF's safety protocols are audited and assessed by independent professionals from outside the SAF. This is done consistently. Allow me to share two examples: the External Review Panel on SAF Safety, or ERPSS, is a standing panel commissioned to assess the SAF's safety management systems and help ensure that the SAF's standards and processes are sound and aligned with industry best practices.
More recently, the External Review Panels for Heat Injury Management, which is called the ERPHIM, and the External Review Panel for Combat Vehicle Safety, ERPCVS, were convened in 2018. They assessed the safety procedures to prevent heat injuries and to ensure the operational safety of vehicles. Where shortcomings are discovered, the SAF has and will sharpen safety measures, to further reduce the risks and prevent recurrences.
Just as a further point, the Army will strengthen training supervision and enhance safety equipment to improve combat vehicle safety. These and other specific measures that were shared in this House, we will implement them as soon as possible and some have already been. This demonstrates our unwavering commitment to safety.
Strengthening Safety Culture at All Levels of the SAF
We will not only address individual incidents, but will seek to enhance training safety at every level of responsibility. Senior Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim asked about how the SAF is strengthening safety culture at all levels of the SAF.
As Defence Minister highlighted earlier, an Inspector-General Office has been set up to inspect and audit the safety practices across the SAF. This Office, led by the Chief of Staff – Joint Staff, reports to the Chief of Defence Force and the Permanent Secretary of Defence to enforce safety procedures, practices and to reinforce safety consciousness and culture from the highest level, so as to ensure that command emphasis on safety is consistently applied.
On the ground, the SAF has renewed the focus of commanders on safety. Commanders have comprehensively reviewed safety management plans and the overall training tempo. They know that they must lead by example in driving safety as a topmost priority. The Army will also ensure 100% inspection of all high-risk and field training. We want, through concrete action, to reassure Singaporeans that training safety is a top priority for MINDEF and the SAF.
Ultimately, safety involves everything that I have mentioned, but it also involves more than sound systems and top-down measures. Safety must be a part of our organisational culture, one that every soldier at every level has a role to own, to build and to foster.
The SAF encourages open reporting. Mr Charles Chong asked about this. What does it mean by open reporting? Open reporting means that any servicemen can, at any time, report risky behaviour or near-misses, and safety breaches. The servicemen know that they can do so without fear of penalty. They can call the 24-hour safety hotlines for the Army, Navy and the Air Force. Caller identities are kept anonymous. There are other measures by which they can also surface the feedback, so the 'open reporting' is about wanting to engender and to ensure openness in the culture; that you are encouraged, indeed, to bring these up.
On enlistment day, recruits are briefed by commanders on how they can report safety breaches. Prior to training, soldiers can identify safety risks using risk assessment checklists and raise concerns to their superiors in a small group setting. This encourages them to look out for their own and their buddies' safety.
Since last year, the SAF has been developing an application called 'SafeGuardian', which will allow SAF servicemen to use their mobile phones to report workplace hazards and to instantly share them with other servicemen. So when a serviceman is in camp, he notices some sharp wire fittings that could potentially cause injury, that serviceman can take a photo of that using the SafeGuardian app, and inform relevant SAF safety officers so that immediate action can be taken to remove that hazard and to remove that risk. Their buddies nearby will also be informed via safety alerts to their mobile phones.
'SafeGuardian' can also provide access to safety checklists on-the-go. Compared to the moment, where these forms are only available in physical terminals within the camps.
This app will begin trial in our Naval Bases starting from March this year. It will be implemented in phases to the rest of the SAF as soon as possible.
This effort will help enhance a safety consciousness and reinforce the point that safety is 'By All, For All'.
Ms Cheng Li Hui asked if we could recognise fallen servicemen, including erecting a memorial. The SAF honours our servicemen and women who die in service. Every year, the SAF observes a minute of silence at the SAF Day Parade to remember our fallen soldiers in the presence of our President or the Prime Minister as the Reviewing Officer. Individual units or formations also hold remembrance events to honour those among their ranks who perish during operations or training. We will never forget their sacrifice to keep Singapore free from those who want to do us harm.
On this note, we also want to thank all our national servicemen for their commitment and dedication. Allow me now to speak on how we will enhance the experience for our national servicemen.
Enhancing the NS Experience for Every Serviceman
Mr Zainal Sapari asked about the importance of NS to Singapore. Securing Singapore's freedom is a sacred duty shouldered by our national servicemen, and it is only right that we continually think of ways to support them.
Our national servicemen have to balance personal and NS commitments, and we must strive to increase convenience for them by reducing administrative burdens wherever possible. This will help them focus on their training. We will also maximise the potential and tap into the abilities of our increasingly better-educated pool of servicemen so that they can contribute even more meaningfully. Mr Baey Yam Keng had asked for updates on our efforts.
Our operationally-ready national servicemen (NSmen) are required to notify the MINDEF Notification Centre (MNC) and Home Team Overseas Notification Centre (ONC) of their overseas travel of less than six months duration, which can currently be done via the NS Portal or by text. From 1 March today, we will remove this notification requirement. Servicemen just have to keep their contact details, including temporary contact information, updated on the NS Portal.
Removing this requirement will not compromise operational readiness because other exit control measures such as the requirement to apply for an Exit Permit before traveling overseas for periods of six months or longer, will continue to apply. Control measures could be tightened if the need arises.
Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Chong Kee Hiong asked how we intend to maximise our manpower resource with falling cohort sizes. How can we do more with fewer?
Besides better technology, equipment, process and job redesign and training of NSmen, many NSmen also have relevant and important niche civilian expertise in fields that are relevant both to the civilian side and to the military, such as nursing and info-communications. NSmen with such expertise can now contribute to defence with their civilian expertise earlier in their Operationally-Ready NS training cycle. Previously, they had to complete the full 10-year training cycle before conversion to a role that allows them to utilise their civilian expertise. Now, if found suitable, they can be deployed to roles such as nursing officers and network communications officers after completing two High-Key In-Camp Training stints and have served five ORNS (Operationally Ready National Service) years.
A second example: pre-enlistees are screened at the SAF Medical Classification Centre prior to enlistment. They will be assigned an appropriate Physical Employment Standard, or PES grade, so that each person can serve the nation based on his capacity and capabilities. This will include NSFs with disabilities. For instance, soldiers with hearing impairment or musculoskeletal disabilities, where found suitable, are assigned to support or administrative vocations, where they are deployed safely and are able to also contribute very meaningfully during their NS stints.
We certainly also value the contributions from women to national defence. Since 2014, women have served in the SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC), in areas that support the SAF's operational and training requirements. And our pool of SAF volunteers comprises a good mix of males and females, with almost half being women.
Mr Arasu Duraisamy asked about our partnerships to support skills upgrading. Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) from the SAF and the Home Team dedicate two years to focus on full-time training. Today, certain soldiering, fire-fighting and rescue competencies are accredited under the WSQ, or the Workforce Skills Qualification standard.
To keep pace with national focus on skills mastery, we seek to support the NSFs' transition to higher education or into the workplace. A suite of initiatives called "SkillsFuture@NS" will be launched this year with public and private sector partners.
And what can our NSFs look forward to under these partnerships?
First, more resources for skills upgrading after full-time NS. Today, NSFs are granted $350 worth of e-credits for them to subscribe to about 200 online courses. These courses are offered by our local universities and polytechnics. These e-credits are valid up to a year after they complete full-time NS.
We will extend the use of these credits to about 3,000 selected courses, up from the 200. Amongst these courses will be a good number of SkillsFuture Series courses that focus on emerging domains such as data analytics and cybersecurity. We are also working with Institutes of Higher Learning to offer customised courses. NSFs may take these courses to obtain credit exemptions from relevant diploma or degree programmes after they complete their full-time NS. E-credits can also be used for these courses.
For example, NSFs can use their e-credits to take a course on 'Introduction to Cloud Architecture' offered by the Temasek Polytechnic (TP). Upon admission to TP's part-time Specialist Diploma in Cloud Data Centre Technology and Management, participants who complete these online courses will be granted partial exemption from one module. This will go some way toward supporting our NSFs' learning journey.
Second, career discovery and exposure. This month, MINDEF/SAF will co-deliver a career orientation experience with SkillsFuture Singapore. This initiative is supported by our five Community Development Councils and the NTUC's Employment and Employability Institute (e2i). SkillsFuture Advice workshops will be customised at the quarterly Career and Education Fair held for the NSFs.
We conducted a pilot of this career orientation workshop at Jurong Camp. One of our combat engineers, 21 year old Corporal Ritesh Kumar, said that the workshop helped him understand the various pathways available after he completed his full-time NS. He felt that this gave him and his buddies more useful guidance about their next stage in life. We will take in our servicemen's feedback and suggestions to refine and improve the SkillsFuture@NS effort in the years ahead. Next, strengthening support for NS.
Strengthening Support for NS
Mr Henry Kwek asked about our plans to engage the community on NS issues. First, I want to express our thanks to ACCORD members for their valuable contributions toward the mission (of) working with educational institutions, businesses and community groups to strengthen community and total support for our defence and National Service.
One of the highlights through the good work of ACCORD in 2018 was the inaugural Women's Boot Camp. 103 women out of 1,000 were selected for the camp. So 1,000 applied for 100 places. In the end, 103 were accommodated. It is an overnight camp, so two-day one-night camp. That camp gave the women participants – whom I understand have ages that range from 13 to 64. It is a wide range, therefore there are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends and friends of servicemen, and what they got was a glimpse of military life. They came out seeing NS as tough, but necessary.
One of them is 50 year old Ms Koh Wee Min. She is a mother of one of our NSFs. When asked about her experience, Ms Koh said that it gave her a taste of some aspects of military life through participation in iconic NS activities such as clearing the Standard Obstacle Course. She said and I quote, “I can now support my son emotionally and psychologically. This will also allay some concerns I have about training safety. I could see that safety is paramount to their training. It is reassuring to know that servicemen will get progressive training before they tackle more challenging tasks.”
This year, we will run another camp so as to continue to engage our community and also this very important constituency, namely the other half of our population, the women, so that together we can strengthen this support for NS and for the defence of our country.
Our servicemen have told us that sharing photographs of their NS experiences in camp would also help them to build a stronger sense of community. We have been exploring ways to allow servicemen to share their personal NS memories and experiences online, while safeguarding security of sensitive information.
We are now working on a digital repository called 'NS Memories' that will give servicemen access to official photographs of themselves and their buddies. Over time, the repository will catalogue the experiences throughout the NS journey. It will allow servicemen to share these photographs on their social media. We will conduct a trial with an active infantry unit for 'NS Memories' this year. And if proven successful, we will expand the initiative.
Mr Chairman, the success of NS is measured by the peace safeguarded and maintained – day in, day out, year after year. Every day of peace that Singapore enjoys is testament to the effectiveness of our deterrence, diplomacy and defence. With a strong and resilient NS system that enjoys wide and deep public support, we can continue to be confident about Singapore's future.