Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Heng Chee How, at the Committee of Supply Debates 2021

Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Heng Chee How, at the Committee of Supply Debates 2021

Mr Chairman, Defence Minister Dr Ng has emphasised the need for a forward-looking SAF to confront increasingly complex challenges. As the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) adapts to face these challenges, National Service (NS) must and will continue to be a crucial part of this transformation. NS continues to be the backbone of our defence, and we must strengthen NS for our Next-Generation SAF and a new generation of national servicemen.

We established the NS Review Committee (NSRC) last year precisely with this in mind. Let me share the committee's enhancements, focusing on three areas: first, maximising our servicemen's contributions; second, improving their health and fitness; and third, enhancing their service experience.

Maximising Servicemen's Contributions

Let me begin by speaking on maximising our servicemen's contributions. As Defence Minister described just now, with differing medical fitness levels, education backgrounds and skillsets, our servicemen can contribute to our defence effectively but differently and we seek to unlock their potential in several ways.

Optimising Deployment

First, establishing new vocations and redesigning existing ones for our Full-Time National Servicemen or NSFs. In recent years, new vocations have been established in the SAF in response to the changing threat environment, such as the vocation of Cyber Specialists who protect our networks and systems. For more established roles, Defence Minister has highlighted our redesign of jobs through technology, such as the development of unmanned watchtowers and unmanned surface vessels to augment our security troopers and base defence operators.

Second, better matching servicemen to roles where they can be operationally effective, regardless of medical fitness. This again, Defence Minister has mentioned earlier. We are redesigning our Medical Classification System and the Physical Employment Standard (PES) System to shift away from the binary classification of a serviceman either as Combat-Fit or Non-Combat-Fit for purposes of deployment. This system has been with us for a long time. Medical exclusions that used to limit deployments may no longer be so relevant in today's operational context, especially with the latest technology. The key idea is to deploy every soldier in a meaningful operational role, without compromising safety, and while maintaining and ensuring operational effectiveness.

We are therefore reviewing the use of functional assessments to determine our servicemen's deployability in specific vocations. For example, the SAF has introduced functional assessments to guide our selection of Transport Operators, just as a practical example. So what that assessment does is that it replicates the physical demands required for daily operations, enabling us to better match our servicemen's functional abilities to the role's actual demands. If successful, we will then extend this trial to other vocations such as Tank Operators. In other words, we look at the vocations, the jobs and the requirements for these jobs, as opposed to, are you rated ‘Combat Fit' or ‘Non-Combat-Fit', and then try to fit our servicemen into these two categories.

Third, helping our servicemen acquire new skills to better perform their roles. Ms Rachel Ong asked about the Work-Study Diploma (WSD), which we launched last September with the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). As a start, this is open to NSFs serving as Air Force or Army Technicians. Under the WSD, servicemen will undergo training to obtain a MINDEF-sponsored ITE diploma in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering or in Electrical Engineering. Spending three or four years in total with the SAF, these servicemen will be given a contract that will entitle them to the pay and benefits of an SAF Regular after they have completed a stipulated period as NSFs. The first batch of 37 servicemen will commence this programme this April.

These WSDs are MINDEF/SAF's latest addition to "work-learn" schemes for our NSFs. We also introduced the Cyber NSF Scheme in 2018. These schemes support our servicemen's professional development, while allowing them to put their learning into practice and contribute to MINDEF/SAF in the defence of Singapore. And we will continue to explore more such "work-learn" schemes in the future.

Beyond NSFs, we see a valuable opportunity to harness the useful knowledge and skills that our NSmen have attained through their studies and civilian work.

In 2019, we announced that NSmen with specialised civilian expertise can be deployed earlier in their Operationally Ready NS cycle to areas requiring such expertise, such as law and psychology under the Expertise Conversion Scheme. The scheme has served us well against a growing spectrum of non-conventional threats including in domains such as info-communications and maritime.

Moving forward, we will systematically expand opportunities to deploy NSmen with relevant civilian expertise. And we will increase the areas they can be deployed to, and establish a dedicated deployment centre to oversee this expansion.

Enhancing Safety

Even as we seek to maximise our servicemen's contributions for mission success, let me at the same time emphasise that safety will always be a central priority. It is always "mission success, safety always". Following the training accidents from 2017 to 2019, the SAF has invested even more significant efforts to enhance safety management in our units, train our commanders better in safety leadership, and establish an even stronger safety culture among our soldiers.

In enhancing these areas, we have continued to tap on external safety experts. This started in 2013, where MINDEF established the first External Review Panel on SAF Safety (ERPSS) to have safety experts from academia and industry provide an independent assessment of the SAF's safety systems and processes. The second ERPSS completed their 3.5-year tenure in December 2020. They have been extremely helpful to MINDEF/SAF in assessing the progress of the SAF's safety journey, as well as in highlighting opportunities for improvement. We also appreciate all the Panel members' participation in MINDEF's Committee of Inquiry (COI) for training accidents and the Panel's independent review of all COI findings on training safety.

Mr Alex Yam asked about the second ERPSS' findings. The second ERPSS acknowledged the efforts and progress the SAF has made to strengthen safety, and observed its strong command emphasis on building a positive safety culture. These efforts include internalising the importance of safety in SAF units' everyday activities and leveraging digital means to enhance safety management. The Panel also offered useful suggestions based on industry best-practices, such as benchmarking the safety training of our commanders, trainers and safety officers to those of industry standards. The SAF will follow up on these recommendations. Given the Panel's valuable contributions, MINDEF has accordingly commissioned a third ERPSS for another three-year tenure, beginning this year.

Apart from the ERPSS, the SAF conducts internal audits to ensure that there are robust safety management systems and a healthy safety culture in our units. The SAF Inspector-General's Office, or IGO, was formed in 2019, and it has just completed its first two-year audit cycle of all SAF formations. Mr Alex Yam requested an update.

Overall, IGO observed notable progress in strengthening the SAF's safety culture. There has been a sustained uptrend in open reports received in the past two years, where servicemen, regardless of rank, report near-misses and safety hazards. Our units have also made significant adjustments to their training schedule to commit time for safety, including conducting daily safety briefs and catering dedicated training time to obtain feedback from soldiers on safety. To overcome the rank gradient, our units have appointed rank and file soldiers as Safety Advocates to communicate and facilitate communication with their unit Commanding Officers on safety matters.

The IGO's audits also found that soldiers have responded positively to the safety measures implemented in the last two years, building on past efforts since the IGO's formation – with our commanders leading enhancements in unit safety processes and influencing their soldiers' safety mindsets. Nevertheless, given the constant turnover of servicemen, it is crucial that the SAF sustains these efforts, keeping our soldiers updated on the latest safety incidents and lessons learnt to avoid making or repeating mistakes and doing all we can to prevent accidents.

Ultimately, the SAF is committed to the vision of Zero Accidents. We must continue to uphold our duty of care to every serviceman entrusted to us, as highlighted by Defence Minister.

Our attention to safety extends beyond training safety systems, to ensuring our medical systems are progressively improved, which Ms Rachel Ong asked about. After all, our servicemen's health is paramount to their safety and their well-being.

In collaboration with DSTA and industry partners, we have developed a portable electronic medical records system, or what we call PACES Mobile. This enables our medical officers to access our servicemen's medical information remotely on their laptops. By providing our medical officers with the full medical history of our servicemen, including while they are on overseas exercises and deployments, PACES Mobile has improved medical safety and the quality of patient care. Since its launch in October 2019, it has been used and has supported 23 overseas exercises and over 2,000 patient encounters.

MINDEF/SAF will spare no effort to protect our servicemen. Yet the reality is that every military force around the world will have to deal with the prospect of injury and death among its soldiers. Mr Gerald Giam asked about our care for soldiers who suffer service injuries, and Ms Hazel Poa, the recognition for servicemen who die in service and the support given to their families. Our compensation framework takes reference from but goes beyond what is provided for by the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA). Any compensation amounts are generally in the area of between two to four times of that provided under the WICA. MINDEF will also pay for all necessary medical expenses of injured servicemen at government restructured hospitals, clinics and community hospitals for as long as is required. This includes the cost of medical supplies, counselling and specialist care.

Should these servicemen experience a loss of earnings after their release from service as a result of medical or hospitalisation leave, MINDEF will also compensate them for up to two years from the day after their service ends. Again, this exceeds WICA's provisions, where the compensation for loss of earnings is up to a year from the date of the accident. Over and above all this, MINDEF provides servicemen with life and personal accident insurance during their term of service.

Beyond compensation, injured servicemen may also receive financial assistance under the MINDEF's welfare schemes which can assist with immediate needs, depending on family circumstances. And this may include mid-to-long term financial assistance. Other forms of support are also provided based on the serviceman's and the family's specific needs, including medical arrangements and counselling support. These avenues of support extend also to the families of our deceased servicemen.

That said, no amount of compensation or assistance can replace a loved one. We know that, we agree. And that is why we take the trust that Singaporeans and Singaporean families have in MINDEF/SAF absolutely seriously and we will do everything we can to look after our serviceman. Every death in service is painful and carries immense significance for the family, and we in MINDEF/SAF certainly honour our fallen men and women. Ms Hazel Poa spoke of dedicating a day to do so. We already have that day – it is called the SAF Day and we have a Parade every year, in the presence of our President or our Prime Minister. In the course of that parade we remember specifically our men and women of the SAF who have fallen in the course of duty. Individual units and formations also hold remembrance events to honour these men and women who have fallen.

Supporting our NSFs

Our servicemen serve a critical operational need, and we greatly value their contributions. Yet we recognise that beyond serving the nation, our servicemen are also critical contributors to their families, some of whom face economic dislocation, for example last year due to the disruption brought about by COVID-19. Mr Don Wee asked about this. To enable our NSFs to focus on their NS obligations, MINDEF/SAF maintains a variety of financial assistance schemes, including ones designed to support immediate, acute needs, such as a sudden retrenchment in the family. Commanders have been paying special attention to signs of financial distress among NSFs during the pandemic, and where necessary and appropriate have helped with the application for such financial assistance. The assistance schemes have therefore been deployed in tandem with the evolving financial situation. The application process has been simplified and shortened, and we allow for more extensions.

Mr Don Wee also asked about the support available to NSFs anxious about entering a difficult job market after full-time NS. Under SkillsFuture@NS, NSFs can use their Electronic Pre-Release Employment Programme or E-PREP credits, for over 4,000 selected courses to update or acquire new skills. We also organise a quarterly Enhanced Career and Education Fair, where NSFs can access resources on career and education opportunities and attend customised SkillsFuture Advice workshops. Over 74,000 NSFs have benefited from these efforts since 2015. In addition, we have enhanced their Certificate of Service package to reflect not only our NSFs' achievements and contributions, but also their competencies gained through Workforce Skills Qualifications or WSQ. This serves as a useful reference for prospective employers.

Improving Health and Fitness

Let me now move on to the NSRC's second enhancement: initiatives to improve the health and fitness of our servicemen. We constantly seek to motivate our servicemen to keep fit and healthy, as this forms a good foundation upon which to build the SAF's operational capabilities. Ms Joan Pereira asked about this.

For pre-enlistees, I introduced the Pre-Enlistees Exercise Programme for NS, or PREP4NS, last year, where pre-enlistees can register for a complimentary one-year membership to six SAFRA gyms to improve their fitness.

Responses have been encouraging. Since its first trial in November 2019, about 5,000 pre-enlistees have been accorded the PREP4NS membership. More than 80% have visited the SAFRA gyms since mid-June last year. This is notwithstanding the difficulties posed by COVID-19. Obviously, if not for COVID-19, the response would be even greater. Many also reported improvements in their Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) scores. 33% more pre-enlistees attained a Gold after receiving their PREP4NS membership.

We are expanding the PREP4NS trial to include admission beyond the SAFRA gyms to 24 ActiveSG gyms across Singapore. Pre-enlistees can look forward to yet more facilities to prepare for Basic Military Training. Registration for the PREP4NS membership to the ActiveSG gyms will be announced later.

Similarly, we are mindful of the work-life demands on our NSmen's time and are exploring additional ways to provide more convenience and flexibility for NS fitness activities. This will motivate our NSmen to keep an active lifestyle, ensuring they remain operationally ready. We hope to announce more details soon.

Mr Chong Kee Hiong asked about initiatives to make our NS processes more convenient for our NSmen. Besides fitness activities, our enhanced Health Screening Programme (HSP) is a key example of this. NSmen who are IPPT-eligible and aged 35 and above undergo screening to ensure that they can safely participate in strenuous activities during In-Camp Training.

We have introduced two enhancements, which will benefit about 11,000 NSmen annually.

First, we can now complete the HSP for most NSmen in a single session instead of two, thus saving them an entire trip.

Second, we will establish a specialised HSP centre in our MMI campus in NUS Kent Ridge by mid-2021. This centralised location will bring greater convenience to our busy NSmen, who can expect shorter booking and waiting times.

Better Experience Through Digitalisation

Better experience through digitalisation is the next area I want to speak on. The NSRC's third focus area is enhancing every serviceman's NS experience.

Our daily activities are increasingly conducted on digital platforms. We therefore intend to leverage technology to enhance the NS experience. This is part of our digital transformation efforts, which is ongoing and which Defence Minister mentioned.

MINDEF/SAF has established an NS digital transformation plan for the next five years to develop digital products catering to our tech-savvy servicemen. We also have plans to consolidate all digital services throughout the NS journey on a single platform, which is what Mr Patrick Tay asked about. Our national servicemen are at the heart of our digitalisation drive, and we are committed to making NS-related services and processes ever more convenient and seamless.


Mr Chairman, let me sum up. As the SAF transforms to meet new threats, so must NS. We are committed to strengthening NS for a new generation of servicemen in three ways: maximising their contributions, improving their health and fitness, and enriching their NS experience.

We must never forget that NS was designed and put in place for an existential purpose. We need NS and we need an effective NS in order to safeguard our survival, our security, our freedom and our sovereignty. With committed and capable national servicemen, Singapore will continue to more than survive and to thrive. Thank you Mr Chairman.

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