Mr Chairman, Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen spoke yesterday about the challenging landscape in which the SAF needs to operate. National servicemen form the bulk of our defence and security force, and National Service, or NS, is the bedrock of our national defence, giving us the firm foundation for Singapore's survival, security and success.
For the past 55 years, generations of Singaporean males have served their country through National Service and done their duty. As we commemorate 55 years of NS this year, it is timely for us to reaffirm our commitment towards ensuring that our NS system remains relevant to the needs of the SAF in protecting our country and to national servicemen.
Dr Ng outlined the key changes arising from the NS Review Committee, or NSRC's work. Allow me to provide more details. The NSRC's work and the changes it proposes can be grouped into three broad thrusts. First, maximising the contributions of servicemen. Second, improving the NS experience. And third, enhancing support and recognition.
Maximising Contributions of our Servicemen
Let me start with the first thrust, maximising contributions. As Members of the House know, our birth rates are low. What this translates to is smaller NS cohorts 18 years hence. In this context, the SAF has to find different ways to continue to optimise the deployment of every resource and every national serviceman, in order for our national defence to remain robust.
Mr Mohd Fahmi Bin Aliman and Mr Lim Biow Chuan asked for updates on the medical classification system review and functional assessments. Dr Ng had given the overall view yesterday and I will elaborate on that. The SAF has implemented functional assessments for our full-time national servicemen, or NSFs, to complement our existing medical screening processes. Functional assessment allows us to assess our NSFs' abilities to perform physical tasks required for the job in order to better match them to vocations with greater precision, and to enable them to discharge their duties well and safely. These assessments have been developed in consultation with external physiotherapy specialists, alongside SAF physiotherapists from our Centre of Excellence for Soldier Performance. They have also been trialled prior to implementation to ensure that the outcomes would be effective in not compromising the safety of our servicemen. Our trial on functional assessments for the Transport Operator vocation in 2021 has improved our deployment process and enabled more NSFs to be safely deployed as Transport Operators.
Riding on this success, we have implemented functional assessment for pre-enlistees with orthopaedic conditions. These tests will be administered by trained SAF physiotherapists when the pre-enlistees report for medical screening, according to established protocols. These pre-enlistees will then be deployed to the relevant vocations according to their abilities.
At the same time, to further expand deployment opportunities, the SAF has continued to redesign existing jobs for our NSFs. Take the example of the redesign of the Medic role. Leveraging advances in medical technology and efforts to define the physical demands required for each specific role, servicemen of varying physical capabilities can now be deployed as Medics. This approach has enabled the SAF to maximise our servicemen's potential to contribute to the SAF's operational requirements.
Mr Chairman, I have been speaking of optimising deployments from the angle of physical fitness and job requirements. But there is also another angle which is equally important, and that concerns skills, knowledge and expertise of our servicemen. Our population may be small, but it is increasingly well-educated and well-skilled. Future conflicts will not be decided solely by force size and numbers, but also – to an increasing extent – by technology and know-how. The SAF should increasingly grow, and tap on, the expertise of our national servicemen.
Mr Chong Kee Hiong asked about MINDEF's plans for the Work-Learn schemes. We have established Work-Learn schemes for several critical skills-based SAF vocations. Eligible NSFs can join these schemes to receive accredited training and education from Institutes of Higher Learning, whilst performing their NS roles. The servicemen benefit from these qualifications and work experience gained. The SAF is also able to tap on these servicemen's expertise for a sustained period of time.
The first Work-Learn scheme was introduced in 2018. Four years on, there are now 130 servicemen enrolling in Work-Learn schemes every year, serving as cyber specialists, as well as Air Force and Army Technicians. In the years ahead, we expect to expand the Work-Learn schemes to cover more roles and vocations, based on the SAF's operational requirements. At steady state in 2025, we expect 500 servicemen to enrol in Work-Learn schemes every year. This year, the SAF will introduce another two Work-Learn schemes. One is the Digital Work-Learn scheme for eligible servicemen to pursue undergraduate degrees in areas such as Computer Engineering and Data Science. The other is the Work-Study Diploma for Supply Supervisors.
Our efforts to optimise expertise-based deployment also cover Operationally-Ready NS, or ORNS. A good number of our NSmen acquire expertise through their civilian careers and these are relevant to the SAF. A key priority for the SAF is to identify these NSmen during ORNS and deploy or redeploy them where their expertise can be put to best use.
Last year, I spoke about the establishment of the Expertise Deployment Centre within the SAF. With dedicated resources devoted to identifying and redeploying NSmen with relevant expertise, the number of expertise-based redeployments has gone up considerably. One of our redeployed NSmen is ME4A Jeremy Yeap. Jeremy is a lawyer specialising in dispute resolution and he wanted to contribute further with the skills and experience that he has in his role as a lawyer. ME4A Jeremy, who had served as an Air Force Engineer, was redeployed in 2021 and now provides specialist legal advice to commanders as part of SAF operations.
Mr Seah Kian Peng asked how expertise-based redeployment would be expanded. I would like to highlight a key change arising from the NSRC's recommendations. When we launched the Expertise Conversion Scheme, or ECS, in 2014, the landscape was one where expert roles tended to be at the officer-level. Eight years on, we have expanded expertise deployment across all levels, including roles assumed by Warrant Officers, Specialists and Enlistees. For this reason, we will also rename the ECS the Enhanced Expertise Deployment Scheme.
Improving the NS Experience
While we invest significant effort to optimise deployment, we must not forget that a strong SAF is contingent on the commitment and morale of its fighting force. This brings me to the second thrust of the NSRC's work, which is that of improving the NS experience. A number of Members asked about this. At the core of that experience is the NSman. We therefore design our processes around that. So that the NSman can be very focused while he is training, knowing that the organisation is there behind him, cares for him, does everything to make sure that his contributions are maximised for the protection of this country, and takes care of his safety and his well-being.
Yesterday, Dr Ng touched on our plans to automate the Make-Up Pay claims system. At present, the filing of such claims is done manually by NSmen and their employers. Later this year, MINDEF will introduce an automated system which draws on income-related information from CPF Board and IRAS to compute Make-Up Pay amounts. NSmen and their employers will be provided the opportunity to review the computed amounts. If no objections or queries are raised, the amount will be paid out to them automatically. For the bulk of NSmen and their employers, this greatly simplifies the process and saves time. Those who believe that the computed amounts are not up-to-date or accurate can submit additional information for recalculation so that the right amounts are paid up.
Today, some NSmen, mostly from lower income segments, may receive income from informal job roles, gig employment or other payments such as training allowances and incentives which may not be captured in databases of CPF Board and IRAS. As mentioned by Dr Ng, along with automating Make-Up Pay computation, we will be implementing a base NS pay. Starting later this year, all NSmen will receive at least $1,600 for every month of In-Camp Training they are required to attend. For In-Camp Trainings of shorter durations, the allowance will be pro-rated.
Aside from automating Make-Up Pay claims and base NS pay, allow me now to also talk about two other initiatives which will improve our servicemen's NS experience.
Mr Chong Kee Hiong asked about how MINDEF leverages technology to improve NS processes. I am pleased to announce that the first phase of the OneNS platform will be rolled out later this year. This will replace the existing NS Portal, providing a more seamless experience for our servicemen. Our national servicemen perform several transactions with MINDEF/SAF throughout their NS journey. The idea is to centralise these transactions and essential NS services onto the OneNS platform and render it more accessible via a single mobile application or a revamped web portal. For a start, NSmen can look forward to enhanced Call-Up and Deferment eServices, to facilitate preparation for In-Camp Training. Other eServices will be rolled out subsequently and progressively.
MINDEF has also collaborated with the Smart Nation Digital Government Group to digitally deliver NS recognition benefits to our national servicemen. Since November last year, MINDEF has been disbursing the NS Excellence Awards and Celebratory Gifts in the form of e-credits that can be accessed via LifeSG. In the past, the recipients received their benefits in the form of physical vouchers. With the change, they are now able to receive, carry and redeem these credits conveniently via their mobile devices. The credits can be used at both online and brick-and-mortar shops that accept payment by PayNow QR. Thus far, 97 percent of surveyed users said they had a satisfactory experience with the improvement. Come April this year, servicemen will also be able to use their credits with merchants that accept NETS QR. With this change, an even broader range of merchants will be able to benefit, including heartland shops and hawkers. A greater array of merchants and merchandise is a value-add to our servicemen.
MINDEF will move our other cash and voucher-based recognition schemes, such as the cash payments for NS HOME, onto LifeSG. By mid-2022, MINDEF and MHA will disburse NS recognition benefits to 100,000 national servicemen via LifeSG every year. Quite apart from the convenience this will bring to our NSmen, this will also greatly contribute to our national drive to foster the mass adoption of e-payments and to go green and paperless.
Our national servicemen who have received NS recognition benefits via the LifeSG mobile application will receive SMS notifications that these credits have gone into their account. We are very conscious in sending out these SMS notifications. We will ensure that these SMSes have no clickable links.
Recognising and Providing Support for National Servicemen
This brings me to the third thrust of the NSRC's work – enhancing recognition and support for our national servicemen. Our national servicemen contribute to defence during their two years of full-time NS and at every subsequent In-Camp Training. There is sacrifice as well – as we have heard from Members – and there is support from their families. We appreciate this greatly. Ms Rachel Ong asked about our recognition initiatives for our national servicemen.
As mentioned by Dr Ng, we will enhance the NS HOME awards to better express our appreciation to our national servicemen and their loved ones. We will disburse an additional $2,000 in cash to each national servicemen cumulatively across the three existing NS HOME milestones – $1,000 in cash at the first milestone, and $500 in cash each, at the second and third milestones. Our national servicemen will now receive at least $6,000 at the end of their full-time NS and at least $5,500 at the mid-point and at the completion of their ORNS journey.
The additional $2,000 cash will be paid out as credits into our national servicemen's LifeSG mobile application. This complements the current NS HOME payment, of which the bulk is disbursed into national servicemen's CPF accounts for long-term financial needs. As I explained earlier, these credits can be used at merchants ranging from e-commerce platforms, to brick-and-mortar shops.
The change will benefit 54,000 SAF and Home Team servicemen every year.
Beyond recognition, we also want to provide our servicemen and their families with peace of mind when they participate in NS activities. Since 2016, MINDEF and MHA have been purchasing Group Term Life and Group Personal Accident core insurance coverage for all MINDEF and MHA servicemen, for a sum assured of $150,000 each. We have reviewed this, and come 2023, we will increase the coverage to $300,000 each. This will help ensure that the financial support and protection we accord our national servicemen remain relevant and adequate.
Mr Chairman, the NSRC has completed its reviews, which have been significant in strengthening the NS system and the SAF's operational effectiveness. We want to thank the co-chair and members of the committee for the good work. Aside from the changes Dr Ng and I have outlined, the NSRC has made three other broad recommendations, which we will continue to follow-up on. Mr Henry Kwek asked about this. We will continue to work on first, enhancing our training and leadership development programmes for national servicemen. Second, better equipping our NSFs with transferable skills and preparing them for the transition to studies or work. And third, better supporting pre-enlistees as they balance their NS-related obligations with their personal pursuits.
I shall now move to speak about another topic that is critical – training safety. As we continue to enhance the NS system, our safety practices on the ground must also continue to be robust. The SAF therefore places a very strong emphasis on strengthening safety culture through regular audits and inspections, by leveraging technology and by constantly reminding both commanders and men to internalise the safety culture; look after yourself, look after your men.
Dr Wan Rizal asked about the third External Review Panel on SAF Safety, or ERPSS, which MINDEF/SAF started last year. The Panel was established to review the SAF's safety management systems and to make recommendations to improve safety in the SAF. A positive observation made by the Panel was the continual enhancements to the Safety Management System at the Basic Military Training Centre, where a slew of safety and mental health support measures have been implemented to better help recruits transit from civilian life to military life. The Panel also noted the efforts to scaffold safety training across the leadership schools to ensure our commanders conduct training safely. The ERPSS will continue to highlight best industry practices during their continued visits to our ground units.
Internally, the SAF Inspector-General's Office has commenced its second two-year audit cycle of all SAF formations. Mr Don Wee asked about this. Compared to the first audit cycle, commanders and servicemen were observed to have taken even more ownership in upholding safety practices and displayed more awareness towards potential safety hazards. Going forward, the SAF will continue to sustain its emphasis on safety policies and processes, to ensure that safety lessons will be passed on even as we see the constant turnover of servicemen. But we must ensure that the safety culture is entrenched, practised and improved.
Dr Wan Rizal also asked how MINDEF harnesses technology and digitalisation to further strengthen training safety. We are developing an enterprise Safety Information System for commanders to disseminate information on safety trends and lessons across the SAF. This would provide better awareness of safety situations, make safety promotion more targeted and reduce the risk and likelihood of similar incidents recurring elsewhere within the SAF.
However, safety is not just the responsibility of commanders. Every soldier must play his role too. The SafeGuardian mobile application, which I last spoke about at COS 2020, has played a significant role in enabling our servicemen to report safety hazards and near misses in a timely manner. Since its roll-out to our active servicemen in June last year, we have seen a 20 percent increase in open-reports being filed. The SafeGuardian mobile application has empowered our servicemen to take greater ownership of their own safety and the safety of those around them. Besides open reporting, we are also encouraged that over 37,000 users have viewed the SafeGuardian's in-application safety information thus far.
Mr Lim Biow Chuan asked about other recent efforts to enhance training safety. MINDEF/SAF will be collaborating with DSO and the National University of Singapore to establish the Heat Resilience and Performance Centre in the middle of this year. We recognise that rising ambient temperatures due to climate change will increasingly impact the well-being of our servicemen and the effectiveness of our SAF's training and operations. Thereafter, we look ahead to see what it is that we need to do in order to sustain our ability to train safely and effectively, and to upkeep operational readiness. This centre will conduct forward-looking research on heat mitigation strategies and develop more fundamental approaches to prevent heat injury in the SAF.
Mr Chairman, as we celebrate 55 years of NS this year, we all recognise that NS remains the cornerstone of our national defence and security. We must continue to build on previous generations' efforts and dedication to the protection of this country and the strengthening of our NS system. This is work that will never cease, and the NSRC's recommendations add to this effort to put us in good stead.
Thank you, Mr Chairman.