National service: Later years
The Singapore government introduced national service (NS) in 1967 to develop and maintain a credible defence force manned by Singapore’s citizens, given the withdrawal of British military forces from the city-state by the 1970s.1 Since then, all male Singapore citizens and permanent residents are liable for NS from the age of 18.2 There have been several changes to the NS scheme over the years; currently, each enlistee is required under the Enlistment Act to serve as a full-time national serviceman (NSF) for a maximum of two years.3
From 1967 to 1970, male Singaporeans were conscripted under the National Service (Amendment) Act. Then on 21 May 1970, the Enlistment Bill was passed, and the Enlistment Act came into force on 1 August 1970.4
National service organisations
Conscription began in 1967 with 900 of the 9,000 eligible conscripts enlisted into the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for full-time NS. The rest served part-time in the People’s Defence Force, which was then part of the Ministry of Interior and Defence; as well as the Vigilante Corps and the Special Constabulary, both of which came under the Singapore Police Force (SPF).5 Part-time NSFs were required to serve for a period of 12 years, or upon reaching 40 years of age.6
On 24 July 1975, the first intake of full-time police NS officers was enlisted.7
In 1981, full-time NS was extended to the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), and a pioneer batch of 94 NSFs was assigned to its Construction Brigade in October.8 The brigade, which equipped its NSFs with construction skills that might be needed in an emergency or in times of war, had its last batch of NSFs in November 2002.9
Currently, male Singaporeans are still conscripted to either the SAF, SPF or SCDF for NS, with the majority of the enlistees assigned to the SAF.10 Within the SAF, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) have been taking in NSFs since 1969 and 1970 respectively; the largest number of servicemen is absorbed by the Singapore Army.11
As at 2014, over 900,000 male Singaporeans have served NS.12
Full-time National Serviceman
Length of service
Full-time NS liability was set at two years when NS was introduced in 1967, but subsequently increased to three years in 1969 for those selected for officer training.13
When the Enlistment Act took effect on 1 August 1970, the stipulated full-time NS duration was unchanged: two years for all Singapore citizens and permanent residents but three years for officers.14 In the following year, however, the full-time NS liability of all NSFs who attained the rank of corporal and above was revised to two-and-a-half years – a reduction from three years for officers and an increase from two years for non-commissioned officers such as corporals and sergeants.15
Since then, the first major change to the length of service took place more than three decades later. Commencing with the batch enlisted in December 2004, all NSFs serve two years of full-time NS, thus reducing the duration by six months for NSFs with the rank of corporal and above (NSFs who have attained “A”-level and diploma qualifications or higher are promoted to at least the rank of corporal). The change was made as a result of two key factors. The first was the SAF’s reduced reliance on large numbers of soldiers as a result of technological advancements in the military. The second factor was the projected increase in the annual intake of NSFs for 10 years starting from 2006, due to the higher number of births from 1988 to 1997.16
All male Singaporeans and permanent residents are required to enlist into full-time NS by age 18. However, it is possible to defer conscription in order to complete studies.17
To enable youths below 18 years old to serve full-time NS earlier, the Voluntary Early Enlistment Scheme was introduced to allow male Singaporeans between 16½ and 18 years of age to enlist for NS. The scheme was started in 1986, and officially announced to the public on 6 December 1991.18
Basic national service training and subsequent deployment
Prior to 1991, NSFs assigned to the SAF were required to undergo three months of basic military training (BMT). In January 1991, the BMT course was extended from three to five months for obese recruits. The extended BMT provided these recruits with a more progressive physical training programme to reduce weight and minimise training injuries, as well as to enable more of such servicemen to be deployed to combat units eventually.19 More refinements to the BMT were made thereafter. These include the introduction of a four-month BMT course in June 1991 for enlistees who were not obese but deemed unfit. This was later discontinued with the introduction of a two-month physical training phase prior to BMT for those with inadequate fitness levels in June 1993.20
Currently, NS recruits in the SAF are assigned to different versions of BMT with durations ranging from four to 19 weeks, based on their medical status and physical fitness levels.21
NSFs deployed to the SPF and SCDF are also required to undergo basic NS training known as the Police Officers Basic Course (POBC) and Basic Rescue Training (BRT) respectively. As in the case of BMT, recruits are assigned to different versions of the POBC and BRT according to medical status and fitness levels.22
Following the completion of basic NS training, NSFs may be sent for vocational training before being deployed in the units – such as logistics, air force and navy units for those who have completed BMT. Those identified during BMT and BRT to possess leadership potential are selected for officer or specialist training.23
Under the mono-intake system introduced in the early 1980s, NSFs assigned to units such as combat engineer and commando in the SAF are trained and remain with their cohort in their respective units throughout the entire period of full-time NS.24
Operationally Ready National Servicemen
NSmen were formerly known as reservists. The term “Operationally Ready National Servicemen” – with “NSmen” as the official short form – was adopted on 1 January 1994 and, correspondingly, the reservist units were renamed NS units. As these citizen soldiers account for some 80 percent of Singapore’s armed forces, the name change aimed to emphasise their vital role as combat-ready frontline troops, and not a force held in reserve.25
Length of service
When NS was introduced in 1967, male Singaporeans who completed full-time NS were required to undergo NSmen training for 10 years, and their NS liability continued until the age of 40, whichever was later.26
When the Enlistment Act came into force on 1 August 1970, the maximum age for NS liability was extended from 40 to 50 for officers and persons with special skills required by the SAF.27
In 1983, the training cycle of NSmen was increased from 10 to 13 years. The three-year extension was made as Singapore’s nationwide family planning programme had resulted in lower birth rates, which in turn led to a decline in the number of NSFs.28 Over two decades later in 2006, the in-camp training for NSmen was shortened back to 10 years – a result of the SAF’s greater reliance on superior technology and less on large numbers of soldiers, as well as an expected increase in the annual intake of NSFs due to more males born between 1988 and 1997.29
Measures for maintenance of physical fitness levels
In 1980, the Ministry of Defence introduced the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) to keep NSmen physically fit.30 NSmen were initially required to take the IPPT twice per year, and those who failed the test had to undergo a physically intensive seven- or 10-day in-camp remedial programme known as residential training.31
The IPPT and remedial programme for the less fit have undergone a series of refinements over time. These include the replacement of residential training with a longer and more progressive non-residential programme known as remedial training (RT) in 1994, and the introduction of the voluntary IPPT preparatory training programme in 2006 to complement the RT.32 Currently, NSmen are required to take the IPPT at least once a year.33
NSmen are required to take part in mobilisation exercises conducted by the SAF, SPF and SCDF to test and validate the operational readiness of NS units.34 Open mobilisations are broadcast through mass media including television and radio, as well as in omnitheatres and cinemas. For silent mobilisations, the primary means of notification are telephone (home, office and mobile) and facsimile. Mobilisation notices are sent to the homes of those who cannot be contacted through the primary means.35
On 8 July 1985, the SAF conducted Singapore’s first open mobilisation exercise. It involved some 10,000 NSmen who were recalled via messages broadcast on television and radio as well as through cinema notices.36 Prior to that, only silent mobilisation exercises were held, which entailed telephone and pager calls, as well as delivering recall messages by courier service and messengers to the homes of NSmen.37
Due to urbanisation and Singapore’s limited land area, both NSFs and NSmen have been sent overseas by the SAF for large-scale training and exercises to enhance operational effectiveness. The training destinations include Taiwan, Brunei, Thailand and Australia.38
Under the Enlistment Act, NSFs and NSmen are required to apply for the exit permit (EP) before leaving Singapore for an extended period of time. Specifically, EPs are required for trips three months or longer by NSFs, and six months or more by NSmen. In addition, NSmen are required to notify the Ministry of Defence if they are travelling abroad for more than 14 days.39
1. Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man: What Parents Should Know about NS (Singapore: Public Affairs Dept., Ministry of Defence, 1990), 5 (Call no. RSING 355.2236095957 MY); Tim Huxley, Defending the Lion City: The Armed forces of Singapore (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 13. (Call no. RSING 355.3095957 HUX)
2. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 13; “National Service,” Contact Singapore, accessed 2015.
3. Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man, 4.
4. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 13–14; Parliament of Singapore, Considered in Committee, Reported and Third Reading of the Enlistment Bill, vol. 30 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 21 May 1970, col. 55 (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN); “New Call-Up Act Now in Force,” Straits Times, 2 August 1970, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “History,” MINDEF Singapore, accessed 2014; “Police National Service,” Singapore Police Force, accessed 18 December 2014; “2 People’s Defence Force,” Singapore Army, accessed 18 December 2014.
6. “Call-Up Bill: All the Details,” Straits Times, 2 March 1967, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Singapore Police Force, “Police National Service.”
8. Singapore Police Force, “Police National Service”; Parliament of Singapore, Civil Defence Force (Development of), vol. 43 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 20 March 1984, cols. 1390 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN); Parliament of Singapore, Construction Brigade, vol. 42 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 4 March 1983, col. 417 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
9. Parliament of Singapore, National Servicemen (Deployment at Construction Sites), vol. 77 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 20 April 2004, cols. 2859–60 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
10. Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man, 15; Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 258, 264–5.
11. Mickey Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 1997), 85, 90 (Call no. RSING 355.22 CHI); MINDEF Singapore, “History”; Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 258–9, 262.
12. MINDEF Singapore, “History.”
13. “Call-Up Bill”; “Powers to Deal with the Draft Dodgers,” Straits Times, 12 June 1969, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “New Call-Up Act Now in Force”; Parliament of Singapore, Considered in Committee, col. 49.
15. Parliament of Singapore, Full-Time National Service Duration, vol. 78 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 15 June 2004, col. 56 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN); “Call-Up Policy Changes,” Straits Times, 5 November 1970, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Parliament of Singapore, Full-Time National Service Duration, 57–60.
17. Contact Singapore, “National Service.”
18. Dominic Nathan, “Scheme to Let NS Men Enlist Earlier Announced,” Straits Times, 7 December 1991, 1 (From NewspaperSG)
19. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 97; Parliament of Singapore, Main and Development Estimates of Singapore for the Financial Year 1st April, 1991 to 31st March 1992, vol. 57 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 13 March 1991, cols. 437–8. 2859–60. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
20. “20 kg Lost in 3 Months,” Straits Times, 5 April 1991, 1; Dominic Nathan, “NS Stint for Fit Recruits Reduced By a Month,” Straits Times, 23 April 1991, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Parliament of Singapore, Estimates of Expenditure for the Financial Year 1st April to 31st March 1994, vol. 60 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 11 March 1993, col. 986 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN); Mathew Pereira, “Scientific Raining Approach in Store for NS Enlistees,” Straits Times, 24 June 1993, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man, 16.
22. Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man, 19, 21.
23. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 98; Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 373 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man, 39, 45, 48.
24. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 97.
25. “Reservists to Be Known as NSmen,” Straits Times, 7 December 1993, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Parliament of Singapore, Considered in Committee, Reported and Third Reading of the Enlistment Bill, vol. 63 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 31 October 1994, col. 638. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
26. “Call-Up Bill: All the Details.”
27. “New Call-Up Act Now in Force”; “The Middle Aged Who Will Be Called Up...,” Straits Times, 22 May 1970, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Parliament of Singapore, Considered in Committee, col. 48–49.
28. “‘Yes’ to 13 Years,” Straits Times, 17 March 1984, 18; “Reservist Cycle’s Extension Explained,” Singapore Monitor, 17 March 1984, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Goh Chin Lian, “NS Call-Ups Cut to 10 Years,” Straits Times, 12 August 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 373–4.
31. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 105; “Reservists Who Keep Failing IPPT to Go on New Training Programme,” Straits Times, 4 December 1993, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Reservists Who Keep Failing IPPT”; David Boey, “Volunteer Programme to Help NSmen Pass IPPT,” Straits Times, 27 October 2006, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 374.
33. “Your Role as NSmen: Requirements & Responsibilities: Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT),” MINDEF Singapore, 29 October 2014.
34. MINDEF Singapore, “Fact Sheet: Mobilisation and Equipping Exercise,” press release, 14 September 2013; Singapore Civil Defence Force, “Conclusion of SCDF-SPF Joint Open Mobilisation Exercise on 1st March 2014,” press release, 1 March 2014.
35. “Your Role as NSmen: Mobilisation,” MINDEF Singapore, accessed 29 October 2014.
36. Michael Lim, “Night of the First Open Mobilisation,” Straits Times, 8 July 1985, 1; Paul Jansen, Michael Lim and Chua Chin Chye, “First Open Recall a Success,” Straits Times, 9 July 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 97; Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 138.
38. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 136–7.
39. Armed Forces, Singapore, My Son the NS Man, 12.
R. Menon, To Command: The SAFTI Military Institute (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1995). (Call no. RSING 355.2232095957 MEN)
The information in this article is valid as of 16 February 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Politics and Government