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The SAFVC Wayang: Screwing the Minority to Please the Majority

In today’s post, I am going to talk about  the announcement about the SAF’s new NS initiative for new citizens/PRs which has angered many Singaporeans and the possible consequences (if any) of this. So in case you have yet to read about this announcement about new rules that will start from next year, have a look at the diagram summarizing the changes below and the differences between the obligations faced by Singaporeans, PRs and new citizens.

Daddies across Singapore would be up in arms.

Daddies across Singapore would be up in arms.

Kindly note that second generation PRs and new citizens have the same NS liabilities as Singaporeans. Many Singaporeans have looked at the SAF’s latest move and concluded that the only sensible option is to leave Singapore for greener pastures elsewhere, when they think about the way the locals are treated in comparison to the PRs and new citizens. What can I say? I served 2 years 4 months of NS as I was born in Singapore and I think it is ludicrous and disgraceful that PRs and new citizens are treated better than Singaporeans. Can there be any reasonable justification for this discrepancy?

What is clear, however, is that most Singaporeans are simply going to shrug their shoulders and accept the way things are even if they are not happy. The vast majority of Singaporeans are not confrontational and those who try to pick a fight with the government often get into trouble. The other option, is the one that I have taken (and the one that Alvin Tan is advocating), the “you tak suka you keluar” option. I would like to look at the situation across both Singapore and Malaysia and explain why the solution is not as simple as “you tak suka you keluar” as some people just can’t keluar…

Now we are basically talking about a group of people who face discrimination in these countries. In Singapore, it is the male Singaporeans (approximately 30.7% of the total population of Singapore)  who are going to be saddled with the burden of national service whilst females, PRs and new citizens get a much better deal. So the segment of the population who are at a disadvantage are a significant minority at 30.7%, but are still a minority nonetheless.

How do they get away with it, you may wonder – the answer is simple: look at the figures. Whilst Singapore’s new NS policy is clearly unfair to Singaporeans, it ultimately only affects about 30.7% of the people in Singapore. Let me explain how I arrived at that figure: the total population of Singapore is 5.39 million, of which, only 3.31 million are Singapore citizens. If we were to divide that into two (assuming the gender split is roughly equal), then that means you have 1.655 million male Singaporeans who have that heavier NS liability. That’s 1.655 out of 5.39 = 30.7% only. So that is why the government can get away with discriminating against only 30.7% of the residents in Singapore. Singaporean women may say, “oh yeah that sounds unfair” but at the end of the day, they really don’t give a shit as it doesn’t affect them, until the time when they do have children then they have to consider if they want their sons to be subjected to this system.

So the rationale is this: if you screw a portion of the population, make sure that figure is low enough so you don’t cause so much displeasure that you will get mass demonstrations in the streets against the government, as seen currently in Hong Kong. If you implement a policy that will only piss off 30% of the population, then you are betting on the other 70% being selfish enough to say, “heng ah, lucky never affect me, too bad for that 30%, they very suay one.” That has pretty much the reaction in Singapore so far. Now imagine if the government did something to piss off the vast majority of residents in Singapore, such as raise income tax: then that may just piss off enough people to start a revolution – but the PAP is smart enough never to piss off too many people at one time.

This reminds me of an American reality TV show: Pirate Master. The premise of the game is simple: amongst the contestants, there is an appointed captain who takes the lion share of the loot (and we’re talking big money here – this is US TV) they earn through the challenges they get put through each round. Each week, one contestant will be voted off the ship. If the captain treats everyone too badly, they can vote for a mutiny and get rid of the captain. So the captain has to survive, protect his position by deploying the ‘divide and conquer’ tactic: he would isolate one or two individuals who are weaker and less popular , make them the scapegoats and ensure that they are the ones who get voted off each week. So if that means being extremely mean and bullying an individual or two, so be it – anything to prevent a mutiny.

I have seen this happen before on a smaller scale, in the context of an office: the boss has to maintain overall control of the company, just like the way the captain has to maintain control of his crew on the ship. So certain individuals are made an example of in this same process, this is to ensure that everyone else is kept on their toes and falls into line. ‘Divide and conquer’ is hardly new in this context – when I worked in a sales environment, the boss made sure he created a competitive environment so that the sales guys competed against each other rather than worked together. Clearly, there is far less of an incentive to be very nice to everyone if a side effect of that would be potentially to lose your firm grip of control – so by that token, why bother being nice?

Here’s the irony, as things get tough for male Singaporeans, we can wax lyrical about you tak suka, you keluar – but the bottom line is that those suffering most in Singapore are probably those who are least able to keluar dari Singapore . In Singapore, the taxi driver uncle has been the epitome of your typical Singaporean who has been left behind, unable to reap the benefits of the incredible economic growth, reduced to doing a job he is overqualified for. Where can your Singaporean taxi driver uncle go, if he has had enough of Singapore? What country will take him? He simply can’t leave as no other country will even give him a work permit. By the same token, those who can get out and get a good job elsewhere probably are doing pretty well in Singapore, so they don’t really feel a desperate need to leave Singapore as life is pretty darn good for them in Singapore. In short, those who are most able to leave probably have the least desire to leave Singapore – whilst those who want to leave Singapore the most probably have the least ability to do so. #irony

You tak suka, you know your way to Changi Airport, nobody’s stopping you…

Furthermore, not everyone is automatically better off if they leave. Leaving Singapore first and foremost means having somewhere to go to, where you would be better off. The obvious countries that come to mind are first world English speaking countries in the West like America, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, but increasingly Singaporeans are choosing other Asian countries like Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong as well. To survive well in another country, firstly you need a skill or a trade that will enable you to get good job – we’re not just talking about any old job to pay the bills, but one that is good enough for you to score you a work permit in these countries. Secondly, you need to have the social and linguistic skills to be able to integrate and assimilate successfully, so you will be able to build up a good network of social and professional contacts in your new country. 

Take my father for example: his inability to speak English would mean that he would be unable to move to a country like the UK or US. Taking him out of his comfort zone in Singapore and putting him in an English speaking country would be a nightmare for him. For people like my dad, the world is a very scary place out there because of not just the language barrier – but not being able to speak English well means that he knows very little about any culture beyond his own since he cannot read any English magazines, watch any American TV programmes or movies and thus has very little opportunity to engage any kind of Western culture, so whilst most cultural references in your typical Hollywood movie may seem pretty obvious to most of you, they are practically alien to him. The world outside just doesn’t make sense to him, so for someone like him, leaving Singapore is not even an option as he just cannot survive anywhere else.

American culture is one big puzzling mystery to my dad.

Perhaps using my dad is a somewhat extreme example – but there are plenty of Singaporeans who are in his position: quite simply, they do not possess the social, linguistic and professional skills to survive anywhere else apart from Singapore, so the best they can do is make the best of a bad situation in Singapore. There is wealth in Singapore, there are plenty of millionaires in Singapore and we are talking about the third richest country in the world here: surely with that much money around, one can find a way to solve the manpower situation with NS. You need more soldiers? Simple: increase the salary of SAF regulars and attract more young people to pursue a military career. That would make more sense than the current proposal which unfairly punishes the 30.7% who have to shoulder the responsibility of NS for 100% of the people living in Singapore.

So there you go, that’s it from me on this issue. Are you part of the unfortunate 30.7% in Singapore? How do you feel about your NS liabilities?

This commentary was first published on Limpeh is Foreign Talent.
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