National service
  The weakening numbers
  The first batch of 55,000 conscripts has been reduced by half; meanwhile cyber-attacks make an appearance. By Seah Chiang Nee
Nov 30, 2013

  (Synopsis: Two years from its 50th anniversary, the Republic is seeking ways to mitigate both security problems.)   

  SINGAPORE’S 46-year-old national service is being strengthened to counter a falling birthrate as the city moves a little closer towards a cyber-war era.

  The recent hacking of government websites has apparently speeded up implementation of a digital defence strategy that was already in place.

  Although relatively small-scale, the recent assaults on official websites have highlighted the urgency in the event of a much-larger offensive.

  A week ago, the government had announced a plan to spend S$130 mil over the next five years for research and human resources to defend against cyber-attacks.

   Knowing the nature of such requirements, it is likely that the plan will trigger off bigger budgets in the future.

  Singapore’s local expertise in this field may or may not be adequate against domestic predators, said an IT source. “But against global hackers, we have a long way to go.”

  At any rate, Singapore is too small and lacking cyber-war talents, and may need to work with the global players.

  In 2015, Singapore will celebrate its 50th National Day, a historic juncture.

  A security prelude to it is now taking place – the setting up of a committee led by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen “to strengthen national service”.

  Two developments mark the significance of this exercise, the first of which was the recent cyber-attacks against government websites.

  The second is the gradual decline in the number of national servicemen every year because of falling birthrates.

  In 1967, for example, the first batch of National Service conscripts totalled 55,000, but the current annual average is 27,000, only half that number.

  So as the population grew from three million in 1990 to 5.4 million in 2012, the number of annual 18-year-old NS men has continued to decline, a source of concern for state military strategists.

  Year after year, lower birth rates have reduced the number of 18-year-old men on call up for the two-year military service and, subsequently, 10 years of reservist duty.

  The population has grown significantly, but nearly 40 % are foreigners, most of whom are not required to serve.

  The defence committee was set up in March under Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen to consider, among other things, ways to offset the weakening numbers.

  They include a more effective use of technology and better training – as well as to allow women (for the first time) and older men to volunteer for national service.

  Earlier this year, the committee members visited Finland and Switzerland to look at how these Europeans involved women volunteers for a defence role.

  They are likely to serve for a shorter period than two years, in roles such as logistics and nursing that can free NS men for greater military activities.

  There is, however, another problem awaiting solution.

  It stems from employers’ refusal to hire local reservists who are liable for in-camp training (two-three weeks) every year, preferring foreigners who have no such obligation.

  This discrimination has upset many job-displaced Singaporean professionals. They have to bear the brunt of defence duty.

  Despite a growing reservoir of unhappiness, there remains a fairly large – albeit grudging - support base here for the NS institution.

  In addition the system, which has trained more than 300,000 soldiers, is also under pressure to have its length of service cut from two years to 18 months.

  One of the region’s smallest countries, Singapore has one of the world’s longest periods of national service and the world’s fourth highest defence expenditure per capita.

  In view of the tight manpower squeeze, some Singaporeans are hopeful that come 2015 when the Republic celebrates its 50th birthday, the government would announce a reduction in the NS period.

  “This would certainly be a big boost to the ruling party’s election political fortune if it chooses to do so,” a forum write commented.

  However, with the committee being tasked with “strengthening” national service and the conscription figures continuing to fall, this possibility seems unlikely to happen soon.

  Out of every four dollars spent by the government, one goes to defence, and Minister Ng Eng Heng has said the government is ready to increase it. He made no mention of the new emphasis on cyber defence.

  The recent hacking of a number of government websites, including Singapore’s major newspaper, has made everyone in authority sit up.

  The government has started plans to set up a pool of security experts. It wants to establish a Cyber Security Training Facility in 2014 to produce cyber defence experts.

  The trouble is: this has to be entirely self-reliant. It cannot outsource cyber security of government systems to outsiders without compromising its long-term safety.

  Unlike other areas like sports where outside talents can be bought, ensuring security of government establishments has to be Singaporean since they deal with confidential material.

  And the need comes at a bad time.

  Local IT engineers, who contribute to the potential pool of experts, have long fallen into bad times as a result of increasing work outsourcing and the mass foreign influx.

  At one time computer studies were attracting a large number of Singaporean students.

  I was told that at the peak one out of three tertiary students both at home and abroad had chosen this study.

  Now the opposite is happening. In recent years too many local software engineers or technicians - designers and programmers - have moved to other work as “foreign talents” moved in.

  Even then, not many were interested in cyber security and were contented to leave it to American companies to dominate the market.

  At any rate there is no complete stopping hacking. Life in this computer-dominated city is entering a more precarious phase.

  (This article was first published in The Star, Malaysia.)