The weakening numbers
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
Although relatively small-scale, the recent assaults on official
websites have highlighted the urgency in the event of a much-larger
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
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
Two developments mark the significance of this exercise, the
first of which was the recent cyber-attacks against government
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
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
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
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
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.)