The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has planned a revamp of the Basic Military Training (BMT) programme. Apart from adjusting the length of BMT for several categories of less-fit recruits, the revamped BMT will also “teach military customs and traditions, and will set aside time for commanders and soldiers to discuss current affairs”.
According to TODAY, for the past two to three years, recruits have been encouraged to keep journals on their training and urged to write letters to their loved ones during “mail runs” on field training. This is part of the SAF’s efforts to engage the troops “intellectually and emotionally”, according to Chief of Army, Maj-Gen Neo Kian Hong.
MG Neo said that “rather than just teaching them, we are also telling them the reason behind it.”
The idea for current affairs discussions between commanders and soldiers is something along the lines of what I suggested three years ago in an article written for Singapore Angle (reproduced on my blog) titled “Israel’s unprepared reservists: Could the thing happen to Singapore?”.
In my article, I discussed how the Israeli Defense Force’s embarrassing military failure in the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon could be partly due to the lack of psychological preparation of their citizen army. I cautioned that the same thing – or worse – could happen to Singapore.
We have the most technologically advanced military in the region by far. But can the same be said about our soldiers mental and psychological preparedness for war? In my 2006 article, I wrote:
“…an entire generation of Singaporeans has grown up not having experienced any national strife or threat of invasion. It is therefore not easy for them to appreciate the significance of training for an unlikely war. For many, National Service (NS) is just a phase in life to get over and done with. There is usually little ideological motivation for 3G NSmen to train for war, compared to their predecessors in the 1960s and 70s who witnessed our painful expulsion from Malaysia, the Indonesian Confrontation and the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore.”
For many NSmen, “SAF” stands for “serve and f*** off”. While I don’t expect the government to “wag the dog” and escalate tensions with our neighbours just get NSmen turned on about their duties, I think there is room for better preparing our soldiers mentally and psychologically for warfare. I wrote:
“The SAF needs to find more engaging and innovative ways to explain to all reservists — from officers down to enlisted men — the geo-strategic realities that compel us to maintain a strong defence capability. Reservists (and for that matter, all soldiers) should be given more in-depth briefings on our vulnerabilities as a little red dot in a potentially hostile region. These insights should go beyond the typical National Education lessons taught to secondary school students. Soldiers should be given more privileged information and analyses regarding the latest threats facing Singapore, of course without compromising state secrets. By doing so, the SAF will help our soldiers to better appreciate how they contribute individually to national defence.”
For this reason, I generally support the army’s plan to set aside time for commanders and soldiers to discuss current affairs, but with the following caveats:
Firstly, commanders should discuss genuine national and international interests of Singapore. It should not be used as an insidious way of injecting pro-government propaganda into recruits’ minds (not that our young men can be so easily swayed anyway).
Secondly, they should be discussions, not lectures. My understanding is that most of these activities currently take place in large lecture theatres. These are not conducive for discussions. It would be better for platoon commanders (PCs) to have smaller group discussion sessions with their men. Of course, one problem with this approach is that some PCs are young 19-year olds who are almost as cynical about national defence as their men. It may therefore be more effective to get the more senior officers to conduct these discussions. From my experience in SISPEC (School of Infantry Specialists, where the PCs are all warrant officers), I think some of these non-commissioned officers will be able to facilitate these discussions, given the right training.
Finally, there should be more information given out. There is no need to divulge national secrets, but the contents of the discussions should not be the same as what is discussed in national education classes in JC or polytechnics. For example, they could discuss Exercise Malindo Darsasa in more depth.
In 1991, the Malaysian and Indonesian military held a joint exercise from which culminated in an airborne assault by over 300 paratroopers in Kota Tinggi in southern Johor, just 18 km from Singapore on August 9th, Singapore’s National Day. The SAF triggered a massive Open Mobilisation on National Day eve, recalling thousands of troops.
The officers who were involved in that mobilisation could relate with recruits their experiences in the days leading up to and following that incident. This is something that few teachers can do with their students. The SAF could even bring back retired officers and NCOs to share with the young soldiers.
The same could be done with officers who have been sent by Singapore on international missions in Afghanistan, East Timor and other parts of the world.
All this will bring alive their training, to help them see that they are not just “serving the SAF” but supporting and defending the Constitution and protecting the independence of Singapore, as they have recited in the SAF Pledge.