Should we increase National Service allowance?

Posted On // Leave a Comment

A PAP MP's insensitivity to the harsh realities many Singaporeans face has once again put the spotlight on a contentious issue--the monthly allowance for full-time national servicemen. According to the news report, which has since been removed, but can still be found on unofficial sites:
Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo was also present. She addressed one participant's suggestion that national servicemen should be paid more. 

While she noted the importance of giving NSmen recognition, Mrs Teo said service for the country cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
What incensed many Singaporeans was the hypocrisy of receiving million dollar checks while refusing to adequately compensate national servicemen who serve the country too--national servicemen who arguably need the money a whole lot more than influential politicians born into privilege.

There's much to be said about the plight of national servicemen who cannot afford to spend two years earning an income that is below the poverty line. As Carlton Tan points out:
Although the government refuses to provide an official estimate of the poverty line, it’s possible to calculate it using existing formulas based on publicly available statistics. Alex Au has done that using Hong Kong’s formula which takes half the median income of resident households. He found that in 2012, the poverty line for Singapore was $956. Median household incomes have not increased much in the three years since. This is therefore still an accurate estimate of the minimum income a person needs to afford basic human necessities. At $550 a month, most servicemen are thus being grossly underpaid at a level far below the poverty line.
Why are we paying servicemen so little? That's a question the government hasn't really answered. The most common explanation is that because NS is the fulfillment of a person's duty, he shouldn't expect to be fully compensated while doing it. But there are a few problems with such a line of reasoning. First of all, there's no reason to make national servicemen suffer if we don't have to. It's no less honourable to defend your nation and be paid more while doing it. As Carlton Tan points out:
No country is better served, or better loved, by having its citizens suffer while they defend it. A serviceman’s patriotism ought to be measured according to how well he serves, not how well he and his family suffers while he serves. His debt is likewise fulfilled through his service and not through his sacrifice. The one who sacrifices much while serving and the one who sacrifices little while serving are both discharging their obligations equally.
In fact, it's highly hypocritical to say that ministers should be well-paid when they serve the nation but servicemen don't. The difference between the minister and the servicemen is not how well they serve their nation, but how much of a choice they have.

If the debate over ministerial pay has revealed anything, it's that the PAP still thinks it needs to pay its cabinet ministers exorbitant amounts to attract the best talent. This can only be because despite being in power for over 50 years, they haven't been able to attract talent in any other way. It's only logical, therefore, to conclude that the PAP ministers are there mainly for the pay, and they have plenty of other options available to them.

In contrast, servicemen don't have a choice. And because they don't, it's possible to pay them peanuts and they can't do anything about it. The real reason we aren't paying servicemen well enough, therefore, isn't because NS is a duty to the nation. It's because we can, and they don't have any choice but to suck it up. But is this really how we should treat our own citizens?

Based on Carlton's estimates, it's possible to fund the increase in NS pay given that it currently only takes up around 3% of the defence budget. But this is only speaking financially. The only way to actually ensure something like this gets done is by getting the PAP to wake up its idea. Maybe it'll take another humiliating defeat by a relatively poorly-funded and poorly-organised opposition party. We'll know in a year or so.