Thursday, 10 March 2016

Singapore National Service - Freedom is Not Free

National Service is Necessary and a Costly Privilege because Freedom is Not Free.
Singapore – The Perils and Risks of Freedom

The death of any soldier on active service in the defense of Singapore is always a sad and sorrowful affair.  The untimely and premature death of the late Private Dominique Sarron Lee during an important training session is regrettable. 

Fatal training accidents inject a sobering experience to the call of national service duty, where all physically fit and eligible male Singapore citizens and permanent citizens are privileged to serve for up to 2 years upon reaching 18 years old. 

The call for more transparency in letters to the newspapers and in social media in this case of Pte Dominique’s death after the smoke-grenade training is understandable but, in my view, unnecessary and would even pose dangers to our soldiers and the rest of us NSmen.  The last thing we want is to let our prospective enemies know how realistic and comprehensive we have prepared our armed forces to protect Singapore and our way of life.  It should however lead Singaporeans to appreciate even more the ultimate sacrifice (to be) paid by many NSmen to keep our freedom and nation intact, and our loved ones safe. 

For NSmen like myself, it is yet another reminder worth repeating of the fragile geopoliticals surrounding Singapore for a better understanding of the perils and risks of war that may one day breach our shores and skies, and be grateful that the constant vigilance and readiness of the Singapre Armed Forces (SAF) has kept Singapore free and safe for our growing prosperity over the past 50 years.

Today, Pte Dominique’s death forces me to ponder, again, the meaning of sacrifice for my country. As a natural-born Singapore citizen, I have always regarded national service as the singular privilege and honour of citizenship. My son grows up holding his head high and proud as a citizen of a sovereign nation, as he looks ahead expectantly for his turn on Singapore’s watch towers.  He knows and understands, as do most young Singaoreans in his cohort, that “some must fight, so that all can be free!”.   

Many young male Singaporeans today see national service as a mere rite of passage.  Some consider it a necessary evil that interrupts their further higher education or joining the marketplace. A few Singapore Permanent Residents prefer to leave the choice of national service to their sons later, forgetting the benefits of safety and security provided by thousands of NSmen enjoyed by their sons during their 18 formative years.    

I remember that it was 5 years after completing my national service that the full meaning of sacrifice hit me in a most unmistakably crystal manner.  I travelled to Normandy, France, to gain an appreciation of D-Day in June 1944 when the Allied Forces invaded Europe to begin the end of the 2nd World War.  When I turned towards the cliffs high above Omaha Beach, I was suddenly confronted by huge sprawling fields of cemeteries strewn with thousands of white crosses for as far as my eyes could see.  They extended for many, many kilometers.

The guide book stated that more than 9,000 Americans were buried there, with another 5,000 from Britain together with a few hundred from other Allied countries, Germany and Russia, among them. 

For the Americans, they had travelled nearly 6,000km to fight the enemy; and many had perished on the beaches even just as the battles had barely begun. Comparatively, my modest NSmen reservist combat role, at that time, was to defend a stretch of Sembawang beach in North Singapore!  Nonetheless, the goal was equally noble: to defend Singapore’s sovereignty at all cost, including my life.

Today, as Singapore joined Pte Dominique’s family in remembering their loss and celebrate his life, we must not diminish his sacrifice as he answered the privileged call to national service.  I have no doubt that Dominique Sarron Lee, my fellow NSman, wanted to protect this country and our way of life so often taken for granted.  He is a hero, our NSman hero.

Training accidents are not new.  Realistic training designs are developed to empower the soldiers and save their lives during actual battle conditions.  Accidents do happen in spite of abundant safety regulations and measures. The SAF has so many safety regulations and measures today that range from being hydrated before and during running, warming-up before exercises, adequate sleep, buddy system, competent instructors, proper weapon handling; training exercise operating procedures … etc.

I also remember a few tragic fatal incidents: trained instructors died throwing themselves onto live grenades when their recruits froze after throwing them; soldiers died when vehicles they were driving overturned on unfamiliar mountains outside Singapore; a soldier pointed a machine gun at his buddy in jest with safety off and pulled the trigger accidentally; soldiers committing suicides for various reasons; death of a water-boarding trainee … etc.  

Where the SAF is concerned, every incident and accident is investigated without fear or favour. NSmen who have ever been involved in such investigations will attest to this.  The main objectives have always been to uncover recklessness and negligence if any, and to assure that the incidents would not repeat.  Hence, SAF training safety and measures are often reviewed and improved upon after every incident whenever necessary.

Blaming and demeaning the SAF, calling the SAF insulting names and accusing the SAF of cover-up do not honour the memory of Pte Dominique Sarron Lee.  It also denigrates and disrespects the SAF in preserving and maintaining the security and safety of Singapore. Worse, it also dishonours all of us NSmen who wear the SAF uniform. 
Truth is, some of us will die during training accidents and even during peace time as we strive beyond pain and sweats to protect our precious freedom of a sovereign nation, and our way of life as a multi-cultural, multiracial nation regardless of race language and religion.  

Let the perils and risks of our treasured freedom unite us as we remember those like Pte Dominique Sarron Lee who perished as they sought to protect it through national service.

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