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Employees use reservist as an excuse to chao keng. Employers should do more to help them.

For us to continue living the way we do, how much do we need to depend on our international relations?

As it turns out, more than you think. A cursory glance through the Department of Statistics Singapore’s surprisingly trendy website reveals that our imports and exports amount to over S$1,000 billion – and that’s just for 2018 alone. 

From there, it’s one thing to take notice of Japan, China, and the United States which rank among our top trading partners, but another to truly consider just how intrinsically entrenched they have become in our lives. If you find it hard to imagine a secular world with no top-of-the-line iPhone XS Max-es to flaunt your frequent Taobao sprees as you queue to feed your Don Don Donki sweet potato habit, I wouldn’t blame you. 

I’d probably choke on my Meiji milk trying myself.

If the recent spate of affairs around the world have taught us anything, it’s that there are no winners in trade wars and embargoes. Naturally, it stands to reason that safeguarding our way of life is aligned with our interests. 

Reservist article - pioneer magazine
You know, in case you forget.

Now, don’t get me wrong. 

I’m a Singaporean male, and that means I’m no stranger to the koyok sold lessons imbued to us through our time in National Service. 

”Remember who you’re protecting,” that one line that enciks mouth at every other pep talk and cohesion, as the riveting end of choice for their sharing of time-honed wisdom. It sticks, and it works. In almost no time, we recall our friends, our pets, and our loved ones and return to serving the nation with a refreshed fervour.

For a while, at least. Messages like these tend to go in one ear and out the other – after a few hours, if not minutes. 

We return to going through our mandatory two years, either with chagrin or ardor – or both, depending on our views on National Service – before celebrating our ORD and resuming civilian life. 

It doesn’t take too long for reservist training to come following after, and we absolutely hate it. 

Don’t trust any of us. We secretly love to reservist. 

IPPT is our favourite legitimate excuse to leave work on time. And a whole two weeks away from that annoying colleague or boss? Hell yes. 

Reservist call-ups are where we enjoy a brief reprieve from our hectic work life, and once again have everything handed to us. For me, in particular, being a shipboard naval NSman means that I get to enjoy being whisked into the midst of some ocean every time I go, i.e. to say, I can’t – and don’t – have to reply to your emails. 

For many reservists, ICT Call-Up notices are just their yearly invitation to another endless flurry of canteen and smoke breaks away from work, with some minor instances of (heavily-guided) training in between. It’s no wonder that the image of the modern NSman is now someone who actively lives his best life by basically being a wastrel.

Coincidence? No. Stereotypes exist for a reason.

Which begs the question: why is this so? 

Are the NSmen to blame? Or is it the system that is flawed? Short answer, it’s us, the NSmen, and we should stop placing the blame on the government. Long answer as follows. 

We can start off by being pragmatic and understanding that MINDEF and the government’s systems aren’t perfect. Incidentally, that also means realising and accepting that the systems are run by humans, who also aren’t perfect. 

By the virtue of being run by humans, it can never be. Sometimes the top brass contrives bad ideas. Sometimes they come up with good ones, but execute them in baffling manners that leave you wondering just where all the thinking soldiers have gone. 

(Canteen break, probably.)

In fact, while apropos of nothing, take the example of the “technological upgrade” a certain base’s canteen underwent in 2017 when I was still serving as an NSF. A good number of hawker-vendors were replaced by a singular Chef In Box vending machine, that promised the allure of piping hot meals in minutes. Live up to the promise it did, but only one at a time. Having a bento served out in exactly 180 seconds meant that merely the tenth person in line could only receive theirs no less than 1,800 seconds later (30 minutes).

But it could be better now. Maybe I just happened to be part of the test “pioneer” batch. 

We should start to give credit when credit is due. MINDEF and its executives are often at the brunt of our verbal pitchforks for their implementations, but they do take feedback seriously in a bid to improve. And boy do they try. 

Reservist article - SGSecure app reviews
It doesn’t help that many of the government initiatives – such as SGSecure – are often met with comments that are hilarious but are otherwise unhelpful for anyone else.

Most prominently, you could be one of many Singaporeans lamenting how training for IPPT is disruptive to your work-life balance. Not to mention that you have to do it for ten whole years lest you end up in Remedial Training (RT)?! If only MINDEF took our feedback and made it better for us. 

If only. 

I’m going to take a stab in the dark here, but I’m guessing you now benefit from the current 3-station IPPT format, which was revamped in 2015 from the previous 5-station system after taking into account the sentiments of servicemen.

Because it entails money, you might also know that MINDEF readily rewards individuals for their time and effort by offering monetary incentives for those who manage to perform well in IPPT – $200 for a Pass with Incentive, $300 for a Silver, and $500 for a Gold. 

Incidentally, you might even be aware that those who don’t manage to pass are also duly compensated for their time for every RT session they clock in.

But here’s the kicker: Did you know that it gets even easier from here? Realising that NSmen tend to need improvement at only certain aspects of physical fitness, there now exist specialised training sessions tailored for weight loss, increased metabolic rates, and the such, which can be attended in selected gyms and parks? And if you’re wondering, yes, these wham-bam sessions at Marina Bay count towards RT. 

In fact, because these assemblies are held at public areas, you may even have your family join you for the exercise if you so wish. Weird, I know. But at least you could go to the mall right after.

Reservist article - RT session at Bishan Park
Never mind, whole lot fall in at …Bishan Park.

Long story short, the Singaporean government pays you to keep fit, and wants to know how to improve on it even more. That’s almost as ridiculous as Iceland, which promises $5,000 to immigrants who travel to marry their women. Unfortunately, the latter has been debunked as fake news overshared by sensationalists, but you could actually get $5,000 in Singapore by getting 10 Golds for your IPPT, or going for a mixture of RTs and other awards. If you found the Icelandic piece of news insane, I don’t see why you can’t find the Singaporean one too.  

Even if you are exempt from IPPT, you will find no lack of quality-of-life improvements consistently being doled out by the government either:  

For instance, did you know that so long you are an NSman, you are eligible for yearly tax relief of S$1,500, which doubles if you participate in an NS activity that year? Which basically translates to a tax relief of up to a thousand and a half dollars every year for doing nothing being operationally ready, and more if you actually did something. Of course, the amount of relief you get will be dependent on your financial situation and your income.

If you have a wife, she gets a sizeable relief of up to $750 too. 

If you ORD-ed within the past few years, you might also remember the E-PREP courses introduced to you nearing the end of your NS. There’s 3,000 of them now, many of which can be used to grant you credit exemptions at relevant Institutes of Higher Learning. 

On the off chance that you are a member of HomeTeamNS or SAFRA – that’s the Singapore Armed Forces Reservist Association by the way, in case you forgot there’s an entity dedicated to you – you get access to their six facilities islandwide respectively. Just by being a member of either, you are entitled to a haul of exclusive-not-so-exclusive discounts, of which the most appealing ones as of writing are up to 15% off on ZALORA and subsidised dental surgery.

Let’s put our cards on the table here. MINDEF has always been piling on support for its personnel, and maintains an open channel for feedback and communication. It even proactively hosts outreach programmes such as the women’s boot camp held in 2018, and is planning another one later this year – all to better understand the needs of Servicemen, from even the perspectives of their families. 

Which brings me to an Employers’ Visit I was invited to. The half-day programme at Changi Naval Base earlier this year aimed to give employers a look into what goes behind each ICT training, and what is it exactly that their NSmen employees were protecting. I represented myself as an NSman, of course.

Reservist article - Changi Naval Base

We were given tours of various ships and systems, and a run-through of how trainings were conducted. For me, it was a refresher. For employers, it was an eye-opener.

Most notably, it gave the employers insight on how MINDEF’s resources, assets, and operations are configured to suit the country’s needs. For example, adopting digital interfaces for military systems allows more work to be done with fewer people. Going beyond the oft-repeated fact that Singapore could use all the manpower it’s able to muster, it also means that each crew member now has more opportunities to develop other skills with the time saved.

Furthermore, a heavily understated benefit specific to the NSmen is that the use of digital systems makes their reservist roles significantly easier. Being able to rely on technology – rather than memory – can be a game-changer when you’re usually called up only once a year. 

But what does all that have to do with the employers?

It’s the first step: education.

For employers and businesses to better support National Service, they need to understand just what it is their employees are doing at their camps when they reservist. The visit is one of many initiatives from the SAF’s ongoing efforts to foster stronger ties with the public and to help those without, or with different types of NS commitments understand the key roles their NSmen play during their respective ICTs.  

Employers that are recognised for their support for National Service are conferred the NS Mark, a national-level accreditation scheme.  

This is where you doubting Thomases might judge this as another bout of pious fluff – but I urge you to rescind your thoughts. 

For companies to receive the NS Mark, they must implement policies that benefit those with NS and reservist commitments, which includes rewarding good ICT performance and considering an NSman’s Certificate of Service and testimonials for potential hires.

If it isn’t already apparent, the NS Mark means many things to many people. It’s basically the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) for those with NS obligations. The most important point to take home from all of this is that the government is actively looking out for its NSmen, and has made it their job to make sure we can do ours better. 

Even till now, continual efforts are underway to reach out to employers to attain the NS Mark for their companies, recognising the skills and values inculcated into NSmen through their efforts and training. As much as some of us are loathe to admit, MINDEF has set strong precedence for a forward-looking nation that appreciates the effort of its citizens.

So perhaps, as we count down the days until our next reservist call-up, the question we should ask ourselves isn’t so much “why do we serve?” but “who’s serving who?”.

If you are an employer or wish for your employer to register for the NS Mark, find out how to do so at https://www.mindef.gov.sg/oms/nsmark/.

Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team. Photo of the Employers’ Visit at Changi Naval Base courtesy of MINDEF.

The tax portion of this article has been edited for clarity.

Kane Kwek

Small-time tech enthusiast. Always on Kickstarter. Into Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Uses unnecessarily big words. Perhaps a gasconader.

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