Singapore: Time to raise national service pay above the poverty line
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Singapore: Time to raise national service pay above the poverty line

When Wilfred Owen wrote the famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum est,” he was not just describing the horrors of World War I, he was also condemning his government’s propaganda machine for glorifying a gruesome war in order to discourage draft evasion.

He famously wrote at the end of his poem:

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Translated:

The old Lie; it is sweet and honourable

to die for your country.

For Owen, the lie was not telling soldiers they were fighting a necessary war. The lie was telling them it was glorious, and that the more you sacrificed, the more glorious it would be; death being the ultimate sacrifice.

In Singapore, a similar lie is often repeated, and it is an equally old one. It goes:

It is sweet and honourable

to keep your country safe at SG$1.70 (US$1.25)/hour.

It is a lie because there is nothing inherently noble in sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. The fact that you are defending your country is what makes your service honourable. Whether you sacrifice more or less doesn’t change that. Being paid more doesn’t diminish the value of your service because the purpose of your service is the defence of your nation, not self-flagellation.

National service in Singapore

National service (NS) is Singapore’s version of conscription. Every male citizen and second-generation permanent resident who reaches the age of 18 has to serve two years in the military, the police or the civil defence force. The draft was introduced two years after Singapore’s independence in 1967 to shore up the defences of the vulnerable city-state and deter foreign aggression. Since then servicemen have been, and continue to be, paid a pittance for their sacrifice.

Regardless of the necessity of NS or the vulnerability of Singapore, Singaporeans who serve NS should be fairly compensated in monetary terms. As it stands, most servicemen currently receive a monthly income that is far below the poverty line.

Service pay below the poverty line

Most servicemen will only reach the rank of corporal, and only in their second year. At that rank, servicemen receive a monthly pay of $550. This is a meagre amount considering the high cost of living in Singapore. It is also far below the poverty line.

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NS allowance. Source: MINDEF

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.

A small minority of servicemen, usually those with a polytechnic or junior college education, will reach the rank of sergeant or second lieutenant by the second year, and will draw a pay of $800 and $1000, respectively. However, these servicemen also tend to come from financially secure families and thus do not need the extra allowance as much as those from low-income families.

The current justification for the meagre pay most servicemen receive simply isn’t good enough.

Justification #1: Potato, potato (Po-tay-to, po-tah-to)

A common refrain among members of parliament (MPs) and commanding officers is that the service pay is an allowance, not a salary. They argue that because an allowance is, by definition, only meant to “support our full-time national servicemen in their basic personal upkeep,” servicemen should not expect their pay to serve as a form of monetary compensation for their time and effort. But this is a poor argument that doesn’t do anything more than restate its own premise through a definition. It doesn’t explain why servicemen aren’t entitled to a pay that does more than allow them to buy the bare necessities. It doesn’t explain why servicemen shouldn’t be given enough money to support their family, save for a HDB flat, or invest for the future. It also doesn’t explain why servicemen shouldn’t be compensated monetarily for their time and effort with a salary based on the market rate.

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HDB flat at Queenstown. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

What you choose to call it is only of secondary importance. Whether it is a service pay, an allowance, a salary or a wage, the point of giving servicemen money in return for their service is to achieve a certain purpose. It is that purpose, or the limitations imposed on that purpose, which requires justification.

Given the high housing prices, most Singaporeans will need to save up for a long time to afford a HDB flat. Many also come from low-income homes and have to start supporting their families as soon as possible. The loss of income, relevant working experience and opportunities for job advancement, therefore cumulatively represent a significant opportunity cost that most Singaporeans cannot afford. The reality of the situation is what ought to determine how much we pay our servicemen, and not the arbitrary drawing of a distinction between an allowance and a salary.

At the end of the day, servicemen are working adults who would otherwise be earning a monthly income. The $550 they receive every month is their monthly income, no matter what you choose to call it. And such a monthly income is way below the poverty line. Expenses for food and clothing may be fully provided on weekdays, but this barely makes up for the $400 difference. And unless one lives in a cardboard box during the weekends, one will still have to pay for shelter for the entire month.

Justification #2: Patriotism, duty and honour

It’s always odd to hear Ministers speak of duty to one’s nation when they draw million-dollar salaries annually. Whatever claim they might have had to speak authoritatively about patriotism is undermined by the sheer extravagance of their own salaries (or should I say, allowances). Hypocritical as this may be though, the argument—that national servicemen should not expect a salary at market-rates because they owe a duty to their nation—never rested on the moral authority of our politicians. To harp on ministerial salaries would thus be to miss the point and perhaps even to undermine our own argument.

The argument from patriotism is premised on the notion that every Singaporean owes a duty to the nation, if not to their families and friends, to protect it from foreign aggression. Therefore, the serviceman who serves is fulfilling his duty; he is repaying his debt and guarding the hand that feeds him. It follows then that to demand additional compensation would be an act of ingratitude, a violation of an unwritten code of honour; and to ask for a salary would be to treat national service as a mere job—to work for money—and not as a duty. But this is more rhetoric than anything else. It is an old lie that conflates sacrifice with patriotism, servitude with duty.

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.

Thus, whether a serviceman is being paid $550 or $956, as long as he completes his two years of service and does it well, he has fulfilled his duty. Paying a serviceman as if it is his job doesn’t make it any less his duty just as being loyal to a company doesn’t make it any less of a job. The two—duty and job—are not mutually exclusive. They are considerations that can be made separately. We, therefore, shouldn’t be afraid of paying servicemen for doing a job that is at the same time their duty.

Justification #3: Give to Caesar what is due to Caesar

This justification is usually only given implicitly. The implicit argument here is that because citizens owe a debt to their country, they do not need to be fully compensated for their service since part of what they would have earned goes to repaying their debt. Of course, something as distasteful as this can never be said aloud. So, the only way to maintain this belief while simultaneously believing that a citizen’s duty cannot be measured in monetary terms is with some very risky doublethink.

Thus, when the Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo said that an NSman’s service to Singapore cannot be measured in dollars and cents, she was trying to emphasise the value of national service (NS) but was instead accused of diminishing it. Unfortunately for her, she was caught in her doublethink.

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Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo. Pic: NTU Nanyang Chronicle

The Minister has an unenviable job. She can think of no better way to emphasise the importance of NS than to point out how it transcends the filthiness of money. At the same time, the government she serves undermines that very effort by factoring higher notions of duty into lower considerations of how much to pay servicemen. In other words, by making the notion of duty a consideration when determining service pay, the government contradicts itself because the only way to do so is by attaching a monetary value to the notion of duty. One simply cannot put duty on the balance sheet without attaching a financial value to it, implicitly or otherwise.

To be free of this doublethink, we have to be consistent. When we think of NS as a duty, we cannot think of it as a job. When we think of it as a job, we cannot think of it as a duty. Of course, we can think of it as both a duty and a job, just not simultaneously. Thus, when describing NS as the fulfilment of a debt obligation to Singapore, we cannot consider this debt in monetary terms. It has no place on the balance sheet and should not figure into any calculation of how much to pay servicemen. This has two implications—on what we should and what we should not do.

First, we should value a serviceman’s contributions regardless of its monetary value. This means that the storeman and the platoon commander are both making an equally valuable contribution to the nation because they are both fulfilling their duty. Therefore, we should be willing to give the platoon commander a higher pay than the storeman because he has a heavier responsibility, but we should not treat the storeman as a second-class citizen. This is what the present system does, but only because of doublethink.

Second, we should not factor the fulfilment of one’s duty into the calculation of a serviceman’s pay, and we should not discount a serviceman’s pay because he is doing his duty. This means doing away with statements like, “The allowance and rank pay of national servicemen should not be computed as salaries, as NS is a duty and not a job.” Instead, we should determine how much to pay a serviceman based on the monetary value of his work while also adhering to ethical standards for paying workers.

Time to put MINDEF on the productivity treadmill

I’ve served my two years of full-time national service, and if there’s any one thing I’ve learnt, it’s how horribly inefficient and full of bureaucratic red tape the Singapore Armed Forces can be. My conversations with others from the Navy and Air Force have only reinforced this belief. This is understandable for an organisation so large and with so many information security requirements, but not excusable. We can do better, especially when it comes to manpower allocation.

Perhaps it’s time to start asking of MINDEF the same thing we ask of our struggling SMEs—stop relying on cheap labour, foreign or otherwise, and start improving productivity.  One great way to do this is by adjusting price incentives. If servicemen are being paid more, MINDEF will have to do more with less—which means training them better, giving them better equipment and improving its own protocols. Of course, this will cost more, but it also provides the best opportunity for realising significant gains.

It’s true that with the dwindling birth rate and the decreasing size of NS intakes, MINDEF already has a strong incentive to do more with less. However, this doesn’t mean an additional price incentive would be unnecessary or ineffective.

Money shouldn’t be a problem either. With 47,000 live births in 2000, and assuming an average salary of $1000 for National Servicemen, the cost of paying all full-time servicemen in 2018 would be around $564 million ($1000 x 47,000 x 12). MINDEF’s estimated total expenditure for 2014 is $12.5 billion. The cost of paying 47,000 human beings in 2018 would thus only amount to 4.5% of MINDEF’s budget. In fact, buy two less F-15SG a year and we could fund this increase.

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How much will it cost to bring NS pay above the poverty line?

Conclusion—Instead of playing catch-up, trying to give all sorts of tax rebates for low-income families, we should give our servicemen a good head start early in life. At current levels, we are not paying servicemen enough for them to afford housing and provide for their families even though they are already at a working age. There is simply no good reason to keep servicemen below the poverty line during two of the best years of their life. Justifications for the current system are contradictory and ignore the ethical imperative to remunerate workers fairly. We can certainly afford to treat our servicemen like human beings, worth more than a fighter jet. It’s high-time we brought NS pay above the poverty line.

Note: An earlier version of this article contained incorrect estimates of the total manpower expenditure. I had forgotten to multiply the monthly income by 12 to get the yearly income. I’ve updated the article with the correct calculations.

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