Ask any Singaporean woman how they feel about military service and chances are that they would have, at some point, been dragged into a long-running and heated debate about the topic.
According to the law, all healthy and able-bodied male citizens in Singapore must enlist in the army for two years of national service when they turn 18, a legacy of the city-state's history as a rising island nation surrounded by bigger countries with bigger armies. Failure or refusal to do so constitutes a criminal act and can result in a three-year prison sentence and a fine of $10,000.
But inspired by patriotic duty and job security, a record number of females have joined the army, navy and air force in recent years even though they are not legally required to serve.
Defence experts maintain that mandatory military service is still critical for Singapore, a tiny country with a population of 5.6 million, to safeguard its independence, sovereignty, survival and success. That has led it to develop one of the most advanced fighting forces in the region.
National service, referred to by its shorthand NS, remains a touchy issue for most Singaporean men, who strongly oppose the idea of being forced to give up two years of freedom and their lives to defend the country even as they bristle at criticism of the institution from women. They often argue that the idea of male military conscription is hypocritical and should be made mandatory for all citizens, regardless of gender.
But VICE News spoke with four Singaporean women, including one former soldier, who shared their thoughts and views on the idea of a gender-equal national service and how military defence is only a small part of a bigger, more complex debate.
Caitlin Ng, university student and former soldier
In 2019, I enlisted in the Singapore army. I was 18 and had wanted to try it since a very young age because I wanted to become a war journalist and thought it might be good to have some military experience. Surprisingly, it was my mother who was more supportive of my decision than my father.
I can still remember my first day in the army, standing on the parade square and thinking to myself, what the heck have I done?
Some people say that female soldiers on Pulau Tekong (an offshore Singapore island dedicated exclusively to military use) are "treated better" than male recruits or aren't pushed as hard. Personally, I didn't feel there was a big difference in my field training as compared to the guys.
In terms of physical training, female recruits do have lower standards that are more suited for our physique. Other than that, I didn't see a huge disparity in the way we were treated. My field training was tough and I would say it definitely forced me to grow up faster and made me a lot stronger - not just physically but also mentally and emotionally.
On that note, female recruits were looked at differently. You know how you often see male soldiers in popular army movies practically drooling at the sight of women soldiers? They aren't exaggerating. I've seen catcalls and stares when female recruits enter the cookhouse and boys climbing on top of their metal lockers just to get a look at the female platoons doing stretches - and then getting subsequently punished.
In all seriousness, I do think my army experience really changed who I am as a person and I attribute that growth to serving in the force.
The old me would take the easy way out and give up on things at the slightest notion of challenge. But the small things and skills I learned during my time outfield shaped a new mindset, like pushing myself to clear low ropes or run faster. These were simple things but served as good training for the soul. Aside from that, I've also met people in the army who are now some of my closest friends. They stuck by me through tough times and I would never have met them if I didn't enlist.
I wouldn't trade my army experience for anything else in the world, even with the low points or difficult moments. But I personally do not see a need for mandatory enlistment for Singaporean women.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for other women signing on and I do think that it would do Singapore a lot of good but from a purely economic standpoint, there simply isn't a need yet.
Your contribution to the nation is what you make of it. I definitely oppose the sexist view that men contribute to Singapore more than women just because of national service. So I find it funny when a woman says she doesn't want to enlist and is faced with men telling her that they do more for our country. But when a woman does in fact, enlist, people say it's for show, that she has an easier time during training and that she's doing it just to show.
In the debate about NS, the "gender equality" argument is often taken to a point where it starts bringing one gender down. That's not equality anymore. Why don't we focus on female empowerment instead?
So while I have mentioned that there isn't a need yet to make female conscription necessary, it will be good to give women that avenue should they choose to serve NS. Women in our country deserve more equal opportunities and to be able to do things without judgment and our society needs to start being more open-minded and empowering, no matter their decisions.
Jemimah Wei, writer and host
If you're a Singaporean woman who chooses to speak out about national service, be prepared to deal with a lot of hostile and angry pushback from guys.
As a woman, expressing any opinion on military service can and will invite rage from men who will argue that we personally haven't experienced it - and those of us who have, were awarded the privilege of choice to do so - so how dare we assume to know the first thing about NS?
The one time I raised how unproductive it was to use NS as a means of shutting down any conversation on gender equality in Singapore, I was met with a wave of harassment and death threats - an overreaction to an important conversation, which totally missed the point.
I've met men who were angry and resentful at having to sacrifice two years of their lives in the army - only to get laughed off by other guys who think it wasn't that big of a deal because they had a productive and fulfilling time there.
Even without taking gender into consideration, the experience of serving military service is clearly not homogenous across the board. And to limit the conversation to gender is a red herring to me. Doesn't it disproportionately affect people across class lines as well? A person with an elite upbringing might have an extremely different NS experience compared to someone from a lower-class background already working full time to support their family.
I can absolutely sympathize with the frustration of having one's freedom and personal choices taken away - any woman can. That's why it is important to me to explore the ways our discussion regarding NS can productively move forward. We have to ask: what constitutes service to the nation? Who gets to call Singapore home and why? How can we move from arguing about NS, to growing our understanding of how it, as an institution, can serve all Singaporeans equally, regardless of gender?
As the world changes, threats come in forms other than physical warfare. Perhaps in the near future, Singapore might expand the scope of national service to include cyber and biochemical defence. What might our country look like, if every citizen played a different role during those two years, maximized to their specific talents and skill sets?
Kirsten Han, feminist and writer
I identify as a feminist, not just in the sense of saying that women should have equal rights and access to opportunity as men but also in considering the intersectionality of identity, privilege, power, and justice, among others.
I've seen countless discussions about gender equality, feminism and sexism being cut short by men who use national service as a trump card to silence women. I've also seen it being used to invoke nationalism and police "patriotism" - when NS is used as the sole yardstick to measure one's contribution to the country, which inevitably means excluding most immigrants and women. I wonder if this is really a healthy way to formulate our ideas of belonging, deservedness and worth in Singapore.
I don't consider myself an expert on military or defence policy. But as a Singaporean, I do often wonder if we really have proper conversations and reflection about national service as well as defence policies and spending.
I understand that national defence is important but I don't think the way that NS is organised right now is the best policy to have. I feel that the topic is too often broken down into a very simplistic binary where you either support the idea of mandatory military service or you're labelled as someone who isn't patriotic or doesn't care about the security of Singapore. But those aren't the only two positions and I don't think there's been enough space for Singaporeans to properly acknowledge the pitfalls of conscription.
I wish that NS wasn't seen as mainly military service. I think that if we want to continue with NS, we should also consider expanding it to include more roles and sectors. This could be open to both men and women, so that it isn't gendered. Some men aren't suited to serving the military, while some women could thrive. For example, caregiving and community service roles at hospitals or nursing homes could be filled by young Singaporeans as part of their national service.
Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)
A common refrain in conversations about gender equality in Singapore is that any woman truly seeking equal rights and opportunities should perform national service, as men are obligated to.
Of course, in an ideal world, nobody would be mandated to spend two years of their lives performing military service of any sort. That said, if Singapore feels that forced conscription is necessary for its defence, it would be fair for it to apply to both men and women.
At AWARE, we agree that NS should be performed by all genders. However, we believe that instead of being limited to military service, NS should encompass other forms of non-military community service and should address other issues of national importance, such as caregiving and education. It should also take into account individual aptitude and skills rather than being gender-based. This would open up more options for men, as well as women, to serve the nation to the best of their abilities.
For those who believe that mandating military service for both men and women will fast-track Singapore to "true" gender equality, research does not support that theory. There are no discernible trends as to the relationship between mandatory conscription and gender equality. Some countries with female conscription—such as Sweden and Norway—place higher on global gender gap indexes than Singapore, while others—such as Israel and Malaysia—place lower.
Military environments also tend to foster cultures of sexual violence, which goes hand in hand with the frequent emphasis on dominance and aggression. In Israel, where female conscription is the norm, 76% of female officers and 66% of regular female soldiers reported experiencing sexual harassment.
In Singapore, motherhood has been said to be an unofficial form of "female national service." We caution against employing this simplistic analogy because while the value of childbearing and raising children cannot be overstated in an ageing population like ours, motherhood should not be held as the ultimate contribution a woman may make in her life. After all, for the many women who do not or cannot have children, their services and contributions in other areas can be just as important and valuable to the country. And unlike military service, the labor of motherhood is unpaid and does not count as added professional working experience.
We are calling for a reframing of what it means to serve the nation, with a focus on non-violent and people-oriented forms of service. After all, our nation's resilience and progress is much more than the protection of borders.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.