Military conscription is the mandatory enlistment of civilians into some sort of national service, involving a form of service in an army. Using Singapore as an empirical example in this paper, I argue that military conscription is necessary for the survival of the state because in this anarchical and unpredictable international system, wars are inevitable, therefore conscription aids in building a plausible military deterrence force. Furthermore, military conscription is desirable to maintain political stability, which is a prerequisite to economic growth as well as a means of fostering social cohesion.
In the context of Singapore, conscription takes the form of a two-years long national service stint for every 18-year-old male citizen and a reservist commitment until the age of 40. Essentially, neorealism affirms that wars and conflicts are unavoidable due to an anarchical international system where there is an absence of a central, global authority to restrain all politicians’ war mongering tendencies, resulting in states having the need to fend for themselves to ensure their survival . Therefore, states needs to build up military strength through conscription to safeguard its survival if war is ever to break out.
Henceforth, amassing enough military proficiency will increase the disbursement of aggressions & make any abeyant adversaries hesitate before attacking. Apply neorealism to the Singapore context; geopolitically, Singapore is an infinitesimal “Chinese state in a Malay sea” which it views as a conceivable ideological threat. Since 1971, Singapore has practised the “poison shrimp” doctrine extracted from Israel’s doctrine of defence, which metaphorically meant the need to adopt a sizable defence budget and a remarkable military arsenal to the level of making it adequately repulsive for any potential aggressors “to take a bite of the morsel”.
Moreover, instances such as when Former Indonesian President Habibie scornfully mocked Singapore as "just a little red dot" undoubtedly highlights Singapore’s vulnerability. Evidently, it furthers the case that military deterrence is cardinal as Singapore will never know when that threat will occur so there is a need to send a strong deterrence signal to these neighbouring countries that it is a strong force to reckon with, so that the neighbouring countries will contemplate before ever staging an assault.
Therefore, conscription ensures the sovereignty and security of the nation. Moreover, different circumstances faced by different states would mean that alternatives to military conscription would not suit some states, leaving them no choice but to conscript for the survival of the state. The alternatives to conscription, which are either a full-time professional army, comprising of a pool of full-time career soldiers not disbanded during times of peace or the hiring of mercenary armies such as Blackwater Worldwide used during the Iraq War by the United States (US).
In the case of Singapore, the small population size does not permit it to have a large standing army beyond its present size of 72,500 strong, which includes conscripts. Coupled with Singapore’s sharping declining population as well as low birth rates , a full-time professional army would clearly not suffice. Moreover, the questionable and unassured loyalty of mercenary armies would mean that Singapore is left with no choice to conscript to have a sizable army at its disposal.
The advantages of conscription as opposed to mercenary armies is substantiated by Tilly, who asserts that with the gradual transition toward monetization and commodification, the states’ own citizenry under the control of its own aristocracy, often fought more superiorly, faithfully and economically than mercenary armed forces which was previously preferable. In order to win wars to safeguard the sovereignty of the state, conscription soon replaced these inferior mercenary armies.
Hence, unlike the US whereby there is a huge population size making it viable to have a pool of full-time professional soldiers, Singapore cannot practice this due to population constraints. Also, the dubious loyalty of a mercenary army would not be feasible for Singapore. Evidently, the alternatives to military conscription are inapt for Singapore, leaving conscription the most effectual methodology to mobilize manpower to form the army, in order to win wars to safeguard the sovereignty of the state.
In addition, having a strong military through conscription is a precursor to economic growth, which is desirable to the state because it provides much needed security and stability for the economy to flourish by attracting more Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). Since independence, Singapore has been confronted with the scarcity of resources and a diminutive domestic market. In response, the government embraced a pro-business, pro-foreign investment, export-oriented economic policy.
However, FDI requires investors’ confidence, which can only be achieved through a plausible military force. This is substantiated by Dent who argued that the survival of Singapore lies not only on its power of its military security but also on its economy. As a nation with limited resources, Singapore placed a strong emphasis on its economic security dependent heavily on foreign states. Therefore, the state must take on the prime obligation of military build-up in order to protect these investments. This will then assure a safe environment for investments.
Indisputably, a strong military build-up through conscription will be desirable for Singapore as it procures a favorable climate for foreign investments. Furthermore, military conscription promotes patriotism, nationalism and social cohesion, which legitimize the need to fight for one’s country. Conscription forges unity around a shared cause regardless of race, language or religion the citizens originates. Accordingly, Singapore’s population comprises of four main races namely, Chinese, Malay, Indians and Eurasians. On top of this, Singapore has four official languages as well as seven major religions.
In such a multiracial and multicultural country, national service has emerged as a mechanism to unify citizens from all walks of life towards a collective cause. This is particularly important as Singapore is a young nation with only a short history of nation-building so the citizens lacked strong primordial ties to the country unlike in the US where citizens has a strong sense of patriotism and national pride which is cumulated over their long history of nation-building. As such, conscription has emerged as a way to foster social cohesion by instilling nationalism and patriotism into the Singaporeans.
In retrospect, nationalism instilled among citizens through military conscription has indeed foster social cohesion in young multiracial and multicultural nation like Singapore. It is widely argued that the constant military build-up will result in a never-ending arms race. This is in accordance to the prisoner’s dilemma scenario by applying Game Theory as argued by Olson . The scenario occurs when two states have two options, of either to strengthen military capability or to make an agreement to reduce weapons.
As both states are uncertain of the other’s military intentions, they have no choice but to continue expanding their military arsenal. Therefore, both states gravitate towards military expansion resulting in the status quo. The deep irony is that both states are rational actors, but producing an apparently irrational consequence of not reducing weapons, therefore creating a security dilemma. As a result, both states’ attempt to augment their physical security bring about the ironic consequences of diminishing it, thus making the world becomes a more & more dangerous place.
Therefore, neoliberalism has emerged, believing that “warm” peace based on mutual interstate trust is possible despite conditions of anarchy. This “warm” peace would then reduce the necessity of military build-up. Moreover, neoliberalism asserts that states should focus on how they behave in an international community as well as consider the consequences their actions yield on the state as opposed to acting in accordance to power balances at the expense of the others while disregarding other factors such as economics.
Therefore, only under the conditions of “complex interdependence” that states can cooperate to establish economic exchanges thus reducing the need for military as a policy tool. For example, Singapore has the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), which is made of a series of multilateral agreements between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore signed in 1971, whereby the five states will confer with each other in the event of external assault against Peninsular Malaysia or Singapore.
Also, Singapore has participated in Operation Flying Eagle whereby the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) provided immediate relief and assistance to Indonesia after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. These multilateral cooperations and disaster relief missions will indeed nullify “the security dilemma and security threat assumptions” , therefore eliminating the arms race, which they can then focus on growing the economic pie rather than on military build-up, thus reducing the need for conscription.
Nonetheless, the problem of prisoner’s dilemma scenario would clearly not matter, as the present world is already unstable because it is already in the midst of an arms race. Therefore, Singapore cannot opt out of this security dilemma unilaterally by choosing the way of peace, as it would put itself in a precarious situation by exposing itself to the possibility of being attacked.
Since the world is already conditioned with insecurity, the only way out would be to increase security through the means of military deterrence, as opting out of it would be foolish since Singapore would be vulnerable. A state has always been about power maximizing since it guarantees them the most safety, which is much needed to ensure the survival of the state. Furthermore, “warm” peace is necessary but clearly insufficient according to neorealism as countries might one day turn rogue and hence it would be judicious that countries to act on the worst-case scenario through military deterrence.
This is axiomatic in Singapore who uses “warm” peace, which is diplomacy complemented with deterrence through conscription as declared in the SAF’s Mission “to enhance Singapore's peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor. ” Moreover, the former Chief of Air Force Major General Ng affirmed that due to the horrors witnessed during the two World Wars, countries could no longer accept war as a quotidian activity, thus augmenting the importance of deterrence.
Thus, deterrence must be integrated with diplomacy and improvements to international stability and security through success in operations-other-than-war . He also added that “warm” peace Cooperation “tell our adversaries that if they fight us in combat, we will defeat them” , which effectively reconcile with the fact that all these neoliberalism institutions are used to send a deterrence signal to potential aggressors hence they still require some form of military force should this deterrence fails.
Therefore, military deterrence through military build-up cannot be downplayed even though “warm” peace is forged. In conclusion, military conscription is necessary to the survival of Singapore as wars and conflicts are unavoidable in this anarchical world and also a progenitor for political stability in order for a state to start achieving economic growth as well as a means to foster social cohesion.