Regulars, NSmen and NSFs from the SAF and Home Team. Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am delighted to be here with you this evening, under this tent in the pouring rain. We are here to celebrate NS50, 50 years of National Service.
This Floating Platform, in the heart of the city, is a particularly appropriate location to celebrate NS50. The Marina Bay skyline reminds us of all we have built together, and what we fight to defend. This is also where SAF BMT recruits end their final 24 km route march, and hold their Passing-Out Parade. A significant and emotional milestone for our NSFs, and their families and especially for the fathers who went through NS themselves, and now witness their sons undergoing this rite of passage.
Why we need National Service
Since NS started in 1967, more than a million Singaporeans have served the SAF and the Home Team for their National Service.
Your contributions and sacrifices have enabled Singaporeans to enjoy decades of peace, and a safe and secure home. We have had the good fortune not to fight a war in the last 50 years, but that is not just a matter of luck. Our deterrence is credible, and it has worked. The SAF is taken seriously. It is well-trained, well-equipped, and technologically up to date. Others know that our NSmen are willing to serve, and when the time comes, ready to fight. I visited an infantry battalion in Temburong, Brunei, earlier this month. I watched the soldiers – mainly NSFs – going through their paces in the jungle. They were fit, trained, and serious. The battalion will soon be taking part in an annual bilateral exercise with the Indonesian TNI, as part of celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations with Indonesia. I am confident that they will acquit themselves well.
The Home Team continues to keep Singapore safe. The Police work hard to maintain law and order daily, and are prepared to deal with any threat. Our crime rates are low, and yet we do not have large numbers of policemen visible everywhere. The terrorist threat is a grave one, but our security forces are vigilant, and prepared to deal with an attack when it comes. Recently, the Economist magazine rated Singapore as the second safest city in the world to live in, just after Tokyo.
Similarly, our SCDF is competent and professional. They respond to all types of emergencies, big and small and they do this not just when war comes, but every day in peacetime, around the clock. They are a source of comfort, because they are there for us at the time of our greatest need.
All three – the SAF, the SPF, and the SCDF – depend on a mix of regulars, NSFs and NSmen and without NSFs and NSmen who serve willingly, take their training seriously, and perform operational duties day after day, the SAF, the SPF or the SCDF could not exist. But because regulars and NSmen in the SAF and Home Team have done their duty, Singapore has enjoyed peace and security. Businesses are prepared to invest in Singapore for the long term. People, too, feel safe and confident. Singaporeans and foreigners are happy not just to work here, but also to raise their families here.
Fifty-two years ago, when we separated from Malaysia, we could not be at all sure that this is how things would turn out. We had to build up the SAF from scratch, and quickly because we were small, with few resources and no manpower to spare, our founding leaders decided that National Service was the only way to build up a defence force. But they had to work hard to explain this to Singaporeans. To convince every able-bodied male citizen to serve, to persuade parents too, many of whom were most reluctant to have their sons spend two to three years being soldiers and also wives who had to take care of their homes, and employers who had to make alternative arrangements when staff and units were called up for in-camp training. Fortunately, Singaporeans understood the urgency, and gave their support.
Over the years, Singaporeans have accepted National Service. It has become a national institution, a rite of passage. Singaporean males, regardless of race, religion or social background, serve two years of National Service and these two years are a defining experience. NS is where boys grow up to become men. Forging bonds that last for life, through blood, sweat and tears. That is why, years after ORD, many of us still make time to meet up with our NS buddies, and feel joyful when we bump into old comrades.
Even now, it happens to me every so often, when I am attending an event, or just taking a walk somewhere. Someone will come up to greet me, and remind me that we did BMT or OCS together, or served in the same unit. He would name the unit, a camp, or an officer we had served with, and the years would melt away, and vivid memories would come flooding back. Tonight, I am happy that we will be meeting some of my old artillery comrades. As we say, “Once a gunner, always a gunner!” I am sure mine will not be the only reunion tonight, because many of you will be also meeting up with old comrades as well.
Singapore is much better defended now than when we started out 50 years ago but we will always be a small country, and National Service will always be a cornerstone of our defence. We must ensure that every generation understands why NS remains critical, particularly as the younger generations have only ever known stability and peace. And even as we continue to ask this commitment of our young men, we must rally behind them as a society, support them and express appreciation for their service.
Honouring our NSmen
This year, to commemorate 50 years of NS, we have been honouring our NSmen in more visible ways. The National Day Parade this year was led by Lieutenant Colonel (NS) Lim Wee Tee, an NSman. The Parade included a salute for all our NSmen and for the first time, the aerial flypast also featured NSmen pilots. We organised NS50 Exhibitions, and brought these to the heartlands to give every Singaporean the opportunity to understand and appreciate what NSmen go through.
All NSmen also received the NS50 Recognition Package, which includes vouchers and complimentary SAFRA or HomeTeamNS membership. I filled up the form online and I got my package too. I am heartened that many companies and community groups are also showing their appreciation for NSmen through NS50 promotions, discounts and privileges.
ACCORD, the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence has worked hard on these initiatives to build greater public support for NS. Over the last two years, Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman has done good work as Chairman of ACCORD, and I thank him for his contributions and I look forward to ACCORD doing more good work under its new Chairman, Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung.
NS Square as a Tribute
There is one more gesture we would like to make, as a tribute to all our NSmen, past and present. We will redevelop this Float @MarinaBay, which was built as a temporary stage, into a permanent space that commemorates National Service. This will serve as the primary venue for the National Day Parade, where we celebrate how far we have come as one people, and recommit ourselves to Singapore’s survival and success. We will extend the platform to open up a larger, more accessible space, and increase the current seating capacity, so that more Singaporeans can join the Parade. The venue can then can be used not just for parades, but also for regular community events, like arts performances, weekend markets, and the River Hongbao.
Below the grandstand, we will create a purpose-built NS Gallery. This Gallery will showcase our nation’s NS journey, and tell visitors about the contributions of generations of NSmen to Singapore. I hope the Gallery will inspire future generations of NSmen to take over the torch with pride. When the redevelopment is complete, we will rename this place “NS Square”. Its permanence, and prominence, in Marina Bay, will reflect the central role that National Service plays in our lives.
Our celebration today brings together many generations of Singaporeans who have gone through National Service, and also the regulars who served with them, as trainers and commanders.
Today, many families have at least one, and often two, generations of NSmen and I am sure even tonight here, there are many fathers and sons, who have served NS together. Each new generation of NSmen will have slightly different experiences, as we continue to adapt and evolve NS to meet new challenges. The weapons and equipment are upgraded. The organisations and tactics are brought up to date. The food and welfare have improved but their training is as serious as ever, and the purpose is the same.
Ultimately NS is about making the sacrifices needed to protect our country and our families. This is the common spirit of NS that endures throughout the generations. This is the legacy we pass “from my generation to yours”.
Thank you, and happy NS50!
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