Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the NS45 Commemorative Dinner
“Defending Our Peace, Protecting Our Future”
Dr Ng Eng Hen
Minister for Defence
Mr Masagos Zulkifli
Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs & Foreign Affairs
Chief of Defence Force LG Neo Kian Hong
Commissioner SCDF Mr Eric Yap
Acting Commissioner of Police Mr Raja Kumar
Regulars, NSmen and NSFs from the SAF and Home Team
1. I am delighted to be here to celebrate the 45th anniversary of National Service (NS).
2. Tonight’s venue – The Float@Marina Bay – is a particularly appropriate setting for this occasion. 45 years ago, there was nothing here except the sea. It was polluted and filthy, with tongkangs and bumboats ferrying cargo and people across the waters. Today, Marina Bay is completely transformed. We have the Marina Bay Sands, we have Gardens by the Bay and we also have the Marina Bay Financial Centre, and the skyline is ravishing. Singapore has become a dynamic, global metropolis. How did we achieve this? Singaporeans worked very hard and we connected ourselves to the world and made a living for ourselves. But our SAF and Home Teams made vital contributions. They protected us from danger, and provided the security and confidence that enabled us to build our economy, educate our people, attract foreign investments, and improve our lives. They still do so today.
3. NS has been a big part of this story. Without NS, we could not have built up the SAF and Home Team to protect ourselves from potential aggressors and security threats. Tonight we celebrate the many contributions of National Service to Singapore.
LOOKING BACK – 45 YEARS OF NS
4. When we became independent, the odds of survival were long. Our strategic environment was fraught with danger. The neighbourhood was hostile. With virtually no armed forces of our own, Singapore was defenceless and vulnerable. We realised quickly that a nation that wanted to shape its own future first had to protect its people and its interests. Given our small population, the only viable option was to build a defence force from citizen conscripts, trained and led by a small cadre of regulars. NS soldiers would form the backbone of the SAF. In an emergency, the whole nation would be mobilised for Total Defence. It seems the only sensible thing to do today, but it was a very big and bold decision to make then.
5. Thus NS began in August 1967. 900 recruits were called up in the first batch. Most went to the SAF. Some were deployed part-time to the Home Team. 45 years on, more than 900,000 Singaporeans have served NS. Many NSmen have become fathers, and have seen their sons serve NS in their turn. This is a significant milestone. It bonds families together, and strengthens our commitment to defend our home. That is why “From Fathers to Sons” is the theme for this 45th anniversary celebration. I am happy to see many fathers and their sons celebrating NS45 here with us tonight.
6. The NS experience has improved significantly since 1967. When my wife and I visited two of our sons doing BMT on Pulau Tekong some years ago, we were impressed with the facilities and equipment and the professionalism of the instructors. It was so much better than when I did my BMT training at 2 SIR in Holland Road Camp back in 1971! BMTC, the Home Team Academy, and the National Service Training Institute are impressive training institutions for our recruits, with state-of-the-art amenities. Welfare has also improved. Recruits sleep on 6-inch spring mattresses. Food is prepared by professional chefs. Training methods and safety have also improved. NSFs learn to use the latest weapons and equipment, whether it is the SAF’s Advanced Combat Man System to enable our soldiers to fight as an integrated unit, or the SCDF’s Red Scorpion to help fire-fighters respond quickly to civil emergencies, or the police’s Public Transport Security Command system to keep our public transport system safe.
7. Other fathers have also noticed this and share this view. Mr Chang Nguan Chua, whose son LTA (NS) Chang Meng Yong is a Commando like him, puts it well: “Today, the signal sets are lighter, the combat rations are better and the combat boots are more comfortable and hardy. With such advancements in technology and equipment, our soldiers can certainly perform better than before.” I am glad that Mr Chang and Meng Yong are with us tonight, somewhere in the crowd. Thank you for your service.
8. We have invested in these improvements because every Singaporean Son is precious. It is our duty to provide our servicemen with all the equipment, training and support that they need to carry out their mission. But newer weapons, better welfare or comfier amenities are only part of the solution. What is most important is our Singapore spirit: the courage to stand up and be counted when the going gets tough; the willingness to fight for our family, friends and fellow Singaporeans; and the determination to defend our home, if necessary, with our lives.
9. Our Singapore spirit is alive and well. We see it in NSmen who volunteer for overseas deployments and put their lives on the line, like MAJ (Dr) (NS) Mathew Cheng who went to Afghanistan when his daughter was four months old. We see it in NSmen who step up to assume command responsibilities under challenging circumstances, like LTC (NS) Abdul Malik who was the first SCDF NSman to be appointed as Deputy Rescue Commander on an overseas deployment, in his case, when the SCDF conducted humanitarian operations in Pakistan several years ago. We see it in NSmen who keep our neighbourhoods safe, like DSP (NS) Mulyadi bin Ahmad who commands 84 other NSmen to maintain security during the Geylang Serai Bazaar which 300,000 people visit every year. We see it in NSmen who voluntarily extend their national service, like MWO (NS) Frederick Seah who says he will “serve until (his) knees gave way”. I am also glad that many of them are here tonight - MAJ Cheng, LTC Abdul Malik, DSP Mulyadi. MWO Seah is unable to be here because of family commitments.
10. But all our NSmen can only serve and serve wholeheartedly because Singaporeans continue to support NS strongly. Parents prepare their sons for NS and encourage them to do well. Wives take care of the family when husbands are away on NS duties. Employers make special arrangements to cover their employees who are doing ICT. Singaporeans have posted nearly 170,000 messages of thanks on the NS45 Tribute Tree online. This unity of purpose is a tremendous strength. It is critical to the SAF’s deterrence, and to the Home Team’s effectiveness. Any potential aggressor knows that if it takes on Singapore, it takes on not just the SAF and Home Team but the whole population.
11. NS has become a universal rite of passage for every male Singaporean, regardless of race, religion or social background. During NS, everyone stands on an equal footing. We live, eat and train together. We overcome challenges as one unit, and help one another along. We forge enduring friendships and camaraderie through shared trials and tribulations. As Dr Goh Keng Swee said in 1967, “Nothing creates loyalty and national consciousness more speedily and more thoroughly than participation in defence and membership of the armed forces. The nation-building aspect of defence will be more significant if its participation is spread over all strata of society.” Indeed we have made NS a national institution and a defining part of the Singapore identity. I was just looking through a book which some overseas Singaporeans sent me. It is a group in Seattle, in the United States. They were celebrating National Day this year and they organised a booklet of reminiscences and pictures by 10 Singaporeans who are now living, working or studying in Seattle, with pictures of their experiences. And so many of the men had as their defining experience the two years in NS – whether it was in an armour unit, whether it was in the Commandos, or whether in one case, a regular, who served with pride, all of them. Now overseas, when asked to remember Singapore – home, this was what it was.
SALUTING OUR NSMEN
12. That is why we all owe a huge debt to our NSmen. You have served faithfully, despite the demands of your careers and families. You embody our never-say-die spirit and our resolve to protect Singapore whatever the costs.
13. We will recognise the valuable contributions of NSmen. I was glad that this year’s National Day Parade was commanded by an NSman – LTC (NS) Clarence Tan, and the parade included a special “Salute to NS45” tribute and the soldiers marched through the crowd – they are part of the people. We have introduced fiscal schemes such as the NSman Tax Relief and the National Service Recognition Award. We have built recreational facilities for you and your families. There are currently five SAFRA clubhouses and six HomeTeamNS clubhouses across the island. We will complete a sixth SAFRA clubhouse in Punggol by 2015, and the HomeTeamNS will have a new clubhouse in Tampines a year later, in 2016.
14. We are doing more. I am happy to announce that to commemorate the 45th anniversary of National Service, all NSmen will receive vouchers to enjoy a movie or meal with your family and friends. In addition, Operationally Ready NSmen who are currently serving out their cycles, as well as those who have completed their cycles, will receive a year’s free membership to SAFRA or HomeTeamNS. It is a small hongbao, but the hongbao will cost us $100 million, and will benefit more than 900,000 National Servicemen. These gestures will never fully compensate for your personal sacrifices, but I hope they help to express our appreciation for all that you have done.
SECURING OUR FUTURE
15. Our commitment to protecting Singapore has won us 45 years of peace and stability. Fortunately, we have not had to fight a war. But this is not a matter of luck. The SAF, by its very existence and capabilities, has contributed to the stable and peaceful security environment in this region, and helped us to maintain friendly relations with our neighbours. Our Home Team has protected us against unconventional threats like extremist terrorism, and put would-be perpetrators away before they could do us harm.
16. Looking ahead, I am cautiously optimistic that the region will remain peaceful. One key factor is relations between the US and China. We must expect that there will be problems, frictions and tensions arising from time to time between these two countries. But both Chinese and American leaders recognise how inter-dependent their two countries have become, and I believe they will strive hard to manage relations and avoid jeopardising their shared interests.
17. In Asia, countries are trading, investing, and interacting more and more with one another. But there are also tensions in the region. Some ASEAN members have exchanged fire over territorial disputes. Tensions are brewing in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, also because of territorial disputes. North Korea remains a potential security flashpoint. In addition, we must always be prepared for emerging and unconventional threats, especially extremist terrorism, which remains a real danger.
18. Therefore, we cannot take our present peace and stability for granted. We must continue to build and maintain a committed, competent and vigilant SAF and Home Team. We must upgrade our capabilities steadily year by year, quietly but in a sustainable and affordable way. We must help younger generations of Singaporeans who have grown up in a more stable and affluent environment to understand these strategic realities, and prepare them for their part in defending Singapore, our home. We must also strengthen Total Defence. Every Singaporean must be committed to the defence of Singapore, whether it is military defence, civil defence, economic, social or psychological defence.
19. NS is ultimately about safeguarding our homes, our loved ones, and our freedom to choose our own way of life. It is a personal duty which generations of NSmen have fulfilled and which every new generation must take up.
20. As we celebrate the first 45 years of NS, let us also reaffirm our commitment to NS and a strong SAF and Home Team. Let every one of us continue to do our duty, so that we can preserve the peace and prosperity we enjoy today for many years to come.
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