Mr Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Defence,


LG Desmond Kuek, Chief of Defence Force,


Distinguished Guests,


Ladies and Gentlemen,


1.             40 years ago, ordinary citizens were first called up to defend our nation.  Many were apprehensive, not knowing what to expect.  But the first batch of 900 national servicemen recruits answered the call to duty. They reported at Community Centres across the island, boarded army trucks, and headed off to Pasir Laba Camp to become soldiers.  Since then, successive generations of young men have followed in their footsteps.  Hundreds of thousands have done their part, selflessly giving of their time and energies to protect what is precious to us all – our country, our beliefs, our way of life.  Tonight, we return to Pasir Laba Camp where it all began, to proudly commemorate 40 years of national service (NS).

The Past 40 Years – Defending Our Home

2.             It is easy to forget, after decades of peace and prosperity, how Singapore’s existence and success has defied both history and geography.  In the early years of independence, our region was fraught with danger – the aftermath of separation, communism, and Konfrontasi.  With virtually no armed forces of our own, Singapore was defenceless and vulnerable, but for the presence of British forces here.  We needed to quickly build up a credible SAF to deter potential aggressors, safeguard our new found independence, and protect vital national interests.  

3.             As a tiny nation with a small population and very limited resources, we could not afford a large standing army.  The only viable solution was NS.  We resolved to train and equip citizen-soldiers to form the main part of the SAF, so that in an emergency we could mobilise an entire nation under arms.  

4.             Initially, NS was not a popular policy.  All Chinese parents knew of the saying that good sons do not become soldiers.  They had to be persuaded to send their sons for military training.  The first batches of NSmen went through a tough time.  Arrangements were far from perfect.  We were building up an army from scratch, improvising as we went along.  We had to develop our own courses, procedures, and doctrines.  Safety rules were not yet completely worked out or implemented.  Welfare was rudimentary.  We made our share of mistakes, and paid the price of our inexperience.  But we learnt from our errors and lapses, and identified and fixed the weaknesses one by one.  Year by year, we gained experience and improved. 

5.             Today, 40 years later, NS is very different from what it used to be.  Whether it is in training safety, personal equipment, living conditions, or even cookhouse food, things are much better now compared to 40 years ago.  But amidst all these changes, some things remain the same.  We continue to demand high standards of training and discipline.  Our efforts are still directed at the same mission – to build a strong and operationally-ready SAF, to defend our home and secure our future.    

6.             We have been fortunate to have enjoyed 40 years of peace.  The SAF and our national servicemen have not been put to the ultimate test of fighting a war.  But I do not believe this was just a matter of luck.  The SAF, by its existence, credibility and readiness, has contributed to the stable and peaceful security environment in Southeast Asia, and helped us to maintain friendly relations with our neighbours.  We have been able to deal calmly with situations which might otherwise have escalated into serious crises.  Deterrence has worked.  Without the defence capability that national service made possible, Singapore may not have survived, let alone prospered.

7.             The SAF’s competence and professionalism have grown over the years as the quality of our soldiers has improved.  Today’s NSmen are far better educated than earlier batches.  The SAF has made full use of this better resource to organise and structure its forces.  In SAF units, every man is a thinking soldier, able to fully exploit the technologies and fighting capabilities in his section, platoon, or company.  Every person understands the intent of his commander, and is trained to act independently and exercise initiative to turn the tide of battle, and contribute to the success of the mission.

8.             When SAF units participate in international exercises, they impress their counterparts.  In the Five Power Defence Arrange­ments (FPDA) exercise last year, Singapore's contingent of 60 earned the respect of the established professional armies from other countries.  The Australian Exercise Commander, Brigadier-General Mick Kehoe had this to say: The SAF contingent has been a fantastically professional outfit.  Right from the start, I am impressed with their conduct and bearing… I am also very impressed with the two young conscript officers who were involved in giving the National Contingent Brief for Singapore.  These two young men…spoke with confidence, poise and authority.  If that’s a good indication of the standard of the young men and women in the Singapore Army of today, all I can say is that you’re in very good shape.”  These two NS officers – 2LT Nicholas Tan and 2LT Tham Jing How, did the NS system, the SAF, and Singapore proud.

9.             While the SAF has not fought a war, from time to time, it has executed operational missions, be it evacuating Singa­poreans from Cambodia, rescuing passengers from the stranded cable cars, freeing passengers from the hijacked SQ117, carrying out disaster relief operations in Aceh after the tsunami, supporting coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, or participating in UN peacekeeping missions.  Each time, our soldiers have proven themselves competent, effective and operationally ready. This has bolstered the credibility of the SAF both with Singaporeans and foreign observers. 

10.        More than anything else, it is the spirit and commitment of our NSmen that makes the SAF a potent and credible fighting force.  Successive generations of NSmen have served readily, performing their duties professionally and with pride.  Parents have understood the importance and necessity of NS. They expect their sons to wear the uniform and undergo tough training.  NS has become a rite of passage and a way of life for every able-bodied male citizen, and also for permanent residents growing up here. 

11.        Parents, wives and children – each NSman has his family and community solidly behind him.  The sons of our early national servicemen are now doing their NS.   When they become husbands and fathers, they help to pass on their convictions, sentiments and values.  One example is the 2007 Army NSman of the Year, SSG (NS) Arno Bin Iman.  Arno intends to volunteer his services even after his NS obligation.  As he put it, “my legs are still OK, and someone has to do it.  It is important to pass on what I know to the younger generation, or else it will just go into thin air.”   

12.        Because of this spirit, no one doubts the SAF’s capabilities and its determination to fight and prevail in battle.  Whenever the SAF is needed, it is there, ready to respond to the nation’s call.  Any potential aggressor knows that if it takes on Singapore, it has to take on the whole population, for this is a united people ready to defend and fight for our country. 

13.        For all this, we owe a huge debt to our NSmen.  You have been steadfast and true in answering the call of duty, despite the many claims of your careers and families.  We demand a lot from you, especially the operationally-ready NSmen.  For your dedication and sacrifices, we are deeply grateful.  The SAF will do its utmost to minimise the inconveniences and ‘standing around’ time of in-camp training, so that you can focus on your training and operational duties, and make every minute count.  But we have to continue calling you up, and putting you through rigorous training, because your units form a vital part of the SAF order of battle.  This is what our whole NS system is about. 

14.        Beyond defence, NS has played a major role in nation building.  NS brings together Singaporean males from all races and walks of life, for a formative experience that has become a rite of passage.  Everyone stands on an equal footing.  We undergo tough training, overcome hardships together, and in the process forge bonds of friendship that last a lifetime.  These shared experiences and common points of reference help to define who we are as Singaporeans, and enable us to appreciate what it means to live in a small country in an unpredictable world.  Hence whenever Singapore is confronted with challenges, we are able to react cohesively, because all our men have undergone NS, and understand what this is about.  From time to time, there are suggestions that women should also do NS, so that they too can be part of this common experience.  But that is a whole other topic for another speech!

The Next 40 Years – Securing Our Future 

15.        Our collective resolve and dedication to defend Singapore have earned us 40 years of uninterrupted peace and stability.  Looking ahead, the signs are favourable.  Relations between the major powers, especially US, China and Japan, are stable.  In Asia, economic interdependence among countries is growing, which will foster a more stable and secure regional order.  The whole continent is on the move, fuelled by the rise of China and India.  Within Southeast Asia, the ASEAN countries are strengthening their regional cooperation.  If this continues, the region should be on a peaceful uptrend for at least the next decade.

16.        But this does not mean that we no longer need the SAF, or that we can slacken efforts to strengthen our defence capability.  New unconven­tional threats, including extremist terrorism, have emerged in recent years.  Even for conventional security, we cannot take things for granted.  We work for peace and do not expect war in our part of the world, and we are friends with all our neighbours.  But we cannot blithely assume that the next 40 years will be as uneventful as the last 40, nor can we predict what Southeast Asia will look like 40 years from now.  Regional countries are at different stages of development, and face different social and political challenges.  With globalisation, our region cannot be insulated from the tide of events and ideas that sweep across the globe.  How countries deal with these challenges will determine how they evolve, and shape the region that we live in.   

17.        In this strategic situation, a competent and vigilant SAF will be a great source of comfort that enables Singa­poreans to sleep peacefully at night.  It has taken us 40 years to build the SAF to what it is today – with the Third Generation force starting to take shape.  If things go wrong, we are not going to have 20 years of advance notice, much less 40 years.  So we must never become complacent and let our guard down.  Instead we must continue to upgrade our capabilities and equipment steadily year by year, in a sustainable and affordable way.  We must also induct and train new generations of national servicemen, make them understand these strategic realities, and prepare them for their part in defending Singapore. 

18.        For our defence efforts to be complete, the SAF must be backed by an equally effective Total Defence capability.  Every individual must be committed to the defence and security of Singapore, and must uphold the system of national service.  Better educated NSmen, growing up amidst peace and prosperity, cannot be bashed into good soldiers. They have to understand what NS is about, why it is necessary, and why they have a duty to serve their nation.  Only then they will serve willingly, with their hearts and souls.

19.        This process must start from young.  This is why we are paying a lot of attention to National Education.  It is not just a subject to be taught in schools, but a concerted effort to get our young to discover for themselves what Singapore means to them, and to feel that this is their country, which is worth protecting even with their lives. 

20.        At the same time, we will continue to recognise the contributions of our full-time and operationally-ready NSmen in many ways big and small.   We have done so through the years by providing excellent facilities at our SAFRA clubhouses, and by giving our NSmen a little extra whenever the Govern­ment has surpluses to share.  These tokens will never adequately compensate for your personal sacrifices, but they are a symbol of the country’s appreciation for what you have done. 

21.        We also recognise the important role of families and employers, and the unstinting support and encouragement they give to our NSmen.  MINDEF and the SAF will do more to engage employers, parents, spouses and other family members, as well as permanent residents and new citizens, so that they will have a deeper understanding of the importance of national service.  The Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (ACCORD), headed by A/P Koo Tsai Kee, Minister of State for Defence, leads this effort to strengthen broad-based support for defence and national service.

22.        Finally, I would like to acknowledge the role of SAF regulars.  You are a vital component of the SAF.  Without your lifelong commitment to the defence of Singapore, our NS armed forces would not be effective.  You hold key command and staff positions and help to shape the attitudes of the men you lead.  You are our ambassadors for defence, nurturing and upholding the attitudes and values we need to defend our stake in Singapore.  When you as regulars and commanders uphold the highest standards of integrity, professionalism and commitment, and demonstrate by personal example what is expected of every serviceman, we have the basis for a first-class SAF.  


23.        To secure a better, safer future for Singapore and our children, the SAF must be an effective deterrent and a capable fighting force.  This is our guarantee for continued peace, for progress and prosperity.  NSmen have played an important role in the defence and security of Singapore.  What we enjoy in Singapore today is the result of your sweat and tears.  On this 40th anniversary of national service, on behalf of our nation, I salute all our national servicemen, and pay tribute to your service and dedication to Singa­pore.