National service: Early years

Singapore Infopedia


National service (NS) was introduced in post-independence Singapore when the National Service (Amendment) Act came into effect on 17 March 1967.1 Then Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee justified the government’s decision to introduce compulsory conscription of male youths on the grounds of establishing a credible defence force and nation-building for Singapore.2 NS was also seen as the best way to quickly build up Singapore’s defence forces without placing a heavy burden on the country’s financial and manpower resources.3

National Service Ordinance of 1952
The British authorities had attempted to introduce NS in 1954 at the height of the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960). They were particularly alarmed by the violence that the members of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) were capable of following the assassination of British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney by communist insurgents on 6 Oct 1951. The outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953) further added to the precarious security situation.4

The National Service Bill was tabled on 4 March 19525 and received its first reading in the Singapore Legislative Council on 18 March 1952.6 During the bill’s second reading on 17 April 1952,7 Then Acting Colonial Secretary Andrew Gilmour explained to members of the Legislative Council that the main purpose of the bill was to give the government the power to introduce NS whenever necessary in order to meet the defence needs of Singapore as well as to ensure that the responsibility of defending the colony was spread fairly among the population.8

The bill was, however, contested by the Singapore Labour Party. The party’s then General Secretary Peter M. Williams was of the opinion that unless a degree of self-government was given to the locals, it was "immoral to expect them to shoulder arms in defence of interests not identical with their own".9 Furthermore, it was generally believed at the time that the responsibility to protect Singapore belonged to the British and not the locals.10

However, Gilmour dismissed such dissension by asserting that the development of self-defence capabilities was required for Singapore’s journey towards self-government. He also gave assurances that only limited segments of the population would be called up for part-time NS under the new law.11

The National Service Ordinance finally came into effect on 1 March 1954.12 Under the new law, only citizens of the United Kingdom and the colonies as well as Federation of Malaya citizens resident in Singapore were eligible to be called up for two years of part-time NS.13 Over 24,400 youths aged between 18 and 20 were registered for NS between 5 April and 12 May 1954.14 The first 1,000 national servicemen selected for the Singapore Military Forces and Civil Defence Corps were chosen by ballot and were expected to begin training in July 1954. The public ballot was held at the Singapore Military Headquarters Drill Hall at Beach Road. Of the total number, 400 servicemen were absorbed into the Singapore Military Forces and 600 into the Civil Defence Corps.15

However, the attempt at introducing NS did not go smoothly. Some 500 male and female students from various Chinese high schools held a demonstration against the new law on 13 May 1954, which resulted in clashes with the police.16 This incident later became known as the National Service Riots of 1954.

National Service after independence
After separation from Malaysia on 9 August 1965, Singapore became an independent nation-state that had to develop its own armed forces to assert its sovereignty. In July 1967, the British government officially announced its decision to withdraw British forces from Singapore. This was followed by another announcement in January 1968 that the withdrawal schedule would be accelerated and all British forces were to leave Singapore by April 1971. These announcements further increased the need to establish a large citizen army through NS.17

Singapore’s leaders had initially thought that they would have 10 to 20 years to build a credible defence force.18 Nevertheless, the Singapore government had already begun building up the local defence forces even before this change in British policy. On 30 December 1965, the People’s Defence Force (PDF) Bill was passed, which allowed the government to raise a defence force of volunteers who would train on weekends.19 By March 1966, some 3,200 young men had volunteered to join the PDF.20 However, relying mainly on volunteerism to build up Singapore’s defence forces was problematic as there were insufficient volunteers. This was due to several factors such as a lack of a soldiering tradition in Singapore, the widespread belief among the majority Chinese population that “good sons do not become soldiers”, and the booming economy which drew people away from a career in the defence forces. As a result, the Singapore government decided to resort to compulsory conscription to expand the country’s defence forces.21

National Service (Amendment) Bill
On 14 March 1967, then Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee moved the second reading of the National Service (Amendment) Bill and it was passed. Goh announced that an initial batch of some 9,000 male youths born between 1 January 1949 and 30 June 1949 would be eligible to be called up for NS.22

There were four branches of the defence forces where one could serve NS: the full-time army, PDF, Vigilante Corps and Special Constabulary. Those who were not selected for the army were allocated to the PDF, Vigilante Corps and Special Constabulary where they did part-time training during their off-duty hours. This arrangement was favourable for those who were pursuing further studies.23

National Service for the pioneer batch
The National Service (Registration) Rules 1967 came into operation on 17 March 1967. Any person required to report for NS who gave false information to the registration office was liable for imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to S$2,000, or to both.24

The registration period for the first batch of young men eligible for NS was between 28 March and 18 April 1967. They were to register at one of four registration centres located at Kallang, Katong, Serangoon and Bukit Panjang. Full-time students in government and government-aided secondary schools did not have to call at the centres as their own schools could register them. The People’s Association provided 500 people to aid in the registration process.25

At the registration centres, all enlistees to NS were required to provide their full name, address, date and place of birth, schools attended and highest educational level reached. They were also to provide details of their special hobbies or skills, name and address of employer, date of employment, type of work, details of previous employment, previous experience in military or other services such as school cadet corps or scouts, their marital status, and the particulars of their dependents.26

The documents required for registration were the identity card, citizenship papers or birth certificate. Health and medical certificates relating to any special physical condition, ailment or injury to prove any physical conditions or ailments also had to be provided. Other documents required for registration included the Central Provident Fund membership card, statement or documentary proof of enrolment in full-time studies, and an employment status letter from the employer.27

Reactions to the call-up for NS were mixed. Street demonstrations were staged by up to 300 people who opposed the call-up.28 There were also protests by Chinese Middle School students on 28 March 1967.29 However, the University of Singapore Student Union showed strong support for the call-up.30 The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce also supported compulsory conscription by passing a resolution that called upon youths who were eligible for NS to turn up for registration.31

By mid-April 1967, more than 90 percent of the 9,000 young men eligible for NS had registered.32 From 19 April 1967, those who failed to register for NS were liable to be arrested by the police for dodging the draft.33 Nevertheless, the government was careful and sensitive to the impact of compulsory NS on families. To address genuine or valid reasons given by young men who wished to defer serving NS, new rules were gazetted to make NS more flexible. Under the new National Service (Postponement of Liability to Serve) Rules that were gazetted on 15 September 1967, due consideration was henceforth given to valid cases of NS postponement.34

Kartini Saparudin

1. The National Service (Amendment) Act, Act 2 of 1975, Government Gazette. Acts Supplement, 109. (Call no.: RCLOS 348.5957 SGGAS)
2. Parliament of Singapore, Second Reading of the National Service (Amendment Bill), vol. 25 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 13 March 1967, cols. 1158–62 (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN); “All Set for Call-Up of First Batch,” Straits Times, 14 March 1967, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Tim Huxley, Defending the Lion City: The Armed forces of Singapore (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 23. (Call no. RSING 355.3095957 HUX)
4. Mickey Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 1997), 18 (Call no. RSING 355.22 CHI); Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 175. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
5. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 18; A Precautionary Measure: Blythe,” Singapore Free Press, 5 March 1952, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Legislative Council, Singapore, “First Reading of the National Service Bill (Second Session), Proceedings (18 March 1952), B85. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
7. “The Service Bill,” Straits Times, 17 April 1952, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Legislative Council, Singapore, “Second Reading of the National Service Bill (Second Session), Proceedings (18 March 1952), B110. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
9. “Labour to Be Asked to Oppose Call-Up Bill,” Straits Times, 7 March 1952, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 18.
11. Call-Up Is 'Wise Insurance, Not War-Mongering',” Straits Times, 18 April 1952, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Law from Monday,” Straits Times, 27 February 1954, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “A Citizens’ Army,” Straits Times, 16 December 1953, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 18.
15. “They Will Be Chosen By Ballot Today,” Straits Times, 21 June 1954, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Schoolboys Battle Police,” Straits Times, 14 May 1954, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Huxley, Defending the Lion City, 23; Malcolm H. Murfett et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 328–9. (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET)
18. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 16.
19. Parliament of Singapore, People’s Defence Force Bill, vol. 24 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 30 December 1965, cols. 767–9. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
20. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 22.
21. Chiang, SAF and 30 Years of National Service, 23.
22. “Call-Up of First Batch.”
23. “Call-Up of First Batch.”
24. “Penalties for Lying to Call-Up Officer,” Straits Times, 10 April 1967, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Registration Dates for National Service,” Straits Times, 15 March 1967, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Registration Dates for National Service.”
27. “Registration Dates for National Service.”
28. “13 Are Held after Anti-Call-Up Demonstrations in S’pore,” Straits Times, 28 March 1967, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Six Men, Girl Held in Anti-Call-Up–Protest,” Straits Times, 30 March 1967, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Varsity Students Back Call-Up,” Straits Times, 5 April 1967, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Chinese Chamber Backs Call-Up,” Straits Times, 1 April 1967, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Call-Up Response Gratifying Says Government,” Straits Times, 16 April 1967, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “A Roundup of Call-Up Dodgers,” Straits Times, 19 April 1967, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Now New Rules on National Service,” Straits Times, 17 September 1967, 17. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 22 August 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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