Minister of State,
Chiefs of Services,
Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today is a very simple way of MINDEF saying thank you. Just a few days ago, we celebrated National Day. Some of you were in town and watched the National Day Parade live or on television. I received a lot of feedback that it moved them, because this year’s theme was “Our People, Our Home”. Some said they even shed tears at particular moments. These were from people who spoke to me spontaneously and they come from all walks of life. And if you think about why they said what they did, I think they felt that Singapore is a home to them, and indeed where they felt they belonged. A home is also one that you take the initiative to keep clean, safe and secure, and no one needs to prompt you. It came to me that this is the motivating force for why you do what you do. We have 300 volunteers we honour tonight. I know you gave your time and service, and you are very busy people; you are not doing this because you have nothing else to do – that’s clear. I went down to see our National Day Parade participants, they were from various groups. I asked them, who has participated in the most National Day Parades? This gentleman put up his hand. I asked, how many have you done? He said, 41 parades, starting from 1966. To lighten the mood, I said, you got nothing to do on your weekends! He’s been doing this year after year, they spent about 16 weeks and he’s done it for 41 years. I’m sure I’ll see him again next year.
You do what you do as volunteers, even though you are very busy, and the reason why we call you is because you have expertise that the SAF and MINDEF can use. And I believe that you do what you do because at the core of it, you believe that is our home. It is as simple as that.
You know you help us in areas where MINDEF and the SAF lack expertise, or even if we have the expertise, we may not be in the best position to perform that role. You saw the number of boards and panels we have – 41 boards, panels and committees. Through these boards, panels and committees, we interact with hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans, helping to respond to diverse needs.
Important Role of MINDEF Volunteers and their Contributions
Whether as volunteers or employed personnel, the core of our mission is the same – to maintain a strong and able defence for Singapore. And we cannot build a strong defence without the commitment of NSmen. Neither can we do it without the commitment of the general public towards National Defence. And I say this not in a blasé way, but it is actually very difficult to maintain support for NS. You would know that we completed the Committee to Strengthen National Service, so I asked for a list of countries that have National Service when we started in 1965, and the countries that have National Service now. They are dropping off like flies. Very few countries can sustain the National Service. The question is why – is it because their threats are reduced? It’s not because their threats have reduced. And if you analyse why some countries have lost their public support for NS, it is because they failed to convince the public that all NSmen are treated fairly and equally. That’s the primary reason. Or, their NSmen are not given good treatment, or even the best treatment. Volunteers like you help us convey that message – not only that message but in actual day-to-day operations, help us make sure that every NSman is treated fairly and equally, regardless of status and want he has done. We treat everybody the same. Many of you sit on boards that decide compensation for injuries, deaths, civil requisition and medical downgrading. And these are serious tasks which go on – I know every day, you give your time to sit on these panels. And when we get queries and people say that I don’t think this is fair, our reply, invariably to them, is that we have an impartial panel that adjudicates such issues. And the credit is not that this reply was given. In our system, the credit is that this reply is believed. I’m sure other countries give the same reply, but it may not be believed. You are the reason why we have credibility, why we are able to do this. We have many lawyers and judges here – Choo Han Teck (President of the Military Court of Appeal) has been helping us for a very long time, but legal experts such as Ms Jennifer Marie Suriyiacala and Mr Ng Peng Hong have been helping us in these Boards, as well as Deputy Chief District Judge and District Judge in the State Courts.
We co-opt expertise which we don’t have to build up standards and practices. There are critical roles that you need to play. In the SAF Music and Drama Company (MDC) Artistic Advisory Board, for example, we have Dr Yu Wei Jie who has been helping us for many years. The MDC is one way which we can not only entertain, but sell the message of defence. Never underestimate what these soft touches do. And you know MDC has provided very high entertainment quality. They recently sang at the National Day dinner hosted by President and even got Prime Minister dancing to the beat!
When our soldiers get injured, Singaporeans want the assurance that they will get care as good as or even better than civilians. Volunteers like Associate Professor Kenneth Mak give us professional advice, and check that we have adopted the best medical practices. He has been a member of the SAF Emergency Medicine Specialist Advisory Board since 2011. I know that every time I name someone, I’m in danger of missing out many more. But you know that you have contributed and I choose selected ones to show examples and by no way diminish the contributions of many others.
Dr Paul Chui is another volunteer who has helped us in medical research and ethics, as Chairman of the IRB (Institutional Review Board) of DSO and SAF, and as member of the SAF Medical Advisory Board. The public draws confidence from your contributions.
Some of us help to recognise the contributions of our NSmen. Volunteers like CPT (NS) Andy Tan help us in SAFRA because he understands the needs of younger NSmen. To recognise them, we have to make sure that SAFRA gives good quality clubhouses.
In recognition of their dedication and contributions, Dr Paul Chui and CPT (NS) Andy Tan will be conferred the Public Service Medal at this year’s National Day Awards. Congratulations.
Safety is another critical issue. If the public do not believe their sons and daughters can train safely, they will not support NS. This is why when we set up the External Review Panel on SAF Safety last October, we needed to appoint a heavy-weight – somebody who comes into our system, has critical load and tell us where we can improve. And that’s why we got Alan Chan. I think we have chosen the right man for the role, because he has been busy at work, inspecting various training schools and Headquarters Medical Corps. The team will continue to have a critical eye to establish a culture which is very deep in European countries. I have told my chaps in the SAF that we want to have a culture like European countries, specifically the Scandinavian countries. Companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell give safety instructions before every meeting. Even if it’s a regular board meeting, they will tell you where the exit doors are. It’s just in their culture.
We have got many outstanding volunteers in the Committee to Strengthen National Service and I think their recommendations will go a long way in strengthening National Service.
Nurturing the Spirit of Volunteerism – Enabling More People to Contribute to Defence
Let me sum up: Volunteers like you act as catalysts for the system. I am thankful that many of you extended your service voluntarily. We took what you did and extended that idea to the Expertise Conversion Scheme, so that it could include people in areas like engineering and ship operations. Just last month, the pioneer batch of graduands completed their training course.
We will also start the SAF Volunteer Corps to bring in women, 1st generation Permanent Residents and new citizens to the SAF. These are uniformed volunteers. The SAFVC will enable them to play meaningful roles in Singapore’s defence, and strengthen our operational capabilities. Here again, we are not aiming for mass numbers, but this will be another catalyst and I am confident that these members will provide sterling service. The first SAFVC intake will be in March next year.
Once again, let me express my deepest gratitude for your efforts and sacrifices. Together we build this home, where we belong. Together we keep it safe and secure for ourselves, our children and theirs.
Thank you and have a pleasant evening.