On National Service – Guest Post by Ohad Levinkron, Israel
Singapore is not the only country in the world with a conscripted army. There is also Israel, South Korea and Taiwan, among others.
After stirring up a debate on the review of the NS system in Singapore, I am opening this blog up for guest blog posts from conscripted military personnels from around the world.
To kick start, here is an account written by Ohad Levinkron, a friend I got to know during my trip to Israel last year:
Maybe we should start with some background. I’m from Israel.
Yep, that’s the really small country we call the Jewish State, located somewhere in the Middle East. We call it that because it was founded, about 60 years ago, as a home for the Jewish people. We used to live here once, about 2000 years ago, then stuff happened, and to make a (really) long story short we’ve been wandering the planet ever since. That is, up until now. Anyway, I guess Singaporeans already know something about living in small, young countries.
So apart from my country being really small, it’s not in the greatest place you could think of. I mean, the location does have its advantages – Our forefathers walked this place, we all feel very attached to it, the beaches are pretty nice too, but security-wise, well, it could be better. Basically, in the last couple of millennia there weren’t that many of us around here, and when we started coming back the people around here weren’t very into that. Those are today’s Palestinians. Now these guys happened to be Arab, as are every one of the countries in our neighborhood, so it was pretty clear who was winning the regional popularity contest. Sadly, though, this didn’t just end up with them not speaking to us during lunch breaks, and every decade or so we find ourselves in some sort of war. There are better years and there are worse, but while the casual tourist may not notice this much, the conflict is something Israelis face constantly.
So there’s a brief intro* to the Middle East conflict for you.
Now all that leads up to one fine day, about 15 years ago. Back then I was a bored 11th grader, sitting in class as usual, paying as little attention as I possibly could. On that particular day, however, the teacher passed out a form. It was a form from the army (which generally aroused much excitement amongst us), and it was about giving the army permission to see all of our grades.
I think I was about the only one who didn’t sign it. What if I don’t get good grades, I thought to myself. Do I really want some government official to see my private info? Who knows where it’s going to end up, and who’s going to see it in 30 years, when I run for public office? (At the time I didn’t think about who was going to care). Well, holding on to those principles didn’t last very long. After a few months all my friends started getting summoned to exams for special units, and I had to go and chase those units down just to beg them to look at my grades. There’s principles for you.
In the end I was fortunate enough to get into a good unit, and serve in interesting and meaningful ways. In fact, I had so much fun that beyond the obligatory 3 years I even signed up for a couple more. I was also lucky to do my service in a comfortable office, and not in some watch tower, freezing my pants off and risking my life in the middle of some sleepless night. Most of my friends were in similar positions, as I met many of them in those formative years in service. Not all, though. Some were just wasting away their best years doing some useless clerical job. Many were out on the front lines (effectively in our back yard), dealing with the everyday routine of our conflict. Some got hurt. Most were affected, unoblivious to security issues for the rest of their lives – whether identifying with the system they were a part of, or shunning it away. Almost everyone came out with their best friends for life.
Eventually I did get out, and went on to study. When I was an undergrad, one of my best friends set me up with an interview for a small start-up company in the internet business. He had known one of the founders from University, and it also helped that the three of us had served in the same army unit. I didn’t actually know the guy during my service, but I believe the official “stamp of approval” from being in that unit, and the feeling of comradery we shared, did play some part in getting me the job. Further along, another army buddy offered me a position at a company he had set up. After graduation, when I was looking for my first “real” job, my army record again played no small part in impressing the future boss. I would be very conservative to estimate that 50% or more of the people in our company got in based on their military record, and I don’t think this is unusual. This by no means indicates they don’t deserve to be there – many are of the brightest I know, and of the best in their field; But that army clerk, signing off one kid to the barracks while his friend went to a high-techy R&D unit, played no small part in their lives.
In a country like ours, military service is inseparable from who we are. Almost all kids aged 18 enlist for 2-3 years. A common saying goes that this is only the beginning; Later they are released into reserve duty, which may mean up to a month of every year, of (frequently voluntarily) leaving work and family behind and going off to serve. One of the main issues of our 2013 elections was the exemption of certain groups of people from service. The injustice of this was enough to trigger widespread demonstrations in public, and heated debate at our homes. And every few years the situation here escalates, and we are again reminded that reserve duty is not just in theory. But army duty doesn’t just divide us, it also brings us together. These shared experiences we have: boot camp, and our drill sergeant; painting the grass green and the other stupidities of military bureaucracy; waiting for mom and dad to visit over the weekend, embarrassing us in front of our friends but bringing along some home-cooked food to make up for it – Like our history, they are much of what makes this strange mix of immigrants one united nation.
Is it a necessary result of our situation? Or one of its causes? Mandatory service in Israel is not really up for debate. We can’t even imagine what Israel would be like without it. But it surely has a big impact on our individual lives, and our society.
I believe that in a mature and open society, important issues should be eligible for public debate. After getting a glimpse of the discussion through Alvin’s (wonderful) blog, I can only hope that NS in Singapore will continue to be so. As an Israeli, I think we could learn from your example.
*Disclaimer: I think it’s also pretty accurate, but feel free to check out the details yourself.
If you would like to contribute a guest blog post on the topic of conscription or know of someone who would like to contribute, please email me at [email protected]