It was only in January, following the death of local actor Aloysius Pang during a military training accident, that widespread calls were made for the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) to improve their safety standards and protocols.

The outpouring of grief and outrage over Pang’s death – the fourth training-related death since September 2017 – seemed to indicate that the public was genuinely concerned about the welfare of our National Servicemen.

That is why it’s shocking to see the negative reactions to Mindef’s recent announcement that the latest batch of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) army recruits had, on Saturday (Mar 9), graduated from Basic Military Training (BMT) after completing a 12km route march, instead of the usual 24km.

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In a post on the Singapore Army’s Facebook page, it was explained that this batch of BMT recruits undertook the shortened 12km route march as they “were not able to complete the required build-up training in line with existing training directives” – a consequence of the two-week safety timeout (from Jan 23 to Feb 6) that was implemented in the aftermath of Pang’s death.

However, that explanation was not enough to appease the detractors, whose main grouse seemed to centre on the belief that halving the distance of the route march would only make the soldiers “weak” and “soft”.

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Image Source: Facebook / The Singapore Army

Several took to insulting the soldiers, using terms like “strawberry generation”, “embarrassing” and “snowflake” to denigrate them. And these were just some of the more polite comments that I’ve singled out.

Of course, there were also those who used this opportunity to boast about how much tougher National Service (NS) was “back in their day”. They reasoned that since they were able to go through their NS stint and the 24km route march without any mishaps, everyone else should be able to do the same.

So, was it wrong for Mindef and the army to allow the BMT recruits to graduate without doing the full 24km route march?

Not at all.

After all, it would have been dangerous for the soldiers to undertake such a physically and mentally demanding activity without the requisite training and acclimatisation.

And there would very likely have been casualties – possibly even fatal ones – had the 24km route march gone on as planned.

Do we really want to risk the lives of our soldiers over a 24km route march?

Because while the 24km route march is a test of one’s endurance, physical prowess and mental strength, it is nothing more than a symbolic act to mark these soldiers’ graduation from BMT. It has no bearing whatsoever upon the sort of soldier they will end up becoming.

soldier, army, recruit, singapore, skm, pride, kindness
Image Source: Facebook / The Singapore Army

And, in the grander scheme of things, it is more important for a soldier to be proficient in their respective vocations than for them to have completed a 24km route march.

Also, given that so many were calling for an improvement to NS safety standards in the aftermath of Pang’s death – something Mindef promised to do – why are people turning around to criticise the ministry and the army now when they are doing just that?

Worse still, there was no need to label these soldiers as “soft” just because they did not do the full 24km route march. Such ridicule only serves to perpetuate the fallacy that our soldiers must suffer and be pushed to their limits in order to get the full NS experience.

It is precisely this sort of outdated mindset which can lead to soldiers overexerting themselves during training and refusing to seek medical help for fear of being deemed as weak in front of their peers.

And it is this mindset that leads commanders to push the boundaries of safety in a bid to get their soldiers to “toughen up”, which can sometimes have disastrous consequences.

Lastly, let’s stop highlighting the difference between NS life in the past and now, because there is simply no point in doing so.

Just like everything else, Singapore’s military has evolved and modernised over time – we are now training 4G soldiers, and so it is only natural that operations and processes are conducted differently.

Shouldn’t we be happy that modern technology has made things easier for our soldiers? Why should we bemoan the fact that there is no longer any need for them to go through so-called “old-school” training and exercises that are more physically challenging, but also outdated?

NS should not be viewed as a glamorised fitness boot camp, nor is it a magical rite of passage that is meant to turn our “boys into men”.

Because ultimately, the whole point of NS is so that we have a military force capable of defending Singapore’s sovereignty, as well as a police and civil defence force to keep her citizens safe.

So, let’s be proud of our NSmen. Let’s support them in whatever way we can. And let’s show that we truly care for each and every one of them.

Now, that’s the beat of the drum that we can all march to, don’t you think?