Military Conscription In Rome History Essay

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Military conscription is a practice which traces its roots back to antiquity. Apart from the Roman Empire and Sparta, olden forms of conscription mainly engages the use of military slavery or forced recruitment of individuals with no allegiance to the state or empire. The birth of modern military conscription was only derived during the French Revolution, which introduced compulsory enlistment of citizens into the state's armed forces (Levi, 1997: 85). Since then, it has been primarily utilized by most modern nation-states to bolster their military in order to wage war or deter aggression from one another. Although much of the global military tensions have eased after the Cold War, military conscription has continued to prevail in many nations. This brings my attention to the city-state of Singapore, which has continued to enforce national service on her citizens. In this paper, I argue that conscription is no longer feasible in Singapore's context. My paper shall focus on the core objectives which justifies compulsory military enlistment in Singapore, and why the concept is irrelevant to Singapore's present society.

Initial Objectives for a Citizen's Army

Military conscription, which is also known as national service, was introduced to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in 1967 after the British announced their military withdrawal from the island- nation. The initial objectives for the formation of a citizen's army were largely due to pragmatic reasons. First and foremost, Singapore faced immediate regional security concerns. The newly- independent Singapore in 1965 was drawn into a conflict between neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia, known as the Indonesian Konfrantasi. Possible escalation of the war in Vietnam to the rest of South- East Asia also posed a threat to Singapore's national security. Furthermore, bilateral ties between Singapore and Malaysia were strained following the Separation. Encircled by hostilities, Singapore's leaders had taken the approach which was in line with Charles Tilly's belief that the fundamental basis for state formation was to be prepared for war. Possessing a strong standing army through conscription thus becomes necessary.

Economical factors also gave conscription a stronger justification. Singapore began her independence as a poor island-nation, prompting then- Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to declare that sustaining a large regular force would "drive the country into bankruptcy" (Buchanan, 1972: 294). Lastly, integrating and instilling patriotism among the multi-racial populace was seen as instrumental for Singapore's social stability. Drawing inspiration from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Singaporean leaders saw national service as an effective measure for social engineering.

While military conscription may have been justified in the early years of Singapore's independence, rapid societal changes have devalued its significance as Singapore progresses into a new era. Not only has she achieved a vibrant economy powered by a well-educated populace, diplomatic relations with most countries including ASEAN have been constructive and friendly. Nevertheless, national service yet remains an immovable policy to Singapore's leaders.

The Diplomatic front

Despite the formation of ASEAN and enhanced cooperation among the South-East Asian nations, achieving a European Union style of integration remains a distant reality. Lack of transparency and mutual distrust still linger among ASEAN nations. Surrounded by larger Muslim states of Malaysia and Indonesia, Chinese- majority Singapore can be described as 'a juicy Chinese nut in a Malay nutcracker' (Singh, 2007: 9).

Among all potential rivals, Malaysia still remains the biggest security threat in the eyes of Singapore's lawmakers. As Singh suggests, Singapore's relation with Malaysia "can be deemed the most tempestuous and unpredictable... in the ASEAN region", which was "the result of historical events, epitomized by… increasing political, economic and diplomatic competition". (Singh, 2003: 23).

However, the inauguration of new generation of leaders has seen increasingly amicable ties. Major issues which have dogged the relationship between both countries, such as Singapore's water supply and the ownership of Pedra Branca, have been largely resolved. Referring to Liberalists like Joseph Nye's viewpoint, increased economic cooperation and dependency between Malaysia and Singapore such as establishing the Iskandar Development Region in Johor, have also created more reasons for both nations to seek peace instead of war. Conscription in Singapore will only deliver a hostile connotation to Malaysia, impeding further improvement of bilateral ties. This will inherently trigger a similar realist approach from Malaysia, resulting in a 'security dilemma' which may lead both nations into a potentially perilous arms race (Singh, 2003: 45).

Conscription as an economic liability

Beginning as a humble country with an excess of a relatively unskilled labor force, military conscription was considered as a cheap resource. Stipends for conscripted active personnel remain economical despite undergoing adjustments over the years. It would be the large number of reservists that will serve as an increasing liability to the SAF. A reservist undergoes refresher trainings almost every year, and the government compensates his loss of income while on service. With the enormous jump in per capita income of an average Singaporean as compared to the past, reimbursing reservists will no doubt place a huge burden on the SAF's budget. [1] 

Proponents have argued that this could still be viewed as a worthy trade-off if the reserve battalions could produce satisfactory results. However despite the SAF's alleged emphasis on updating reserve battalions with modern weaponry, reservist soldiers from armor divisions continue their training with obsolete vehicles like the M-113 and V-200. Outdated AR-15 or M-16 assault rifles also continue to be prevalent among most reserve infantry battalions instead of the modernized SAR-21 rifles. Furthermore the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT), which reflects on the most basic fundamentals of a soldier's aptitude, has seen only sixty- percent passing rates among reservists. [2] These aspects of the reserve army would thus drastically hamper the overall effectiveness of the SAF.

Nation-builder or Nation-divider?

Perhaps social issues pose the greatest challenge to military conscription in Singapore. The SAF is increasingly seen as an institution which breeds elitism, contradicting its initial objectives of promoting egalitarianism among the citizens. Vocations in the SAF are classified according to an individual's academic credentials. Though there is interaction across all social levels, leadership vocations are mostly exclusive to 'A' level or diploma holders. As a result, a supervisor-subordinate relationship largely exists between those academically superior and those who are not. The SAF singles out the cream of the cohort, who will then be groomed and placed on an accelerated path to become military generals and subsequently leaders of the public sector. This phenomenon has resulted in the SAF producing teenage commanders and under-40-year old generals, which has become the subject of mockery by militaries of other nations.

Dwindling patriotism may be the biggest answer for the growing dissent against the practice of military conscription. Using a letter from The Straits Times forum page as an example, the author questions "what do [Singaporeans] have in Singapore that are worth dying for?", and sums up that Singapore only offered economic gain which is insufficient for citizens to "die for their country". [3] Not only does this reflect on the wavering loyalty of Singaporeans towards their nation, it also displays the severe pragmatism in Singapore's society. Furthermore, the economical benefit that binds the country to its people has been threatened by foreigner-friendly policies that encourage job competition with the locals. Singaporeans' fears and antagonism towards foreign workers are best illustrated in the local film I Not Stupid (Kluver and Weber, 2003). [4] Enforcing conscription will only generate greater unhappiness as it disadvantages locals over foreigners in career prospects. [5] The loss of sense of security from the state propels people to lose faith in the nation, viewing national service as a mandatory chore rather than a noble duty. Eventually, more Singaporeans will raise this question, "If we go to war, why should we fight for Singapore?" as quoted from a Cabinet Minister's son [6] . In the long-run, rising dissent caused by conscription will inherently create undesirable social consequences for Singapore.

Concluding Conscription in Singapore

To sum up, conscription in Singapore has seemingly lost its significance in terms of political, economic and social factors. It would not be fair to totally discredit national service, as it did produce substantial results especially in integrating the different races of Singaporeans and deterring foreign aggression However in our current-day context the cons have clearly outweighed the pros, leading me to conclude that continued conscription will eventually become detrimental to Singapore.

Military conscription in today's society

Apart from using Singapore as an example, I would continue to argue that conscription is undesirable in today's society.

As warfare shifts its emphasis to military technology, countries have begun to opt for smaller, compact armies. Strength in numbers is no longer the dominant strategy as outcomes of war are largely determined by technological superiority. The first Persian Gulf War serves as an example of how the technologically-superior Coalition forces could easily overwhelm a numerically-superior Iraqi army. Military conscription thus loses its significance in modern warfare since its primary purpose is to boost manpower figures. By forcing everybody into a military vocation regardless of abilities, the army also tends to forgo "specialization and productivity". Handling of sophisticated and complex weaponry requires specialized rigid training which "short-term draftees" may be unable to deliver as compared to "long-term professionals" (Poutvaara and Wagener, 2009). Thus conscripted soldiers will eventually lead to inefficiency in the military.

Although commonly assumed by proponents to be an effective way to blend citizens in non-homogenous societies, conscription has also generated a similar amount of negative effects. In Israel, efforts such as lifting restrictions on Druze and Bedouin military vocations were made in order to assimilate the non-Jewish recruits. However, a survey conducted in 2003 revealed that 70 percent of Druze ex-servicemen "expressed frustration" and fellow Jewish soldiers regarded Druze lives as "more disposable than other troops" (Cohen, 2007:115). In addition, only "few" immigrants from former Soviet Union territories maintain their friendships "formed in the IDF with native Israelis", with most returning "to their secluded pre-military world" after service (Cohen, 2007:118). In the case of Singapore, the limited involvement of ethnic Malays in the SAF has also sparked unhappiness among the Malay community. This leads us to argue that conscription may not be as useful in fostering national unity as it is widely presumed. Perhaps other methods to integrate the population such as schooling may provide a better alternative to military training.

Negative effects on the macroeconomic level would serve as another argument against conscription. By imposing conscription the state delays its youth from obtaining university education or work experience, disrupting the development of human capital which will then cause negative repercussions for the economy. This consequence is evident as GDP growth rates in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries practicing conscription were lower by around a quarter percent than in OECD countries with volunteer armies between 1960 to 2000 (Keller et al., 2009). As mentioned previously, the state will also have to bear increased financial burden by maintaining its reserve soldiers. Besides Singapore, this situation is also highlighted in the IDF's decision to reduce reservist training days by "over 40 percent" between 1990 and 1995 as "reservists began to become a burden on the IDF's budget" (Cohen, 2007:134). Conscription also tends to encourage "draft dodging" among eligible draftees. For example a Korean singer, MC Mong attempted to evade conscription by bribing a dentist to extract his healthy teeth. [7] Similar cases of "draft-dodging" activities like bribery and deliberate emigration would cause "economic distortions and deadweight losses", which would result in negative consequences for a nation's economy (Poutvaara and Wagener, 2009).

It can be argued that conscription contributes to increased global conflicts due to its psychological influence in a civil society. As strongly presented in the Anti-Conscription Manisfesto [8] , conscription "involves the degradation of human personality" "[by forcing] men to give up their [lives] or to inflict death against their will". Military training explicitly "[perpetuates] war spirit" and soldiers who are drafted are usually in their "most impressionable age", rendering them vulnerable to indoctrination. This impact could be greater for societies like Singapore, Israel and South Korea where enlistment is viewed as a rite of passage. Amplified militaristic notion among populations will therefore create a higher probability of armed conflicts, disrupting global peace.


With the exception of autocratic states, most societies no longer function in a way which Thomas Hobbes had suggested that the state wields ultimate authority over its citizens through 'social contracts'. "Military service can only be demanded, conscription can only be required, when the war is just" (Levi, 1997: 208). How "justified" is military conscription would then depend on how well the state persuades its citizens to subscribe to its cause. However in today's context, the existing military, economical and social conditions do not favor the continued practice of military conscription. This leads me to conclude that conscription has lost its value in our modern-day society.