Little in Singapore is immune from implications of the baby bust. The island city-state, which imports labor along with power, water and other building blocks of economic and social life, is facing a demographic crunch that makes Japan’s challenges of an aging population look simple. Robots make lattes, clear tables at hawker centers, and have even enforced social distancing during the pandemic. Despite multiplying state incentives, couples just aren't churning out enough kids. Will the military, one of the country’s most revered institutions, feel the squeeze?
That's the vital question — posed in a lighthearted way — behind a movie in local cinemas. In Ah Girls Go Army, director Jack Neo depicts a not-too-distant future where women are conscripted. National Service, or NS as Singaporeans call it, is compulsory for male citizens and permanent residents upon turning 18. After two years full-time, they continue as operationally ready reservists. Women serve with distinction in the military, but as volunteers. The film opens with an address to Parliament by a senior female lawmaker, whom Neo says is an imaginary minister for defense (Singapore has never had a woman in that role), declaring that the relentless decline in births calls for drastic action.
Neo says he didn't set out to make a comedy, though he’s happy that people can get a few laughs. He doesn’t foresee female conscripts in the near future, but is acutely aware of the demographic forces pushing the country toward some uncomfortable decisions. He wanted to shake people up, without smashing too much crockery. “The shortage of manpower in Singapore is quite serious,” he said in an interview. “I am trying to show that girls are as strong as men. It’s for our national security. One day, we will definitely need it. At the moment, we can continue the present course.”
The Ministry of Defense didn't cooperate in the film’s production, as it has in other martial-themed movies that Neo has made. There’s no effort to discourage movie-goers from enjoying it — provided social-distancing is observed in theaters. In a nation where little public discourse escapes the state’s attention, does the government’s hands-off approach suggest the start of a conversation with the electorate, or some effort to prepare the ground for a gender-blind NS?
National service isn’t just a two-year gig for young guys to figure out what to do with their lives. It’s a central part of the social fabric. The idea is that, regardless of race, religion or class, conscripts live and work together, and understand the value of team work. When Singapore divorced from Malaysia six decades ago, the young republic felt small and vulnerable in an unsafe neighborhood. The Vietnam War was heating up, and Indonesia was skirmishing with Malaysia. Jakarta sent agents to blow up a building in downtown Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, was grappling with high unemployment. NS offered a solution to a range of crises — and a chance to nation-build.
More recently, NS was highlighted in events to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the fall of Singapore to Japanese troops in World War II. Singapore has the best-equipped military in Southeast Asia, according to the International Institute for Strategic Affairs. The active force numbers 51,000, including conscripts, and another 252,500 reservists, according to the 2022 edition of the think tank’s publication The Military Balance.
NS has huge support among Singaporeans. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies found that a big majority of respondents thought two years was the right length of time for young men to commit. Opinions were more divided when it came to opening NS to females: 42% of men and 36% of women were in favor. Of women who supported the idea, fewer than 10% said they would do it themselves. Support was greater among women under 30; 13% told researchers they would serve.
Gillian Koh, deputy director at IPS, doesn’t detect a shift in official thinking, but points out that women already do a lot to strengthen the nation. “Truth be told, Singapore women will themselves say they bear a heavy personal, familial, social and national burden that is of critical import and seems to fall unevenly upon their shoulders – that of child-bearing and care-giving,” Koh told me in an email. “They wish this could be more evenly redistributed and perhaps this will be.”
The government acknowledges that anemic fertility rates mean some military matters have been done differently. In a written reply to a parliamentary question in January, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen emphasized technological advances such as unmanned naval vessels and watchtowers. “Despite a smaller NS pool, the SAF continues to be an effective military force and a strong deterrent against any potential threat,” he said.
The country’s leaders frequently express their wishes that couples get busier producing more Singaporeans. The total fertility rate was 1.12 last year, a touch above the record low of 1.1 recorded in 2020. The pandemic, even with abundant work from home, didn't make much of a dent in the problem.
Can universal conscription really be far away? Singapore has a woman president, Halimah Yacob, though far greater political power is held by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a man. Helen Wong is chief executive officer of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp., one of the country’s oldest and biggest lenders. Women have run the sovereign wealth fund and served as ambassador to Washington. Israel, whose military was a model for Singapore, is one of the few nations that drafts women. Taiwan and South Korea restrict conscription to males. Nonetheless, the case for NS should be strong.
Despite its reputation as a hyper-regulated place, Singaporeans can laugh at themselves. When I saw Ah Girls Go Army, there were plenty of guffaws. I recalled jokes friends have told when fondly recounting their own NS experiences. Other core aspects of community life star in the film, such as a stairwell at one of the ubiquitous blocks of flats developed by the housing board, where one heartbroken soldier sleeps underneath the watchful eye of a security camera, hoping that she will be reunited with the ex who dumped her before basic training. One character with gangster leanings, very conscious of expenses, gets a full-back tattoo — done on installment. The result is a hybrid that’s neither dragon nor snake, revealed with mirth in the communal shower.
The movie opened over the Lunar New Year holiday in early February and brought in $S1.3 million ($960,000) in its first week, according to Neo. Its cinema run is winding down, but he’s working on a sequel. Here’s hoping one day in the not-terribly distant horizon, a Singaporean woman can draw on her own experiences to put together a flick about such an essential piece of nationhood.