Hri Kumar’s “National Defence Tax”

MP Hri Kumar’s proposal for a “National Defence Tax” on foreigners and PRs (and a clarification) has come under close scrutiny after he went public about it yesterday. While it is both derided and cheered, Hri Kumar’s suggestion is at least an attempt at addressing a major source of unhappiness: that foreigners and PRs enjoy many benefits paid for by the 2+ years of national service that Singaporean Sons do.

Adding to the furore is the revelation last year that an astounding one-third of NS-liable PRs gave up their PR status to avoid NS (not counting defaulters) and suffered negligible penalties compared to Citizens who would do the same. In addition, an IPS study showed that foreign-born citizens ranked NS as far less important than local-born citizens did, when asked if it was a factor in defining a Singaporean.

Mr Hri Kumar’s suggestion seeks (I interpret) several effects:

1) Increase the cost of being a foreigner or PR in Singapore (differentiate citizenship), unless one (or one’s children) has NS liability as a PR

2) Further deter PRs from giving up their PR status to avoid NS by acting as a further financial penalty

3) Incentivise PRs not to give up their PR status even after completing NS, and see it as a serious step towards citizenship

4) Set up a trust for the benefit of NSFs, funded by PRs and foreigners

These are, in general, worthy objectives. However, his original idea was really hard to capture (perhaps because he made such lengthy comparisons to NS, and has named it the “National Defence Tax”. I myself misunderstood it until the 4th reading. I hope I am not still misunderstanding his intentions, but I believe this is an inelegant and incomplete way of trying to achieve these effects. Moreover, it does little to heal the festering distrust between the rakyat and non-citizens, between born citizens and naturalised citizens, and between every Singaporean Son who has done his NS duty and every male PR or new citizen who has not (parliamentarians not excepted).

For point 1, a separate tax structure for PRs and foreigners is feasible, but best worked into the existing system. But what Singaporeans really want to see is a better distinction between benefits for Singaporeans and benefits for foreigners. The PR situation, I think, is a blurred line which I want to address in a separate post.

For points 2 and 3, I think Mr Hri Kumar’s suggestions are okay, but I would like to counter-propose that, a) an additional financial and legal penalty for PRs who avoid NS over and above the bond money, including making it illegal to relinquish permanent residency without serving NS, as it is with Singaporeans, b) lock in PR CPF monies – they can only be withdrawn as per relevant retirement schemes or upon death. Relinquishing one’s PR status results in these monies being forfeited.

For point 4, the idea for a fund is good, but it should be paid for by government funds, not directly by foreigners. Why?

Ultimately, Mr Hri Kumar misunderstands the general root cause of the divide – it has nothing so much to do with money nor with opportunity cost, even though we sometimes gripe about it in that way. National Service is a question of the Singaporean Identity; a symbol of the “Singaporean Core”. It is, to many, so symbolic a sacrifice and so powerful a gesture that it will forever set Singaporean Sons apart from those who have not served. It is a fraternity. It is a home.

That is why point 4 rankles so many who, like me, instantly misunderstood it as trying to “buy off” my NS service (although that is not Mr Hri Kumar’s intention). I simply will not have any aspect of my service to my nation directly funded by foreigners. It is unconscionable. They may benefit from my sacrifice, but I did not do it for them – I did it for God, family and country. I did it for my fellow solders, my platoon-mates sweating it out on the dusty trails of Pasir Laba, in the eerily perfect plantations of Tekong, in the muddy jungles of Mandai.

The Sons of Singapore take care of our own – we will not, can not, share this sacred burden with foreigners.

“God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have…
…He which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us. “
– from Henry V, Act 4 Sc 3, Shakespeare

CPT(NS) Daniel Yap

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11 thoughts on “Hri Kumar’s “National Defence Tax”

  1. To appreciate Hri Kumar’s proposal, you have to first be willing to understand that conscription, by itself, is effectively a tax on all Singaporean males.

    Now many Singaporeans will find that notion repulsive and immediately reject it without thinking seriously about it. If that is the case, then of course, you would reject his proposal, and the argument will end prematurely.

  2. Hi Kelvin,

    Thanks for your comment. NS can indeed be quantified into numbers, hence one correct view of NS as an effective tax on male Singaporeans. What I am putting forward, though, is that it is not ONLY a tax, but more. There are things about NS that money cannot value – duty, friendship, common ground, national identity, personal identity, nationalism, and much more.

    To say that NS is just a tax is like saying that our families are mere organisations, or even companies. It strips the unquantifiable essence from the institution and commodifies it. In this sense, I generally support Hri Kumar’s idea, except that monies for his proposed fund should not come from whatever foreigner-specific tax or system of duties we end up implementing. Me must own it ourselves.

  3. I am glad that there is some middle ground here. I can certainly understand where you are coming from.

    In that sense, the average Singaporean’s view towards conscription is largely shaped by how we were educated from young and hence those views are highly resistant to change, pretty much like how the average North Korean views capitalism.

    Let me just pose this question, “If Singaporeans largely agree that NS is necessary and that NS has those benefits that you are describing, why then do we still need a law that says if you do not serve, you will be thrown into jail?”

    • I believe the punitive law for defaulting from NS exists to enforce what is right conduct, just as so many other laws exist to do. Even though it may be right and good to serve NS, there is still a cost associated with it – there is a real temptation to avoid that cost.

      I do worry about attitudes towards NS degrading, especially as the number of foreigners gets larger. Already there are murmurs from the ground asking “who are we protecting?” This is a valid question, and Hri Kumar’s idea is but one small step in addressing it. Yet, the root issue must still be dealt with – a question of who and what we serve, what it means to be a Singaporean and so much more.

      While it may be noble simply to appeal to a sense of duty, the feeling that Singaporean Sons get that their years of service are not significant vis-a-vis the benefits foreigners get in Singapore and the effect that their numbers have on our daily lives is real, and to deconstruct it into numbers may help, but there is a great gulf of emotion and belief that numbers alone will not be able to bridge.

    • The same reason why there is a law on filial piety where parents can sue the child to court. Only a transactional government like PAP can quantify, monetize and cheapen the intangibles like public service, parental support and national service.

  4. Daily SG: 15 Feb 2013 | The Singapore Daily

  5. My takeaway from what you have written is that this is not about NS, or even defense. It is about PR-ship. Much more to look into then.

  6. How about slaughtering the sacred cow? Reduce NS to a year or less by partially (better still, completely) professionalizing the Army. It benefits Singaporeans and lowers barrier for foreign PR wanting to convert to Singapore citizenship.

    Our govt has invested heavily in SAF scholars who inevitably leave in the Army for senior positions in civil service or stat boards. Isn’t it better for these Generals to be professional soldiers like other countries and earn their keep?

    • Singaporeans serve one of the longest stints of NS in the developed world, matching S Korea. Unlike them, none of our neighbours are belligerent, nor have we any history of open conflict with them. Yet I don’t think this rollback will be easy. Our defense plans have been prepped for the next 15 years and cutting back significantly will leave almost all of our defense plans dangling, equipment rotting and will be a shock to manpower in general.

      I do wonder about our military scholars – I can’t recall the rationale for their early retirement, but the knowledge drain is a significant factor. It also signals that we may not be too serious about our military. It seems like the military career is just a stepping stone to the civil service or politics, which is totally weird if you ask me.

  7. Prosecute and extradite NS defaulters? Maybe. – Signs of Struggle

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