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SAF’s PES revamp timely, say NSmen who felt constrained by old system

SINGAPORE — Corporal First Class (NS) Tan Yu Hui's heart condition meant he was classified as non-combat-fit when he enlisted into the army seven years ago.

  • Corporal First Class (NS) Tan Yu Hui, 25, said he felt that he could have contributed in better ways despite being classed non-combat-fit
  • Third-Sergeant (NS) Loo Zi Hao, 26, said he missed out on an overseas deployment because of his PES status
  • The new PES system may deploy servicemen in roles that give them a greater sense of achievement, said Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Chong Kee Hiong


SINGAPORE — Corporal First Class (NS) Tan Yu Hui's heart condition meant he was classified as non-combat-fit when he enlisted into the army seven years ago.

He was deployed as a security trooper assigned to guard a military camp, but the 25-year-old wished cybersecurity roles were available to him when he was serving his two-year National Service (NS).

"Although I was classed medically unfit, I always felt there were better ways I could contribute to Singapore's defence than the standard few vocations we had," said the operationally ready national serviceman (NSman).

That may soon be possible for new enlistees as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) embarks on a revamp of the Physical Employment Standard (PES) system, allowing more servicemen to be deployed in vocations they were not eligible for previously.

Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How told Parliament on Monday (March 1) that the SAF has also been introducing new vocations, such as cyber specialists, and redesigning existing ones to respond to an evolving threat environment.

Mr Tan, who was assigned a PES E status, went on to get a degree in information systems technology and design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design and now works as a consultant at a software firm.

Right now, pre-enlistees are deployed into vocations based on their PES status ranging from PES A, meaning they are deemed fit for all combat vocations, to PES F, which means they are unfit for any form of service. They are also medically screened as either combat-fit or non-combat-fit.

The SAF is shifting away from that and instead wants to match servicemen based on the specific requirements of each role, Mr Heng said.

Welcoming the move, Third-Sergeant (NS) Loo Zi Hao, 26, said the move was timely as many new vocations may not be as physically demanding as conventional roles, such as infantry troopers who serve as boots on the ground.

Mr Loo was assigned a PES B status when he enlisted, meaning he was eligible for most frontline operational vocations. But while he was training in the Officer Cadet School during NS, he tore a ligament in his knee and had his medical status downgraded to PES C.

He was transferred out of the course into a C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) unit as an intelligence specialist.

“When our company went on overseas deployment to learn more about a particular system we were using, I was unable to join due to my PES status, even though there was not much physical activity involved,” said Mr Loo, who now works as an equity specialist in a brokerage firm.


Dr Michael Raska, coordinator of the military transformations programme at the Nanyang Technological University's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, noted that the SAF’s move comes as it is shifting to a greater use of advanced technology.

“Adopting technological advances in the SAF may significantly enhance the combat potential and capabilities of the force, and in doing so, however, impose increasing requirements on the training and selection of soldiers,” he said.

Unlike the superpowers that can afford to train its soldiers across all forms of combat operations, small states like Singapore will have to allocate its resources efficiently based on its strategic needs, he said.

This means that Singapore will continuously be examining how it organises its force and deploys its soldiers based on its evolving capabilities.

Indeed, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen in his parliamentary speech on Monday during the debate over the defence budget outlined how the old classification system has grown “outdated” and “makes little sense” when applied to new technologies, such as unmanned surface vessels and watch towers.

“This has less to do with our manpower constraints, but the expansion of capabilities and avenues in which they can contribute,” he said.


Echoing Dr Raska’s view, Mr Chong Kee Hiong, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Defence and Foreign Affairs, said that as roles in SAF progresses, it must also develop how it deploys its manpower.

“If there can be better matches between the abilities and aspirations of our full-time national servicemen and their vocation, it will enable more of them to feel a sense of achievement,” the Member of Parliament (MP) for Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC) told TODAY in an email.

Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, also a member for the GPC for Defence and Foreign Affairs, said the changes could open up new specialisations in the SAF where servicemen’s strengths can be put to the best use, regardless of their physical status or gender.

“From a Total Defence viewpoint, I feel that this change sends a strong signal that the defence of our nation is not the task of the strong or physically fit alone but for everyone to play their part, to his or her strengths,” the MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC told TODAY.

Will the new batches of enlistees be receptive to the changes?

Mr Lim Wei Yi, a former naval combat medic during NS who has completed his NS obligations, thinks that would depend on who you ask.

“There are always many patriotic soldiers who want to do more but are restricted by their PES status… There are people who want to make use of their time in NS to learn a skill — those will be happy,” said the 40-year-old co-founder of education centre Study Room.

But “in the real world, there will be people who want to chao keng”, he added, referring to a Hokkien phrase which means to malinger.

“They won’t be too pleased but I believe they are a minority.”

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