Singapore: Compulsory military service, including requirements and exemptions; whether individuals with medical exemption face difficulties in employment; penalties for evasion and desertion; cases of recruits being harmed or killed during military training; whether a recruit can make a formal complaint against mistreatment by the military; treatment of exempted recruits and occasions in which proof of military service status is required (2014-April 2015) [SGP105140.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Requirements

Males in Singapore are required to serve two years of full-time national service (NS) upon reaching the age of 18 (US 27 Feb. 2014, 17; Singapore July 2014, 4); this requirement applies to both citizens and permanent residents (ibid.). The US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 indicates that men are required to undergo reservist training until the age of 40 (enlisted men) or 50 (for officers) (US 27 Feb. 2014, 17). According to the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) website, which provides information about the obligations of reserve duties, reservist servicemen may be called up for a maximum of 40 days of service every year (Singapore 10 Sept. 2012).

National service can be performed within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Civil Defence Force or the Singapore Police Force (Today 10 July 2014; Singapore 2008).

Two sources indicate that males with national service obligations are required to obtain an exit permit to leave Singapore (CPTI May 2011, 2; US 27 Feb. 2014, 17), including males over age 13 who have not yet served and want to leave for international travel of more than three months (ibid.).

2. Evading or Defaulting on Enlistment

According to Section 33 of the Singapore Enlistment Act of 2001,

any person within or outside Singapore who -

  1. fails to comply with any order or notice issued under this Act;
  2. fails to fulfil any liability imposed on him under this Act;
  3. fraudulently obtains or attempts to obtain postponement, release, discharge or exemption from any duty under this Act;
  4. does any act with the intention of unlawfully evading service;
  5. gives the proper authority or any person acting on his behalf false or misleading information; or
  6. aids, abets or counsels any other person to act in the manner laid down in paragraph (a), (b), (c), (d) or (e),

shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $10,000 [approximately C$ 9,080] or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both. (Singapore 2001, Sec. 33)

In a 2012 official release, the Minister of Defence stated that the MINDEF will "press for a custodial sentence on the defaulter" based on the length of the default period and taking into consideration the following guidelines:

  1. Shorter jail sentence. Where the default period exceeds two years but the defaulter is young enough to serve his full-time and operationally ready NS (ORNS) duties in full, MINDEF will press for a short jail sentence.
  2. Longer jail sentence. Where the defaulter has reached an age when he cannot serve his full-time NS in a combat vocation or fulfil his ORNS obligations in full, MINDEF will press for a longer jail sentence to reflect the period of NS evaded.
  3. Maximum jail sentence. Where the defaulter has passed the age of 40 and cannot be called up for NS at all, MINDEF will press for a jail sentence up to the maximum of three years. (Singapore 10 Jan. 2012)

Further to punishment in the Court system, the government indicates that defaulters below the age of 40 must still serve their national service (ibid. 5 Mar. 2013).

A 2012 article by Channel NewsAsia, an English-language Asian TV News channel based in Singapore (Channel NewsAsia n.d.), states that the Defence Minister reported 204 national service defaulters in 2010 and 259 national service defaulters in 2011 (ibid. 15 Oct. 2012). According to the Minister of Defence's 2012 release, over the previous three years, five national service defaulters had been sentenced to imprisonment (Singapore 10 Jan. 2012). Sources report on a 2010 case in which a man left Singapore as a child, avoided national service for 23 years while abroad, and was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment when he returned to Singapore (MyPaper 22 July 2010; Today 22 July 2010). Sources indicate that on appeal, the court overturned the imprisonment sentence and the man was fined 5,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) instead (ibid.; MyPaper 22 July 2010).

Singapore Law Watch, a daily legal news service for the legal community in Singapore (Singapore Law Watch n.d.), reports on a case in which a man was sentenced to two months' imprisonment because he defaulted on his national service obligations for a period of about one year and three months (ibid. 27 Jan. 2015). However, upon a High Court appeal against the sentence in 2014, the man was fined 3,000 SGD instead (ibid.).

Sources indicate that Singapore does not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service (JW n.d.; UN 3 June 2013, para.15). Singapore newspaper Today stated in July 2014 that the Minister of Defence reported to Parliament that approximately a dozen national servicemen, every year for the past ten years, have been court-martialled, sentenced and detained for refusing, on religious grounds, to serve their national service obligations (Today 10 July 2014). Conscience and Peace Tax International (CPTI), an NGO with special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN, made a May 2011 submission to the Singapore Universal Periodic Review (UPR) about conscientious objection in Singapore, stating that upon release from detention, conscientious objectors are subject to repeated call-up for service, and that "[c]ontinued refusal frequently results in repeated periods of detention" (CPTI May 2011, 1). CPTI further reports that "all recorded instances of declared conscientious objectors in Singapore have been Jehovah's Witnesses" (ibid., 4). The official website for Jehovah's Witnesses reports that, as of December 2014, there were a total of 19 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison as conscientious objectors in Singapore, including one person who declined reservist military duty (JW n.d.). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

According to a faculty member in the department of political science at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who has researched public policy in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, NS is perceived as a "rite of passage" that all males in Singapore complete, and is "one of the very few universally shared (by males only) experiences in Singapore" (Faculty member 8 Apr. 2015). The source explained that, according to his experience, "most Singaporeans view the system as generally fair" and for those who do not go through official channels to avoid the potential of serving national service entirely, there are likely to be legal and social pressures, such as being accused of cheating to avoid national service (ibid.).

3. Penalties for Desertion and Absence Without Leave

According to Section 23 of the Singapore Armed Forces Act of 2000 on desertion,

23.-(1) Every person subject to military law who deserts shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction by a subordinate military court to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or any less punishment authorised by this Act.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person deserts if he -

  1. leaves or fails to attend at his place of duty in the Singapore Armed Forces with the intention of remaining permanently absent from duty without lawful authority, or, having left or failed to attend at his place of duty in the Singapore Armed Forces, thereafter forms the like intention; or
  2. absents himself without leave with intent to avoid service or any particular service before the enemy,

and references in this Act to desertion shall be construed accordingly. (Singapore 2000, Sec. 23)

Those found guilty of being absent without leave (AWOL) "shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction by a subordinate military court to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or any less punishment" authorized by the Act (ibid., Sec. 22). The Act also states that

24. Every person subject to military law who, knowing that any other person has committed an offence under section 22 or 23 -

  1. fails to report the fact without delay; or
  2. fails to take any steps within his power to cause that person to be apprehended,

shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction by a subordinate military court to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or any less punishment authorised by this Act. (ibid., Sec. 24)

According to the daily Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times, in 2014, a full-time national serviceman with the Singapore Civil Defence Force was sentenced to 12 months in jail for desertion and for having sex with a minor (The Straits Times 23 Apr. 2014). The same source reports that he had been jailed twice before for desertion in 2010 and 2012 (ibid.). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The Straits Times also reports that, in 2013, a man was sentenced to over three years imprisonment and fined 1,600 SGD for desertion, consumption of drugs, forging an identity card, and driving without a licence (24 May 2013). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

According to information provided to the CPTI by the General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, potential conscripts that leave the country for more than ten years risk losing their citizenship (CPTI May 2011, 5). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

4. Deferment and Exemption, Including Medical Exemption

The MINDEF states that males can apply to the Ministry to temporarily defer or disrupt their national service for educational reasons (Singapore July 2014, 11-12; ibid. 29 Oct. 2014). The MINDEF website also indicates that Singaporeans can be exempt from national service if they renounce their citizenship (ibid.).

The government website on national service indicates that a Physical Employment Status (PES) rating is assigned to recruits based on their medical condition and is used by the military to determine a recruit's vocation while in national service (ibid. 30 Oct. 2010). Similarly, according to the faculty member,

[a]ll recruits undergo a medical examination at the time of conscription, which strongly determines the unit type (and tasks) that they will serve in. Only a portion of recruits (typically those who are fully free of medical issues) end up in combat units (which complete tasks that we normally associate with military service). For the remainder of recruits (by my rough estimation, this is around half of all recruits), their NS is completed in support units that provide a wide range of services like logistics support, drivers, mechanics, radio operators, storeroom managers, office support, and the countless other tasks required to support an operation as large as Singapore's NS. (Faculty member 8 Apr. 2015)

The source also noted that "many conscripts complete NS in the police force or civil defence force, which also have a wide range of support tasks," explaining that "what this means in effect, is that NS has roles that go far beyond just military, many of which can accommodate a wide range of medical issues" (ibid.).

According to the Singapore Enlistment Act of 2001, "[n]o person who is not medically fit shall be found fit for service" (Singapore 2001, Sec.7). A rating of PES F indicates the recruit is medically and permanently unfit for any form of service (ibid. 29 Oct. 2014). Medical exemptions are determined by an armed forces medical review board (ibid.). According to the faculty member, a recruit's PES grade is the result of several medical examinations conducted by the NS and documentation of the PES grade is provided by the NS (Faculty member 8 Apr. 2015).

The Minister of Defence was quoted by Today as stating that the requirement to serve in national service is "'applied to all without exception ... only a small number are exempted for medical reasons on professional assessment by an independent panel'" (Today 10 July 2014). Similarly, the faculty member indicated that PES F medical exemptions are "exceedingly rare" in large part because of the "very wide range of service routes" in the NS (Faculty member 8 Apr. 2015).

PES F is also assigned to those with a "severe mental illness," as determined by a medical board (MyPaper 17 June 2014; The Straits Times 29 May 2014). According to the Minister of Defence in 2014, as quoted by The Straits Times, approximately 500 men have been exempted from national service for the last three years due to mental health conditions (ibid.).

5. Reports of Servicemen Killed or Harmed During Training

The MINDEF reports on the deaths of three servicemen in 2012 during training activities: a lance-corporal in Brunei (Singapore 14 Aug. 2012); a corporal who collapsed after completing a 2.4 km run at Kranji camp (ibid. 11 Jan. 2012); and a lance corporal transport operator who was hit by a falling tree during in-camp training (ibid. 27 Sept. 2012).

In addition to these incidents, a statement by the Minister of Defence to Parliament, as quoted in The Straits Times, reports on the 2012 deaths of two servicemen (The Straits Times 14 Nov. 2012). Reporting on the results of Committees of Inquiry into these two deaths, the Minister of Defence reported that the Committees of Inquiry found "clear breaches of training safety regulations" in the events leading up to the two deaths (ibid.). One serviceman died during an exercise due to breathing difficulties caused by excessive use of smoke grenades by the platoon commander, and another serviceman, who was an instructor, died as a result of a vehicular collision during training (ibid.). The statement by the Minister of Defence indicated that following the deaths, officers involved in the incidents were removed from their posts and reassigned to duties that did not include overseeing soldiers in training; police and court martial proceedings were ongoing (ibid.). As a result of the incidents in 2012, the SAF agreed to deploy more safety officers, set up an Army Safety Review Board, and set up a SAF inspectorate to ensure best practices for safety throughout the SAF (ibid.). Further information on the implementation of the Safety Review Board could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

Sources report on the 2014 death of a private who had schizophrenia (The Straits Times 18 Apr. 2014; The New Paper 11 Apr. 2014), whom the coroner determined had died from multiple injuries sustained from a deliberate fall (ibid.). According to sources, he had been assigned 14 charges of extra duties for unsatisfactory work performance on the day before his death (ibid.; The Straits Times 18 Apr. 2014). Due to his schizophrenia diagnosis, the soldier had been given the second lowest Physical Employment Status (PES) rating (E9L9); however, his unit had reportedly not been made aware that he had schizophrenia (ibid.; The New Paper 11 Apr. 2014), despite an army directive that training camps are "supposed to keep a medical register of servicemen with psychiatric illnesses" (ibid.). According to the former head of psychiatry at SAF, interviewed by The Straits Times, junior commanders lack awareness of mental health issues, and within the army there is the "perception that soldiers who downgrade their PES status because of mental health issues are malingering" (The Straits Times 18 Apr. 2014).

The MINDEF also reports on the death of a regular serviceman in 2014 at Nee Soon Camp, without providing details (Singapore 23 May 2014).

According to a 2014 handbook for recruits published by the MINDEF, in the case of service injuries, the SAF bears the full cost of medical treatment at government hospitals; servicemen with permanent disabilities as a result of a service injury are eligible for compensation (ibid. July 2014, 53-56).

6. Lodging Complaints

The UBC faculty member expressed the view that "[g]iven the visibility of NS in Singapore, the safety of conscripts is taken seriously and failures often receive considerable public scrutiny" (Faculty member 8 Apr. 2015). The 2014 MINDEF recruit handbook states that SAF provides counselling support for servicemen facing difficulties coping with personal or work/training related problems (Singapore July 2014, 63). Recruits are given interviews with their commander within 48 hours of full-time enlistment, are given monthly interviews during basic training, and can request special interviews for assistance (ibid.). According to the handbook, recruits can ask for assistance from the following:

  • Unit superiors (Platoon Commander, Manpower Officer, Orientation Officer, Officer Commanding, Commanding Officer);
  • Medical professionals (Unit Medical Officer, Singapore Armed Forces Psychiatrist);
  • SAF Paracounsellors (volunteers trained in basic counselling and that wear a recognizable badge on their uniforms); or
  • The SAF Counselling Hotline (anonymous and available 24 hours). (ibid., 40)

According to the same source, servicemen are not permitted to seek redress outside of the Ministry of Defence and are prohibited from taking up issues concerning SAF or SAF personnel to "any party outside of the SAF," stating that doing so may lead to a breach of security regulations (ibid., 68-69). The handbook also indicates that if a recruit thinks he has been unfairly treated or "wronged in any matter by another serviceman superior to him, he must first approach his immediate superior commander," or to an officer higher in rank than the complainant (ibid.). Servicemen may only approach the Ministry of Defence Feedback Unit if attempts to seek redress at the unit level are unsuccessful (ibid.). Complaints must be "fully and clearly stated in writing" (ibid., 68). If the serviceman is not satisfied with the steps taken by the officer to address his complaint, he may complain in writing to the Armed Forces Council who will then examine the complaint (ibid., 69). According to the handbook,

[t]he SAF Military Police (MP) Command will conduct an investigation into the complaint dealing with the alleged breach of military discipline. If the investigation discloses evidence of wrongdoing, MINDEF will take disciplinary action against the offending parties. However, if the complainant is found to have made a false accusation, disciplinary action will be taken against him. (ibid.)

Further information about the Armed Forces Council and investigations, including incidences of complaints filed by servicemen against the SAF, could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The New Paper reported that a recruit diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome was exempted from national service after he had already served one year of service under a PES E medical rating, a medical status which meant he was fit for administrative duties (The New Paper 23 Apr. 2014). During his year of service, the recruit had allegedly been bullied and mistreated by superiors and peers, and following a complaint to the military filed by his parents, he was assessed by a medical review board and given a PES F status, exempting him from national service (ibid.). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

According to The Straits Times, the parents of the soldier who had asthma and died in 2012 due to an allergic reaction to smoke grenades announced in April 2015 that they have filed a lawsuit in the High Court against the SAF for allegedly failing to provide a safe training environment for their son (The Straits Times 12 Apr. 2015).

7. Treatment of Exempted Recruits and Occasions Where Proof of Military Service Status is Required, Including for Employment

The faculty member expressed the view that servicemen whose health status disqualifies them from being in combat units (meaning those who complete national service in support roles like mechanics, drivers, clerks, etc) "do not face any form of systematic discrimination" noting that "for many, this is the preferred route, since it tends to be an easier experience" (Faculty member 8 Apr. 2015). Furthermore, the source explained that

[o]nly those with quite significant disabilities are fully exempted from NS (PES F). In these cases, it's difficult to discern between the discrimination from the underlying disability and the potential discrimination from not completing NS. Given how rare full exemptions are, my sense is that an exemption may raise suspicions in the workplace or social settings, since it is a signal of a potentially serious issue. The stigmas attached to the medical conditions that qualify for NS exemption in Singapore are in my estimation similar to what they would be in Canada, the US, or Western Europe, though the intensity of the stigma may be marginally higher in Singapore than in the other contexts. Having a PES F should not (legally, at least) prevent someone from obtaining employment that they are qualified for and have the capacity to complete. The same goes for education and obtaining government services. (ibid.)

Sources indicate that applicants who have completed national service are eligible to receive higher starting salaries (CPTI May 2011, 5; Hong Kong n.d.). A profile of the Singapore Civil Service produced by the government of Hong Kong indicates that entry salary in Singapore's public service is based on the applicant's qualifications, years of experience, and national service: "[a]pplicants who have completed National Service are awarded an additional [pay] increment in recognition of the service they have performed" (ibid.). Sources indicate that those who have not completed military service are not eligible for tax incentives available to those completing national service (CPTI May 2011, 5; QUNO May 2014, 9) or, pay higher taxes (ibid.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Channel NewsAsia. 15 October 2012. "More NS defaulters in 2011 than in 2010: Ng Eng Hen." (Factiva)

Channel NewsAsia. N.d. "About Us." [Accessed 13 Apr. 2015]

Conscience and Peace Tax International (CPTI). May 2011. UPR Submission - Singapore. [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

Faculty Member, University of British Columbia (UBC). 8 April 2015. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Hong Kong. N.d. Joint Secretariat for the Advisory Bodies on Civil Service and Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service (JSSCS). Appendix D - Singapore Country Summary. [Accessed 30 Mar. 2015]

Jehovah's Witnesses (JW). N.d. "Imprisoned for Their Faith." [Accessed 26 mar. 2015]

MyPaper. 17 June 2014. Jalelah Abu Baker. "NS Discharge Story - Fact or Fiction?" (Factiva)

MyPaper. 22 July 2010. "NS Defaulter Fined $5,000 but Skips Jail Term." [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015]

The New Paper. 23 April 2014. "Dad of Autistic NSman Says: Counsellor Saved Him." [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

The New Paper. 11 April 2014. Ng Jun Sen. "NSF Suicide: 'She Was Not Even Slightly Curious.'" [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO). May 2014. Emily Graham. Conscientious Objectors to Military Service: Punishment and Discriminatory Treatment. [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. 29 October 2014. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Your Role as NSmen." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. July 2014. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). Recruit's Handbook: A Useful Guide on Full-time National Service in Singapore Armed Forces. [Accessed 28 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. 23 May 2014. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Death of Singapore Armed Forces Regular Serviceman." [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015]

Singapore. 5 March 2013. "Are Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs) Required to Enlist for National Service (NS) in Singapore?" [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. 27 September 2012. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Singapore Armed Forces Operationally-Ready National Serviceman Hit by Falling Tree During In-Camp Training." [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015]

Singapore. 10 September 2012. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "For Employers." [1 April 2015]

Singapore. 14 August 2012. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Body of Full-Time National Serviceman Found. LCP Fahrurrazi to be Flown Back to Singapore in C-130 for Military Funeral Today." [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015]

Singapore. 11 January 2012. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Death of Singapore Armed Forces Operationally-Ready National Serviceman." [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015]

Singapore. 10 January 2012. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Written Reply by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen to Parliamentary Question on National Service (NS) Defaulters." [Accessed 13 Apr. 2015]

Singapore. 30 October 2010. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "Register for NS: General Information." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. 2008. Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). "iPrepNS - NS Essentials." [Accessed 24 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. 2001. Enlistment Act. [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

Singapore. 2000. Singapore Armed Forces Act. [Accessed 26 Mar. 2015]

Singapore Law Watch. 27 January 2015. Supreme Court Note: Mohammed Ibrahim s/o Hamzah v PP [2014] SGHC 269 (Sentencing Principles for National Service Defaulters). [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

Singapore Law Watch. N.d. "FAQ." [Accessed 30 Mar. 2015]

The Straits Times. 12 April 2015. KC Vijayan. "Dead Soldier's Family Sues Singapore Armed Forces, Two Officers." [Accessed 14 Apr. 2015]

The Straits Times. 29 May 2014. Rachel Au-Yong. Singapolitics. "500 Exempted from NS Each Year Over Mental Health Problems." [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

The Straits Times. 23 April 2014. Elena Chong. "NSF Gets 12 Months for Underage Sex, Desertion." (Factiva)

The Straits Times. 18 April 2014. Lee Jian Xuan. "Do More for Servicemen with Mental Health Issues, Say Experts." [Accessed 14 Apr. 2015]

The Straits Times. 24 May 2013. Khushwant Singh. "SCDF Deserter Forged Papers." (Factiva)

The Straits Times. 14 November 2012. "Ministerial Statement on National Service: The Speech by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen's in Parliament on the Deaths of the Two National Servicemen Earlier This Year." [Accessed 25 Mar. 2015]

Today. 10 July 2014. "12 Sanctioned Yearly For Not Serving NS on Religious Grounds." (Factiva)

Today. 22 July 2010. Leong Wee Keat. "Fined $5,000 for Dodging NS for 24 Years; Appealed Against Jail Term as 'He is in Essence Not Singaporean." (Factiva)

United Nations (UN). 3 June 2013. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Analytical Report on Conscientious Objection to Military Service. (A/HRC/23/22) [Accessed 23 Mar. 2015]

United States (US). 27 February 2014. Department of State. "Singapore." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013. [Accessed 23 Mar. 2015]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: The following were unable to provide information for this Response: Association of Women for Action & Research; Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices.

Attempts to contact the following were unsuccessful within the time constraints of this Response: Conscience and Peace Tax International; Maruah Singapore; professors at the National University of Singapore and the University of Sydney; Singapore – Ministry of Defence; Think Centre Singapore.

Internet sites, including: AsiaOne; Association of Women for Action and Research; The Business Times; Child Soldiers International;; Factiva; IRIN; Institute for War and Peace Reporting; National Council of Social Service, Statutes Online; The Economist; War Resisters International; UN – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Refworld; Voice of America.