Singapore's Fat-Fighting Tool: Military Conscription

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 12/29/2011 08:10:00 AM
Given its sheer girth, the globalization of American-style obesity is not a problem you can sit on and forget about. Industrialized countries already burdened with sizeable health and pensions obligations may, in all likelihood, be underestimating this weighty problem as their citizens become US-huge and encounter all sorts of related problems. Aside from the aesthetic pitfalls of being a nation of fatties, there is an all-you-can-eat buffet of illnesses associated with mega-tubbiness.

Venerable medical journal The Lancet recently featured a series of alarming studies about the consequences of what medical types call "obesogenic" cultures--of which the United States is the prime (rib?) example with forecasts predicting that half of all Yanks will be obese by 2030. Which is not much of a stretch given that over a third of them already are obese. Definitely, health is a very understudied issue in IPE and this gap should be addressed since the health of nations will certainly shape patterns of national indebtedness. A study out of Emory estimates that obesity-related costs for the US will amount to $344B by 2018--about 21% of a gargantuan health care tab. For several nations, health care is the largest line item in the national budget and will only become more so given their aging populations.

Certainly the likes of the United States ought to concern themselves more with their cellulite-superindebtedness complex than their military-industrial one. American indiscipline is a multifaceted construct, with their legendary fiscal depravity combined with physical inactivity and unprecedented gluttony resulting in a health crisis that turbocharges the national debt via endlessly mounting health care costs. Perhaps it's in the genes, though I hope that's not the case.

Such despair. It's depressing enough to make a Yank down a milkshake or twenty. Is there any way out of this bottomless American-style debts 'n' fats trap? Thankfully, there is. Just as Singapore shows the potential way forward for the intensely wasteful and mediocre US education system, so does its lesser known fat-fighting tool of military conscription show a way out. To be sure, many other industrialized countries also have mandatory national service. However, Singapore alone makes it a continuing exercise apart from a few months to a year in your late teens / early twenties. You see, Singaporean males need to devote a couple of weeks each year after completing basic training to military drills. Further, they need to undertake fairly strenuous tests annually to prove their worth lest they be sent off to boot camp indefinitely until they pass. From the Singaporean Ministry of Defence website comes this description:
All PES A, B and C1 active NSmen [national servicemen or "reservists" which include practically all younger Singaporeans] below the age of 45 years for Officers and 40 years for Warrant Officers & below are required to take the IPPT [Individual Physical Proficiency Test] annually. All IPPT eligible NSmen must attempt IPPT once within their IPPT year. They may attempt IPPT during or outside their ICT [in-camp training] and may make as many attempts as they want to improve their IPPT results. The best result achieved will be taken as the record for the IPPT year.
Make no mistake: the IPPT is no wussy exercise, either:
As frontline soldiers, it is essential for all NSmen to maintain physical fitness. The IPPT is designed to test the basic components of physical fitness and motor skills of the NSmen. It comprises the following tests (see diagram below):
Test Item Fitness Component(s)
Sit-Up Abdominal muscular strength and endurance
Standing Broad Jump Lower limbs extensor muscular power
Chin-up Upper limbs muscular strength and endurance
4 * 10m Shuttle Run General speed, agility and co-ordination
2.4Km Run Cardio-respiratory endurance and lower limbs muscular endurance

Your typical sofa-ridden, iPad-fondling Yankee would probably keel over after a 0.24 km run [lotsa wheezing in the background], but that would be no surprise. As I like to say, there are good reasons why even (unbiased) Americans take the example of a society that works rather than one that doesn't--and hasn't for a very long time now. In the case of Singapore, there's a strong incentive to stay fit or face pretty negative consequences. There's no subtle "nudge"-style nannying here. It's so un-American--being practically forced to stay fit, but hey, just see how fat land is faring to see what their indiscipline has resulted in.

Singaporean children are quite a fit bunch, then they have years of military training to keep things that way. While obesity rates have inched up in recent years, they are far from American levels and haven't gone unnoticed. There are noticeable government efforts to fight the fat. To be sure, there too are whingers who would rather park themselves on the La-Z-Boy and fondle the iPad in Singapore. One justification for doing away with the practice is lost economic productivity:

Military service works this way: At 18 all youths have to report for a two-year stint, followed by 10 years of reservist duty, potentially frontline troops in the event of war. The reservists are recalled for annual in-camp training or military exercises, which last one or two weeks. The government has done much to recognise the sacrifice of NS men, giving perks that range from tax incentives to higher savings top-ups and fee discounts. The civil service also offers a slightly higher salary scale for employees who have completed their service.

With Singaporeans facing growing competition from foreign workers, however, national service has become a strain when bosses pass them over in favour of permanent residents (PRs) because of their “cumbersome” reservist duties. Singaporean employers who have gone through it are generally more ready to employ reservists, but foreign companies often feel no such responsibility. They often turn away locals who are still doing reservist duty, preferring to hire foreigners or PRs, who are free of the obligation...

Recently, a fresh Singaporean 26-year-old graduate related his interview at a foreign-owned fabrication plant here. The first question the Taiwanese manager asked him was: “I see you are a Singaporean. Do you need to go back to serve NS every year?” When he replied that he had to report back for in-camp training every year, the manager reacted negatively, observing that reservists who failed fitness tests would need to train until they passed.
Ah, "economics"--the last refuge of a modern-day scoundrel. From talking to folks from Singapore, however, I gather that the couch potatoes are outnumbered (though this assertion can definitely be subject to surveys). Certainly there's no mass movement at present to do away with the practice. Aside from escaping the tedium of office slaving, many young Singaporeans actually look forward to spending some time away with their school buddies. Add in the benefits of camaraderie and fitness and the equation should be clear. Moreover, Singaporeans take their training seriously and are rewarded accordingly. Unlike many other countries' mandatory services, it is possible to become a pilot or suchlike as NSMen.

So yes, it's not only military conscription but also the way the programme is designed with strong disincentives to becoming American-sized at work here. Execution matters. As in so many other things, Singaporeans take pride in their accomplishments and don't tolerate Bart Simpson-esque brattiness which contemporary America is renowned for. While they may be smugly self-superior sometimes, they achieve things the likes of which bumbling America can only dream of nowadays. As a basis of comparison, that Charles "Guantanamo Ghraiber" Graner remains the world's best known US reservist tells you something.

As I said, indiscipline manifests itself in so many ways, but in the end such pathologies are reflective of the societies from whence they came. Anyone else want to end up with American obesity rates? No? That's what I thought.