Don’t sort army recruits by their education levels

I have long admired National Service’s ability to integrate our multiracial society, fostering trust and camaraderie. However, in its leadership ranks, we still seem to persist with allowing educational attainment to determine leadership attainment.

I remember asking my commanding officer a pointed question during a dialogue: why are recruits from ITE unable to join the leadership batch of recruits, where a high percentage go on to take leadership positions, such as sergeants and officers, within the army? He answered that it was because some were unable to have the basic arithmetic skills to calculate.

National Service is a key crucible where leaders are honed and refined to the potential they can achieve. However, I struggle to understand why MINDEF still persists with sorting batches based on their educational background. In my personal experience during enlistment, most recruits around me were from polytechnics and junior colleges. It was only after graduating as a sergeant that I started working with men from other educational backgrounds, such as ITE. I often found their work ethic and dedication much greater than my fellow sergeants. Whilst this is a simple anecdote, it reveals two troubling observations.

Firstly, even during National Service, where recruits are no longer graded on their academic performance, we still allow the label of their educational background to determine their future success. Is such a label necessary?

Secondly, our sorting based on educational attainment prevents equally capable students from receiving leadership training and increased investment in their development. Do we see educational attainment as a proxy for greater leadership skills?

Leadership traits that I learnt from the army – responsibility to others, resilience, courage to make difficult decisions, continue to serve me well today. It pains me to see that students from other educational backgrounds cannot, simply because they did not do as well academically.

What then can MINDEF do? I would continue to recommend MINDEF to open up batches to students of all educational backgrounds, instead of sorting based on previous educational attainment.

For us to progress in tackling inequality, we must start with the belief that circumstances that affected one’s attainment in the past cannot, and must not taint one’s hope for the future. It is only then that we can begin to spread aspiration through our interactions (Tharman, 25th October), and hope of a better future.

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