What The NS55 Recognition Package Says About Singapore

Ask any layman on the street what the definition of a “gift” is, and you’ll most likely hear them define it as “receiving something with no conditions attached”.

As part of celebrating 55 years of National Service for Singapore, the Government announced on 1 July 2022 (SAF Day) the “NS55 Recognition Package” to honour all current and past service personnel of the SAF. This Recognition Package would comprise of $100 worth of credits as well as a complimentary 1-year SAFRA/HomeTeamNS principal membership.

The $100 credits portion of the NS55 Recognition Package is gatekept behind a government-developed mobile app called “LifeSG”, and according to official terms and conditions could only be spent in digital form be it through “scanning and paying” via businesses’ PayNow UEN or NETS QR codes at a non-exhaustive list of “heartland shops, hawkers, and e-commerce merchants”, or making payments to government agencies and educational institutions.

Despite this gatekeeping, there was lively discussion on local social media immediately after the Recognition Package’s announcement about ways and means to encash the $100 credits in hard currency such as using digital wallets such as GrabPay or even Sheng Siong’s “cash recycling” $TM machines.

As of current time of publication, most if not all of these encashment “loopholes” have been patched and closed by the Government, with the only working option left being Sheng Siong’s $TM machines.

When Is a Gift Not a Gift?

The rollout of the NS55 Recognition Package provides several issues for Singaporeans to ponder on, and betrays the true nature and value of the entire exercise as being far different and far less than what it was intended to do: recognise the sacrifice of male Singaporeans through the generations for their contributions to national defence with compulsory conscription.

Ask any layman on the street what the definition of a “gift” is, and you’ll most likely hear them define it as “receiving something with no conditions attached”.

Here, the $100 credits portion of the Recognition Package already violates this concept of a “token of appreciation/gift” in how it is deliberately disbursed by design and gatekept as much as possible behind a government-designed mobile application that nobody asked for nor is interested in using outside of this credit-claiming/using exercise.

Ostensibly this was done by the government so as to encourage usage of said credits with local businesses and retailers to boost revenue in a time where consumer confidence/spending is being negatively affected by rising inflation and costs of living, and encashing the credits would have potentially led to the money being used to spend abroad instead with no benefit to the local economy.

If the former point is the intent, then this is merely a roundabout manner of the government providing indirect subsidies and cash injections into the local economy in the hopes of stimulating consumerist activity and business confidence.

We should then wonder why the Government chooses to use such one-off “helicopter money” to stimulate societal expenditure temporarily, when they could achieve far better long-term effects by tackling directly issues like price inflations and raising general salaries across society.

If the latter point was the case, it does beg the question of why one option for spending the $100 credits is to use it to top up a YouTrip Mobile Travel Wallet that can be used for overseas expenditure, or any ecommerce platform where one could easily buy foreign-imported goods. No matter how the credits are spent, they’re still going to be spent abroad with little to nothing returning into domestic economic circulation.

Singapore’s Stalling Digitalisation Drive

Singaporeans’ general reaction to the NS55 $100 credits being one of immediately seeking out ways and means to encash the credits in hard currency also provide an interesting, if pessimistic insight into the reception of digital payment and general digitalisation in society here.

Even in 2022, hard cash still rules as king in the minds of many Singaporeans. Hard cash has no limits on how one can spend it, is immediately and tangibly accessible on hand without needing to access a mobile device and application (complete with username and passcode) to spend, and leaves no trail of how it is spent.

On the part of businesses, there is still a substantial portion of the retail economy that has been slow to adopt digital payment options beyond long-established platforms such as NETS, for reasons ranging from sheer inertia of “preferring cash payment” to refusing to pay extra charges to get a digital payment reading device or a portion of their revenue to a digital payment platform for every transaction conducted through said platform.

Singapore is a rapidly ageing society, which means that new cashless digital payment options aimed at the younger crowd who prize “convenience” also need to have buy-in and acceptance from the ageing sections of Singaporean society to be truly embedded and ingrained into Singapore’s economic and retail ecosystem.

Till today, it seems that the Government’s attempts at bootstrapping Singapore’s ageing society into the digital era has not been producing results or engendering societal evolution and adaptation of new digital tools.

How much of this is due to societal inertia, or the Government’s lack of targeted focus and tailored purpose in pushing societal and financial digitalisation in Singapore beyond “doing it for the sake of doing it”?

Apparently you can measure the value of NS in dollars and cents…

The paltry $100 credits awarded as part of the NS55 Recognition Package also puts into stark spotlight the true value of National Service in the eyes of the PAP government. Till today, fulltime conscripts serving NS are still not described as receiving “NS Pay”, but “NS Allowance”, supposedly because the compulsory nature of National Service conscription upon pain of imprisonment makes any notion of “paying” NSFs like an employer would a fulltime employee immaterial.

The last increase in NS Allowance only occurred in March 2020, which still only provides a recruit/trainee $630 a month, a sum which works out less per hour to that of a fast-food restaurant worker in Singapore earning $7 an hour.

Josephine Teo

Calls for better allowance to be given to full-time NSFs and free/subsidised public transport for all uniformed personnel have consistently been ignored or rejected by the Government, with famously callous comments rejecting such calls coming from MPs like Josephine Teo (“service for the country cannot be measured in dollars and cents”). It is adding insult to injury that Josephine Teo is now currently heading the Smart Nation Digital Government Group under the Ministry for Communications and Information, which is also the developer for the LifeSG app (rebranded from a previous failed government mobile app aimed at Singaporean parents) that is the only platform for disbursing the NS55 $100 credits.

If the Government can disburse $300 or more every year in August through its GST Voucher scheme to every Singapore Citizen directly into their bank accounts instantaneously without fail on the same day for everybody, it beggars belief as to why it was impossible for the Government to disburse $100 into every Singaporean male citizen’s bank account within the same day to recognise their contributions to 55 years of National Service.

The NS55 Recognition Package was supposed to demonstrate the Government’s appreciation of Singaporean men throughout the generations participating in conscription to defend the country. In reality, all it demonstrated was the miserly nature of Singapore’s ruling politicians in rewarding and recognising the sacrifices Singaporean males made for National Service, as well as how far Singapore has to go in its efforts to be a digital, future-ready society.