Wen Yu Ho ’10 is a typical college student, at least by Yale standards.
He serves as the librarian for the Yale Symphony Orchestra. He is the president of Yale’s Malaysian and Singaporean Association. He plays piano in a student jazz group.
But unlike most juniors, Ho is 23 years old. Before enrolling at Yale, he served for over two years in the Singaporean military.
For Yalies like Ho, military service is not a consideration, but a necessary reality. Students from countries with programs of National Service, or mandatory military conscription, are often required to serve their homeland for one to two years. While deferral of this requirement is sometimes available to those who wish to pursue higher education, serving in the military still comes first for those living in nations like Singapore.
For Yale students from these countries, military experiences run the gamut from playing trombone in the band to dodging bullets in the training fields.
On the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, presidential nominees Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama declared their plans to encourage national service amongst the younger generation. Despite the growing push for public service in the United States, international students who have served in their respective countries are living proof of the waning interest in government-mandated conscription across the globe.
Students Playing Soldiers in Singapore
Regardless of their academic pursuits, young men from Singapore must complete 24 months of service at age 18 before pursuing higher education. Despite the rigid system, four students from Singapore said conscription was understandably necessary in their nation.
“National Service is very important to a country like Singapore because we are very small,” said David Chan ’12, who served in the Singaporean army before freshman year. When asked if the system was unpopular in Singapore, Chan was anxious to avoid the question, lauding the system’s benefits instead.
“On one hand you defend your country, and on a higher level you feel a sense of belonging to something that you call your home,” he said. “It really bonds people from all walks of life.”
Three Singaporean students prefaced their later decries on the military system with similar patriotic sentiments. Among many specific reasons, these students cited misapplication of skills and time as a major cause of inefficiency.
Tse Yang Lim ’11 said he was sent to a rural area to help maintain stores for an armory company, as part of his service. Later, Lim said he discovered that the company was going out of business.
“For about 12 of the 16 months I was doing pretty much nothing, but I had to go in every day and sit there,” he said, laughing. “There wasn’t really anything I had to do.”
Lim was lucky to get off easy, he said, but he still wonders what he could have accomplished in those two years of his life.
While he said the idea of serving one’s country is appealing, he questions the manner in which this idea is executed in Singapore.
“The way they put people through it is for some people a considerable waste of time,” he said. “It’s not the most efficient way they could be contributing.”
Lim, like Ho, is a full two years older than most of his classmates at Yale.
“It makes it harder to connect to people in my year,” he said, adding, “there are better reasons to be older in university than by spending two years in the army.”
But Ho said he optimistically considered this disconnect with his “less mature” classmates as a possible advantage. After all, Ho said, thinking back to his weekends in Bingham Hall, he avoided the “mistakes” which often led freshmen to Yale University Health Services.
While it took him longer to adjust to campus life, Ho said he has been able to connect with his classmates as well as with graduate students closer to him in age.
Ho, who studies music and aspires to be an orchestral conductor in the future, said he underwent basic military training and then auditioned for the military band for the remainder of his service.
Tian Hui Ng MUS ’10 also had an atypical experience completing his Singaporean National Service requirement. Ng was accepted into the competitive Music and Drama company of the military, which produced performance art for visiting militaries, government officials and other military functions.
As a musician who has continued with his studies, Ng said the two years were a valuable addition to his education. But for those artists not fortunate enough to be granted the same opportunity, Ng said national service could be devastating.
“I know many professional musicians for whom National Service meant the end of their careers,” Ng said. “To go from practicing something six hours a day to not practicing at all … that’s scary.”
For this reason, Ng said, National Service is a drain on the artistic talent of his country.
‘Waste of Time’ in Germany and Greece
Thomas Koenig ’10, a student from Germany, described the military requirement in Germany — which demands a nine-month tour of military service — as easily avoidable.
“The smart people in Germany find a way around it,” said Koenig, who reported chronic migraines during his fitness examination.
He described the program in Germany as “a waste of time” and pointed out that the brief conscription period rarely contributes anything significant to military operations. Only German volunteers, after all, were sent into combat in Afghanistan.
In the post-Cold War demilitarization, the need for conscripts in Germany has lessened. Standards for medical fitness have increased, allowing the military to be more selective in choosing conscripts. Exemptions are given for many reasons; medical ones such as Koenig’s are the most common. In 2005, over 36 percent of candidates were given medical exemptions.
The military program, in general, has been a point of political debate and its usefulness is often questioned.
Koenig said his views against the military requirement are common among his friends in Germany. It is an antiquated institution that should be left behind, he asserted.
Yale students from Greece also saw at National Service as a remnant from the past.
Aryestis Vlahakis ’09 said he has noticed a change in the role of national service in the life of Greek men since his father’s generation.
“People didn’t travel as much. A lot of Greek students didn’t go to university. [National service] was the first time they were away from home,” he said. “You kind of became a man in the army.”
Likewise, Ioannis Legmpelos ’12, agreed that back in his father’s generation, military duty was not debatable.
“[My father] never thought it was a waste of time because he learned a lot,” he said.
While Legmpelos said he finds the year of mandatory service “useless,” he said his father’s 2 1/2 year experience allowed more time for benefits to emerge. His father, he said, made lifelong friends, learned discipline and acquired skills. But having already met his wife before reporting for duty, Legmpelos said his father found the two years stationed on a remote Greek island difficult. So difficult, in fact, that he said his father never plans to return to the island.
“It’s a good thing there are many islands in Greece,” Legmpelos said with a laugh.
Both he and Vlahakis said they see a national shift away from this trend of automatic acceptance in their fathers’ generation.
“Nowadays its kind of a drag. People think it’s a big waste of time,” Vlahakis said.
In contrast with Koenig’s outlook of conscription in Germany, Vlahakis said most people in Greece participate in the program since finding a job is extremely difficult without the military experience. The public sector provides a substantial amount of jobs, he said, and the government requires proof that service has been completed.
Both students said they were granted an educational deferral for Yale. For as long as they can prove that they are studying, the exemption will hold.
But Vlahakis and Legmpelos said they plan on completing their service shortly after graduation.
Kenneth Harbaugh LAW ‘08 teaches a seminar on citizenship at Yale. Although Harbaugh emphasized that the United States will never seriously consider implementing a military service like those mandated in these countries, he said both presidential candidates stress increasing military service amongst the nation’s youth. Harbaugh said the youth today are readily inspired to serve the community, but the lack of institutional support make joining the military a remote concept.
“We need to make it easier for those who want to serve to be able to,” Harbaugh, who is also the Executive Director for the Center for Citizen Leadership, said.
He said he also hopes the University will give the military a greater presence on campus without “making moral sacrifices” regarding its stand on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the current policy on gays in the military.
Harbaugh said he finds the controversial policy, which allows gays to serve in the military as long as they do not acknowledge their sexual orientation, regrettable.
“But it’s not the fault of students who want to go into the military and we shouldn’t punish them for it,” he said.
McCain, well-known for his military credentials, has announced that national service is ready to experience a reemergence in the United States.
In an interview about national service on CNN, McCain said, “I think the American people are ready to rally behind a new page to be turned in America’s history.”
But the tales from international students are telling. Mandated conscription is, at best, according to them, a relic of past generations.