About those white horses.
147th Prostitute Press
21 November 2003
WHITE horse, the classification to identify sons of influential Singaporeans enlisting for national service, is an unwelcome intrusion on the military scene. In the light of recent incidents involving the navy and NSmen, with fatalities recorded, there will be heightened sensitivity about the treatment young adults receive in the Singapore Armed Forces. It was good that Minister of State for Defence Cedric Foo sought to clear the air. Up till now, the label of white horse had been shrouded in mystique and murmurs. While disclosure of the classification's existence - long an open secret, though never officially admitted - came as no surprise, it was news to most that the system had been discontinued since 2000. There were also palpable gasps of disbelief that, contrary to common belief, the classification was not meant to single out the privileged for dispensation from tough training.
The SAF was said to have introduced it as part of its monitoring system in the late 1970s, when most NSmen favoured clerical and other 'soft' positions.
Marking out those from prominent families allowed the SAF to ensure they did not use their connections to gain exemption from NS, or downgrade their medical classification. In effect, being classified a white horse was a bane rather than a blessing. Those declared medically unfit by a doctor had to get confirmation of such from the commanding officer of the medical classification centre, an extra step not required of those who were not white horses. Even with the officer's approval, white horses were denied comfortable office jobs in Mindef but were sent down to ground units. The fit ones, meanwhile, were made to rough it out in combat positions.
While welcome, these explanations may have failed to calm the growing indignation surrounding the controversial classification. Many NSmen, past and present, have insisted they had seen special treatment being given to white horses and their platoon mates. They were given more canteen breaks, better food and later wake-up hours, it was said. Of that, Mr Foo noted that if the label had sounded an alert to camp commanders and officers to take extra care of the sons of so and so, it was an unintended consequence. 'Like anywhere in society,' he allowed, 'there will be some people who are more prone to bootlicking, but let me say categorically that it is not the policy in the SAF'. But his suggestion that sons of the great and good could indeed be granted preferential treatment if such a classification had not existed, itself calls into question the ability of the SAF to treat all enlistees equally, regardless of parentage and family circumstances. Perhaps, the white horse file had to be kept open as a checking device in SAF's formative years, when the military was still building up its professionalism, refining its personnel and training systems, and carving out a reputation for turning out hardy, employable young men.
But any sort of labelling - official or not - has no place in the well-oiled outfit that the SAF has become. Among its many strengths, it prides itself on its egalitarian tradition. Indeed, if such a system were applied to other sectors - say, preferential treatment given to ministers' offspring in the civil service as a birth right - there would be a huge hue and cry. And so there should be if special dispensation exists in a citizen's army, where the founding principle is equal treatment for all - regardless of language, race, religion or the name of the father.