How military service differs among Southeast Asian nations

By Minh Nga   March 1, 2024 | 08:00 pm PT
Conscription, a policy requiring citizens to serve in a country's armed forces for a specific period, varies significantly across Southeast Asia due to diverse historical, cultural, and security dynamics.

As Vietnam is in the season of handing over recruits to the military, which normally takes place in February and March each year, this article explores how the nation and its Southeast Asian neighbors approach mandatory military service. While some see conscription as integral to their defense and nation-building efforts, others adapt their policies to current realities.

Singapore: Strategic necessity in a compact nation

Singapore stands out for its structured and rigorous National Service (NS) program, given its geopolitical position and limited manpower. Singapore mandates two years of service for all male citizens and permanent residents aged 18 and above.

The NS is seen as crucial to the nation's defense strategy, building a significant reserve force while fostering a sense of national identity and responsibility among its youth.

Young Singaporean men are liable for registration for national service once they turn 16.5 years old, but full-time NS typically commences after they have completed their high-school education, which often means they actually begin their service at around the age of 18 to 20, depending on their educational pathway. Exemptions are rare and typically granted for medical reasons.

The government continuously reviews and updates the NS system to ensure it meets the country's defense needs while addressing the concerns and well-being of its servicemen.

Thailand: Tradition and transition

Thailand implements a conscription system for males who have reached the age of 21. Every Thai male is required to enlist in the military reserve force at 18. At 21, they are screened for physical disabilities, according to the Military Service Act.

The service period is typically two years for those without a bachelor's degree and six months for those who have completed higher education.

The selection process also involves a lottery system, where eligible men draw a card to determine if they must serve. Drawing a red card means compulsory service, while a black card means exemption. This system has been a long-standing tradition, though it faces public debate over its relevance and fairness.

There are exemptions and deferments available for certain groups, including students who can delay their service while they complete their education. Additionally, individuals with certain physical or mental health issues may be exempted from service.

Myanmar: complexities amid conflict

Myanmar requires compulsory service, although the enforcement and structure have been inconsistent due to ongoing internal conflicts and changes in governance.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has a significant influence on the country's politics and society, and conscription serves as a means to bolster its ranks. However, details about the duration and conditions of service are less transparent than in other Southeast Asian nations.

Vietnam: Peacetime adjustments

Vietnam, with a history of military conflict, maintains laws for compulsory military service.

All males aged 18 to 25 are required to serve in the Vietnam People's Army for a period of 18 to 24 months, according to the Ministry of National Defense.

However, the enforcement has been relaxed in peacetime, focusing more on voluntary enlistment and reserves. Those who enter university or college can postpone their induction but need to sign up before they turn 28. But if they continue to get postponements until they turn 28, their induction might be cancelled.

Young men receive farewell flowers before starting their conscription at a ceremony held in Hanoi, Feb. 26, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

Young men receive farewell flowers before starting their conscription at a ceremony held in Hanoi, Feb. 26, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh

There are also exemptions and deferments available for certain categories, such as those with physical or health limitations, and individuals in single-supporter families, among others.

In addition to the compulsory service, Vietnam also has a reserve force that includes individuals who have completed their active duty service. After completing active service, individuals are transferred to the reserve force and are subject to call-up for training periods or in the event of national emergencies.

The country emphasizes the importance of military preparedness while balancing economic development and social stability.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei: Voluntary paths

Both Indonesia and the Philippines do not have mandatory military service, relying instead on volunteer armed forces.

This approach reflects their current security strategies, which prioritize professional military development over mass conscription. However, both nations maintain reserve components and have considered introducing some form of mandatory military training to enhance national defense awareness among the youth.

Brunei does not have a system of conscription or mandatory military service for its citizens. The military forces of Brunei, known as the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF), are entirely composed of volunteer personnel. The RBAF is a small but well-equipped force that includes land, air, and naval components as Brunei places a strong emphasis on defense and security, given its strategic location in Southeast Asia and its wealth derived from oil and gas reserves.

Laos and Cambodia: Varied approaches

Laos has a compulsory military service requirement for its citizens. The conscription age in Laos generally starts at 18, according to the Law on Military Service. All Lao male citizens who are deemed physically fit are required to serve in the military for a period that can vary, typically around 18 months. However, specifics such as exemptions, deferments, and the exact length of service may depend on the current legal framework, governmental policies, and individual circumstances at the time of conscription.

Cambodia has a conscription law that mandates military service for male citizens aged between 18 and 30 in line with its Compulsory Military Service Act. The conscription is for a period of 18 months. However, in practice, compulsory military service in Cambodia has not been strictly enforced due to various factors, including the size of the volunteer military force and the country's political and economic conditions.

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