National Service (NS) is a mandatory 2-year conscription that every Singaporean male has to undertake to contribute to Singapore’s national defence.
It seems like the only time my male friends go green now is when they wear their number 4 (a term for the green uniform servicemen commonly wear). Indeed, NS is a possible starting point to kickstart a paradigm shift on eco-friendliness, where guys are not too old for mindset shifts and habit formation, but also not too young to make a tangible impact at home and work.
As environmental issues grow in prominence, organisations like the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are starting to actively address them through a new sustainability roadmap which was announced in March 2021. Although the road to sustainability is being paved, it appears to be a rather long one. Commanders are already very busy working hard to achieve training objectives, making it difficult to find time to build and maintain a culture of eco-friendliness amongst soldiers.
For instance, whenever we needed items or food, there was always extra being indented. Understandably, some spares might be needed in case of unforeseen circumstances, but seeing an excessive wastage because of the “just in case” mentality was unnecessary. When it comes to water, jerry cans which are fully filled with iced water for safety considerations are rarely used. However, the water is often poured away into drains (not grass patches), as it is more convenient to refill from water coolers.
One of the biggest challenges I foresee during this transition to a greener SAF is inculcating a sense of ownership and accountability amongst soldiers who are likely already exhausted after training. Yet, this also presents an interesting problem statement - how may we encourage soldiers to lead an eco-friendly lifestyle in their national service? Ladies and gentlemen, I present my suggestion with a consulting cliché: a 2 by 2 matrix:
An integral part of SAF culture is the strict discipline and regimentation. To see immediate results, the SAF could enforce eco-friendly behaviours, such as punishing those who fail to recycle the appropriate waste in the cookhouse, or leaving the lights on when nobody is using them. To complement this, education on sustainable practices could be carried out to give new perspectives on using resources more sparingly
The SAF could also incorporate sustainability practices in their leadership schools, where servicemen are trained to lead and guide other soldiers. Given the precedent for trialling new initiatives such as the replacement of 5BX with PX (different forms of exercises), this could be a feasible starting point to test these lessons. Similar to inculcating responsibility, discipline and fitness, the SAF can help soldiers adapt to eco-friendly practices if they integrate sustainability into the army culture.
Of course, the irony of this solution is that enforcement is resource intensive in and of itself. Punishment, while an effective deterrent, will also spur resentment and reactance. Unintended consequences like soldiers not reporting sustainability-related issues for a fear of punishment could occur, worsening the situation. Nevertheless, this could be explored alongside other incentives to accelerate sustainability goals.
A good soldier plans ahead. To this, I foresee the newly formed SAF Sustainability Office (SSO) as an important complement to the interim enforcement measures, boosting accountability among guys. The creation of the SSO can help to set targets, such as lowering water consumption by 10% and reduce waste by 30%. The introduction of food waste segregation and recycling processes in cookhouses also starts to build the habit of minimising food wastage and maximising what goes into the recycling bin.
Evidently, this solution is necessary in the long term as a completely new batch of soldiers are coming in every 2 years. Teaching them sustainable practices could be another checkbox on the SAF’s (already very packed) to-do list and training programmes. With an outfit tasked to lead the overall efforts, the SAF Sustainability Office can help to drive systemic changes throughout the service. As a result, the SAF might find themselves accomplishing their Sisyphean task more easily: transforming our Singaporean sons into not only trained soldiers, but also eco-warriors.
Data is one important area in any initiative or exercise. One aspect of the SAF's sustainability plan is better equipment and analytics to measure resource usage, which "enables commanders to take ownership, benchmark their unit against others, and make more informed decisions for a greener SAF". I argue that one of such decisions could simply include friendly competition between units.
Competition helps to tackle reactance, as it appeals to one’s pride and competitive spirit. If that proves to be insufficient, small rewards and privileges may help in creating even greater incentives. Fighting to be the greenest unit in their division may help shift soldiers’ perception of sustainability from one that is unmanly and feminine to one every man should take pride in. After all, who would want to lose in any competition?
That said, this idea may be limited in effectiveness as it may lack the intrinsic motivation to living a more eco-friendly life. It is entirely possible that after ORD, living an eco-friendly lifestyle is no longer desirable since there is no incentive to do so. However, it’s certainly worth trying it out.
Saving the best for the last, we bring out our thoughts on habits. According to James Clear, author of the critically-acclaimed book Atomic Habits, it takes about 2 months to form a new habit. That’s more than enough time to build a habit of sustainability during NS. By nudging guys into habit-forming behaviours, it elegantly bypasses the reactance effect and also ensures the sustainability practices are instilled deep inside so that they continue to be practised outside of NS.
One way of habit formation can be done by nudging, which is the promotion of desired behaviours through careful choice architecture. For example, the default portions served in cookhouses can be smaller, which helps to reduce food wastage since humans have a tendency to stick with default options. The beauty of this solution is that it works even outside of the army context, making choice architecture a key tool in inculcating eco-friendly habits.
In addition to day-to-day training, there are also opportunities for the SAF to further ramp up sustainability efforts. Currently, the SAF is already involved in making the National Day Parade (NDP) a lot more sustainable by taking in feedback from various stakeholders, including 15 green groups. This helps to crowdsource the best practices for conducting such large-scale events, as well as ensure that there is buy-in from the community. Perhaps the same could go for SAF internal events or functions? Events like the Army Open Houses (e.g. fuel economy for vehicles), commissioning parades (e.g. minimising wastage for catered meals), are ways to demonstrative how the SAF has evolved, but also proof that they can become more sustainable over time.
The SAF has already taken the right steps forward with initiatives like the SSO, and like all other large organisations, will need time to enact change and transformation. Only time will tell the results of their efforts. However, I believe their concrete plans to restructure sustainability efforts could be complemented with softer, human-centric measures appealing to soldiers’ thoughts and behaviour.
By adopting these approaches and inviting soldiers onboard, I believe we can get people on board with their ideas faster to achieve greater cooperation. Like what my encik (a warrant officer) said, the army builds good habits and helps men to mature. Perhaps NS is an opportune time to help us grow from boys to more responsible and environmentally-conscious men.
Ryan is currently serving his full-time national service in the Singapore Armed Forces. An environment and finance enthusiast, he is keen on making an impact by sharing his ideas through writing for Green Nudge and on his blog. In the future, he hopes to study economics in the UK and use his education to help the economy go net-zero and beyond.
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