Are transgender women forced to do national service in Singapore?

By November 29, 2022 Government, Society

We found the following claim on the social media sites Twitter and Reddit:

The posts assert that ‘Singapore’s conscription of men forces transgender women to join too’.

The posts on social media link back to an article on Yahoo News, using it as the source of information for their assertions. When we investigated the article, we found that it was syndicated from an AP News article from 11 November titled ‘Dubbed torture, ID policies leave transgender people sterile’.

Painful Choices

In the article, AP News reports on the instances of harassment a transgender woman in Singapore faced by her colleagues when she was serving her national service. The article notes that ‘military service is required only for… men’, but also that under Singapore law, the woman ‘was still considered a man’ because she ‘had not undergone surgery that would render her sterile’.

The article focuses on the immense costs transgender individuals around the world often bear when seeking to change their gender markers on identification documents for legal purposes. It cites sterility as well as the invasiveness and prohibitive cost of surgery as reasons some transgender people avoid surgery.

In Singapore’s case, the article also mentions the need for parental consent for individuals under the age of 21 (most Singaporeans serve national service at the age of 18), as well as the fact that ‘most gender-confirmation procedures are not offered in Singapore’, forcing some to travel overseas for the procedure at an additional expense.

Nevertheless, AP News notes in its article that transgender women who have achieved legal status as women are not required to perform national service. It quotes the Ministry of Defence, which stated in a comment that ‘”those who are legally declared female will not be required to serve”’. It also quotes the Ministry of Home Affairs, which stated in a comment that changing the markers on national identity cards required ‘”proof of surgery, and the complete alteration of one’s physical reproductive attributes”’.

A Long Struggle

While investigating these claims, we found that the issue had arisen a few years prior. In 2016, the Guardian reported that a pre-surgery transgender Singaporean woman had successfully claimed asylum in the UK as she had decided against gender reassignment surgery and would face prison time or fines if she refused to perform her yearly reservist national service when returning to Singapore. At the time, she had lived in the UK for 12 years and had a UK ID card that recognised her gender as female.

In response to these reports, the Ministry of Defence had issued a response identical to the one issued to AP News.

TransgenderSG, a volunteer-led online resource repository for transgender people in Singapore, affirms that transgender women who declare themselves to be trans before being enlisted will be given a PES E enlistment standard—indicating no physical activity and only clerical duties. A similar standard would apply to full-time national servicemen who declare themselves as trans midway through their service.

However, TransgenderSG also relates that ‘if medical or social transition has started’, a PES D status mandating further processing would apply, suspending their national service until ‘an unknown amount of time… has passed on hormones or presenting as female’, at which point they would be given a PES F status indicating exemption. A similar policy is also observed to apply for NSMen (who have completed the two years of full-time service).

TransgenderSG also notes that trans men automatically receive enlistment notices, but ‘as of recent years… have not been allowed to serve when they disclosed their trans status, and are given PES F status’, though it is uncertain if there is any official policy guiding enlistment for trans men.

A Complex Issue Obscured by Headlines

Based on the reports in AP News and the Guardian, it is true that some transgender women in Singapore have performed national service due to the barriers and costs involved in obtaining gender-confirmation surgery, which is required in order to change their legal status and be exempted.

Nevertheless, the social media posts are misleading and misrepresent the content of the articles they link to, as transgender women do have paths to exemption from national service in Singapore.

As such, we rate these claims as partly untrue, misrepresentative and requiring clarification.

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