Why are Turkish men paying out of their noses to be exempt from military service?
I was in Israel last week, where I saw a picture of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife posing with their youngest son, who is about to be conscripted into the Israeli army. Israel has mandatory military service and, as the photo shows, there are no exemptions. Even young women serve. I was there with a Singaporean, who told me that Singapore also had a so-called “National Service.” As the name suggests, “everybody has to do it. There are no exemptions, not even for the president’s son.”
Turkey is cut of a different cloth. Yes, we also have compulsory military service, but you can buy yourself out during certain windows of time. People who can afford it simply bide their time until such an opportunity arises. Just this week, the government announced a new law allowing a certain age group to buy its way out of national service. It’s a discretionary practice requiring approval from Parliament. This year’s law seems to be a fire sale – both the price and age restriction this year are lower than the last.
Why do young Turkish men hate conscription? There was a massive social media campaign just before the exemption law. People were saying that there were 810,000 men who were called up, but refused to go. That is not a trivial matter. There is even a civic association campaigning for exemption for the conscripts. Are they all objecting conscription on moral or religious grounds? Not really. Most young people will tell you they would simply like to do other things with their lives. What is interesting here is that national service is only for nine months in Turkey, compared to the three-year service of Israel (women serve two years) and the two-year service of Singapore. Ours really isn’t that much, yet young people are paying around $7,500 to keep the government at bay.
Why pay? I gather that service is boring, a miserable grind of toilet cleaning, leaf collecting and tea-fetching. In Israel, serving in certain departments of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) looks good on your resumé. It’s serious training. The IDF is the breeding ground of many start-ups and engineers find fertile ground for their ideas there. No matter what you think about Israel’s politics, it is a fact that most of those kids learn something while feeling like they are contributing. I’d recommend the book “Start-up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer for more detail on this.
I don’t know about the army in Singapore, but I doubt that its recruits are as bored as those in Turkey. Service in the Turkish army is a gaping hole in your resumé. People wouldn’t think of putting it in there. The government claims young men’s time, like an old geezer ordering food he’s not going to eat. Time, mind you, is the most precious commodity we have, so anyone with enough money gladly trades it in. Those who don’t have enough money go and surrender their time.
But how do people dodge enlistment? By they’re waiting for the next exemption law. There is now a waiting list for the next exemption legislation with a lower price per head. This is what you get with populist governments. Think of what tax amnesties do to tax collection – the more discretionary amnesties you have, the more tax arrears you develop on your balance sheet. This works the same way – the more conscript exemptions you have, the more youngsters dodge the call until the next one. The more irregularities you have, the more exemption legislation you need. Governments especially do this before elections.
That would not be possible in Israel or Singapore. Maybe we should think about taking ourselves more seriously. I’m sure it would be more profitable than stealing people’s time and selling it back to them every now and then.