Students’ guide to dodging the draft

USyd students from around the world recount their experiences of national service.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

Jacinda Ardern decides to send New Zealand troops to invade Australian shores and take over the country. Do you take up arms? Do you join the armed forces in repelling our eastern foe from across the Tasman Sea? Do you put your life on the line for our right to sovereignty?

Now, imagine the situation develops. Ardern’s troops make major territorial gains around the country — their tactical and technical superiority combined with the element of surprise (no one saw this coming) earns them wins in major battles. Tasmania is the first to go under persistent pressure from the New Zealand Navy. The Battle of Melbourne is a walkover and hostile troops make their way from the south into NSW.

The United Nations is nowhere to be seen. Ardern has the Security Council hostage over the threat of stopping sheep and goat meat exports. Australia’s military allies are sitting on their hands, reluctant to wade into a messy conflict — it turns out they never really liked us. We, as a country, are all alone.

By this point, the ANZAC spirit is well and truly dead and buried. Anthony Albanese, in his third consecutive term in government, has been making viral TikToks in body armour challenging Ardern to a 1v1 to decide the outcome of the war. But even that has been to no avail. Although reluctant to damage his extreme popularity, Albanese begins to consider a policy of conscription.

The National Service (Repelling New Zealand) Act is passed, and every able-bodied adult is entered into a randomised draft for conscription into the armed forces. Unofficially, there are ways to get out of it. If you know the right people (perhaps you’ve cosied up to an ex-Prime Minister) and you’re smart about it, you can buy your freedom. You can also intentionally fail the medical examination and render yourself unfit for service. Or perhaps you’ll try to flee to a neighbouring country and get away from the conflict in its entirety.

For many students at the University of Sydney today, such dilemmas are not nearly as foreign or unrealistic as you might think. Although conscription in Australia is unlikely to have any relevance outside of stupid hypotheticals, the duty to complete a period of national service is a very real requirement for citizens of certain countries around the world.

Syria – 18 months service

Hrant, a fourth year Engineering and Commerce student, is a dual citizen of Syria and Australia.

Hrant migrated to Australia in 2016, before he became eligible for military service. He is also exempt by nature of being an only child, as only children are not required to complete the service under law.

Hrant has family living in Syria, but going back carries a risk of being conscripted if he does not possess the correct documentation.

“I would need to provide proof in the form of a military document that I’m the only male child of my family. Without proof, I could be taken at the border,” says Hrant.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, conscription into the Syrian armed forces has carried greater risk than in other countries.

“Especially in the early days of the conflict, it almost felt that if you were conscripted, you would be dropped into a random place and be at very high risk of dying. You could be put on the front line of a warzone,” says Hrant.

“Instead of having the opportunity to defend your country against the terrorists, there was a lot of fear that you would just be another victim of the conflict.”

The severity of the conflict and the risk of conscription saw many of Hrant’s male friends and acquaintances, who weren’t exempt by nature of being an only child, leave the country before they turned 18.

“Pretty much everyone I know in my class or higher years made sure they were able to leave before they were conscripted. They mostly either left to Lebanon or Armenia,” he says.

According to Hrant, wealthier citizens can also pay their way out of conscription.

“The economic condition in Syria is very bad, and paying is very expensive. I have friends who would live overseas to save up and pay after a couple of years of work. In terms of the amount required, I’ve heard figures of like 8,000 Australian dollars.”

Hrant’s Year 9 Mathematics teacher’s brother chose not to leave Syria and was conscripted to complete his national service in 2011. Soon after, the war broke out, and the army forced him to keep fighting.

“For people like him, the army would just keep you in the military for longer. My teacher was kept for eight years.”

Vietnam – 24 months service

Tyson*, a third year Law and Commerce student, is a citizen of Vietnam. 

When he was 17, Tyson received a letter from his local People’s Committee in Hanoi informing him of his duty to complete national service. In Vietnam, service is completed at military barracks that dot the country, from major cities like Hanoi to Vietnamese islands in the South China Sea.

Anthony, however, was able to get out of service as there is a specific exemption for individuals studying overseas. 

“I was overseas studying in Europe and had to notify the People’s Committee of this. Technically, because I returned to Hanoi for work, I should have had to complete my service then. Instead, my family paid ‘hush money’ to the Committee so they would overlook me,” says Anthony.

According to Tyson, the amount paid was roughly equivalent to 120 Australian dollars. By ‘dodging’ military service, Anthony is in the minority of Vietnamese males.

“The number of people who go overseas to study to ‘dodge’ is quite small. The majority complete their service willingly. I guess there is a sense of patriotism and duty – most people are happy to serve their country. People are also aware of the geopolitical conflicts around, particularly with `China,” Anthony says.

“Although I am anti-war, I see why national service has a purpose, particularly seeing that our last attempts at self-defence was not so long ago in 1989 and 1975,” he says.

Greece: 9 months service

Aidan*, completing a Masters in Psychology, is a dual citizen of Greece and Australia.

When he was 19, Aidan received a letter from the Greek Government asking him to report for conscription in the city of Piraeus. 

Aidan was able to get out of service by visiting the Greek embassy in Australia and showing them his travel records, proving that he had been in Greece for less than six months of his life. He then had to pay the equivalent of 120 Australian dollars. 

“If you do get drafted, I think the trick is to get assigned to the Navy because then you can hang out on a Greek island for a while,” says Aidan. 

For Aidan, the whole thing “seems like a massive waste of time”.

“Greece has so many problems and I don’t think being invaded is really at the top of the list. I think it comes down to some sort of legacy, some sort of tradition, but overall it’s a pretty bad indictment of Greece as a whole.”

Singapore – 22 months service

Ryan* began national service for Singapore when he was 19. 

“They call you up for a medical to deem your physical and mental status for military service. It was like how many pushups you can do in one minute, how many sit ups you can do in one minute, your BMI and a 2.4km run. The mental side of it is examined by a psychometric test,” says Ryan.

“At the end of it all, you get a grade out of 100.”

“If you fail, and don’t get over 50, you have to complete 24 months instead of 22.”

After the medical, candidates are allocated to civil defence, like policing or firefighting, or to the armed forces.

According to Ryan, the vast majority go to the armed forces, where they will be directed to the Army, Navy, or Air Force. Ryan was allocated to the Army, where he became a Combat Engineer on service boats. National service in Singapore is paid depending on your rank, and Ryan, who became a Second Class Sergeant, earnt the equivalent of 1,300 Australian dollars. 

“I think my vocation was pretty good in terms of welfare. Luckily, Singapore never needs to fight in actual conflict, so all of it is just training,” says Ryan.

According to Ryan, there are no legitimate means of ‘dodging the draft’.

“Theoretically, you can fake mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Many are also exempt because when they do their medical, they suddenly realise they have a heart condition,” he says.

Even for Singaporean sportspeople, true escape from national service is impossible.

Joseph Schooling, gold medal winner in the men’s 100m butterfly at the 2016 Olympics and Singapore’s only gold medal winner in history, is currently undergoing military service. 

Members of the aristocracy are not exempt either. Ryan is aware of a notable case where the grandsons of a Three-Star General in the Army were given the most prestigious rank and position upon entry into national service. Still, they were not completely exempt. Individuals like these are known colloquially in Singapore as ‘white horses’.

“White horses get really good positions in the military – either very prestigious positions or very cushy jobs,” says Ryan.

Ryan was hesitant to express an overt opinion on the requirement to complete military service, but noted it was something ingrained in the culture of Singapore. 

“There are other countries who might have a current war threat, but Singapore really doesn’t. They’re taking away two prime years of your life, when it’s not necessarily needed.

“The manpower might be better directed towards infrastructure or other forms of public service,” he says.