what a letter did to me

a few days ago i opened a letter from NSPC – the National Service Personnel Centre. contained within the envelope was a letter that would crystallize for me the reality of national service.

‘… you have been appointed xxx etc’.

while as a singaporean male i have been distinctly aware of my obligation to the nation, i have never really been conscious of the reality of this fact.

on the day that i opened the letter, this awareness of obligation changed into something resembling more duty than obligation.

now my initial response was to say ‘oh man, i’ve got to do all this work’. a most typically singaporean male response: in the army, you just want to get away from the saigang and evade everything.

but further thought has made me realize that NS is for real. i mean that it is Concrete Reality. as an educated student proficient (or so i hope) in history and having been schooled in the institutions which place importance upon military defence, i acknowledged the need for National Service. don’t get me wrong, a part of me does begrudge two years of my life being… spent, as many would call it. but on hindsight it is an investment. but my purpose here is not to glorify NS. i have benefited from serving my time in the army, it has made me and moulded me into a better person. i don’t know what i would be without the army, but as i am now, i know that my 22 months in green were not wasted.

my point is that NS suddenly became extremely real to me. appointed to a position of command, i realized the larger implications of my role. they say in OCS that you must be father, mother, brother to the 27 men in your platoon. your commissioning means that the President has vested his authority unto you to command men and send them into combat, with the knowledge that you are responsible for their life and death. this is life and death we are talking about. and now here i am, suddenly made aware that it’s no longer a game of numbers, warfighting and tactics, a test of my skills and mapwork, as it was during training. suddenly 500 men have become 500 families and lives and people out there, real people. it is ironic that only after having ORDed that i feel the weight of command responsibility fall upon me. life moves on but lessons take time.

defense is a real thing. academically i can prove it. political science has realist policies. history contains all sorts of examples that military defense and presence is of paramount importance. but suddenly it has really hit home. if i screw up, i screw up not just my own pride, but i screw up the lives of all those people out there. i better not screw up.

so what’s it going to be? i’m 21 going on 22, and here i sit in my room in my family’s HDB flat and i am contemplating my place and purpose in the machinery of that fine institution known as the Singapore Armed Forces. Singapore’s future literally rests on people like me. boys all around the country unsure of whether they too, have entered manhood, waiting for some sort of test to confirm thier movement away from boyhood and entry into true manliness. does army make you a man? not really. it’s a testing ground of sorts, a proving ground, but it isn’t a final exam. there isn’t one, i think.

but i digress. singapore’s protection and continued success and prosperity is buoyed by our economic toughness and viability. they say that our political and economic position makes us an inviting target, but we are never going to get hit. that’s logical thinking, i agree. but may i remind you that the very hallmark of human action is its irrationality. is evil explainable? are the actions of those whom we deem madmen and dictators logical? are concentration camps and purgings and such atrocities a product of a rational mind?

sometimes in my free time i consider the possibility of singapore going to war. i imagine what it would be like. and i conclude that i don’t want to go and fight. because i’ve read enough and learnt enough that war in any form is utterly terrible. you don’t even have to read up the raw numbers to know that. read enough war poetry and you can feel the anguish and hurt and meaninglessness that struggles to find expression in a poetic form. i’ve always marveled at how lit and history go hand in hand. lit is like turning a timeline on its side and examining it through a prism of wordcraft.

but just because i don’t want to fight doesn’t mean i won’t fight. if the proverbial button is pressed, i will answer the call. you say i’m an idealistic patriot? i will go and fight because i will defend my loved ones, and i will defend what they have built. i will defend what people have spent their lives building up – things that benefit all of us, things that define modern singapore. i will defend high COE prices, faulty MRT systems, expensive food, HDB blocks, pressurizing education systems.

a lot of the people i’ve talked to say that they will go and fight too, but they will not be fighting for the country, but for their loved ones. they say fighting for the government, for society, fight for what? i agree. but once again let us remember that what makes us singaporean is our shared experiences and common identity, forged as they might be within the artifice of nation-building. are we all not fighting for the same thing? a nation shouldn’t be defined by its infrastructure and its physical makeup and its ethnic composition. it may be characterized by all those, but a nation is defined by the heart and the beliefs of the people. sounds like a stretch to say that all of us share the same beliefs… but i’m willing to bet if you break it down, the person standing next to you on the MRT or the taxi driver ferrying you around possesses a set of core beliefs which you can identify with, things which are uniquely singaporean. why else do we take offense when other people say that ‘i thought singapore was a little town in china’?

so in light of all this, i struggle to understand why people throw vitriol at national service and the SAF. and i think the best i can come up with is that this privilege of being able to complain is born of others having already given of themselves and done their duty by their nation. the privilege of complaining is only afforded by those who do not need to pause and give thought to the necessity of military defense. i highly doubt anyone who deferred his national service and ran off to another country (notice i use the disparaging ‘ran off’) has truly given serious thought, serious balanced thought to the issue of national service. if they are so caught up in their ideas of human rationality, how can they rationally suggest that a nation can ever be free of threat?

next time when my son grows up and it is time for him to don the shirt with SINGAPORE stitched onto his chest (i wonder what the uniform will be like then), i hope he will go in with an understanding and acceptance of why he has to serve, and who he is doing it for. that’s only going to happen if we (we as in generic singaporean society) continue as we are right now – with a large portion of our national budget going to defense because we acknowledge that it is undeniably important and can never be compromised upon. there isn’t going to be a future if we don’t believe in the present.


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