Saturday, June 14, 2008

Does Singapore love me?

How many more sons must die before something is done?

I feel sad and angry every time I read about a death in the Singapore Armed Forces. Among the deceased are both Full-time National Servicemen and regular National Servicemen. I have yet to know about any deaths of Operationally Ready National Servicemen.

Among those that have been reported, there lies many other deaths, accidents and mishaps that remained unreported, unexplained and not unearthed.

We have all been sucked and suckered into believing in the honour to die for a larger cause, the courage and nobility and all, the whole macho sacrifice for a symbol that is a flag and for a people consisting many persons whom one may have never met before.

We are steeped into believing that life consisted of rigid phases, every one of which marking a rites of passage to the next phase. We see national service as a transition to manhood, a very much coveted masculine position. If the boy complains, it would not be considered manly. The overall message delivered to and internalised by us Singaporean sons is "Be a man!", and this message effectively legitimises every decision, position, action and atrocity of the establishment.

The internalised message is not an intrinsic motivation for us Singaporean sons to serve the nation, but an intrinsic fear most of us harbour. Our mind and consciousness have filled and threatened us with the fear of ridicule, social disapproval and stigmatism. And this effectively disciplines our behaviour; a discipline that is oriented towards the needs of a group of elites acting on behalf of the construct they call a nation. We do not need legal sanctions if we had these mechanisms of control which target the minds and souls of people in society.

In this time of age, the Singapore Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence are faced with many challenges, challenges they can do without. Thanks to our improved educational standards and the prevalence of media technologies, people are a little bit smarter. The hunger to know is greater now than before. Moreover, people know they have some rights they could exercise when aggrieved. Training-related deaths or deaths in camps and training grounds can now no longer be covered up so long as the deceased is loved by a parent(s) or a family.

At the most, the authorities could impose legal sanctions and gag orders, implement more comprehensive indemnity clauses, to do what it does probably most of the time: Covering one's behind.

The culture of "covering one's behind" is omnipresent in our society, nevermind others. This is borne out of a culture of negative and destructive individualism, arising from and shaped by economic and socio-political forces (but I shall not elaborate on them now. I suggest reading a book by Dr Chee Soon Juan, "Dare to Change").

There is no incentive in this society to do good, or "better than enough". There are only punishments and negative sanctions for doing less than enough. This is a punishment-punishment system, and not a reward-punishment system, wherein one is punished for doing something "wrong", but not rewarded for doing something "right". Perhaps, one logical yet unconvincing argument would be that a reward for doing something "right" or "normal" would result in one not being harassed and punished.

Singaporean life is defined by and revolves around the notion of punishment. Do "bad" = punishment. Do "good" = no punishment. This algorithm is programmed in our minds. It is like a Pes C1 (combat fitness classification) Operationally Ready National Serviceman being called to do his fitness test (IPPT), whereby his absence would result in a fine or jail, his failure would result in remedial training, his pass with silver or gold would yield no monetary reward, unlike the rewards granted to servicemen of Pes A and Pes B status. This is as far as I know. Please correct/update me if this policy has changed. Thanks.

Singaporean policy is reaction-based rather than pro-active. When it comes to protecting the status quo and those in power, policies are of course anticipatory. When it comes to protecting the ordinary Singaporean or the person with relatively little political capital, policies are otherwise reaction-based.

In order to effect changes, the occasional unfortunate son/daughter has to be a martyr for his/her fellow people. I am grossly ashamed to say that in Singapore, death, or rather publicised death, is the ultimate form of feedback one can provide to the state, to effect changes that could otherwise have never been effected. The state initiatives of WITS and SSS, obviously inspired by management practices of the private sector, are authoritatively implemented, with quotas imposed by bosses, supervisors and so on, just to make one's superior, and his/her superior's superior, look good. Looking good means not looking bad. Looking bad means one has one covered one's behind.

The reason why Singaporeans are inclined to feel this way, covering one's behind and all, rather than feel a strong sense of belonging is because he/she has very little say in how things are to be run in this tiny island-state. The growing apathy is both a welcome and at the same time a concern for our leaders. On the one hand, ordinary apathetic Singaporeans will not give two hoots and stand in the way of the initiatives and atrocities of our leaders, the inequalities and possible injustices they may have established and perpetuated. On the other hand, the same ordinary apathetic Singaporeans have to be bribed and threatened into conformity and action.

We are all mercenaries. That is why some of us are "quitters" as Goh Chok Tong has so described. We go where the money and incentives blow. We are highly rationalised shells. When a woman gets assaulted in the coffeeshop, no one helped her, because it is no one's business and there is no incentive to do "more than enough".

As for me, I have sprained my left ankle so many times during my active days of national service, to the point the ligament was torn and that I suffer till today on occasion rheumatic pains that travel from my left ankle all the way to my left hip. There has been verbal abuse and ridicules from different people in the army who believed this injury is "part of the mind", "chao keng" (skiving) and I have had one medical officer who exclaimed "you again" when I had to see him after hurting my knee carrying heavy loads (during the time when my ankle was healing). The very same medical officer sat me down a couple of months later and discuss what possible legal advice he could consult after he discovered I have previously written an account of our meeting in an old blog entry, something that would have portrayed him as something he would not like to have been portrayed as.

The Singapore Armed Forces may impose gag orders and threaten its servicemen, so as to preserve its image. It may use the mechanisms and rhetoric of protecting national security to justify these blanket imposition of rules. I believe it would be very rare for one to publicly reveal training secrets (and for what gains?), but rather the human-to-human and inhuman interactions and treatment that can be potentially embarrassing and contradictory to the organisation. It is in public interest to know if our Singaporean sons are treated well or badly in an organisation which they are forced to serve, for these sons are more likely to be loved by their families, more so than the organisation.

I badly sprained the very same ankle again in the middle of April this year and I am very terrified at what awaits me in my reservist towards the end of this month. I hope I am not greeted with an attitude that reeks of "well, people have died, so an ankle is nothing" when I go for my training. I serve my nation out of fear, rather than love. I serve my nation, giving my best in each stint, because I know that time will quickly pass, and I can be soon reunited with the ones I truly love (i.e. family).

There is only one true family that appreciates me and it is not this country (this country is no family), for this is a country of punishment and irrational rules, lacking the necessary compassion to make its citizens love it back. This country rides on the sowed seeds of its very own ideology which it has planted into the consciousness of its citizens. We have been brainwashed and hypnotised into loving it, convincingly and reasonably threatened into serving it.

Imagine the paradox: We are using irrational rules and ideology to govern highly rational people (e.g. kiasuism).

And for those who really love the country and serve as its soldiers, what have you done to them? There is no war, yet our soldiers have died. There is no uprising or promotion of violence, yet our internal security department is often mobilised and tasked to track potential troublemakers, however defined by its paymasters. Can peace be obtained if training-related deaths and suicides have reached a significant level?

It is time Singapore invested more in love than in instilling fear. Even I am scared of our leaders and the elite, and what they could do should I ever speak up against them. And every time my leg hurts, I wonder if Singapore loves me.


Aaron said...


Good post, that could not have been written if you went through the education system in SG all the way.

I have to agree with many of your points, the 'be a man' part, in which we're considered kids when we complain.

It does not extend to just people in NS itself. Even people outside, girls and women i've talked to considered males who've gone through NS kids, if they even so complain about it.

To them NS is such a glorified place, where truly boys turn into men.

But do they even know what we're going through? How we spend that 2 years of our lives?

The apathy in Singaporeans is killing us softly. More and more Singaporeans are being 'bo-chup' and dare i say 'gutless'?

How many of us dares to stand up against inconsiderate people who smokes in lifts, people who blast loud music in our 'public transport'?

We just don't care. And this is perhaps, what the government has brought to us through their various policies and actions.

I fear for our country, and also for fellow Singaporeans in the times ahead.

Sam Ho said...

thank you.

the whole fantasy about national service is a construct that penetrates so deeply into our minds that we believe it is truly a magical place where boys turn into men. this fantasy hides the darker/uglier side of the policy and organisation that is national service.

there is a lot to be worried about. but i guess change starts from every individual in this society. however, another problem lies in the willingness to change because of a "bo chup" attitude most of us have.

Ned Stark said...

I always found the idea that the army transforms boys to men laughable: it would be rather tragic to associate malingering ,covering behinds and sadism and other undesirable traits with the Singapore male.

Perhaps a reason why girls get upset with guys who complain about NS is the way such complaints are "packaged" so to speak; remember those weekends whereby a bunch of guys with no hair compete with each other to see who has undergone the most suffering? This way of sharing NS stories does nothing for the image of guys in the SAF.

PanzerGrenadier said...

Dear Sam

ORNS - reservists have died during NS training before. 3-4 years ago my people;s defence force unit had a 32/33 year old guy die after collapsing during his 2.4km IPPT run.

Even during my NSF in armour unit, a regular sgt died when his tank overturned. He was given a military funeral as well and promoted posthumously.

You can die during NS, even my wife doesn't really get it when I get upset about jobs for FT and NS for Singaporeans rant.

ROD lor. MR liao.

Majullah Singapura.

Sam Ho said...

i hope i don't die during reservist training because i'm often carrying heavy loads most of the time.

the sad thing about being a singaporean/PR male is that you have downtime, which isn't very attractive for private sector employers.

you may be given "make-up" pay, which covers your basic, but your absence from your company may cause it to lose a lot more, and may also cause you to lose extra earnings. in essence, it's best to work for a government-friendly/related organisation that fully understands your situation, rather than to be a businessman or part of an entrepreneurship.

squawks said...

good piece of work.

a sociologist i suppose?

squawks said...

ok. i saw the CNM grad part.

Sam Ho said...


I'm from CNM. any way, one doesn't need to be a sociologist to develop a sociological inquiry.

squawks said...

true true.

Nighthound said...

I'm curious about your example of PES C1 personnel not receiving IPPT monetary rewards. From the website, the rewards ($100 for pass, $200 silver, $400 gold) seem to apply to all PES status.

Sam Ho said...

i'm also curious. if that is true, i stand corrected.

i also want to know if pes c personnel get monetary rewards for doing well in ippt. i've asked some pes c1 guys and they said no. maybe things have changed. thanks for the heads up.