Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Singaporean Depoliticisation

For once, I did not feel compelled to write to the Straits Times Forum, even though I felt pretty strongly about the following issue.

Tan Hau Teck, wrote on June 17, 2008:
Rules Are Not The Problem

"Deaths in National Service (NS) should not occur. But don't be too quick to point the finger at the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after every death. The Training Safety Regulations are already four volumes thick. How much more can we add and still ensure they are readable?

Instead, look at our youths. NS has been in place for more than 40 years. Singapore youths know they must serve when they reach 18, yet many don't make the slightest effort to train.

The Government has cut NS to two years. The SAF should implement a scheme where anyone who does not meet its physical standards has to do 2-1/2 years instead of two. "

Tan Hau Teck appears to be a firm believer in the human property of "toughness". Toughness here is seen as being both intrinsic (self-motivated) and extrinsic (associated with nurturing, but confined to a smaller social group and not extended to the level of society, policy and ideology).

In recommending that young men train to physically prepare themselves for National Service, Tan has effectively depoliticised the tragic deaths of two Singaporean sons recently, along with the many other training-related deaths in the history of the military organisation.

When we depoliticise something, we shift the focus away from the current socio-political and economic situation of the society we live in. We end up ignore the power inequalities and social injustices that were meant to be addressed and discussed. We forget about the socialisation processes, each and every one of them shaped by ideology, policy and economy, that come to shape the "un-tough" young Singaporean man. By depoliticising it, we come to conveniently see the "un-tough" young Singaporean man as lazy.

This mentality is fitting in a society that bathes itself with the rhetoric of meritocracy and patriarchy. It would thus seem permissible to hold the belief that poor people are poor because they are lazy, and that the ill are ill because they are poor (and lazy of course). You will not be rewarded at all for thinking further, and questioning the social conditions that cause poverty/poor-ness, or the socialisation processes that perpetuates the concept and label of "lazy".

Our attention to society, the state and dominant discourses and ideologies is blurred and diverted away. There are structural mechanisms and agents that strive to conserve this status quo.

It is a decent recommendation that young Singaporean men should prepare themselves physically for National Service. Unfortunately, these young men are part of the Singaporean education system. There are many expectations heaped upon them and internalised by them. Physical toughness is obviously not the top priority, where mental resilience (on top of academic ability) would be logically more sought after. This does not help further if the young man came from a less privileged household, where physical exercise would have been a luxury for a choice.

I took some time to train before I went for National Service, and I still felt emotionally stressed out, and had many horrible ankle sprains over the course of serving my country. If you adopted a "Tan Hau Teck" lens to assess myself, you would say that I am feeble-minded, un-tough and still not physically conditioned for National Service, all while avoiding discussing the stressful and competitive education systems I have been through, the assortment of policies that have affected the social, economic and psychological domains of my life, and not to mention, the way things are run in the army. Too easy, too convenient, to individualise problems.

We should refrain from easily individualising every problem we see. Not all problems can be traced or reduced to some psychological trait/symptom. In depoliticising and individualising problems, we let ideology and those in power stay in power. These are the very entities that perpetuate the inequalities that so plagues our society. The individual victim, owing to this convenient form of reasoning, becomes the individual villain. Society becomes invisible, with its villainy never in question. We never for once will ever think that society could be the villain and we individuals could be victims. (By the way, this society sees individualism as villainous, as contrary to the strategic and limited communitarian values it tries to espouse.)

Again, please do not cast the gaze/blame on our youths like Tan Hau Teck did. If we were to criticise youth, we only have to see the conditions in which we have created for them for we are complicit in "making" these youths. Do not be too myopic and blame their parents either, for these folks belong to the same society we are in. We should instead look at the people and structures that are actually perpetuating and maintaining the dominant discourses I have criticised. You don't have to politicise everything, but that doesn't mean you can depoliticise everything.


PanzerGrenadier said...

If Mr Tan Hau Teck's had his own progeny suffer death/injury whilst on peacetime training, would he still feel that young men are too soft and do not adequately prepare themselves?

How do you prepare yourself if you encounter indifferent commanders and in unfortunate circumstances psycho ones? E.g. POW training death from dunking?

Sam Ho said...

to be fair, i believe that we only have one pair of feet, so putting ourselves into other people's shoes is often easier said than done.

you have to remove your shoes first before wearing someone else's shoe. most of the time, we try others' shoes without removing our shoes. nevermind it fitting properly or not, but our impression and observations would be based on having worn one shoe over the other, rather than having just worn one shoe.

hope this analogy is a little bit clear.

maybe they should put slogans and advertisements that tell people:
"be prepared to be dunk"
"be prepared to be insulted and emotionally abused"
"be prepared to be accused of malingering if you didn't try hard enough"
"be prepared for foot rot"
"be prepared to be scolded or charged when you ask questions"
"be prepared to be cursed at"
"be prepared for injuries"
"be prepared not to be listened"
"be prepared to die even though there is no war to fight"
"be prepared to be covered up or gagged"
at least with these messages, the military will be able to prepare our singaporean sons for the challenges.

there are many well-conditioned and "tough" guys who have suffered injuries in the military. i think it's just a matter of probability. i am very lucky not to have broken any bones, been disfigured, suffered heatstroke, get rolled over by a vehicle and so on, and hope none of the "bad" and unfortunate things will happen to me and of course everyone else.

i wonder how many singaporean sons serve out of love versus serving out of fear.

Recruit Ong said...

In SG where our lives are so much controlled by the pap gahment and its laws, how can the gahment be not responsible at all? I think people like this ghost writer Tan is just trying to move blame away from those responsible to the little people or anything else they can humtum. It is just an attempt to shift accountability, something we have been seeing a lot more and more.

Starbucks said...

"The Training Safety Regulations are already four volumes thick."
So what? Its the content, and not the sheer verbosity that counts. A safety manual that works may be only 20 pages, but if the correct principles are applied, no accidents need occur. How voluminous is the Singapore constitution, and how did a plitician get inot office without receiving one single ballot in his name?

jiax said...

"A safety manual that works may be only 20 pages, but if the correct principles are applied, no accidents need occur"

I suppose somewhere along the line 'accidents' came to mean 'events which are completely foreseeable and preventable'. Another boundless optimist!