Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sorry I don't believe in NS

Read the article by Joel Tan on National Service. In it, he talks about being called up for in-camp training during his undergraduate study.

In truth, the government and the various ministries and statutory boards do not share information, unless you are a political dissident or deemed dangerous to the ruling party (then you will be checked rather thoroughly by the internal security department).

But Tan's suggestions are definitely useful for the parties involved. In all cases when it comes to policy, the citizen should be the winner.

By the way, I have already gone through four in-camp trainings, all during the mid-year vacation of my four years of undergraduate studies. I felt really discouraged to go for any internship like most of my peers, because of the disruptive nature of the national service obligation/liability.

I am not so lucky next year when a two-week in-camp training clashes with my semester. In fact they will enjoy the savings in renumerating an unemployed graduate student. I doubt the Ministry of Defence (MinDef) will send a representative to fill in for me, help me do my readings and research in the two weeks of my absence. It would be very interesting too if they could assign some to write to the press, on my behalf, to advocate sexual minority rights and equality. But they will not do that, because I am only valued by the NS rank I hold.

Even when I did a contractual stint at an internet business, I had a six-day downtime. All MinDef would do is provide a monetary compensation pegged to the wage I earned as stipulated in my contract. They might have forgotten that "talent" (assuming I am talented) is worth more to the company than just the wage.

My case may be a "small fry" case, but there are always examples out there in which (private) businesses and enterprises will feel shortchanged when their Singaporean-born talents have "down-times".

For example, Company A pays a talent $6000 a month. A 15-day reservist training comes aknocking. MinDef tells Company A they need not pay for the 15 days of the absence of their talent, which amounts to $3000. This is equivalent to taking no-pay leave, but MinDef will compensate the talent $3000. On paper, it seems that nobody loses. Company A does not pay for the absence of the talent. The talent does not lose a single cent of wage. MinDef has its labour.

In fact, I have a problem with "on paper"-ness. Firstly, people are not digits. But unfortunately, policy revolves around that. No problem, since policy protects the interest of these people, ensuring their rice bowl is not shaken.

But what about the companies and enterprises? The absence of a talent for a period of time may result in multiple disruptions, of communication, of projects/gigs, of creative processes. Having someone else to cover or fill in will yield different results, assuming all talents are unique.

The "down-time" may cost the company more money and opportunities, never mind wage savings. It may cost the talent his bonus, commission, career advancement and so on.

In a society and culture which oozes from the ears the rhetoric of meritocracy and the obsession with performance, a company/enterprise has the right to discriminate against Singaporean-born talents. If a talent has a down-time which costs the company some opportunities, the company has every right to refuse to offer him any bonus, commission, promotion, etc. because he is simply absent. How is the government going to protect the Singaporean talent? And of course, to be fair, how is the government going to protect the Singaporean enterprise?

In my limited experience, National Service (thankfully cut from two and a half to two years) is limiting and disruptive. I know of a friend who was a budding entrepreneur, aged 17. He has established his business for 3 years when he was called to serve. His business was obviously affected.

National Service destroys entrepreneurship, the very thing our government is encouraging us to explore. Is the state encouraging us to be entrepreneurs after National Service? The whole idea that "there is a time and place for everything" does not apply to everything. You have to develop at an early age our local talents and creative minds, not crush the remnants of their youth with low wage forced labour.

I have caught glimpses of the underground music scene for a couple of years, a few years back. There are very talented musicians out there. As a musician myself, I feel their pain. Music is all about expression. I guess I have found another avenue for expression, in the form of academia, although I consider it a lot more inferior form of expression to music.

The only reason why I am obedient to the country and serve my National Service is my fear of incarceration. I value my freedom (although ironically, my freedom is granted to me by the state, which makes me a puppet thinking it is free). My decisions, in this case, is based on an assessment on the implications of my freedom. Like I probably have mentioned before, I serve Singapore out of fear, not love.

Imagine King Xerxes (of the graphic novel and movie, 300) this way. He decapitates those who disobey or disappoint him. So everyone is always cowering in fear of him. They are scared into obedience, which is construed by King Xerxes himself as love. He will think of himself as kind because he perceives his subjects as loving him.

We Singaporean citizens are all the minions who carry the elaborate sedan on which King Xerxes sits. When he dismounts, we all use our bodies to form a flight of steps for him to descend.

There are Singaporeans who are willing and proud to be part of National Service, while there are others who, if given the choice, will choose not to serve. The whole idea of defending a concept and a bunch of symbols representative of Singapore and Singaporean identity is often polished by the government machinery to make it look noble, manly and a duty for all.

We either buy into it or are coerced into following. Either way our participation, or rather, our being "volunteered", legitimises the system. People who question the system are punished.

On a sidenote, I am interested in the concept of "manliness" (as explored in previous articles). It is quite ironic that National Service will turn Singaporean boys into men, only for Singaporean women to think that they are still pampered mamas' boys.

Moreover, in light of the rather Western idea of moving out and being independent, we have a growing culture in which it is perceived to be inferior for one (usually a male) to continue to stay with his parents even into the many years of his adulthood. Of course, in reality, one will need a lot of savings to actually live independently. Moreover, sacrificing two years for National Service puts the male back two years, although the civil service has enforced wage discrimination to ensure what they perceive as balance or gender equality.

Government policy also does not favour independence from one's parents, because such a paradigmatic shift in familial relations and arrangements will affect the larger socio-political macro-cosmos that is the relationship between citizens and the state. That is why the issue of individualism is handled with lots of care by the government, wherein individualism is only celebrated if it has economic benefits.

Times have changed now. The once dominant (and much criticised) are now marginalised - the Singaporean man. Both ego and esteem are continually bashed.

In view of our country's low birth rates, the spotlight is on our single men and women. Of course, women have the right to choose to marry or not and to have kids or not. Policy cannot do much to change their will.

It is to my concern a portion of men have been criticised for being undesirable and simply not good enough for our Singaporean women. It is not because men are evolving to becoming perceptibly weaker as eugenicists would like to have it. The socio-political and economic culture has influenced the way people make decisions, which in turn affect how we are brought up now. That is why, men today, like women, are different from their counterparts of yesteryear.

Most of us are always under the impression that toughness, aggression, decisiveness, and related traits, are desirable and superior. But we forget that these just happen to work well in certain economic systems and modes of productions, that yield the right results for economic prosperity, and therefore should be reproduced.

Toughness, aggression, decisiveness and so on, are meaningless in a vacuum, so too will be their perceived diametrically opposite counterparts in wimpy-ness, weakness, soft-spoken-ness, limp-wristed-ness and so on - all meaningless. Either way, we are all slaves to these definitions.

And speaking of slavery, I bring us back to the topic of National Service. I personally see no meaning in National Service, as the only meaning I see in it is the meanings that have been inscribed/ascribed to it by a political power which exclusively holds the right to commit murder and imprisonment.

Hypothetical question: What if all the men in Singapore resisted National Service? What will the republic do? Can it possibly incarcerate everyone? That is not possible.

But of course, given the strong internal security and intelligence organisations, any one who tries to instigate such a resistance will be imprisoned and made an example of - as in the Chinese saying goes, you kill one to scare many; or you kill the chicken to scare the monkeys.

How can one be loyal to a geographical and symbolic concept any way? Is it rational? If it is Singapore and Singaporean policies that make (some) Singaporeans unhappy, why would they want to serve to protect such a system? If the government is making (some) people unhappy, how is it rational they serve to maintain it?

We have a bad habit of individualising/atomising our problems, which is expected of a country that treats its people like numbers. We depoliticise the examples in which people leave Singapore so that they need not serve National Service, among other reasons, and we blame and criticise them without looking at the larger situation.

As said before, I always loved Singapore. It is where family is. There is nice food, although prices is rising. But the love Singapore has returned to me (not that I expect it) is one of tough love, where I have to do things against my will and principle. I do not believe in National Service, or sacrificing lives for a flag. Like closeted queer persons, this is how some of us live a lie. We have our own beliefs, but in order to fit in, we adopt the beliefs of a group/organisation more powerful than us.

I may just pretend to serve and give my labour power to the state; and that is all that they need. Nothing beyond that, because I am entitled to believing that National Service is not meaningful. Maybe if the government were to offer rewards in the area of public housing incentives, greater tax reductions, and so on, for good performances (and loyalty) in National Service, we will probably be a lot more professional. In a country where people are treated like numbers, there is always a place for mercenary-friendly policies/enticements.

A major reason why some Singaporeans are unhappy with Singapore is that they feel they do not benefit from living in Singapore, never mind the differential levels of individual expectations. If the costs (monetary, emotional, physiological,etc.) outweigh the benefits, they will want to leave. If they cannot leave, because they do not have the means to, they will have to stay (and be a lot less happy). It is as simple as that. For those who feel they have benefited greatly, although they may on occasion pride themselves in being the rare few who are capable of being grateful and do not take things for granted, they will stay and be happy. No one is in the business to make everyone happy, so exit the disbelievers, the disillusioned and the disgruntled.

The rhetoric of a compassionate government is to create the illusion that the government aims to make more people happy. After all, who doesn't like compassion? But it is the very same compassionate government that coerces its citizens to serve it, but under the banner of serving the concept that is the "nation".

The government is in the business of staying in power, not making people happy. It only makes critical segments of the people happy, so it can stay in power. For now, the unhappy National Servicemen are not of the critical numbers. We are just minorities whose voice and opinion mean little.


Agagooga said...

I thought full time students don't need to be slaves?

You can try to leave this shitty place :P

What's even more depressing is the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality - when people manage or try to escape Slavery somehow, all the slaves cry out for his requisite pound of flesh to be wrenched from his body.

And this is what they call "support for NS".


Anyhow as your and others' sentiments reveal, Slavery serves much more than a military purpose.

Sam Ho said...

i think the singaporean males who cannot escape are so disempowered that they seek empowerment by drawing the blood of others who have escaped.

just like how we may be so politically disempowered that we seek empowerment by using our handphone cameras to take pictures of unruly/ungracious behaviour and posting them on stomp.

full-time students still have to serve, by the way. sucks right? and some of my friends couldn't do internships during the long break because of that.

Glass Castle said...

Hi Sam

That's an interesting post you have here. One point on which I'm curious is whether you think that men in Singapore face a lot of pressure as to "manliness" and what forms that pressure takes? Do you think it's an expectation transmitted through parents and teachers (for instance) or do you think the media has most to do with it? The connection with financial independence seems like a fairly recent - and yes, media-imported, rather than bottom-up - phenomenon to me, though that could be because growing up as a girl rather than a boy, I would have been less primed to notice it. Did you feel pressure in this respect?

In terms of NS turning "boys into men", it seems to me from the verbal reports of my peers who were doing NS, that much of the focus was on requiring men to stomach unfairness and suffering without complaint. And with hypersexualising and objectifying women (if I recall correctly, one of the songs in this regard included the charming lines "I see the hole / I start to fuck"). It seems to me that this is training in "dominator culture" and a reinforcement of the notion of a hierarchy with men of varying seniorities on top and women at the bottom. (Aside, of course, from the manifest discrimination involved in only requiring men to do NS to begin with.) Do you think there is any truth (or indeed any value) to the notion of NS incalculating "manhood"?

The kinds of manliness I've discussed above strike me as toxic to everyone, and it seems to me we would do better to stop trying to envisage others in terms of their fulfillment of a gender role at all. But I would like to know how you feel about the requirement "to be a man".

- Jolene

Sam Ho said...

wow, personally, i can't speak for all men in singapore, but i speak from what i observe, that men are being trapped by the very form of masculinities they have so often been proud to exhibit and maintain.

there are many institutions that perpetuate this any way, like the onese you have mentioned. the army is the church of manliness in my opinion, where men there are told what it means to be a man. in other words, yes, NS plays a significant role in the promotion of specific and desirable forms of manliness.

when you surround yourself with machinery and weapons, you cannot help but be taken into the whole process of hypermasculinisation. in such a process, the belittling of women becomes part of the package.

i believe there should be spaces for men to express and perform other forms of masculinites, as however defined.

the very dominant form of masculinity and its accompanying set of expectations have imprisoned men, so much so to the point that things such as appearances, penis size/length, body type, (un)manly behaviour all play a larger role in affecting a man's morale, self-image and esteem. i feel we can do without this.

i am not greatly affected by the expectations heaped upon me for my "manliness", although i have on many occasions use its rhetoric (for the sake of communication).

as for financial independence, personally i see it as important because my philosophy is that i don't wish to owe anyone or any government a living. being a subject of procreation and having once lived under the care of loving people, i will forever be indebted. there is however a new societal perception that living with your parents is a "loser" trait, but it personally does not affect me. my strive for financial independence is motivated by other reasons (one being that i love being alone).

just because physiologically we fulfill the requirements of a gender category doesn't mean we are obliged to perform the culturally ascribed rituals representative of that category. the same goes for being ethnic chinese and the taken-for-granted expectation that one should speak "chinese".

the whole ideology is already rooted in our langauge, although it is being challenged by political correctness, e.g. "mankind" replaced by "humankind", "him" replaced by "it" or "him/her". but we still talk about "you better be a man!" and encourage guys to be "more man".

it is the very heavy yet invisible expectations of the masculine kind which cause a lot of insecurities among men today, as i observe from my biased eyes.

new insecurities create new wants and desires, but do we really need these. for example, the desire to brag/boast just to prove a manly trait, or the desire to buy materials just to show you are your own man (to entice the perceived gold-digging women), or even the attempt to project the image that you could be a jock, an intellectual and a leader all rolled into one.

while it may not appear as "pressure" or pressure felt by men per se, we see manifestations of it in the pursuit of material desires, the consciousness/obsession with body image and behavioural traits. this is probably what camp culture (among some gay men) and its aesthetics actually critiques.

wow, throughout my entire reply, i was very enticed into using freudian perspectives haha. but there is always the obsession with the penis among men, and/or the obsession with things associated with the penis among men, just to be very simplistic and sweeping. men seek "potency" in different domains of life, but unfortunately, he is empowered/limited by the tools of patriarchy and androcentrism in the pursuit of "potency", which resultantly imprisons him.

i mean, to take it further, they shave your head in national service basic military training, but it will grow back after BMT, which signals "puberty". you are supposed to become physically stronger, just like how the penis grows in size. you take care of you phallus that is the rifle. they may seem trivial but they do play their part in reinforcing the dominant form of masculinity.

like in media studies and cultural studies, which have emphasised a shift in scholarly focus from the exotic to the mundane, we should shift our discursive focus from the margins to the (newly marginalised, and perhaps, formerly dominant) dominant - men. so long as the dominant view on men stays, the same kind of gaze will be brought upon women and we uphold the status quo wherein women will always be seen as inferior and that sexual minorities are simply just a non-issue.

i've no idea how we can change this though. gender identity (of the dominant kind) is so firmly entrenched in our consciousness, that even its subversion borrows items from it; there is no transcending it.

Agagooga said...

Eh. What does taking pictures of people in public have to do with political disempowerment >< We're just kaypoh and voyeuristic lah

Full-time students have to serve, but not during school term. The 3 unis had some agreement with the SAF about that. Apply for deferment!

I don't think the sexualisation of women in Slavery is due to it being a Church of Manliness.

Rather, you have a large male-only group which is kept away from female company for extended periods of time. These are men in their sexual prime, I might add. To boot, they are highly stressed and need some form of relief.

See also: Boys' Schools

While less pressure on people to conform to expectations is a good thing, totally demolishing them is not. Expections should be a guide rather than a prison. A tough line to draw, but better than the alternative, I think.

Humans are socially-embedded beings, and some form of social framework and structure is needed to orient them. Gender identity is one thing that many people of both genders cling to, and I daresay abolishing gender norms will lead to much anomie. There is a reason second- or third-generation immigrants often reflexively fall back on their ethnic or religious identities, and cherish and perform them a lot more faithfully than their parents!

PS: If you love being alone, why are you married ;)

wayHOW said...

Noted on the disruption to companies due to national service, but how else can we defend ourselves? Or is military conflict just another concept as well?

I don't mind buying the whole Nepalese army, but I won't be too chummy with that idea if it means 20% GST and $50 ERP rates or something.

Agagooga said...

We can offer companies tax breaks to compensate for missing staff.

We can call slaves back less often.

We can recruit fewer slaves.

We can stop provoking our neighbors.

Sam Ho said...

we should devote our resources to buying other armies haha, that is the best. at the same time, people can concentrate on their talents and core competencies and make singapore inc. work.

gabriel, you got me there on the male company in national service part haha. i have overlooked the circumstance as well as the intent of the men in national service, and have merely judged them by their performances/actions (which are in turn interpreted in many ways).

as a society we do need guides, so that they regulate the destructive nature of the mingling of personal interests.

on the point on us to stop provoking our neighbours, i liken singapore to the impish know-it-all smart alec who likes to sit in front of class and carry the teacher's balls, while all the "cooler" kids at the back will hate his self-righteous guts and can't wait to beat up him after school. they should make a sitcom featuring a classroom of students adopting the names of the various countries. singapore will be the assholic character.

i like to be alone, because people scare me. but thankfully, i'm surrounded by a handful of persons and i happen to marry a wife who's not only a lover but a good friend. by being alone, i have to qualify, i just don't appreciate being in the company of people too often. you could say i've no friends la, but that doesn't bother me haha.

Glass Castle said...

Thanks for your really long and thoughtful reply, Sam. Even if I didn't expect quite so many penis references... ;)

I agree with you that dismantling rigid gender norms is very thorny, although personally I'm quite optimistic about clear first steps that can be taken - e.g. refraining from criticising people in terms of gender conformity, or couching positive qualities in terms of gender roles, or trying to interpret things that people do in terms of gender if that is not their own story. For instance, never criticising someone for not being "manly" enough, or never making suggestions for action on the basis that it would help in "being a man". Also, providing support when people feel pressured to conform. For children, especially, I think this can be really helpful.

I guess the hope for subversion is that if you mix up the elements enough, so long as pressures and barriers are removed, I believe, something new and liberating will emerge. Even if we don't know what it is yet because we aren't yet there. But it shouldn't be obstructed from developing.

- Jolene

Ming & Sab said...

As a former faculty student in the days when it was still ICM, I think all the readings have melodramatic.

But I do get your point about the liberation when I got a deferment for working overseas for a year and now back in Singapore. Struggling to breakaway from my job as a poor entrepreneur. As if that wasn't enough you get these calls to say NS Call up...

My option out, Australia PR and move there while having the business here. Call me selfish whatever, I've done 2 1/2 years and 6 callups. I've not seen the govt do anything cept give business to their own friends. Set up schemes that again benefits friends. So... it's enough. I don't care to stay here. But I'll keep my citizenship to vote until the monarchy collapses.

When I'm done with my exit I'll surely set up an agency to help others do the same. No fee... Just a personal satisfaction to help others succeed in overcoming barriers they were born into.

Ming & Sab said...

"all the readings have melodramatic."


"have made you melodramatic"

Secret typing in the office makes incoherent mistakes like these.

Agagooga said...

At least you can vote (are you going to fly back to do so?)

Such agencies exist already, just not for Singaporeans. Haha