Saturday, November 6, 2010

Defending what's (y)ours: Alice in SAF Wonderland

I can't quite recall if I have already written such a post about masculinity in the army, but figured it would be nice to talk about the masculinist eco-system that is the SAF.

I am more than half-way through my 10-year reservist cycle with the Singapore Armed Forces. My enthusiastic "can do" spirit in camp betrays my great reluctance to serve. I am a "best soldier" award winner in reservist (and also during my full-time nation service stint), but everyone knows I don't believe in conscription and reservist, plus all the mindlessness and inefficiencies that have come to characterise my personal experiences in the organisation.

Unfortunately, as a Singaporean void of certain rights and liberties, I have no other choice but to serve. Sanctions and imprisonment await those who choose not to serve. So I serve out of fear of punishment, rather than the perceived primary reasons that are love and loyalty for country (of which 60-70% are Singaporeans, and that's what we're fighting for?).

However, it is in the deepest and darkest recesses of oppression that we sometimes locate some potential for negotiation (or resistance). Hence, my giving my all in camp during reservist training is perhaps itself an articulation of my disagreement with MINDEF and the SAF.

On a personal note, I am extremely saddened that while I could sacrifice 2 weeks of my time as a full-time student (and part-time teaching assistant) to serve the nation last year, MINDEF is unwilling to commit to paying 2 weeks of my school fees in the event I could not finish my course in time and have to extend my study without scholarship. Hard to say it's water under the bridge, but I feel MINDEF and SAF are less than genuine when it comes to a number like myself.

All MINDEF can say is that it "appreciates" an NSman like myself pursuing higher education. When asked to substantiate their "appreciation" by chipping in for my course (in the event I could not finish it on time), my value as a Singaporean soldier is made known. $0. It is a struggle to respectfully disagree with somebody or some body that does not respect you, but I have found a way to do so (and it involves accepting one's "fate").

I have always ensured I carried out orders given to me, be punctual if not early for every appointment, and even given suggestions to my higher-ups so that processes in the unit can be improved. In fact, I even volunteered for most if not every assignment, even if it was beyond my jobscope. These still betray my true feelings for the organisation and its compassionless policies. This is my way to respectfully disagreeing with the organisation.

On a lighter note, I always saw myself as Alice in the Wonderland that is the Singapore Armed Forces. The SAF will always deploy that peculiar rabbit (which is the notice to serve) every once in a while to all the Alice's in Singapore, and lead them into the hole in the ground. After getting into this hole, in which mobile phones with cameras are banned, Alice is taken into a weird universe where things are not what they seem. That is the SAF - an alternate universe with its own laws.

Speaking of mobile phone with cameras, I have always believed that the ban on these devices are more of a public relations management strategy rather than a security control. Perhaps the organisation cannot deal with potential embarrassments of their image. And we all know that uniform organisations are very obsessed with image. Moreover, we have "Asian" roots in which image and face are quite important entities too. Throw in a bit of unstable (hyper)masculinity issues, we have a highly insecure organisation obsessed with looking good.

I guess looking good wins half the battle. You wouldn't want embarrassing situations, or instances of abuse in the army to be caught on camera/video, would you? You would not want the celebration of poor English and the generous displays of from-da-'hood hypermasculinity to be known everyone else, would you?

In this Wonderland, people seem to be perpetually stuck in their routines, entrenched in a certain way of thinking that has come to characterise this nature of this universe. They get about their lives unperturbed by and unreflective of their idosyncracies.

Wonderland is another dimension altogether, where carts pull the horses and when water flows from low to high grounds.

With the fears of punishment looming over everyone's head, there is a special strong sense of responsibility imbued in each individual, a sense of responsibility to cover one's backside. To be honest, we all have a backside-covering side to us in most jobs we do.

Thus, generosity and compassion are values not well embraced in this Wonderland, because they involve initiative. Taking the initiative requires taking on more responsibility, and that is not a favourable position to be in for many individuals in this Wonderland.

It makes Alice wonder if it is in the nature of all inhabitants and tourists in Wonderland, or that Wonderland itself nurtures such derriere-covering behaviour and attitude.

Similar to observations of masculinist Western Enlightenment philosophy in planet Earth, Wonderland also displays philosophical symptoms of the attempt to separate mind from body. In fact, Wonderland achieves this dualistic separation. The mind is totally flushed out of the body. Who needs a mind when you just need a compliant body?

Wonderland is also all "male". And the men in Wonderland are very eager to reinforce their masculinity too. Sissy is out, butch is in - it is as if being butch makes processes quicker. To look the part, you have to act the part.

On donning the green, men become more uncouth, their walk becomes a swagger with freely swinging arms, their English more broken, their Hokkien louder, their sexism, misogyny and homophobia a lot more pungent - these are the beacons of hypermasculine performativity. To convince others of your point, you use not reason but the volume of your voice. You mangle your pronunciation of most English words because you would want to portray yourself as a tough guy who has paid his dues.

Everyone wants to let everyone else know they are a man, world-savvy, street-smart, the been-there-done-that kind. This is part of the series of transformations Alice undergoes as she descends into the madness that is Wonderland. In the same egotistical vein of comparing penis lengths, men grunt about how they have seen the "world" or the "real world", and try to make the other person(s) feel a need to actually listen to them by showing them their boy scout badges of life's experience.

It is however a great paradox that in cutting the image of a world-savvy, street-smart, been-there-done-that kind of man, Alice has a homophobic side to contend with. "Ee-yur, dowan to get to close to the Ah Kwa. Sekali get molested." Such a paradox for a solider who is prepared to die for his country, yet harbours the irrational fear and hatred of issues of which he is not well-informed. Being "man" and masculine has its paradoxes and limitations.

Wonderland is full of sexual wonders too. As all the Alice's often talk about their girlfriends and wives (to emphasise their heterosexuality at the same time), some with fondness, others with lust and objectification that would make even the least serious feminist go "Wah lau! Not funny!"

It is as if Wonderland has its own native language when all its inhabitants plus Alice centre their communications on the phallus - the cock/lanjiao being the central logogram of the native language of wonderland.

"Lan jiao!!!"
"Die cock standing"
"Kum lan"
"Very cock"

etc. You probably have seen it all.

This is very much similar to adding a "la" or "lor" just to sound Singaporean. You just have to add in allegories of penises in order to be understood in Wonderland. Do remove articles such as "a", "an" and "the" from your speech too. Communication in Wonderland is short, and often grunted rather than spoken. It's all about getting to the cock of the situation, I mean crux.

In Wonderland, obsessively centering the phallus in one's communication is crucial to being recognised as a heterosexual masculine man. However, on planet Earth, doing the same would yield substantial suspicion of one's sexuality, a situation any Wonderlander will be quick to avoid. There is also a celebration of muscle and a kind of homosociality that would otherwise been suspiciously homosexual in Planet Earth.

I guess Alice will never be the same when he returns to Planet Earth, carrying with him shades of the habits and idiosyncracies of Wonderland. And when Alice returns to Wonderland every now and then, he will still see the same characters, set about in their respective routines.

In entering Wonderland, Alice comes of age as he learns to come to terms with the mindlessness of Wonderland. In a way, Wonderland is an escape from an equally cruel and mindless Planet Earth, providing lessons and skills, other than numbing one's mind.

Wonderland teaches you to be selfish, dishonest, cover your butt and also kiss the butts of others - valuable skills to surviving Planet Earth. And sometimes one wonders if Wonderland is a function of Singapore and how it functions, or the other way around.

All of us Alices will never understand Wonderland. Our stay is temporary. We only learn to blend in, but never really partake in the madness of this realm.

This Alice will not return to Wonderland any time soon, but that is not until the rabbit calls him into the hole again.

Sometimes, there's no doubt Wonderland is still an interesting place.


With regards to the recent egg on the government face, in which one guy at a Ministerial Forum (was it?) said he did not know what he was fighting for, I feel the same way.

But I know what we are fighting for.

We are fighting to ensure Singapore is safe from international threats (because we can be quite a prick sometimes to our neighbours) and substate/nonstate threats (in view of our buddy-buddy relations with the United States even though we often denounce Western values to justify our political ways - +1 on the prick meter).

We are fighting to allow this government to perpetuate greater social inequalities with policies that are primarily oriented towards fulfilling economic KPIs, never mind their social ramifications.

We are fighting to ensure security in Singapore, so that Ministers can earn their millions.

We are fighting to sustain a kind of economic stability which would allow for rising cost of living.

We are fighting to protect those who do not have a sense of belonging here, as well as their families. But they are necessary for our economic growth, any way. Who cares about the social ramifications any way? There's no such thing about KPIs for the social development (discounting the numericising of babies).

We are fighting to protect the constitution, even though most of us do not know its contents, and even though some of our statutory laws are questionable on constitutional grounds but nothing is being done about them.

We are fighting to preserve the artificial symbols of "share values" and other items we are made to believe we have in common when we do not.

We are fighting so that we do not get punished for not fighting, and lose our jobs, and be in a position in which we are unable to pay for our loans and bills.

That explains why we are fighting to "protect" our "home", because "home" is really costly. We have to follow orders and fight, so that we would be in a safer position to spend the rest of our able-bodied lives paying for our "home". Being blacklisted or going to jail will rock that rice bowl of yours any way, and it is best to just do what the government wants you to do, or rather, not do what they don't want you to do.

See, there are many things we are fighting for. So I don't know what this student is talking about.


Any way, it is highly ironic that we live in a world in which peace is articulated in terms of arms and defence. Peace has to be defended with ideologies and technologies of violence. Sad la.

1 comment:

Fatboy Joe said...

I think that there is a saying, “Peace through superior firepower”. It might sound like a sad and maybe even sickening joke, but from my limited knowledge of history…it works. Maybe it is time for a new world order that we kill by kindness. Seriously, I pun. It could be harder than it seems to change human nature that is known to be selfish. Thoughts?

I may not be an expert but I too noticed that my army buddies behave differently while actively serving reservist and when with family. And my observations include myself too. As I ponder on this, I am tempted to claim that different situations merely reveal the side of that particular person. I may be known to be soft spoken and slow to anger to my family and love ones. However when under pressure during work or reservist, I notice that my volume and language fineness “evolves” too.

Yes I too will put a show that I am willing to fight for my country because, like you have stated, I too am afraid of the consequences for trying to skive. However I think I know when I am bullied and am most willing to jump into a fight if I think I stand a chance. Even if I lose, it might make me feel better (if I survive with life and limbs) instead of just crying by the corner.

And lastly, in my mind I believe that I am not homosexual. The fact that I find it easier to taut and tease same sex couples could be because I am truly selfish too. I am actually working on it…honest.