5 Things I’ve Learnt from National Service

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Our ORD parade on the 21st Of November 2014

Today is the 29th of November 2014. I am 13 days away from my ORD (Operationally Ready Date) and it feels like I’m being pushed to the edge of a cliff and I’m an eaglet who has finally learned how to fly. The feeling is amazing, to know that there is a “newfound freedom” out there, as somebody once told us after the ORD parade. So I thought it would be good to just try to express the 5 most important things I have learnt from my NS experience that I honestly did not think about and/or understand 1 year and 10 months ago.

1. The only thing that you truly own is your mind

I think I’ve said this before. When we enlisted they took our hair, clothes and freedom. They stripped us of our identity. They took away what made us, us. I think you’ve seen enough of this from recruits bickering about their loss of freedom/identity/personal space/individuality and what not. But I discovered that this wasn’t totally true. Sure, they took away a lot from us and made us seem like less. But as was pointed out in Ah Boys to Men, “They can take my body but they can’t take my mind.” I’m not sure if this was the exact quote but it meant the same thing: that individuality and identity isn’t necessarily skin deep. You can be tan and bald but you will always be, you. I think my family reminded me of that a lot when I came home from long tough weeks of being shouted at and eating what they fed me and sleeping on the beds the provided and wearing the clothes they gave us. Their voices were soft, warm and familiar, and everything about home assured me that I was still the same person. My mind, my memories and my personality won’t be that easy to budge. In other words, hair, clothes and environment are all material things, while the idea of “I” is something much more complicated to decipher and eradicate. Like the local singer/songwriter Gentle Bones expertly put it, darling we will sing until we die, and that every single move is ours to make. The lyrics to this song really spoke to me during my toughest times. It is a reminder that we choose our path and attitude in life. You will always be “you” no matter what, and this will indeed stay with you until you die.

2. To get from A to C, you don’t always have to bypass B. 

Before enlisting a lot of us were from the JC batch. We may have studied too much and have it bludgeoned into our minds that there is a method to everything. We followed formulas for everything, from maths problems to essay structures. Following a certain system was the safest way to attain your objective. And of course, those that followed this did well and those that tried skipping steps found themselves having a hard time explaining to their parents how it all went wrong. In army things didn’t quite run the same way. Going by the book was one thing, and you were applauded for that. But on the other hand this was not a realistic ideal, for following every single step, though meticulous, was often too time consuming and exhausting for every single last man to undergo. Giving real examples would be foolish, so an abstract example would be the parable of the punctured car tyre. A man driving home from work changes his punctured car tyre for a new one stored in his boot. While doing this he is careless and the 4 nuts that secure his tyre roll into a drain at the side of the road. He is no longer able to properly fit his last tyre into the axle. At this point the right thing to do would be to give up and call in the tow truck service and pay a hefty bill and waste a whole lot of time. But this man has an idea. He removes one bolt out of each of his three remaining tyres and screws them into the replacement tyre. Satisfied by this he continues driving his car with three nuts securing each tyre.He arrives at the nearest patrol kiosk to purchase his lost nuts. He saves a whole lot of unnecessary time and trouble though it probably wasn’t legal to drive with only three nuts securing each tyre.

Like this unfortunate (or some might say fortunate) driver, I believe we had to evolve from our previous mindsets to adapt to any situation or colossal hardships we were in. It is easy to assume that enlisting was like a punctured tyre on an otherwise smooth ride. It is even easier to assume that given the harshness of the situation, finding a shortcut out was how we spent most of our army lives, taking the “easy way out”. But to me this isn’t about taking the easy way out. This would mean a great injustice to our efforts. More than that, I believe it is about knowing when to treasure opportunities when they come and knowing how to weigh actions and consequences. The punctured tyre was an opportunity for the driver to exercise his creativity and wit just as how army has been our very own lesson in how to find the most efficient solutions to the most tedious problems. Perhaps this is a reminder how the world is like: harsh, open-ended and outcome driven. Veering off the beaten path to create your own trail may very well be the shortest route to your objective.

3. You can do a hundred things right, but one wrong move and your efforts will be for nought

Once upon a time I honestly believed that the world was a fair place. That it would weigh all the good things you did and balance it out with the bad, and if the bad didn’t tip the scales you were fine. My army experience put an end to that fantasy. One afternoon this September we found ourselves being punished severely, and by the end of it we were panting, our uniforms soaked in sweat. The reason? We were late to follow instructions. We were supposed to fulfil an obligatory duty that morning and we didn’t report on time. Punctuality was a pressing issue and our Sergeants always pushed us to do things on time. It had to be on this one day that we dropped the ball and let carelessness take the better of us. Furthermore, I remember how we spent the previous day thoroughly training our juniors, then cleaning our bunks meticulously. We tucked in our beds and wiped every fan blade clean. We aligned our shoes and dusted our lockers. We did so much to upkeep our appearances and standards and just like that, it was laid to waste. My very first thought was: we didn’t deserve such harsh punishment. It certainly didn’t make sense at first, but then my superior spoke to us after the whole thing. He gave us an example of the esteemed politician. He donates to charity and pays his taxes. He has a loving wife and holds her hand at every state function. He has three beautiful children. He has a firm leadership of his office and is well respected by the cabinet. Then one day you see him on the front pages, shamed for underage sex with a minor, removed from cabinet a few days later and forced to resign. His life work comes crashing down from one night of bad choices. We have to start seeing that the world out there doesn’t applaud us for the myriad of good things we accomplish, but waits for that one lonely mistake we make to swallow us into an abyss of shame and misery. As much as I hated it, I had to admit that my superior had a point there. I have learned that life is not a buffet of second chances. You don’t make mistakes out there in the real world and expect to see your teacher outside the staffroom after school.

4. Doing what you love/ being with the people you love is a privilege

I ran a lot before army after I graduated from JC and remember being my fittest in months right before army started. I was way too deep into the sport and ran way too much every week. You know that you really enjoy something when you’re certain that no one else in your shoes will. For a short while, I felt like I was in control of my life. Then army came along and everything got messed up. I didn’t run nearly as much anymore and there was this sour feeling of oppression within me for a few months. Running was one thing, but time away from family, friends and my bed added to the equation and resulted in some hardcore resentment for the system. Why couldn’t you be truly free to do what you loved, be it running, horse riding, soccer, judo, dance, model plane collecting and what not? And why can’t you spend time with family and loved ones as and when you like? Being young I often felt entitled to a lot of things, especially in the department of “discovering your passions”. Army woke me up to the reality that loving something or someone doesn’t entitle you to their presence in your lives. The moment I stopped seeing these things as an entitlement and rather as a privilege I started to feel less annoyed at army and focused on how I could treasure my time doing what I love and being with the people I love. I believe that through this, the depth and quality of your passion deepens. A lot of my book outs were only 30 hours long but I managed to eat with my family, go for a long run, meet my friends and sleep on my own bed. The limited free time I had reassured me that these were the priorities in my life and filtered out the less important things I had been wasting my time on. In the end, it helped me reaffirm my love for people and things instead of push me away from them. There is great beauty in such irony.

5. It ain’t over till its over

My attitude before army happened was pretty sloppy and half-assed, especially towards the things I was not interested in. Then army came along and I had a problem: I was not interested in anything. Everything felt so pointless so my very first thought in army was very likely to be I wish this would be over. So I motivated myself with a thousand mini checkpoints to convince myself that at each endpoint came the end of a certain phase of suffering that would never be revisited again. There was POP, the end of BMT. Then there was the end of local outfields, the end of overseas jungle training, turning operational. The end of our annual assessment (also fought overseas), the end of our reservist requirement training. Our last route march, our last fall in, our last outfield, our last live firing, our last cookhouse meal, our last parade. There were a lot of ends but these ends were largely made up to motivate myself so I wouldn’t give up. It works well, but this had one crippling side effect: the end of one thing allowed me to drop my guard and feel a false sense of relief before it hit me full on that it wasn’t the end. With every small triumph came a lull period followed by more misery. It wasn’t over and would never be until I get my pink IC back. It reminded me of what Yogi Berra once said, that it ain’t over till it’s over. Forgive the cliche, but I guess that’s just life. It will not loosen its grip on you until it is truly over. Even after army there will be university, work, marriage, family, taxes and then God knows what. My two years convinced me that there will never be an end to your trails in this life so maybe it would be better to stop focusing on the “end” but to stop looking at the clock and just live in every moment. I had my own reflections and opinions about these things to make better sense of what I’ve been going through instead of blindly resenting every last moment and wishing it to be over. If there’s one takeaway from this graduation period, it’s that no matter how hard you try (or don’t try), this too shall pass. It always does. It’s just up to you to savour the memories.

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ORD LO!

We Sing, We Dance, We Write Things

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17th of November 2014 at Star Vista Performing Arts Centre

I just came back from watching the second Jason Mraz concert in my life, and what can I say? The man has done it again, with a performance as good if not better than the last time I saw him in 2012. It was pretty good to put it mildly. He was funny, had an awesome band that tours with him and has vastly improved on his self image from the last time. And yes, his voice. It carves wisps of magic in the air and envelopes me in past memories and made me smile.

I have always been into Mraz. Since I’m Yours and Lucky came out I listened to him intently and this was back in secondary 2. Then I got his 2008 album we sing, we dance, we steal things. I got hooked onto the songs on that album and when I started my research on his previous studio albums I naturally went further and uncovered all his EPs and live albums. I knew there was no way back. I fell in love with his music.

This man started out as a romantic, and a really cool one as such. Yet there was a vulnerable side to him which I admired as well. He often went full confidence and happy ending-y on one song then went absolutely melancholic in another. He focused on his positivity as much as his down falls. He sang 1000 things tonight, which was a pleasant blast from the past about how a thousand things in a room wouldn’t distract him from the girl he loved. The song doesn’t have a firm resolution; you aren’t sure weather he gets this girl in the end but there are hints at romance fulfilled in how he is kisses her and she kisses him back. It sounds like things are getting on but that probably wasn’t the intention of the song. It portrayed more of the hope and optimism his adoration for a girl had granted him with, the same feelings that I felt listening to this as a young 15 year old in what I thought was love.

His other songs that brought me to places that I otherwise couldn’t have gone in my youth played on cue and I could feel myself mouthing out the words without really meaning to. It’s just that these words are deep in my memory. The desperation of Mr curiosity, the yearning to go out there and make it mine. The eagerness to watch things in my life unfold. The songs had this way of speaking to me in the past and they spoke to me now. The feelings that I felt and the comfort that I attained all came rushing back like blood into a numbed limb.

He talked a lot about his song writing process as well, which was something new coming from him. I never did think of him as a man with a pen but there he was talking about how it all came from experience. He said something along those lines: that the best thing you can do when you get writers block, is to write about writers block. Write about the struggle you face and what you experienced from it and you will  have your very own story to share. He said something close to that and as it turns out, Mr Curiosity was written during a period of his life that he felt ‘stuck’. It’s an interesting theory, and perhaps it is true in some cases. When we face a bump in the road we focus too much on how to get over the bump, rather than how the bump can help us grow as people. I may be totally misinterpreting the words he spoke but I hazard an intelligent guess that he was trying to get to that. You have to see your problems as opportunities instead of hindrances. That must have been one of his sources of great music.

He also kept emphasizing the imagery of the elusive rainbow over your bed. It’s not like I wake up every morning with a rainbow over my bed. The songs I write, however, often do feature this rainbow we all want to see, but sometimes I have to create it, because there are days when you can only see dark clouds, but then that’s when I get inspired to write about days when there isn’t this rainbow. It sounded so simple when he put it that way. Perhaps this rainbow was a metaphor for the positivity and goodness in life, and his songs do generally tend towards such an ideal. A lot of his new songs celebrate this ‘rainbow’ or at least the brilliant potential of it once you have it on your life.

But some of his songs do feature the dark clouds, and it’s really no surprise, for Mr. Mraz did consider suicide once in his career. I read in an article a few years ago that he couldn’t see any light at the end of his tunnel and felt that his illustrious career gave him little to no fulfillment. It may have been due to his breakup with his fiancée, a crushing blow to his romantic ideals that fuelled his earlier music. Or it could have just been a midlife crisis, but he did feel the darkness creep in once, and he saved himself through changing the style and theme of his music. He grew flowing locks and a beard. His songs featured deeper ideals of peace and staying together in times of trouble. He added a quarter cup of Bob Marley and a teaspoon of John Lennon to complement his romantic tendencies. He told the world that he wouldn’t be giving up, and how we should embrace the sunlight from 93 million miles away. He then marched on from there to produce his latest album; the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow titled YES! He picked himself up and wrote some great songs that came directly from how he felt and not what he wanted us to feel. That’s what I feel is so unique about this man. He doesn’t just write to please us and gain credibility. It’s almost as if he writes to catalogue his mindset at a certain phase in his life. He writes to tell himself that it is perfectly alright to feel human once in a while.

I’m not trying to advertise here, but all I can say is, this new album is worth a listen. It lacks the pop elements of the latest Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, or The Script albums, and doesn’t feature the intense range of Sam Smith. What it is, though, is a very down to earth, heartwarming plea to stay true to our roots. Back to the Earth , Quiet, and 3 Things questions the use of pursuing a materialistic and fast paced life. It encourages us to hang on to our roots in fast changing times and remember to acknowledge the people who have always been there for you. You can Rely on Me, Love someone and A World with You preaches not just a romantic relationship but deeper values like care for one another and having each others back in this world. All in all, what I feel is, while a lot of new music encourages listeners to get high and forget everything, Mraz is doing the exact opposite. He wants us to consider our values and slow down for a minute, to think about someone who cares about you and who you care about as well. To treasure your time and make the most of everything. That is something about this album that I have found invaluable.

During the concert he asks everyone to close their eyes and hum a tune. A soft and melodic tune that he leads us in. He talks of a rainbow again, and how he needs this rainbow in his life and lives positively to enforce this. That if you’re feeling down it’s best to find other people who feel down and be sad together and know you aren’t alone. It’s like a giant therapy session and though I am not in a particularly ‘dark’ period of my life I can appreciate where this is coming from.

This is a singer who has grown through the times. From when I first discovered him as a hopelessly naive 14 year old to now, a (slightly) more mature 20 year old, he has changed from the obsessed romantic to the active humanitarian, motivational speaker and fervent optimist. He has seen the highest heights and lowest depths. I feel like I didn’t just grow up with his songs, I grew up with his ideals as well. That is a connection that can’t be easily broken. Sure, I do bob my head and close my eyes and drift to different places to the new Maroon 5 singles and Echosmith is an up and coming band I enjoy. But nothing can give me the deep feeling of contentment I get from listening to Mr A-Z sing about his life.

The lights shine on Jason Mraz and his band, and they take their final bows. A few people stand up at first and before long the whole theatre is on their feet giving him a final standing ovation. He waves at us and the crowd gives the loudest cheer I can recall. I remember how he was barefoot in 2012 and had a head full of shaggy hair and a large beard. Here he was again, this time with nice shoes on and a clean shaven face with a neat haircut. He was crisp and came with an acoustic set as opposed to his rock and jazz set two years back. He could come again in the next 2, 6 even 10 years and have a dead racoon as a hat, and you can be sure I’ll still be there, listening to his stories and his path through life. And you can bet I will still be thinking; here is a man worth listening to.

Getting My Life Back

It all started in February 2013. they took my hair, and my free will. They controlled what went into my mouth, and took charge of the time I had with my family. And so it began on a very depressing tone. Punishments were meted out freely; praises and welfare was scarce. My world turned upside down without warning. One moment you were dancing among finely trimmed dandelion hedges and the next moment you were thrown into a wasteland of thorns and agony. You writhed and hoped that somebody could hear you, but you only heard the groans of those around you, twisting their scarred bodies in pain as well. An exaggeration perhaps, but we went through some tough times back then.

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My BMT Det! This was back in March 2013.

The defining moment for me back then was an arm injury that was awarded to me after BMT. It was as if someone up there saw me suffering and offered me a way out of this mess. Come on! Give up! you can scarcely raise up your arm and I’m sure the doctors have a very specific diagnosis for this kind of thing. You’ll be typing 60 words a minute like that clerk does in Fury! You will get a big part of your life back! Have you guys read or watched Cloud Atlas? That voice seemed to come from the green guy with the top hat, persuading me to drop my weapon and surrender. His words were so convincing, that it made everything I looked forward to seem worthless and naive. And so I took a real good breather and thought long and hard about this.

Of course in the end I chose to stay. Stupid arm injury. It couldn’t possibly bring me down, could it? I mean it’s totally worth risking long term arm injury and limitation in the range of arm movement just to stay in a combat vocation. It’s totally worth every ounce of exertion and drop of sweat, and so I ignored the doctors advice and the green man in the top hat. I stayed with what I felt was right. From that day, I made a choice. Putting things into perspective, some people have healthy bodies that don’t suffer any trace of injury after being rammed by a car, and they don’t have that choice. They can’t tell a doctor they’re injured and get out of their intense army business. They have to live with the bodies that they have been “blessed” with and soldier on. Weak and skinny people like myself, on the other hand, have that choice to opt out of this tough mess. It’s really easy to get injured carrying heavy stuff and jumping around like frogs all day when you’re of a smaller build, and that’s exactly what happened to me I suppose. But that aside, I chose to stay. I made a choice. And it was a choice I had to live with for the next one and a half years.

That was what drove me forward for a while. It was the fuel that would eventually run out, but it lasted long enough. It was the idea that it was my choice to go through this. I could have had my PES status reviewed and become a prim and proper 9-5’ver but here I was carrying a bag half my weight and running around trying to breathe properly. Life is so strange isn’t it? It offers you two contrasting choices but somehow you choose the absolute worst one in the pursuit of some fantasy.

It was that period when we had to go full army. Outfield after outfield came about and we had no rest. We booked out on Saturday afternoon and booked in on Sunday evening. In that short time we ate with our families and went Kbox with our friends. I didn’t want to post too much on social media about the extent of the hardship we went through primarily because there was’t much time to do so. But deep down I also knew that there would be no point in telling the world about our problems for the world’s pity couldn’t do a single thing to help our situation. We were in this alone together, and only we could truly help ourselves.

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KBox was a frequent thing back then even though book outs were only 30 hours long.

A change came over us. We complained a lot at first when things started to get tough. To complain is to hope for something to get better and actively voice out your displeasure when it doesn’t. We complained when lunch took 3 hours to arrive, or when we booked out at 1 am on a Saturday morning and when we had to tell our parents that we wouldn’t be home for dinner any time soon though they promised us that early book out. We complained until we were tired of complaining. We adapted to not care so much and realised that things would never change for us.  We took it all in and learned a valuable lesson that the things in life that you cannot control usually outnumber the things that you can.

Time passed from then to now, and I can say that I am finally getting my life back. It was a gradual process but now I can feel that it is in full swing. It started with the occasional Friday and Monday off, which introduced to us the concept of a 3-4 day work week. We were happy to accept these terms at first, and then when they gave us more, we wanted more. It’s like how dogs can only want more food when you give them some food. They wouldn’t be contented and sit back after a few dog biscuits. Human nature probably works in the same way. Give us an inch and we’d want a mile. We’ll expect things to get better and better until we get back what is rightfully ours; our civilian lives.

Then suddenly we had 2 day work weeks introduced to us and nights out that lasted 6 hours. We hardly ate the terrible cook house food anymore and started asking for book out timings on cool Monday mornings. That was when I realised that maybe, just maybe, we could actually be getting our lives back after all this time.

Because I do miss my former life deeply. I could sleep on a soft bed and wake up to my mothers’ voice telling me that I’ve slept enough. I could wear my slippers and get groceries, go for driving lessons, buy a KOI if I wanted to and know that I wasn’t going to be used by my nation to execute their will anytime soon. I could go for runs around my neighbourhood and beyond after I’ve fully recovered. I could go home and cook for my family now and then, meet people I haven’t seen in a while and read a book on my own bed by the end of it. Or I could just write a long post at a ridiculously late hour like I am doing right now. This is the kind of freedom that was unimaginable a year ago. And yet.

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Cafe hopping Thursdays

All these things that have been happening around my life recently fall nicely under the category of “should have been’s”. It should have been like this, I should have been at home all along or I should have been having dinner with my family all along. Where was I all this time as they sat around that dinner table without me? Sacrificing my time for a nation that loves me deeply? Could this nation love me as much as my family have? Sometimes I wonder. And of course, the answer is obvious. Like a pawn that gets eaten a tile away from being a queen, I always end up feeling like I have been used.

The weather has gotten considerably cooler and it reflects well of our mood during this period. A calm and sanguine demeanour has spread among us. We know the end is near and we have absolute confidence that it will end when it ends. We see within our sights not the end of pushups and outfields but the very end itself. We know we are getting our lives back, and for once we feel a hint of hope. And for once this hope doesn’t come with incessant complaining and self pity. It rains almost everyday now and with the rain comes December, and with December comes the day we leave this phase of our lives behind.

What happens next? During the recent movie Interstellar, Matthew Mcconaughey asks his robot sidekick this exact question after he is spit out of the black hole he was sucked into. What happens next? Who knows? In this black hole our protagonist experiences a relative change in space time. He spends only minutes inside but years pass on Earth. After being in my own black hole and watching a thousand lives pass me by, I am excited to be part of these lives again. The rainy season will pass and the sun will shine again, casting a spotlight upon us and with it a burning question: what are you doing with your life?

I hope that with my freedom will come good choices and a life lived to the fullest, and I wish this upon all my brothers as well.