5 Things I’ve Learnt from National Service


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.



6 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learnt from National Service

  1. Pingback: Taipei, part III: 4 Night Markets to Choose From | The Shallow Traveller

  2. Pingback: I Wrote a Post About NS, and This is What Happened | justinnonng

  3. Pingback: 5 Things I’ve Learnt from National Service | Epiphanies

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