I Wrote a Post About NS, and This is What Happened

One year ago today, the most peculiar thing happened.

I was on the brink of leaving my service in the army, when I published this post on the 5 things I’ve learnt from my national service.

It garnered some attention, and I have to say that it was a positive post on the most part. Hell, it was fun to write, and I felt that whilst writing it that perhaps not all was lost during those two years. I may have learnt a thing or two (5 was just an arbitrary number).

That was when things started to go wrong. I had a Whatsapp message from my superior, telling me that the post was getting unwanted attention and that I had to take it down. His line of argument was that some sensitive information about the training procedures and that some of the behaviour the men displayed in my post could not be revealed. All this happened within a day of the post being cast on the web, and the entire process was quick. I was ushered back to camp with frightening haste and I remembered feeling like it was all a mistake. What could my post do to the strong fabric of the armed forces, and what could this all mean to the future of this little space that I had carved out for myself?

On the way back to camp, I knew of two things. First was that my intention was never to reveal any secrets or to tarnish the name of the army. Remember that this was a positive post about what I’d learnt and it was a more or less enriching, coming-of-age sort of outline I wanted to carve. And I felt like I did it pretty succinctly too, one lesson leading up to the next, where a flow was well thought out from start to finish. Of course, that kind of subtlety fell short of any actual appreciation by this higher authority. Secondly, I found myself feeling unhappy that I had to remove the post. It was a post that was truthful. It held the actual contents of what we did, the things we went through and the pain that ensued. It was this pain, in its most raw form, that ultimately helped us grow stronger, closer and more cognisant of who we were as individuals and within a group. It was an accurate portrayal of what had happened, yet I started to realise that just because something was true doesn’t mean the world had to know about it. Or should I correct myself; it doesn’t mean the world should know about it. There’s a difference between the two, and the latter certainly implies more serious consequences.

I suddenly had a list of people to talk to. The entire power structure of the camp, from my batch mates to the camp commander, seemed to know of my post. One of my superiors showed me his Whatsapp chat with screenshots of my post passed around on the regulars group chat. If I hadn’t appreciated the power of words before that, I certainly appreciated it there and then. Words were powerful, and when used wrongly or concisely (and in this case, both) can make men with lofty ranks and well-ironed uniforms shudder. Words have the ability to disassemble, reassemble and make what was once known feel inconsequential or thrust them under different filters of light. It reveals and conceals, fights and defends. Such is the power of words.

I’m not saying all this out of thin air, though it may seem that way. From what the superiors told me about that post, I was convinced time and again on two conflicting trains of thought. First was that my post was pretty awesome for having caused all this mayhem within a well organised system, and second that my post was the silliest thing I could have published due to the unnecessary chaos that ensued. Here’s what I mean.

From a very practical perspective, I should never have posted that post. I should never even have made any changes. I should have taken that post down. It was silly. I was silly. My post did nothing to change the system. It was but water under the bridge once I had it removed, with many levels of the age old hierarchy breathing a mighty sigh of relief. They told me of the logic simply. There were state secrets in the posts, descriptions of army trainings, overseas training locations and silly one liners about how the way of life was within the unit. Secondly they took issue with a particular incident of troop misbehaviour that I described at length. I felt that this particular incident was important, but they maintained that it would erode the unit’s reputation. The thing is, everyone within every unit knows that every unit probably has its own form of misdemeanour and sloppiness observed amongst the troops. I mean, come on. When you enlist 25,000 young men a year against their will, you can bet that a good portion of them will break some of the rules. Everyone knows these things, but for the life of them this had to be an unspoken truth. No one was actually going to write a well-organised, sufficiently thought out post that people would take seriously. Until I tried to, and found out why these things are only mentioned in passing on anonymous NS confessions pages.

Which is precisely why I felt that I should have posted that post. I regret taking that post down for those few days, but it’s easy to say such things when you look back. I had to talk to so many superiors that day and one thing was clear: the position they held over what should have been done was still in contention. One of them asked if I had taken the post down and when I told him “Yes sir, I have.” he looked at me incredulously and said “Boy, you shouldn’t have. I see nothing wrong with your post.” On the other hand, the camp commander spoke firmly to me, telling me things involving state security and reputation. I nodded along. He spoke in very fluent English with a deep voice, and I respected his authority. My point here is that there must have been some sort of active discourse amongst the guys up there over this. There must have been those that felt that there was nothing wrong with it, but ultimately someone in the force had to put their foot down and say “no, remove that” and it just so happens that the guy with the higher rank gets the most say. I intended for none of this, but all the better that it happened.

But other than some in-camp discussions and frantic attempts to snuff out my post, I felt that the main thing that was compromised that day was the truth. My point of contention was whether the facade the formation tried to keep up was more important than the truth. The answer still lies in a grey area for me. It really led me to question whether certain things could ever be known to the world, and whether what we saw on the media was only there after layer upon layer of heavy filtering and proofreading. I’m not saying that these practices are bad, I’m just wondering whether there’s ever a way to distinguish between gross misrepresentation and a “constructed truth”. I should have been more rigorous that day. I should have edited the post and saw it for the sensitivities it neglected and the inconvenient truths it espoused. In many ways I regret not doing so. But when I wrote the post that day I did not aim to have any filters. Whatever came out was the truth. I set out not to cause a uproar amongst the superiors, not to garner popularity, not to manoeuvre my way around what could or couldn’t be written. I set out to write a good post. That was all I wanted and I felt that telling the story as it was, to tell the truth, was the best way to achieve that. Too bad it doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to.

Nevertheless, what happened that day didn’t discourage me from writing. In fact, I wrote a lot more after that, thinking my way around each post and finding new life from the words that sprung from the keyboard. One of my superiors encouraged me to revisit the post, edit it and put it up again. And that was just what I did. Having so many mixed reviews and conflicting pieces of advice was what made me feel like the entire post was worth it. From people telling me to take it down immediately to those who told me they saw nothing wrong with the post, I felt like my writing achieved a plurality of ambiguous sentiments, from the outright slammers to those that encouraged. It provoked discussion. It made people scratch their heads. Most importantly, it gave people a faint notion of the inconveniences, the triumphs and the pain that came with serving the nation.

It attacked, defended, and united. That’s what every good piece of writing should aim to achieve.

 

3 thoughts on “I Wrote a Post About NS, and This is What Happened

  1. Justin! The exact same thing happened to my post, “I’m not pro-PAP, I’m pro-Singapore”. One of my superiors came up to me and told me to take it down, showing me messages from his friend from MSD and a couple of other comments. He had 2 main concerns:
    (1) The “unnecessary attention” that it was garnering and how it would compromise our security
    (2) My reputation among my colleagues, since I’m a regular
    It really affected me for a couple of days as well, with advice from both sides, and wondering if the post was a mistake. In the end, I decided not to take it down. I told him that I’ve not done anything to compromise the armed forces’ security (that’s my first priority) and anything that was dug up by netizens was from open source. Regarding my reputation, I told him that my beliefs (in freedom of well-informed speech) are more important and I don’t wanna show my readers that I contradict what I believe in. Furthermore, I had received mostly positive comments from my colleagues. I was honestly biting my lips after sending that message – it could go absolutely wrong. Thank God he was kind and respected my decision; I heaved out a huge sigh of relief. If you had done what I did, the consequences might have been entirely different for you – probably worse, I don’t know. In any case, I’m really encouraged by your post, how you didn’t allow this incident the discourage you from writing and how you decided to edit it and put it up again! I shared this just to show that I can relate, and that writing/expressing yourself freely is definitely something worth fighting for. Not only does a soldier experience inconveniences in serving the nation, but so does a writer in a society where every little thing seems like a taboo.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Melody!
      I feel that your job scope puts you in a very unique position where you are caught in between whether what you write represents yourself or the institution. Here we have a fine line between what we represent on our little spaces, and being in uni sort of helps me to be more free in posting I guess. But what you’d come to realise is that freedom is largely imagined. I feel like we are a combination of different influences both from the people we meet and the places we are from. I think the creativity to navigate the different sensitivities and post wisely is the ultimate hallmark of effective expression. You can create discussion and fight for what you believe in, but you need to know which battles are worth fighting for and you need to be progressive in your expression, not regressive. If you have a talent in writing then it’s your responsibility to use it wisely. Freedom is nice, but holding high standards for yourself is better, and above all you should know that there are lines that must be treaded with care. I found it out the hard way and I fully agreed with the rationale of the camp commanders at that time. I only realised after that that they had no control over whether I was going to take it down, but were just hoping that I did, which I did but who knows what would happen if I didn’t? I still wonder to this day.

      Also, I hate it when people use the term “unnecessary attention”. I feel that it is attention that generates discourse, and those that casually say that such attention is unnecessary are either too lazy to participate in discussion or are afraid to. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much discussion, and in fact for a country like Singapore truer words could not be said. I think we’ve become lazy and complacent, and we need this discussion to cast certain issues under the spotlight and to help us appreciate the sort of society we live in.

      Oh yes, nice to see that you’re doing well in UK!!

      Like

    • I commend both of you for writing about what have long been out-of-bounds topics. I’m reminded of a post written by a SAF regular Choy Yong Chong a while ago following the unfair criticism a lady laid against NSmen. He signed off as OC of 4 SIR. I’d never seen this happen before. I wondered then if he got into any trouble for doing so, even though his post was positive and very well-written.

      The inconvenience/trouble you’ve found yourselves in is largely a function of military culture, where the sharing of information, regardless of its type or intention, has traditionally been conducted under a need to know basis. “Operational security,” of course, has been the key justification, and not without grounds. The Israeli Defence Force has had to cancel operations because of sensitive information inadvertently revealed via a seemingly innocuous social media post by soldiers involved in those operations. As unintended consequences are by definition difficult to anticipate and therefore manage, the response has always been a rather heavy-handed blanket ruling against public posting of anything.

      But the world has changed, and a more deft hand is needed in managing what soldiers say publicly. They can be ambassadors for the armed forces, as well as defence policy, which could have the very powerful strategic effect of boosting society’s commitment to defence. The effect is amplified when they write sincerely in their individual capacities, and not as a spokesperson for the armed forces. Should op-sec concerns override this very powerful, and even necessary, strategic tool?

      My sense is the SAF is still trying to figure out how to come up with practicable guidelines that are fair and transparent. It’s become a lot less rigid but this is new ground for them (and us all, actually). For them, the issue of freedom of speech and personnel is quite a big can of worms. Op-sec remains a concern as it’s not always obvious how and why a seemingly mundane bit of info could be sensitive. If they allow servicemen (and women) to write in their personal capacities, the organisation will plausibly have to allow both good and bad views to be aired. And there might then be the fear that just like compliments and complaints, the latter tend to be more numerous than the former here.

      I suppose education to develop a level of maturity is key here. Education and operational security concerns would be obvious. But also education on how to be mature and balanced in one’s presentation of views. Education also should go both ways – senior officers should have the maturity to recognise that views that run contrarian to their own could still be fair. Any point of view should be appreciated as long as its grounded in sound logic and strong evidence.

      That being said, education should also include a reminder of the uniqueness of the military profession, that it can never be “flat” like the hierarchies of other organisations. Every view should matter, but they do not all count equally. Just because a stronger argument can be made does not necessarily mean it’s the correct one in the wider context. An appreciation of a point of view does not necessarily mean it has to be acted on. Obedience is also very much a key characteristic of the armed forces. There must be faith and respect of the hierarchy, and an acceptance (but not resignation) of one’s position in the organisation. An old US Army NCO once said that he felt professionalism meant being 100% honest when his superior asked for his opinion, and giving 150% in carrying out the order eventually given.

      Perhaps the golden rule is subordinates shouldn’t think themselves smarter than their leaders, nor should leaders think opinionated subordinates are automatically troublemakers. There has to be mutual trust.

      I’d like to share 2 links which I think are relevant to this topic. The first is a short speech by retired US General Stanley McChrystal on why sharing of information is important. The same broad principles could apply to allowing servicemen (and women) to air their points of view.

      Closer to home, the second link is a short point of view by then-MAJ Alfred Fox (he’s now a COL) on the importance of having an opinion, even ones that run against the typical grain. He wrote it in 2006 but it’s still relevant.

      http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/publications/pointer/journals/2004/v30n1/viewpoints.print.html?Status=1

      Keep writing!

      Like

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