Reservist Diaries (1/8)

I just returned from my first of eight reservist cycles. This one lasted for a week, where I was ushered into camp last Monday and just got out earlier today. I had a lot of thoughts, some less pleasant than others and I wrote a lot of them down as I went along, mostly at night before I went to sleep. 

Here’s most of it; some reconstructed from memory, but fully honest. 


Day 1

Hello,

Today was strange because I left my wallet at home as I was on the way to camp and my friend had to turn back to get it and I was late for 20 minutes. When we did arrive and I saw everyone again it started to dawn on me that I hadn’t seen the boys for about one and a half years? Well, at least most of them. We hear horror stories of fat and decomposing reservist men but it turns out one and a half years wasn’t enough for any significant makeovers. Everyone looked largely the same. For that, I was strangely glad.

Time passed leisurely, with nothing being accomplished anytime soon. We waited to move and moved to wait. The cookhouse went underground and the food tasted better than I last remembered. The curry chicken reminded me of BMT which didn’t inspire any other emotion, only the thought that I was eating far less rice than I used to. We talked as we waited, talked as we marched and even surprised ourselves by taking over a senior company by jogging past them. Little was left unsaid at the end of the day, and that’s sometimes rare with a band of brothers. But we’ve got each other’s backs, all of us.

In the evening I fell sick as I was going for a nights out, and I realised that perhaps it would be wise to go home. As I lie on my own bed and feel the softness of it, it dawns upon me that this is the first time I have ever stayed out of camp within my stipulated time of service. That the warm nights and cold showers, deep conversations and late night suppers, they all had nothing to do with the notion of home as I knew now. But then again, no. It was the people that made up my 2 year journey; It was for them that I knew I was home.

Cheers,


Day 2

Hello,

I’m at the second day of reservist now, kind of expected it to be easy but not quite this easy. What we’ve been doing most of the time has been waiting around, hoping that time would go on so that we can drag our bodies across the line and go out at night.

There’s nothing overly negative about this experience, because everywhere we look feels like an obstacle overcome. I see the exact parade square where we spent hours on under the hot sun repeating drills that felt meaningless, the roads where we marched down, singing songs that weren’t on billboard top 100, the cookhouse that served food that wasn’t Instagram worthy and the rifle they forced upon us like an arranged marriage. It overwhelms me because a few years ago we were here in this camp as recruits who knew no better, who only hoped for the easy way out of things , but never got it. Since we have it now, treasuring our liberties is the least we can do.

Cheers,


Day 3

Hello,

Wednesday passed in a blur. We ate porridge for breakfast and curry chicken for lunch. I am still sick and attempting to recuperate as soon as possible but it isn’t easy. I did have the time to go for a run late in the afternoon and it was amazing. I don’t think many people will share how I feel about this, but something about running through a camp that used to trap you for weeks on end is nothing short of liberating. Besides, this was the same camp where I had run some of my best timings, and having the wind blow in my face from the sea that borders the camp, looking past the fence that prevents us from jumping into the great unknown, it made me forget about the yearlong injury that plagued me. I was 18 and fast again. As I looked on at the grey of the ocean that met the sky,  the cool post-rain air blew gently at my face and I felt an utter calm that almost whispered to me the same thing that it whispered to me 3 years ago: that better days are yet to come.

Cheers,


Day 4

Hello,

Today was a rather fruitful day for me. We started off doing a biathlon workout, with both running and swimming. I remember a time when I was a much weaker swimmer. I would get myself from one end to the other and almost collapse from exhaustion. Of course, I’ve been swimming much more nowadays, all thanks to certain obligations during year two of army. Obviously I was still much slower on the swim end, but overall I think I did quite well for the run. I still feel like my legs possess some speed, and to me that’s the least I can ask for as I build up in the coming months for greater things!

And sure enough one of the regulars approached after the workout to ask if I could join the formation running team for the army half marathon; which I duly complied. This was the team that I missed out on 2 years ago due to injury. I guess these things go full circle if you have the patience to wait your turn. From how I see it, this is an opportunity that came my way without me actually reaching for it, and for that I am very grateful. I can only hope that injuries don’t come creeping back, that I keep finding new reasons to run, new timings to meet.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer everyday that this is what I was meant to do.

Cheers,


Day 5

Hello,

Today marks the end of my first reservist cycle, a whole one and a half years after my NSF life ended. We had a buffet and they even booked an entire cinema to screen a movie. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever been forced to eat a buffet and watch a movie, though no one’s complaining.

Seeing everyone laughing and smiling, it almost feels as if the one and a half years between us seeing each other again never happened. It feels like we pressed un-pause, and my uni life, my holidays to the handful of different countries; it felt like none of that happened after all. That what seemed to be progress was just me blindly searching for myself under the illusion of moving on. But do we ever move on, is the question I continue to ask myself as the days passed and we still found old memories to dredge up, still found ourselves enmeshed in bonds almost impossible to break. I have very much grounded myself in the people that have followed me on this journey, and it is a bond that I am hesitant to say I can ever move on from.

Time stretches and compresses according to where we are, our perception of it emphasised at the point we stand rather than what is actually significant. Time doesn’t discriminate, but merely moves on. Our past and perhaps even future experiences lie at the peripheries, always diminished, whilst our current position feels magnified. Reservist has magnified my two years in army, brought me back to where I was as a bald nineteen year old and flustered twenty year old. I have lost a lot but gained a lot as well. It is in this giving and taking that I had eventually grown. I learned to express myself to an empty audience, living out long lonely nights writing fearlessly, recklessly and unapologetically. I have learned that the will to carry on will always triumph as long as I am alive.

Most of all, I have learned that no man stands alone. That it is the people that we fight alongside that makes moving on possible. I would surely have perished if I had to go on this journey alone. I knew that from the start and I know that for sure now, that in every last conversation, every little silly inside joke lies the reminder of who we once were, and the ways we chose to deal with our trials.

The triumph then, isn’t the actual triumph. The triumph was the people I met along the way.

See you guys next year, and perhaps in between as well.

Cheers,


 

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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.

 

We Fight for the Nation, But Who Fights for Us?

SAF day was actually quite a few days ago, and I wrote a post on that day, only to delete it. That post simply wasn’t good enough to show you guys the true essence of serving the nation, and all the burdens it foretold. So here’s another attempt. Lets get away from the typical army rant, and focus on what actually happens in the course of two years. These four short excerpts are actually surprisingly commonplace examples, and anyone who has served has probably heard of or even been in the following situations. So do take some time to appreciate them! 

* * *

It is deep in the jungle. Nabil has been sitting at the same spot, waiting for the convoy to pick him up. His uniform is dripping wet, wrecked by last night’s rain and horrendous humidity. He is waiting, aimlessly, for nothing to happen. He smells like a stale kitchen rag. His stomach growls. His buddy is asleep, gone to another world, his rifle by his side and field pack laid out neatly beside him. He uses the protruding root as a pillow, exhaustion prompting such a desperate choice. A thought fills Nabil’s mind, I need to eat. He is starving, and feels like he is about to faint. He knows he shouldn’t be eating. It was the sacred month. He had already finished all his rations last night, chewing mouthfuls of dry biscuit voraciously. But no, he thinks to himself, I am about to faint, any more of this and I won’t even make it to tonight. His stomach growls again, he feels light headed and inadequate. The cold was beginning to make him shiver. He looks over at his buddy’s bag. He knows exactly where he keeps his food, and knows that somewhere in there lay a pack of butter flavoured biscuits. He reaches over, and rummages through the bag. If I do this quickly, no one would ever know.

* * *

Jin Hong wasn’t used to this at all. He choked in between puffs, but he was persistent. He needed to relax, and his platoon mates (those that smoked) looked so relaxed doing this. He needed to get used to this. He thought about his last book out. It was supposed to be simple. They made each other a promise, that she was going to stay with him through this tough time. It was supposed to be like some sick Fault in our Stars plot. They would be there for each other! She promised! Why then, why did she leave? Why was it, that on a rainy Saturday evening along a quiet walkway, she let go of his hand? Why did she let go and tell him that they needed some time to themselves? He took another puff and coughed harder all at once. He could feel his insides groaning for some sort of reprieve. But I don’t need reprieve, he thought. Maybe if he smoked enough, this poison would drive out the thought of her, of the words she had said before they shaved his head. Maybe.

* * *

Shawn gripped his rifle harder, and looked straight ahead. A car stops by the guardhouse, and he notices that there is a red car sticker on the front window. Following routine, he salutes by raising his rifle to his eyes. The car stops beside him, and the window winds down. It is the chief of the camp. Shawn doesn’t know what to do, so he stays still. “Put your weapon down, recruit,” orders the chief. He sticks his hand out of the car as a friendly gesture. “Thank you for serving the nation during this Chinese New Year.” Shawn awkwardly steps forward and shakes the chiefs hand. “It’s ok, Sir.” Sean says this without betraying any sense of revulsion and contempt, because how was any of this ok? How was it ok that his family would not have him there, that there would be one vacant seat at the dinner table, a million questions asked and his mother hurriedly explaining to everyone that he had this absurd thing called guard duty to perform. How was it ok that his relatives hardly got to see him, and the one day in the year that they could, he is cruelly denied? No sir, he thought, save your thanks. I didn’t choose to serve this nation, and if you can, for one minute, believe that i’m ok with this, you must be as brainwashed as the people who put me here. 

The car drives away, leaving Shawn standing there, a mere instalment in an otherwise empty camp.

* * *

Alvin looks over at his bunkmate as he tosses in his sleep. As the fans rotate above, he stares adoringly at the shape of his body, and the curves of his face. It was a tranquil look, and made his heart skip a beat. The entire bunk was thick with sleep. At that moment, he felt something more than friendship. He already knew that this would happen, but how could he declare anything? No one would understand, less his parents. Hell, even he couldn’t accept himself! He sat there, nursing these thoughts. These feelings are real. That much he knew. He also knew how the entire world painted such emotions and tendencies. Disgust, fury, blatant rejection. The law was one thing, but to be an outcast, an alien from the norm? He certainly couldn’t deal with that. But in between his ears, in that little space called his brain, he knew his feelings to be true. He knew them to hold weight, and with that, he knew he would be burdened forever, down to the very core of his soul.

* * *

What I’m trying to show with the above examples is, that the fight to defend our nation isn’t the only battle we face when we, as guys, head into the army. There is also another unspoken battle that we often ignore, that is, the battle to not lose ourselves. You could even paraphrase this as the battle to find out who we truly are. It is easy to shrug it off and believe that after two years you “grow as a person” or “do some cool shit” but let’s look at ourselves a little harder, and ask ourselves: have our experiences changed us into something we didn’t want to be? Have we entered this journey called NS with certain ideals, promises and hopes, only to have them shattered, or at least obstinately challenged? The struggle inside our heads is always the hardest to identify, and even harder to acknowledge, and I hope the above examples have helped you gain a better understanding of our (or perhaps your) struggle in facing yourself out there. 

A Letter to my Newly Freed self

Hey you,

Congratulations. You’ve made it. I mean, I’ve seen how you were like just a year ago; aching with longing, hopes and dreams of being free. Hopes that were dashed, dreams shattered, freedom deemed an illusion. Well, not any more. Here you are, a free man. Put your hands in front of you and take a good look at them. These are the hands that have been through things sworn to secrecy, things not anybody could have comfortably gone through. Best of all; these hands are real, and in fact you are real; you are free. And it feels good, doesn’t it. Trust me, I would know. I am you after all, so I know exactly how you feel. I have lived through every last afterthought, wrestled with every spent emotion. And trust me, you feel great.

Now you have a job. Being free may mean a lot of things to you, but to me it doesn’t mean you simply drift into the wind and dissolve into the cool air. It means way more than that. It means you start to take charge of who you are, the person you want to be. You start to embrace the control you have over you. Do what you love, that is my first piece of advice to you. Do what you love and don’t compromise for anything less. You’ve done more than enough of that already. If you love to write, write. If you love to draw, draw. If you love exploring caves and climbing mountains, book a flight out of Singapore NOW. If you love climbing trees, go find a tree and get some harnesses. If you love to roll around in the mud, roll around in the mud (or on second thoughts, don’t). Find something you love, and just pursue it relentlessly as if the world would be a harsher place if you didn’t.

Explore the world! Regardless of whether you love travelling or not, you have to explore the world. Oh no! you may scream but this conflicts slightly with doing what you love but I’m not interested in listening to your excuses. You need to travel, and it is a need. It is therapy for the oppressed, the remedy for wanderlust, the window to the world. You can’t possibly not love that. Step out into colder air, feel your skin dry up and your lips crack. Try foreign coffees, beer, sausages, sweetbreads, spices followed by a lot of water. Even water tastes different overseas if you try hard enough. Run through museums, theme parks, farmland, jungle, old streets, skyscrapers, hills with great views, mountains with greater views, castles, villages, wells, coin fountains and churches. Take a thousand pictures and post ten of them. Have a travel journal if it helps you appreciate things, don’t have one if it doesn’t. Live out the dreams you dreamt in the past. See the world, and see it not for any greater purpose. See it for the sake of seeing it. Thats what being young and free permits you to do.

Take the risks and make plans that you never dared to in the past. You’re free now so nothing is realistically holding you back. You can no longer use your lack of freedom as an excuse for anything: the whole world knows that you’re a fish let out into the open sea. But this is not about the world, because truthfully, you don’t have to take risks, I’m just saying that now is the best time to. You won’t ever find so much time again in your lives, so much time to explore what you really want. Go for that job interview, start that fitness regime, go for that bungee jump or if you’re really brave; confess your love for someone. Whatever the outcome, good or bad, time will be your friend. There will be time to work towards your goals and there will be time to recover from failure (unless your bungee cord snaps, of course). This is your time to explore not just the world outside, but the world within you as well. Don’t waste it.

You were young and you still are. The young should be free and though that wasn’t a reality back then, it sure is now. Don’t forget that, liven up! Don’t feel sulky and disheartened anymore, and stop being tired of things. Now is the worst time to let tiredness seep in, to let the grown-up in you steal away from your experiences. You must hold on to the hope you had stored up all this time and saturate your very being in the realisation of these hopes. Thoughts like this is overratedwhy am I doing this, what’s next? and worst of all, I’m too old for this should never find their way to you in whatever you do. Absolve to never be tired of anything, to never complain of tiredness and to always try new things. You are free and you are finally doing what you want. If that doesn’t give you a sudden surge of energy, I don’t know what will.

I think I’ve almost said enough! As a parting word, remember, remember, remember: don’t take this freedom for granted. It is as beautiful as it is fragile. Off you go now, the world is waiting.

Cheers,

My newly freed self

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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!

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.

Of Outfields and Men

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Coming back today from this exercise marks the end of our very last outfield, or so they tell us. But I’ll just assume it is true, because the end is an important point in which to organise my thoughts on this.

This outfield was interesting. We firstly had to find a path through jungle, then through a canal under a main road, then more jungle, then under a highway, then up a hill, into a small plantation. From there we moved into the objective by doing some stuff I’m pretty sure was illegal; but in any case it got the job done. The planning and execution took exactly 24 hours,  all spent without sleep and with constant effort. At the end of it our boots were soaking wet as were our uniforms. We smelled like gym socks and we were knocking out where we sat.

After all that there was not only the realization that this was the last one (could it really be?) but also that this mission that seemed tough when you list it out wasn’t nearly as tough as the things we had already gone through. A lot went through my mind the whole time; of all the outfield experiences, of which some stuck out prominently like a shark out of water.

As I was waiting to attack at 3:30 AM, my mind wandered to our very first outfield. The one we had during BMT. It was similar to the one they showed in the Ah Boys to Men series except there were some elements of that particular outfield that were more hardcore than in the movie. We were just 3 weeks into our tour as soldiers and we did so much during those few days in the jungles, that it shocked us into finally accepting that we no longer owned our bodies. We were introduced to physical exhaustion and raving hunger. We learnt of the nature all around that cared more about itself than us, and we accepted that things were not going to change for us—and that eventually we would have to change for them.

This first outfield was the most miserable one, like how first dates are usually the most awkward. I was missing people, missing simple comforts and missing all I once was. Just like in the movie, our parents letter did arrive and we got them one by one, that reminder of who we were and what we were fighting for. I was proud to be there, suffering so my family could apparently sleep soundly at night. We all sat on the dry sandy ground under the spotlights, reading these letters. Some of us sobbed, others looked dazed yet a few smiled quietly. It wasn’t just a single emotion that was brought out into the world, because all of us had our own way of dealing with what our parents had to say. There was definitely self pity, people wishing they could go back to how it once was, wanting so badly to immerse in the past. There was also yearning and hope for the future, knowing that this too shall pass. The only common understanding was: no one wanted to be stuck in the present. And that was all that made my first outfield experience so miserable: I would have traded the world to be somewhere else, doing something else.

As our time in army elapsed we gathered outfield after outfield under our belts. As it turned out, things could only get tougher for us. Even so, we didn’t become more miserable. I don’t think we ever stopped wanting to be in that elusive “somewhere else” the whole time, because there was always somewhere better to be. We just accepted that it was never going to happen. Every experience hit us like an egg hitting a fan blade, you knew what was going to happen but it still shocks you that such a mess had to be created.

The process of acceptance was a gradual one. Like I said before you start by rationalizing with lofty ideals like the protection of your home or national pride. This couldn’t last because you start taking these ideals for granted after a while. You could report sick and miss a week in camp and your family still came home to you every night. You start to see how these ideals had no physical weight to them. They were like puffs of smoke in the air, it only took a light breeze to dispel them.

We became less miserable because we started focusing on the little things. I remember our last mission in Singapore before we went crazy in Brunei. We were waiting at the roadside after 4 days of fighting in the jungles, and we had just waded through waist deep water to discover it was the wrong path all along. It should have been sheer misery, but in a strange way, we made the suffering our own. We created a verbal list of foods we missed back home and described the noise it made as we chewed down on it. We laughed about this in the dark. We didn’t even discuss the taste or the significance of these imaginary meals. We turned our hardship into a platform to appreciate every last thing we had taken for granted our whole lives. Once you reach that state, when the sound of your teeth munching down on soft white bread followed by a succulent beef patty can make you giggle, you certainly don’t need assurance from your nation that people are “proud of you” or what not.

And then came Brunei late last year. It was such pain and torture, to be frank. The weather there flitted between extreme heat to flooding rains. There were hardly any in-betweens. The jungle was ancient and everything was on upsize. It was like Brunei paid an extra fifty cents at the MacDonald’s counter. There were trees the thickness of a SBS buses that rose from the ground, towering above us and reaching the height of 12 storey HDB flats. Ants were the size of your average Singapore cockroach and there were huge insects called cicadas the size of teacup saucers. The terrain was as erratic as the weather; undulating knolls greeted our every step, the valleys in between demarcated by gentle flowing streams that did just enough to soak our feet. It was sheer misery in the day but at night the safety regulations meant we had to find a clearing and harbour. We cherished those nights more than anything. Our tired legs could finally get rest, we could hang our wet uniforms and take off our boots to examine our wrinkled feet.

We normally set a fire with dried twigs and branches, and sat around it laughing and talking. We did a lot of things to keep comfortable. In a few hours the sunlight would shine upon us and expose us to the reality of our situation: the surrounding jungle and the kilometers that awaited. But in the darkness we were safe, the light from the campfire could only reach the trees in the immediate area and we felt very much in our own world. I could safely think of home and all it meant without the discomfort of the elements. Provided it didn’t rain, the weather under the canopy was cool, and the mosquitoes, ants and bees seemed to cherish their sleep as well so those nights passed in relatively undisturbed comfort.

The night kept us sane. Because in the day the struggle was real. We would walk a few hundred meters and hear over the signal set that another team had to stop because someone had been stung by a wasp, or had sprained a leg, or had an involuntary full-body muscle spasm due to exhaustion. It was terrifying because you didn’t know if your team, or even you, would be next. Thankfully we only suffered some leg cramps and a minor sprain ankle in the end; that was lucky with all things considered.

That was how most of the guys in the company survived Brunei: with some luck and a lot of positive thinking. Most of us successfully dodged the rainy nights, sprained ankles, heat exhaustion and rotten toes. There were tears shed, spirits pushed to the limit and an immense longing for home towards the end. We felt like flaccid sugar cane stalks fully exhausted of their juice. There was little to nothing left to give but we went into the machine again and again hoping to find more.

Brunei pushed us in that way and I have to say that while it is sad that we wasted a part of our youth exploring the edge of the earth, I did appreciate that I completed it anyway. I can’t properly explain why and this is probably a naive thought but it just felt like something I had to do in order to feel some sense of completion in my army life.

When we passed out from our vocation we were swiftly trained to take on Taiwan. I know what you’re thinking: it never ends for us and you’d be right to assume that. The promise of the end brought about new tumultuous beginnings. I was tasked to be in a high stress role during missions—that of which the small group of us had to lead a body of men through the dark into the enemy land. One misstep and everything we worked for would be in vain and our positions would be exposed. In other words there was real pressure on us.

Taiwan reared its ugly head and we dove in head first, being the first few to enter the jungles and to try figure them out. If my first few outfields were miserable and Brunei was tough, the Taiwan outfields were that of stress. If stress was Ribena syrup, I was drinking it straight from the bottle. My team had to consider a lot of things before the main body of troops came in. Like Brunei, Taiwan featured undulating terrain but unlike Brunei, it was interspersed with scores of plantations. Mangoes, pineapples, onions and water apples. It sort of started making sense how supermarkets could top up on produce everyday. We needed a path through these hills, while avoiding civilian plantations and staying undetected by the enemy. To spoil the party there were uncrossable water bodies, broken bridges, antenna towers and a lack of confidence in our abilities.

One moment we were clearing a path to the top of a hill, then we had to guide a whole company up that hill, into the objective, fight with them and deliver the casualties down the hill after the fight. The pressure on us couldn’t have been higher. One thing was constantly on my mind: everything the men trained for would be for nought if we messed up here. So messing up wasn’t something you simply avoided, it shouldn’t even be part of the spectrum of possibilities. You either performed OK or surpassed expectations, but one thing was clear: messing up was not an option.

It wasn’t a hopeless situation; the weather there helped a lot for it was a dry 15-25 degrees in the day. We could move comfortably without feeling the heat build up within our uniforms. It was more comfortable than Singapore and Brunei in that sense. However there were no breaks at night like there were in Brunei so we worked through the nights with minimal sleep, where the cold was blatant. We had to be constantly on the move at night so we wouldn’t rest our bodies and be vulnerable to the cold. I remember shivering violently on a hill while waiting to advance when someone offered me a nature valley candy. It was sheer bliss, I felt like a bee that just found a single flower in a hedge of thorns. It soon occurred to me that it was not a matter of enduring, but that of forgetting— forgetting the cold, the desperation and the pressure and just doing what we did best, carrying on and executing our tasks.

And so Taiwan passed just like that. Desperation and stress gave way to hope and perseverance and somehow we made it to the last mission. Intense stress met with intense focus. The questions always popped up, to question the point of this all when I was at my lowest. The stress made me feel like going home yet the dull ache of responsibility kept me firmly grounded— the very thing that made me want to quit made me want to carry on as well. That’s something about life I can never quite understand. At the end of it we huddled together and took a nice group photo with our tired faces. A ninja (food) van arrived on cue and we got our share of the best of Taiwanese street fare right there beside the forests. Biting into the chicken cutlet and hearing its crunch, I almost convinced myself it was worth it.

Singapore was miserable, Brunei was tough and Taiwan was stressful. But then then came Thailand. Now Thailand was part of our course requirement to pass out from our vocation. So all of us had to go in order to pass out together and come back as a reservist batch. To make things worst we were the first batch to undergo this course in six years. Talk about fate. It was like crashing your car the day after its  insurance expired. I won’t be doing myself any favours by describing what we had to do in Thailand due to how everything is so confidential so just know we had to go into the jungles to do something to achieve a certain objective which involved us being out there for as long as seven days at a time.

The thing is, I sustained an injury before the trip so I ended up not moving outfield at all so I only did a watered down version of Thailand when I was back in Singapore (sounds so chao keng). I ended up spending only two days out there in Tekong doing this certain something and I realised 2 things. Firstly that I was tremendously fortunate, and that Thailand must have been abject pointlessness for everyone. It was probably a 40-60 mix of poinlessness and misery. My 2 days felt pointless enough, so I could only imagine how 7 would have felt. They were sleeping on moist soil every night and doing this miserable something every day while facing the heat and rain of Thailand. I was there in Thailand doing administrative work and stepping out of shelter in my dry uniform made me feel like a wet snail crawling across dry ground. There were also stories of rains that flooded everyone to their ankles and destroyed their hard work in securing a safe spot in the jungle. I admire everything they’ve been through and feel a bittersweet thankfulness that I only tasted a fraction of their pain.

I looked at my watch and it was 4:15 AM. I snapped back to reality. I got up from the ground and my buddy and I got to work. We led the men out of the jungle and through a fence into the objective. We led them in a few men at a time and as they slowly filed in it felt like a relieving of a burden. Not just the burden of this outfield but of all the outfields past. This was the last one; the outfield that ends all outfields! I kept telling myself. The last man went in to fight and my buddy and I sat at one corner to rest. It was almost 5 AM by then and I breathed in the cool air and thought about how things have changed so much from then when I was still a recruit to now as a soldier about to ORD.

Back then to motivate myself I constantly thought of what I was fighting for. When we were recruits we held on to ideas of courage and valour like a child holds his mother’s hand in a crowded shopping mall. Then months passed with jungles explored and stamps on our passports. We learned day by day what the word “service” really meant— that it was a verb and not a noun. I could no longer characterize service and glorify it, I became tired and started doing what I had to do, being pragmatic about things and keeping the tangible in sight. That is what has changed through all the experiences I’ve described, from the first to the last. That child grew up and let go of his mothers hand. That child started making his own decisions and decided what he wanted from his experiences and not what his country wanted. It was that simple, yet it took more than a year to realise.

We walked out of the jungle and boarded the bus back to camp for what I hoped would be the last time. The last time. It sounded so listless as I said it, like the stalled voices of people after a close shave with death. We pulled away and had a glance of the jungle that we spent so much time in as soldiers. It was the only entity that hadn’t changed after all this time. From early last year to now, there it was, the jungle. SAF changed to include more safety during trainings, soldiers changed to accept their fates and as individuals we follow suit and we transformed our ideals.

Everyone changes for everyone but the jungle stood over us as a stoic reminder that some things in life will always be constant. The jungle had killed soldiers in the past, broken spirits and changed people’s dreams. Like it or not, some things in life will always demand that you change for them.

The bus went onto the main road. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep. Finally, it was time for me to rest.