When a Son does not Return Home: Deaths in the SAF

A full-time national serviceman died on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, while taking part in a military exercise in Australia’s Central East Coast.

3rd Sergeant Gavin Chan was guiding an armoured military vehicle out of rocky terrain when it turned over on its side, striking him unconscious. He was evacuated by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead that evening at 10:36pm. He had just turned 21.

Described by his friends as someone who was friendly and cheerful, Gavin performed his tasks diligently.

His photo was splashed across news websites and on Facebook shares; a young man wearing a well-ironed parade attire, donning a black beret with a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) emblem shining on it. He was smiling at the camera, a state flag behind him to his left.

Almost every Singaporean who was registered as male took such a photo, the kind where you wore your military best and stood in front of the camera and smiled, or at least pretended to. And then they’d give you a certificate that came with the picture, the symbol of the country’s pride in your service.

This was a photo that I had to take as well. When I smiled, I didn’t expect to die in the next few months, and I’m guessing the same for Gavin. Like the rest of us who served, our smiles were the smiles of optimism, of better days to come.

I am not intimately familiar with this particular case. I have left the SAF for more than three years at the time of writing this, and it’s a part of my life that is largely behind me. Some of my training was dangerous. I had to trudge through dense jungle traversing ridges where two steps to the left or right would result in a headlong tumble into the unknown depths. I had to endure thirst and hunger because our food had to be rationed properly when we were on weeklong missions in the tropics. I had to throw a grenade with my trembling master hand. However, not once did I feel like my life was in any real danger.

The assumption that our sons come back home safe is part and parcel of national service. In peacetime Singapore, anything less would be a tragedy.

Gavin’s parents told the media at the wake of their son, that they had no more tears left to cry. They were both wearing white, and both looked like they hadn’t managed to catch any sleep in days. “He wanted to do social work,” said Mdm. Lim, Gavin’s mother. Gavin had planned on applying to study overseas, as he could not get into a local course. On weekends when he booked out from camp, he would come home to wash and iron his own clothes. “He was a responsible man,” said his father, Mr. Chan. “He knew what he was supposed to do.”

Gavin’s parents eventually thanked the SAF for its assistance rendered to them in such a difficult time. They also thanked the organization for flying their daughter from Wellington where she was studying, to Queensland to retrieve Gavin’s body.

Not every parent who loses their son in the time of duty is grateful to the state.

Private Dominique Sarron Lee died on April 17th 2012, after succumbing to an allergic reaction to smoke grenades during an army exercise. The combat medic attached to the platoon did not have enough experience dealing with allergic reactions of this nature, and by the time he was transported to the National University Hospital he was pronounced dead. It was only one and a half hours after the incident.

Like Gavin, Dominique was only 21 years of age and died days after his birthday. His mother wailed uncontrollably during the funeral service, and his father spoke some quiet words over the grave. His younger brother, Daryl, played an acoustic rendition of Mr. Big’s “To Be with You” during the service. It was one of Dominique’s favourite songs. Posted on a Facebook page set up in the memory of Dominique was a picture of him and his younger brother when they were just toddlers. “It was from you that I first learned to think, to feel, to imagine, to believe,” read the caption posted by one of his friends.

It was later uncovered that the then platoon commander, Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal, had thrown six smoke grenades instead of the stipulated two. This was due to unfavourable wind conditions which made smoke cover for the troops particularly difficult to achieve. The excess smoke, however, might have contributed to the severity of the allergic reaction. The lapses in training protocol was what prompted Dominique’s mother, Madam Felicia Seah, to find answers.

Her attempts at justice would later captivate an entire nation, as she attempted to sue one of Singapore’s most powerful organisations for negligence. She would eventually fail. The Singapore high court struck out the lawsuit filed by Madam Seah in 2014 under the Government Proceedings Act, stating that any member of the armed forces cannot be held civilly liable for causing the death of another while on duty. Both Captain Najib and Captain Chia Thye Siong, the safety officer at that time were protected under this law. They were only punished with fines and delays in promotions, and were charged under military instead of criminal law.

“How do you expect me to move on? I’ve tried, but still cannot,” said Dominique’s mother during a news interview in 2013, one year after his death. She visits him every day at his grave at Lim Chu Kang Christian Cemetery, spending an hour cleaning his grave and talking to him. His grave is black and shiny, with an electric guitar at the side of the tombstone and a large speaker on top of it. Placed on and around the grave are various memorembilia, toy cars and miniature jukeboxes, a small vase of flowers and a Hoegarden beer placed at an inconspicuous corner. On the roadside of his grave, the grass is specially mown to form the words “SUPERFLYDOM”, which was what his close friends referred to him as. Madam Seah told reporters that she still cries herself to sleep every night.

Until today, many of her questions remain unanswered.

In a Facebook post early in 2016 that was shared more than 13,000 times, she apologised to her eldest son. “My dearest Dom, my heart continues to bleed for you. It has been 3 years and 10 months since you were taken from me and still, I haven’t been able to get any closure.” In the post, Madam Seah mentions the two officers who were granted statutory immunity despite failing to follow the standard operating procedures. She also had to pay for their legal costs, or in her words, “pay[ing] them for taking away your life.” She continued, “In the past 3 years, I have been worn down, beaten and defeated by the very government I taught you to trust; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very system I counselled you to have faith in; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very people I advised you to respect and honour. Dom, forgive me. I taught you wrong.”

The SAF eventually waived the legal costs of the lawsuit. This was after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen urged the courts to do so, stating in a Facebook post that the legal system “need not add to the pain and anguish of the family of the late [Private] Lee.”

2012, which was the year before I enlisted, saw the death of five men during their service for the army. Dominique Sarron Lee was amongst the five, and by far the most high profile case. It was five cases where a mother’s fear was realised. When sons did not return home.

When I enlisted in 2013, I hugged my mother before walking off with the other enlistees. As I walked off my mother shed a tear, and I remember thinking that she was silly for doing so. I was going to be ok. We were young men who had to serve whether we liked it or not.

I told my parents over late night phone calls that the deaths from the previous year’s incidents had resulted in safer trainings due to reactionary measures put in place. We were not allowed to walk under the rain in case of lightning. We could only wear one layer of clothing so as to prevent heat injury. Anyone with allergic reactions or a complicated medical history had to wear a yellow wristband and be closely observed by instructors.

I could tell that what my parents wanted above anything else was to have me home safe every weekend.

Love is sometimes an act of following a simple routine, to have your loved ones do the same things again and again. Gavin’s parents recalled his simple wish for a chocolate cake on his 21st Birthday. “A 21st birthday to a boy or girl – at that age – is an important day. I wanted to buy him a good dinner but he refused to accept it,” said Mr. Chan. “He just wanted to have a chocolate cake, that’s all.” “Every birthday… always the same chocolate cake,” echoed Mdm. Lim.

In a Facebook post, Dominique’s close friend Timmy Low wrote about their correspondence and friendship. They made plans to go out for drinks the night before he passed away.

“Take care bro, I’ll see you then”
“Will do bud, be safe”

The meet up never materialised.

Perhaps this was why I was determined to keep to my routines when I was enlisted, or even beyond that. I would have at least one meal with my parents upon every book out. I would sleep on my own bed no matter which friend asked if I wanted to stay out late or sleepover. I would not miss any birthdays if I could help it. I would not get into trouble in camp so I could book out on time.

My parents kept up the same end of the deal, fetching me to and from camp without fail. Once on a rainy Sunday evening my family car was knocked from the back, and my parents had to pull over and settle the damages privately. My father got back as soon as he could so he could drive me to camp on time. I could tell that the incident put him a foul mood but he didn’t let it show. They wished me well as I trudged off to camp later, umbrella in hand. Another time my expected bookout time was delayed by two hours. I had already told my dad in advance to drive over, and so he did. He waited two hours in his car outside the gates. He didn’t complain when I got in, but drove me for supper instead. Driving home without me was out of the question. Routine was routine and we stuck to is as a family.

You take whatever time you have with the people that matter because you never know what might happen in the months after, or even the next day.

When Gavin’s parents were asked how they were coping, both broke down in tears. “To lose a son, it’s very painful,” began Mr. Chan. “To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that.” There were a half dozen voice recorders pointed at the parents, forming a neat semi-circle on the white table. Cameras were snapping away.

It is easy to think of death and the nation as abstract notions, forces greater than us that we find difficult to fight. But in the fight lies all the meaning in the world. It is because of the fight that Dominique’s mother had established a new routine, a new way of loving, one that she pursued fiercely to honour her son.

In the years that followed Dominique’s death the nation watched as his mother was pushed to a corner, resigned and defeated, her quest for justice unsuccessful, culminating in an emotional plea. “What we want is justice, what we want is closure,” an exasperated Madam Seah told the media. “After [all these years,] we cannot get any closure.”

Gavin’s parents could only find the strength to thank an organisation that indirectly caused the death of their son.

Perhaps our undoing lies not in the large forces of death and society but in the disemboweled routines and emptiness of the everyday.

Defeat lies in the bed untouched, the slice of chocolate cake left in the fridge for no one to eat. Grief comes in imaginary laundry cycles and clothes never to be washed again, never to be ironed again, never to be placed in cupboards too high for a mother to reach. Bereavement is a father having two glasses of beer to himself, leaving one untouched, listening to his child’s favourite song in the background and for the rest of his life because his child cannot.

All they can do is continue loving.

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References:

  1. Maniar, J., Chander, C., & Neo, S. (n.d.). Facebook. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.facebook.com/DomSarronLee/
  2. Ong, J. (2017, September 27). Hundreds turn out at military funeral for NSF soldier Gavin Chan who died in Australia. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/hundreds-turn-out-at-military-funeral-for-nsf-soldier-gavin-chan-9243622
  3. Officers in Dominique Lee case were punished: SAF. (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/saf-responds-online-debate-death-private-dominique-sarron-lee
  4. ‘To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that’: Parents of NSF who died in training mishap in Australia. (2017, September 20). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/to-lose-a-good-son-i-can-t-swallow-that-parents-of-nsf-who-died-9233792
  5. Chow, J. (2016, January 19). NSF’s death: Mum still trying to come to terms with loss. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/nsfs-death-mum-still-trying-to-come-to-terms-with-loss
  6. “where’s the justice in that?”, asks friend of Dominique Sarron Lee. (2016, March 07). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2016/03/07/wheres-the-justice-in-that-asks-friend-of-dominique-sarron-lee/
  7. Lum, S. (2016, March 20). Court rejects suit over smoke-grenade death in training. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/court-rejects-suit-over-smoke-grenade-death-in-training
  8. Chelvan, V. P. (2017, March 13). SAF officers in NSF death have ‘statutory immunity’: Judicial Commissioner. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/saf-officers-in-nsf-death-have-statutory-immunity-judicial-commi-7994804
  9. (2016, March 17). Mindef explains stance on NSF Dominique Sarron Lee’s death. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mindef-explains-stance-on-nsf-dominique-sarron-lees-death
  10. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/22000-legal-bill-fully-waived-family-dead-nsf
  11. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/death-nsf-dominique-sarron-lee-officers-punished-fines-delays-promotions

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.