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.

 

Journey to the East and the Thought that Struck Me

Tonight is one of those nights where I flitted between two phases of my life, going back to my camp for a short while to check out the passing out parade of a junior batch. I followed a friend along on his journey to the east, down smooth train lines and colourful conversations.

The parade was great, I guess. Whatever I expected to happen, happened. But it hardly stirred me, or made me feel anything for who I was, or for my former self standing proudly on that same parade square two years ago. I felt nothing whatsoever; my heart somewhere very different, no longer confined by the (newly reconstructed) gates of a place I tried so hard to call home not so very long ago (but alas, failed).

A very strange thought developed on the way back, and not in the way film develops in slow progression shrouded in darkness. This thought developed instantaneously, like an instant bullseye on virgin dartboard. BAM, and it was there.

The thought went about like this; that religion and love are very similar ideas. (This is the first time I’m writing about religion on this space and I still don’t think I possess the maturity to do so but here is a shot at a larger picture).

Ok, so lets get some background. When you fall in love, two things are at play; the practical and the emotional aspect of this relationship you will embark on. Practical matters being that of compatibility, interests, age gap, potential future income, parents, beliefs, etc. We think about these things now and then, subconsciously or not. Then there’s the emotional aspect, where raw feelings are unearthed, and this, in a nutshell, is rather difficult to explain. I like to use verbal imagery to summarise this, and so yes, a lot of eye contact, heart rates, shifty feet and lightheadedness, tingling of the extremities and so on and so forth. If you can’t describe the wind, describe the slanted tree that it blows. But since we all want a more mature depiction, I’ll give it to you. So here we have an instance when a deeper love is being cast into question. A lot of time and energy must have been poured into this one, the poor miners getting covered in thick soot digging so deep. What we unearth will be feelings of assuredness, comfort, familiarity and every strange (sometimes negative) feeling that encompasses what we know as love. These are not so easy to imagine on a verbal plane, and are feelings we feel over time, rather than observe immediately.

And so we have religion, and to me religion and love share some parallels in the sense that there is also this element of practicality versus emotion. But from how I see it, the word “emotion” would have to be replaced by “faith”, for the latter encapsulates an aspect of blind allegiance. We simply cannot know of the entirety of the renewed paradigm religion casts us into, and so have to accept a few things through acts of faith. So here we go again. We have practical issues of family agreement, dining habits, institutional commitments and moral standards, a lot of it revolving around the utility to our lives.

Faith, on the other hand, deals with instances where we feel more than we know, and believe more than the physical evidence provides. Again, this is debatable. In a lot of testimonies I’ve sat through, a lot of what holds faith together does manifest physically; sometimes the sudden healing of an illness, or a recovered relationship with a loved one, or just stabilised sleeping habits. The result of overwhelming faith can be observed in numbed extremities, warm tears, unshakeable assuredness, a sense of direction and for many, a reinforcement of communal ties. However, physical manifestation or not, faith seems to revolve around interpretation, and in that sense, a single situation can be perceived in many ways, depending on individual faith, and the direction and extent it directs one. We have our own unique relationship with what we believe in, like it or not. Institutions can influence our beliefs, but each relationship is unique, and constitutes a huge part of us. In other words, I don’t have to worship an IKEA Scissors to be unique, my own reading of the holy bible constitutes a unique relationship with the religion.

The next thought that came was this: in the same way I didn’t want to get romantically involved with anyone whilst serving the nation, I didn’t want to go about defining my religious beliefs when times got tough. Think about it, it makes sense, and the whole army analogy must have come from the parade I watched.

The same way an army camp reduces prospects with the opposite sex (or any long-term involvement, at least), the trials in your life takes away any semblance of comfort and familiarity, one that religion promises to endow (or at least, do a better job of than your problem-ridden life).

So in the same way you feel a heightened desire for the opposite sex whilst in an army camp, you will feel a heightened desire to seek solace in religion during hardship. This, I always felt, turned notions of emotion and faith into something wholly illegitimate under the cloak of neediness and heightened dependency. It’s not too hard to imagine, is it? Or am I oversimplifying the matter?

I feel perfectly burdened because these assumptions don’t necessarily hold true. A choice made in your time of need isn’t necessarily a bad choice. Going down that line, your preferences during times of plenty won’t always have good outcomes, or be any more legitimate. An army boy can find love the same way a girl who has lost something dear to her can seek legitimate solace in religion, and do a good job of it as well. This is not so hard to imagine, and is well within the spectrum of possibilities.

So on my journey to the west, I made the realisation that we shouldn’t be burdened by our preconceptions. Possibilities abound and life awaits. Just because I’m busy with work doesn’t mean I cannot start writing a novel. Just because life feels empty doesn’t mean I cannot seek solace in religion. Just because I was never a “science kid” doesn’t mean I cannot pursue an elective in quantum mechanics. We don’t need common sense to feel happy, because happiness, as we know, is a complicated matter that pays little regard to logic. Hell, this entire post has been a complicated matter.

Finally, I take the lift up and sit in my room. What happens next? is the question that lingers on the peripheries. Unsurprisingly, the room is silent, as if telling me only you can answer that, so let’s get your act together. 

I sincerely hope I can.

To Mother, With Love

Before Mother’s Day officially ends here, I feel like it’s right that I share an experience in my life where my mothers love had touched me very deeply, without her even meaning for it to do so.

They always say that in your greatest time of need, the people you love will flash before your eyes. I think this statement rang true when I was in Taiwan at the start of 2014. I was still serving my tour in the Army at that time and was in the darkest and densest parts of the Taiwan forest at a lonely 2 AM with three other men, tired and cold. It was the start of spring so the weather was a chilly 10+ degrees Celsius. It was horrific for me, because the objective seemed so far away. We had done two missions but there were three more to complete. I wasn’t even halfway there and I already felt so depleted.

And then the worst possible thought came to my mind—the thought of my family, their smiles and their warmth. It was the worst possible thought, because at such desperate moments, this image tore me apart. Without much warning, damp tears flowed down my cheeks and turned cold before they reached the corner of my mouth. I did this quietly. I could not possibly give away the fact that I was breaking down in the middle of a mission, my face still thick with camouflage cream and the men around me falling into a restless sleep. No one was going to save me at this point, emotional distress is not something that is readily sympathised with.

I look back at that moment now and realise how defenceless I was, how utterly lost I felt and how little my life seemed to amount to. And at such moments, all I could think of was my family. At my lowest point, my family smiled their hypothetical smiles, and I was touched to tears.

It was thirty odd hours before the mission ended and we didn’t get a single wink of sleep the whole time. After stumbling out of the forest, I realised that my handphone had reception! Back in camp and in the jungle there was no signal, so for two weeks I had not talked to or heard from my parents.

I called my mother. It was a very natural choice, one that I instinctively carried out. I could have talked to my friends, check the news or surf pointless nonsense on the internet but none of these things vaguely occurred to me. In the most deprived time, the very things that are important to you will suddenly be prioritised. It is a beautiful realisation of the people you truly need in your life.

Every time my mother talked to me at home but I didn’t respond, every time I ate half her cooking and threw the other half away, every time I came back home late with two missed calls from her on my phone came flooding back to me with surprising clarity as I waited for her to pick up the phone. What could she be doing? Probably in her office typing a paper, going about her normal life and not realising what I had just gone through. But it was ok, I just needed to hear her voice to know that she was ok, and for her to know that I was doing fine after two weeks of not hearing from me. I just needed her to pick up the phone.

She probably wouldn’t remember this phone call, and why should she? It wasn’t a remarkable phone call when put out in words, but when she picked up the phone:

“Eh 儿子,你好吗?(Son, are you ok?)”

It was the only voice on earth that I needed to hear. It warms me up to this day.

11206714_1038911752788496_2782988856532946951_o

Happy Mothers Day, Mom.

Happy Birthday, I Hope You’re Well

 

courtesy of veryfatoldman.blogspot.com

courtesy of veryfatoldman.blogspot.com

Date: 14/03/2015

 Hello,

 Today was an especially tough day because it is my fifth day outfield. I always thought from the movies and from what people said that it was quite a cool experience, to be out here fighting in the wild and being all macho. But now after five days, I have to admit, it is nothing like what they portray it to be. Now I know that it is tough, and it demands that you give it everything, be it your body or your time with loved ones. I am rather miserable now, and to think that it is my moms birthday tomorrow does not make it any better. I sincerely hope she will be fine, and I hope everyone around her will be fine. I just want to go home. I really do. But when I think of my family, I have no choice but to persevere. This is something I have to do.

 Cheers,

REC (Recruit) Tan Jin Hong

 

I read the diary entry and smiled. Yet another recruit seems to be finding this experience too tough, exactly what this experience aimed to achieve. Misery and heartache are inevitable side effects of being in the army. As a BMT (Basic Military Training) instructor, I knew this all too well. I sat there in the training shed sorting out diary entries. A lot of these entries had sweat stains on them mixed with dark green camouflage cream, the paper moist with the relentless humidity of the dense jungle. I gave it the chop of approval and signed it, before placing this entry on top of the “done” pile. The crickets formed a layer of thick noise above the mini tents the recruits have set up. From my vantage point atop my field chair I could make out two neat rows of tents. We had even forced them to dig up a mini drainage system around their tents so that any rain would be nicely siphoned away from their surroundings.

But of course, all of us knew that it wasn’t going to rain. The weather forecasts for the whole week indicated clear skies, which was highly unusual for such a tropical nation like Singapore. It’s almost cruel to say this, but it seemed to me that all these tents and drains were constructed purely for “experience” and nothing else, experiences that would not help them a single bit in life. I guess being here a few years before, and having experienced it all has turned me cynical. Before long I was done with the entire pile of sixty-six entries. With one leg numb from sitting too long, I hobbled over to my hammock. I had cleverly constructed this between two poles and my substantial frame filled it up to the brim. I fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.

I woke up to an astonishing sound. The sound of rain. It wasn’t just rain, it was a downpour. I sat up and looked around. The tents seemed to be shaking in anticipation in the wind and rain, as if their purpose had been realised. The drain system the recruits painstakingly created was filled with thick, brown, Milo-coloured water. So much for the forecast, I thought to myself. I silently hoped the rain would begin to flood the tents surrounded by shallower drains. Now that would be quite the outfield experience. Sure, it was a sinister thought, but it would teach the lazier recruits a lesson to dig deeper next time.

At this point, a dark figure appeared to my right, coming from the direction of the tents. The figure walked with such sloppiness that it scared me at first. There were many stories surrounding these jungles: genital mutilating female ghosts, and spirits of dead recruits looking for their disemboweled intestines. My freshly awakened self would have jumped out of the hammock if I hadn’t managed to compose myself just in time. It was probably just a fellow instructor or a stray recruit who lost his way to the makeshift toilet.

As the figure drew closer I took a look at his epaulette and saw that there wasn’t any rank attached to it. I let out a deep breath. He was just a recruit. “What you doing here, recruit? Can’t you see the rain is heavy? Go back to your tent!” Once he stepped into the shelter of the training shed he stopped. He stood before me, hunching over, face still partially green and black with camouflage cream. His uniform stuck to his skin and made him look skinnier. Not eating proper food for five days straight had made his face look gaunt and his arms seem lanky. “What are you doing here?” I repeated as if he mattered. He started, “Sergeant Ben, please understand, I didn’t come here for shelter…” I looked him straight in the eye. “I DON’T CARE! YOU GO BACK NOW BEFORE ANY OF THE OFFICERS SEE YOU HERE! THERE IS NO PLACE FOR YOU HERE!” I bellowed. I couldn’t accept this. He had no right to walk here like this, not in the rain or because of nightmares, not in any circumstance. “No, Sergeant. Listen for just a few seconds. I’m sorry that I walked here like this, but, I just came to ask of a favour, one that you will probably refuse, and it may sound very silly to you, but…” I was growing impatient. “Spit it out or leave,” I said calmly. He looked me in the eye. “It’s my mothers birthday today, and I really want to wish her.”

Mothers’ birthday? Why did that sound so familiar? Yes, I remembered the diary entry. One of the recruits said his Mothers’ birthday was soon. I looked at my watch, and it said 02:12 AM. Enraged, I looked up at him. “So what if it’s your mothers birthday? What can you do about it?”

He looked at me and motioned with his eyes to my pocket. I looked down and felt for my smartphone.

I understood his intention. “Wah! Call her now ah! On the stroke of midnight is it! You think this is Facebook is it? Want me let you log into Facebook then you wish her lah, tell her that you are two hours late, how about that!” “Sergeant, I just want to call her.” “GO BACK TO SLEEP!” I raised my voice again. “THE WHOLE PLATOON GOT PEOPLE WITH MOTHER, FATHER, GRANDMOTHER, GRANDFATHER, BROTHER, SISTER, GIRLFRIEND, BOYFRIEND, EX-GIRLFRIEND, EX-BOYFRIEND MAYBE ALSO GOT. TODAY IS THE 15th OF MARCH, ONE OUT OF 365 DAYS. CONFIRM AT LEAST ONE OF THEM ALSO GOT SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY TODAY. I ask you, why do you think there is no queue in front of me now, all asking for my phone to call their loved ones? If you can answer that question, I will let you call.”

He stood quietly in front of me at first and said nothing but then suddenly got onto his knees. I stood over him and looked down at this pitiful sight. His lower lip was trembling. “Sergeant….please. Just thirty seconds. Please. Just grant me that. I beg you.” He glanced up at me, and I could barely make out the soft glow in his eyes, eyes that were pleading for a moment of humanity amidst the madness he was thrust into. But alas, he did not give me an answer. I calmly stepped back into my hammock, trying very hard to ignore his desperation. It pained me tremendously to say, “if I don’t see you gone in the next ten seconds, you’ll be having some special treatment tomorrow morning. This treatment may or may not involve you crawling until your elbows bleed. So look, you can choose. You walk away now, and we can call this a night, and pretend nothing happened. If not…”

I counted to ten, and as I counted I thought of myself as a recruit, breaking up with my girlfriend when I was in BMT and missing out on my father’s birthday as well. Towards the last week my Sergeant barged into our bunk to tell me that my grandmother was in a critical condition. Within an hour, I had to send in my weapon and leave camp for Tan Tock Seng. I remembered tearing profusely on the cab, and thinking how I would have stayed in camp for a thousand more days just for Grandma to be alright. I knew all too well, that serving your nation came with that sort of burden, so what right did he have to call his mother?

“Ten.” When I looked up, all I saw was the heavy rain in the background and rows of tents behind. I looked to the other side of my hammock to make sure. Yes, he was gone, nowhere to be seen. By then I noticed that my hands were trembling. It was tiring work pretending to be someone you’re not, and I knew deep down that I was this close to letting him make the call. I felt so cold and empty inside, but at the end of the day, I assured myself that what I did was the professional thing to do. It was my role as an instructor, after all. Like my Commanding Officer told us, once your heart softens, these maggots will not hesitate to crawl over your head. Relieved that I made the right choice, I fell back to sleep, comfortable amidst the rich smell of rain.

The next morning, I woke up to a bright sky. I shot up from my Hammock, startled, and immediately checked my watch. 09:34 AM. I had overslept for 2 hours! How did that happen? It wasn’t my shift as Duty Instructor today but still, it was my unspoken duty to be there and overlook the activities. Sure, I might not have set an alarm, but why didn’t anyone wake me up?

I stood up and toddled over to a group of instructors standing around behind the training shed. They looked smart in their new uniforms and branded sunglasses. Some were smoking, but most just stood around. “Eh paiseh I just woke up, gosh. Why you all never wake me up?!” Warrant Officer Josh looked up first. He looked solemn. “Eh Ben, sorry sorry, we thought of you but then some serious shit happened la.” Serious shit? Maybe last night’s heavy rain could be considered as serious? Anyhow, I probed on. “How come no activities today, I thought the recruits practicing for grenade throw, and you’re the conducting?” Josh sighed. My batch mate Ezekiel chipped in, “Activities are on hold, we had to send this boy back to mainland lah. The call came early in the morning at about 0700, he had to attend to family matters.”

“Yeah, cancer lor. Terrible, feel damn sorry for him.” Josh added, “speaking of which the boy is from your platoon eh, Ben. Yeah anyway damn sad lah, his mother battling cancer for quite long already then this morning she suddenly slipped into a coma. The chances of survival seem slim. I know because the father called, told me the doctor told them she had a few months left so the family still let him come here to Tekong for field camp. But who knew right? Few months can become few weeks, that life can be so fragile and unpredictable? Don’t know how he can take it at such a young age. And the worst part is, we just found out also, that coincidentally, today is the mother’s birthday. Poor boy, poor boy.”

The other instructors nodded along in grave agreement. The crickets continued chirping in the background, invigorated by the entire night of rain.

5 Things I’ve Learnt from National Service

IMG-20141122-WA0025

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.

20141121_181000

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.

526756_10151588076108338_1502102873_n

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.

1506165_10152101530489711_1270819980_o

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.

IMG-20141003-WA0002

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.