Here’s the thing. I don’t think that any Singaporean male would comprehensively hate his army experience (except, of course, those select individuals who might have been affected by specific aggravating episodes); after all, there must have been some positive takeaways from the two years. For instance, I completed my National Service with a phenomenal bunch of friends, and became more cognisant of the importance of fitness.
While I was compiling the responses from my National Service Survey (here), NSF respondents raised a plethora of concerns, from contemplations on the length of service (here) to the perceptions of double standards in service. However, these are considerably peripheral considerations, and I believe that they stem from something more poignant.
The Biggest Problem: Asking “Why”
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the proposition that an ordinary soldier cannot ask “why” – why are we doing this; why is it done this way; why can’t we propose an alternative methodology – without fear of reprisal or disciplinary repercussions.
When one asks why, he runs the risk of being construed as being problematic, or perceived to be deeply disrespectful of the military structure or framework. These rigidities stifle and frustrate. I’ve always found it to be pretty ironic to have the top brass constantly demand its troops to be thinking soldiers, but appear to be fundamentally opposed to the idea of having interested, inquisitive soldiers who wish to comprehend scenarios and challenge the pedantic present circumstances.
Furthermore, there are simply no incentives for soldiers to do something productive or constructive for his unit, or for the organisation. Why would a NSF risk sticking his head above water, or articulate dissatisfaction if he knows that tolerance for alternative perspectives is hard to come by in the army. At the end of the day, there is little understanding for differentiation and improvements, as superiors continue to harp on the importance of “discipline” and “regimentation”.
The Sanctity Of The Singapore Army
Why do we find it so difficult to criticise the army? Why has it been accorded such a special status, to the extent that one cannot point out flaws without being accused of undermining the sanctity of the institution? Why do we choose to be so hostile to opposing viewpoints, and not harness on-the-ground sentiments from soldiers?
It’s like a Pavlov experiment in practice: a NSF asks something rational, his commander has no logical response / does not know / talks about “sucking-your-thumb-and-rolling-with-it”, NSF follows-up, commander becomes unhappy because it undermines his authority / NSF is being disruptive, punishments follow for the need to maintain discipline and reinforce regimentation. The real issues become obscured.
Addressing The Gulf Between Men And Commanders
And when superiors say that they understand how it feels like to be men, they don’t. Most commanders have only been exposed to experiences in the command schools, and even though there is tremendous rigour and intensity in the training, there is a persisting element of respect for the trainees (given that they would eventually graduate as commanders). For men, it is simply two years of repeatedly doing the same drills and operational exercises; and for some, to be always treated as the “lowest life-form”.
Men are like trapped in this unfortunate limbo; tough training and demands during training, I accept, but when it comes down to the nitpicking of the nitty-gritty and minute administrative expectations, it is often aggravating and on the verge of being farcical.
My wish is for commanders – regulars or not – to understand the basic premise that not all men were made to be soldiers. The military is an artificial construct that forces individuals to conform to a certain physical and psychological model, and it should come as little surprise that some simply cannot cope with the demands and pressures. Instead of drawing unfair conclusions or generating labels from the get-go, show your men some respect, empathy, and listen to their grouses or recommendations
I don’t know how things will pan out, having completed my term just last year; all I reckon is that with NSFs becoming more vociferous and engaged (here), the convenient faith in the status quo would no longer be adequate. I hope to do my part by aggregating suggestions, but at the end of the day it does have to work both ways, with the emergence of some form of response from the authorities.