Sunday 20 October 2013

5 things I wish I knew before doing national service


Thanks to an Institute Of Policy Studies (IPS) survey and a blogger comparing national service to slavery, NS is a hot topic again.

When I was a boy, I dreaded NS after hearing the horror stories from my older cousins in the army.

But the alternative was to be a girl. Then I would be dreading the pain of childbirth. Both seem equally as bad, which was why I held off on the sex change.

So I’m a little taken aback by recent suggestions that women should also serve NS. Isn’t giving birth hard enough?

The IPS survey found that although more than 80 per cent of both men and women said yes to voluntary NS for women, only about one in 10 women would actually volunteer for a full two-year NS stint.

Unfortunately, the survey didn’t find out how many men would volunteer to give birth.

Some have argued that giving birth is already a form of NS for Singaporean women.

In which case, if NS is a form of slavery as the blogger had contended, then having a child is also a form of slavery. I doubt any parent would disagree with that.

Others have argued that giving birth is not the same as NS since it’s not compulsory for women to give birth whereas it’s compulsory for Singaporean men to serve NS.

Then why not make it compulsory for Singapore women to give birth as a form of NS to boost our low fertility rate? Two birds, one stone.

Until such legislation is passed, while giving birth and serving NS may be similar in that they both involve hardship, the difference is the lack of choice in the latter.

One crudely entertaining though not quite accurate analogy I read online is that full-time NS is like being “betrothed to a fat and ugly woman, and you must have sex with her every Monday to Friday for two whole years”.

The analogy left out weekend duties.

I feel sorry for the fat and ugly woman. In an alternate universe, having sex with you is her national service.

And just as I had sex with this woman more than two decades ago, my teenage son will do the same in a few years.

As a father, I want to give him some advice about NS, especially the first three months of basic military training (BMT), which is the toughest part, even though I realise a lot must have changed since the last time I was in uniform.

Despite all those horror stories my cousins had told me about NS, I still wasn’t prepared for the actual thing which was even worse than they had led me to believe.

So here are five things I wish I knew before going to Pulau Tekong for my BMT more than 25 years ago:

1 Being a recruit is nothing like being a slave.
A slave is at least a human being. A recruit is just another shaved head with dog tags. An actual dog has more rights. I remember envying the stray dogs I saw wandering around Tekong. Oh, to be as free as a dog.

2 Be prepared for the lack of sleep.
I wasn’t. Eight hours? In your dreams, if you manage to have any. When I returned home for my first weekend break, I was knocked out for a day and half. By the time I woke up, it was time to go back to camp. I guess that’s why they call it army daze.

3 Learn Malay.
Otherwise, you literally won’t know your left from your right. And that’s kind of an important thing to know in the army. But understanding the Malay commands is one thing. Eventually, you should also learn how to give them.

I found one word particularly useful: “semula”. I think it means “Uh... let me say that again.”

4 Learn Hokkien.
The more vulgar the word, the better. And then it’s about how creatively you can combine the words. That’s how you win friends and influence people.

5 Muslim food is better.
Granted, this is a personal preference. SAF cookhouses are divided into Muslim and non-Muslim food. If allowed the option, I would go for the Muslim food because it’s likely to be less bland and I like it spicey.

Another thing I wished someone had told me about was this strange concept called “night snack”, which sort of blew my mind when I learnt about it on the first night of my national service.

You mean, there’s another meal after breakfast, lunch and dinner? Is this heaven?

Sure, night snack was usually just bee hoon or tau suan, but for that brief moment, Tekong didn’t seem like such a horrible place after all.

And being a boy wasn’t so bad.

- Published in The New Paper, 20 October 2013

Dear SM Ong,

I am a Singaporean male touching 50, have been a vivid reader of your column, whenever i got hold of new papers on sundays. Many times, i may not be able to catch the humour that was intended, but at times when i did, i was impressed.

However in today's article, i felt that thoughts has not been given for the "fat & ugly" females in our society, likewise we have been cruel towards parents of such girls by such description. I don't wish to derive fun out of the innocents, despite your wonderful writing skills.

Through no intent, you could have sent more hurt than laughter towards such readers at large, reading our national paper, and i don't believe this meet the last of your objective as a humour writer. Pity!

Let's be graceful.

Regards, ck

EARLIER: I slept in 'haunted' Tekong bunk with third door and survived