In the half-light before dawn,
Seventeen years before you were born,
Boys stood half-waked on a parade square
A hundred conscripts gathered there.
One by one, to each in turn,
Gun-metal was given, assigned to learn
The ways to maim, to shoot, to kill
All extensions of a nation’s will.
Then, as I cradled plastic and metal
Cold and deadly in my arms
I hope I never have to use this.
Now as I sit in a cab
Carrying not a rifle, but you,
I hope I never have to lose this.
Nothing quite inspires divisions in Singapore as National Service.
- Some love it. They think it turns boys into men and in doing so, unites those men no matter their background, giving those men a stake paid for in blood, sweat and time.
- Others hate it. They think it perpetuates patriarchy (by excluding women), infantilises infantrymen, steals away 2+ years of life, puts at risk health and safety; and is simply a penny-pinching way of raising and maintaining an army on the cheap.
- Many just surrender themselves as they surrender their civilian identity cards and their hair.
I enlisted in 1998, I remember it was sometime in February because my first week coincided with Chinese New Year and all the Chinese recruits got to book out while the rest of us Indian, Malay and Others stayed back to guard the camp from bak kwa.
The other thing I remembered was the initiation – when they introduced you to your rifle. I remember being woken up at an ungodly hour because the ceremony was supposed to be held at the break of dawn. I remember holding that Colt AR-15, cold and slick with rifle grease and thinking, “Could I actually kill someone with this?”
The rest of NS passed in a haze of training, guard duties, getting in and out of trouble on weekdays and falling in and out of love on the weekends, always waiting for the next book-out and and counting the days to freedom. And after that the yearly recall for refresher training, mind-numbing patrols, filling sandbags and failing fitness tests.
I wrote this poem after this picture was taken, at the Army Open House in 2017. I think I must have been four or five when I first attended my first Army Open House at my dad’s military camp. My father was an army regular, and I distinctly remember riding around in an M113 armoured personnel carrier, wearing oversized mufflers to drown out the rattle and roar.
Thirty-three years later, I’m once again sitting in the back of an M113 APC, holding my daughter as a cheerful National Serviceman tells us to smile for the camera.
And I thought to myself, those two-and-a-half years in green – yes – she is worth it.