Why NS didn’t make me patriotic

Eddie Choo

Why? Because in NS, it really goes like this: I pretend to be a soldier, and you pretend to treat me like a soldier. NS has become so ritualised that serving the nation has lost its meaning.

When something becomes a ritual, it loses its meaning, and whatever passion there was is lost, and what you get are the tired faces and the bad-ass attitudes that are commonplace among the guys serving.

Unless and until the question of purpose and service can be answered, Singaporean men (and some women) will find themselves losing passion for the country they’ve been asked to serve, longing for greener pastures always.

I don’t exactly know where this story should start. Should I start when I left the camp gate for good on the day I officially achieved Operationally-Ready Date (ORD) status? Or should I start when I began school and my first National Education (NE) lesson?

I guess the only way to truly begin this narrative/commentary is at the hospital, where mothers give birth to their baby boys. The moment a baby boy is born and registered, a chain of paperwork is created for him, culminating in him receiving the conscription letter at 18 and donning the camouflaged green uniform, serving out his time on an offshore island roughly northeast off the coast of Singapore.

Of course, all this is provided the baby boy is and remains young and healthy right up to the time he enlists to become a citizen soldier for the Republic of Singapore – a soldier who swears that he will protect the President and the Constitution of our Republic.

Why National Service?

I mean, any decent Sec 3 student will be able to tell you why Singapore needs National Service (NS). He would need to know that, because it is examinable and part of the Social Studies syllabus. If not, it’s likely he would know anyway, because he’d have been told the reason for it enough times in NE – National Education – lessons that he would be able to answer just as well.

Well, we all know how the story begins. Once upon a time, a prince from some Indonesian kingdom chanced upon a piece of rock, encountered a beast he called “Singa”, and promptly called it Singapura. Fast-forward a few centuries, and a British fella came along, bought this place on behalf of the British East India Company (yes, the very same from Pirates of the Caribbean, no Johnny Depp here, sorry), called this place a colony and set up shop here, for the next one hundred years or so.

Then the British abandoned us (sort of, despite investing in defences as well), and the country’s people suffered under the Japanese Occupation. After the Japanese surrendered, the Brits came back, but didn’t stay for long. Then, for a brief moment, we joined Malaysia; but just as quickly as we came together, we parted. Absorbing the lessons from our history, the leaders then decided that to defend ourselves effectively, we had to have our own military, and since we didn’t have the numbers for a full-time army, we learned from the Israelis, and created a soldier out of every able-bodied man.

A sacrifice of 2 – 3 years of each man’s life, spent in training to be a soldier. Then we release them and let them contribute to the economy as workers, recalling them when we need to.

This is the whole scheme known as National Service.

With such good intentions, how come NS didn’t make me patriotic?

Why, because in NS, it really goes like this: I pretend to be a soldier, and you pretend to treat me like a soldier. NS has become so ritualised that serving the nation has lost its meaning. It’s one thing to have parades every 3 months, but having it every other week is senseless. When something becomes a ritual, it loses its meaning, and whatever passion there was is lost, and what you get are the tired faces and the bad-ass attitudes that are commonplace among the guys serving.

I am not questioning the commitment of military regulars – I merely wish to highlight that sometimes, inevitably, even they might get drawn into this attitude of going through the motions. This is not an issue of complacency or throwing caution to the wind. This is about the nature of military work. Yes, a soldier should behave professionally, but professionalism is hard to come by when being a soldier is a really. boring. job. Just watch Jarhead. Yes, we would all like to be the heroes in Blackhawk Down, but unfortunately, military life is more Jarhead than anything that exciting. And then sometimes you encounter the military professionals who serve in the military not out of a sense of duty or patriotism, but for the need of money.

What exactly are we defending?

Sure, we are all here to ‘defend the nation’, but then, ever so often, the question comes to mind: what exactly are we defending? I don’t think anyone has ever sufficiently answered that question. Sure, we say we are “protecting our way of life” and “keeping our families safe”, but at the core of it, what are we really doing? I mean, if war comes, I think most people would have already sent their families away on any available flight to anywhere. Other families would be safe overseas, and might even have had the time to transfer their assets overseas to begin anew. So, with our families safe, would there be anything left to defend?

Would we be left to defend those who couldn’t manage to buy the tickets in time? Does that mean that the rich would have had priority in getting out? If only the rich get to survive, then would we still be committed to this nation’s defence? If there was a threat of mass military desertion, would the state actually hold our families hostage to force us to stay here and fight? Of course, if it comes to that, we would take up arms, but with a heavy heart. Even if we won the war, we’d have lost any loyalty and love for this country, and it wouldn’t be worth staying here at all.

For me, I would rather be a second-class citizen elsewhere than be treated like collateral here. But of course, this is only a hypothetical scenario – a gedanken (“thought”) experiment. Whether such a scenario plays out remains to be seen.

What other options are there? Are we defending our multi-racial society? That might actually be something worth defending. But then again, around the world, there are so many cosmopolitan global cities which are melting pots of various ethnicities., where an industrious and innovative Singaporean would be welcomed. Of course, these other places might never be as efficient and effective as Singapore, but if we could live reasonably well, why not? So why, then, would any Singaporean stay to defend our unique, multi-racial way of life?

A question of purpose and service

So let’s consider the question again. What is it about Singapore that we are actually defending? If the values that we are defending are not unique to Singapore, then what is left? A happy island, by virtue of geography and geology?

As it is, the importance of NS is inscribed into nearly every Singaporean’s heart – from National Education in school to the hard, physical tests at Pulau Tekong. It isn’t as if NS is pointless – we still need to guard against conventional military threats or terrorists – but security alone can’t be the be-all and end-all of National Service.

Because at its core, National Service is about defending what is dear to us, and from there, deriving meaning and passion to the things that we do when we fulfil our NS duties. But if NS brings boredom and disillusionment, then the hearts of Singaporeans will be drawn elsewhere, and the hearts of those that stay will be conflicted over whether this nation deserves their defence.

Unless and until the question of purpose and service can be answered, Singaporean men (and some women) will find themselves losing passion for the country they’ve been asked to serve, longing for greener pastures always.

About the author:

Eddie Choo, 20, served as a Field Engineer Pioneer during his National Service. He is waiting to study Chemistry at NUS.
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