Friday, 22 September 2023

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NS – a humbling experience

Alison Liew / Youth Writer

I attended a camp mate’s wedding dinner at Novotel recently. He has a 3-year old daughter born out of wedlock and become a full fledged-husband at the grand old age of 20. During the solemnization ceremony, the groom’s father was unable to be present as he had passed away when the groom was locked up behind bars for drug offences.

In case you are wondering, he is the norm rather than the exception in my unit. I am posted to a unit where Junior College and Polytechnic students are few and far between. Most of my camp mates consist of school drop-outs and they have all done time in Reformative Training centers, Queensway Remand Prison or Changi Prison.

Some sport tattoos to the extent that it becomes difficult for the superiors to differentiate whether they are actually in their long 4 or smart 4 uniforms from afar. Of course, many of them are still so young because they can no longer use education as an excuse to defer enlistment. They come from such complicated backgrounds that I once thought only possible in the highly-exaggerated drama serials shown on Channel 8. The various crimes they have committed range from rioting and assault to arson, housebreaking and consumption of drugs.

Salutary lessons in life

My camp mates have always looked up to me and consulted me on areas which they feel I will be able to help them in – from simple calculations of GST needed in the SAF vouchers to the more demanding tasks like explaining the gist of an article found in The Straits Times. My superior has requested me to play the role model and I hope that I have done that so far. He wants me to be there to correct them when they stepped out of line. But the humbling truth is that I actually learnt so much from them than they probably did from me. Of course, on this I do not refer to the fact that I actually learn that it is possible to duplicate a key by using only plasticine to mould its general shape first for housebreaking purposes – but on the other many salutary lessons in life.

For instance, during the wedding, my camp mate, who was closest to the groom, commented about the groom’s father’s death when he was still in jail. The groom only had half an hour at his father’s funeral and with all those chains binding his feet and hands, his movement was severely impeded and he only had time to offer a joss stick as a mark of respect. His face was stoic all the time and gave no clue to the gamut of emotions that he experienced within that half an hour. However, when he was back in his cell, and with only the four claustrophobic walls as his confidants, reality sank in and he began to wail like a banshee.

Dramatic as it may sound, the story was gut-wrenching for me and pricked at the heartstrings of all my camp mates present at the dinner. Then, I asked that particular camp mate, who himself has been under probation and tagged for 6 months, on whether he ever regretted taking this path. He replied,” No, never. During these years at the streets, I learn more than the books would have ever taught me. I met all kinds of people and all these uncles have taught me how to read different kinds of characters,” he said. “At least, I can differentiate black from white.”

I do not know whether I consider myself fortunate or unfortunate to have mixed with a bunch of people whom I have never known intimately before and never would have until NS brought us together. I came from a top Junior College and never had this opportunity to interact and talk to this group of people. I merely knew that they existed and I probably would not have cared much about their lives.

I am quite sure that had I not been certified out-of-course by the Medical Officer at Pulau Tekong, I would never have been posted to this unit and come into contact with them. Perhaps, it is a blessing in disguise.

The structural flaws of NS

Therein lays the inherent structural flaw of NS. It aims to build cohesion among the different groups of Singaporeans, but the way the system functions means that certain “elites” will never have the chance to mix with those that are brought up on the streets. The Junior College enlistees enter Pulau Tekong together and the majority will go on to be commanders and be posted to Headquarters and helm various departments. While it may be argued that some will be posted as commanders and lead the men in their training; then again, how many of them actually take time off to understand the struggles and difficulties that their men have experienced?

There is no doubt that some of these JC students, especially those on Government scholarships, will never have a chance to understand the common struggles of those less fortunate. How then, do you expect these future ministers to be able to grapple with the bread and butter issues of the less well-off and come up with policies designed to lift them out of this vicious cycle, or at least with the intent of alleviating their plight. The fact remains that these Public Service Commission (PSC) scholars, who are also our potential ministers, never have the opportunity to interact with the many faces of our society and thus remain perpetually oblivious to the issues on the ground. What is bred is not cohesion – but segregation.

What my camp mate said earlier was probably as good as Gospel truth, for no textbooks would have taught me about the many facets of society and how all these different webs intricately tie all of us together. They no longer warrant my disdain and condescending tone and I hope that I have cleared the misconceptions that the both groups will always have of each other.

As I left the wedding dinner, I received a text message from the groom. I read and left the place with satisfaction for I knew I have given him all the encouragement he needed.

The SMS read, “Alison, thanks for coming.J


About the author:

Alison Liew is currently a 20-year old NSF and hopes to cherish the remaining few weeks left in his unit before he ORD.


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