Chris In 1992 Jack Nicholson delivered one of history’s most memorable movie lines. In the military drama A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise presses him for answers about the death of a soldier.
Kaffee Colonel? Lt. Kendrick ordered the Code Red, didn’t he? Because that’s what you told Lt. Kendrick to do!
Ross I object!
Kaffee And when it went bad, you cut these guys loose!
Ross Your Honour-
Kaffee You had Markinson sign a phony transfer order, and you doctored the log book!
Ross Your Honour-
Kaffee You coerced the doctor!
Ross Damn it, Kaffee
Judge Consider yourself in contempt-
Kaffee Colonel Jessup, did you order the Code Red?!
Judge You don’t have to answer that question.
Jessup I’ll answer the question. You want answers?
Kaffee I think I’m entitled!
Jessup You want answers?!
Kaffee I want the truth!
Jessup You can’t handle the truth!
Chris His emphatic reply left an indelible mark on cinematic history. But his next line moves me even more, particularly when I think of my male Singaporean students.
Jessup Son we live in a world that has walls, and those have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt Wienburg?
Chris Even nations not literally surrounded by walls are homelands that someone must defend. Most countries employ professional soldiers who volunteer for the job. But a handful of countries are defended by conscripts, young men, and in rare cases women, who have no choice but to protect the nation. This is the case in Singapore, where all of my male students have served 2 years of mandatory National Service before university. This gives them a unique perspective on the idea of the nation as home, as they are not just encouraged to be patriotic citizens, but they are required to sacrifice two years of their lives defending the homeland.
This is Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran. In this episode, we talk about defending the home.
Some Singaporean men look forward to National Service (or NS); the physical and mental challenges and the camaraderie that emerges from the experience. Most simply accept NS as a necessary rite of passage, something everyone has to get through. Still others dread NS and have nothing but horror stories of what they consider 2 years of their lives wasted. NS is so fundamental to Singaporean national identity and the country’s defence that its detractors are seldom heard in public, including here. For the most part, NS is considered necessary, and most young men who complete it praise it for helping them mature and for developing their love of country. They are the defenders of this home, and that is a role they take very seriously.
In this episode Abi, Jia Han and Stanley introduce us to National Service. What does it mean to them and how does it impact their attitude about the country they call home? The answers to these questions and more when we continue…
Abi In my apartment home, the single sound that cuts right through the atmosphere is the rumbling of the military helicopters coasting through the skies. I love the pulsating sounds of the chopper blades. The low rumble reminds me of the sound of thunder. It makes me feel safe, like being indoors on a stormy day.
Because of how tiny Singapore is, barely 50 kilometers from point to point, our military bases are nestled among clusters of public housing. Singapore is easily one of the safest countries in the world by any measure, and we’ve grown used to this safety for some 50 years since our independence. This means that most of us get so used to hearing this sound that it has become a part of our acoustic furniture. We ignore it, we stop listening, in quite the same way that we take our safety for granted.
Singapore commemorates Total Defence Day on the 15th of February. On this day in 1942, Singapore fell into the hands of the Japanese. Children participate in food rationing, eating biscuits and tapioca for recess meals instead of the typical cafeteria food for a glimpse into the lives of those who lived through the war.
Growing up, I was one amongst them, listening to stories of the war that my parents and teachers would tell me, with furrowed brow and bated breath, armed with childish conviction that this was my home that was being torn apart and my forefathers who’d lost their lives.
The Air Force segment was my favorite part of the National Day Parade that would air on television every year. I would run straight to the window, nose pressed against the glass, willing the Singapore flag to fly past my home.
I would join the Air Force. I would keep vigil over the skies that I had grown to love, and I would die for my country. I had this romanticised vision of serving in the military and I nurtured it carefully, with rose-tinted lenses.
But the reality of serving in the army is a very different picture, and all of my Singaporean male friends would know this. Because National Service is mandatory in Singapore.
Chris All Singaporean males at the age of 18 or 19 are conscripted for 2 years into National Service. The majority are assigned to the military: the air force, the army, or the navy. The remaining recruits serve their two years in the Singapore Police Force or the Civil Defence Force, which comprises firefighters, disaster relief crews, and other positions. Women are not conscripted. They can join any of these forces as regulars, but their numbers remain small.
Narrator On the 21st of February 1967, two years after independence, the Prime Minister told a youthful nation that it had to start thinking of defending itself.
Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew If you who are growing up do not understand that you got to defend this, then I say, in the end we will lose. Other people will come, smack you down, take it over. And therefore we have decided, after very careful consideration, that every boy and girl will learn what it is to be a citizen, what it is necessary to defend this country.
Jia Han The consequence of conscription is that the nation cannot help but be swept up in National Service. Numerous military events, such as officer commissionings, draw family members and the public into contact with the army. Parents eagerly scrutinise broadcasts for a glimpse of their children marching in the National Day Parade. A young patrol officer on the subway may well be a familiar face, serving his two years in the police force. As a form of recognition by the nation, the starting pay in the civil service is a few hundred dollars more for those who have completed NS. Employers accommodate the absence if their employees are called back to serve. In a myriad of ways, NS serves as the catalyst to draw out all kinds of national support. It strengthens not just the military capabilities of Singapore, but the national spirit of the country as well.
Chris When Singaporean males enter National Service, they undergo a 2-month long Basic Military Training (or BMT). After this training, they are posted to different camps located all over Singapore where they spend their remaining 22 months. For many of these young men, it is their first time living away from the family home. In their units, they share a communal living space, train together, and most importantly, look out for each other. They can still return home each weekend, but it is otherwise an intense period of living and training together that profoundly impacts most Singaporean men. Despite their different backgrounds, the bond between the men quickly changes from strangers to brothers.
Abi Mandatory National Service completely changes the lives of many young men and their personal relationship with home on both the individual and national scale. Fresh out of school at 18 or 19, they are forced to leave the comforts of home. Their education and careers are put on hold and they have little choice in this decision. Should they try to flee the country during this period, they will be arrested upon re-entry at our borders.
Jia Han After I was posted to my camp, BMT served as a common experience for us to bond over, even as we made new memories together. I came to regard this as my second home, especially since I was required to stay in-camp during the week, spending long hours together with my army friends.
Stanley So during my time as an Air Operations Specialist, I spent 8 to 9 hours a day staring at this huge screen, observing Singapore’s airspace. So, the environment I had to work in was located far away from the canteen, and the station needed to be manned at all times. So, my office had this ‘family spirit’ whereby we take turns buying food for everyone. Imagine one person, carrying like almost 10 different orders of food, from porridge to fried noodles and so on. That was how a part of my NS life was like and it reminded me a lot about home back then, because… don’t you buy food back for your family as well? Also, with such huge orders, there are bound to be mistakes and instead of saying “It’s OK”, my office mates would actually play the blame game but of course in a joking manner. These shenanigans mirror what happens at my home, where my family members often blame each other when we make mistakes.
Chris Such communal experiences are common during BMT and in camp. They help create a lasting bond between NS conscripts, helping to make up for some of their sacrifices during these precious 2 years of their lives. The aim, of course, is for Singapore’s boys to mature into young men who are not only trained to defend the nation, but also develop a stronger love of country through their friendships and their shared experiences.
Abi It’s so strange that a good 80% of our defence force is comprised of the men that we interact with on the average day, from lawyers to cashiers, or even our friends in university, all of whom complete their two-year stint before they enter their freshman year of college. But funnily enough, we often don’t see them this way. We don’t typically realise our annoying older brothers are soldiers who would lay down their lives for the country.
Video To be very honest, just simply know that it is compulsory and we have to comply, that’s all. Only after I got married, I have a home, I have a family with kids, then I begin to understand the importance of National Service to protect our family, to defend the country.
Jia Han Even after we complete our 2 year service, we remain tied to NS. Over the next 10 years we have to return to serve training cycles, for about 2 weeks per year. We call these return soldiers NSmen. I used to think of NSmen as “unwilling soldiers”, comfortable since their return to civilian life, and perhaps physically unfit and rusty. We brought this concern up to then-Chief of Army Ravinder Singh, when he came to visit us for a dialogue in Officer Cadet School. His response struck me deeply. He called us young and enthusiastic defenders of the nation at 18, but reminded us that these men were husbands, fathers, or even bosses. Singapore means much, much more to them than to us. He urged us to believe in them, because these men would do so much more than us to protect Singapore. And the more you value the nation as home, you more you genuinely want to protect it.
I am proud to have served NS. Singapore is home, and as I grow older, I begin to treasure both the system and the relationships I have, more and more. I am thankful for the opportunity that NS gives me, but the military aspect of National Service is just the face that an outsider might see. There is so much more to the concept that affirms the nation as a home that we want to protect.
Abi As I got older, I started to realise that I was not cut out for military life. At first, I was sorely disappointed. I felt like I’d lost my only chance to defend my country. I felt like I’d let that little girl down too. The one who was thrilled to shake hands with soldiers at army fairs. The one who tried to draw green and black camo stripes on her face with whiteboard markers. The one who had a childish love for Singapore.
But as the years went by, I started to realise that the militaristic aspect is simply the most visible aspect of defending home. A country’s true strength lies in the less visible aspects. Talking to friends like Stanley and Jia Han, I realised that this was their experience too. It wasn’t in tangibly defending their country that they found a renewed sense of home. You don’t find faith, fortitude and fearlessness down the barrel of a gun. You find it in the friendships and fondness that you forge with your fellow men.
In the same way, we are all defending home in the choices we make every day. When we choose to treat each other with kindness and civility, when we battle racism and bigotry, we are defending home from fault lines that could rip our social fabric apart. Every job in every field contributes to an arsenal of intellect and ability. Our actions fuel the future of our nation. You need not die for your country, you simply need to live for it.
Chris This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Abirami Ashok Kumar, Toh Jia Han, and Stanley Chow. Our sound engineer was Stanley Chow. Special thanks goes to the many students who have shared their NS experiences with me over the years, from the uplifting to the depressing. Thank you for trusting me with such a sensitive topic.
For more information about this episode and the Home on the Dot project, please visit our homepage at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot