Basic Military Training and Meritocracy
I would say that going to national service was one of the formative experiences in my life. In retrospect. Not in a completely positive way. When I look back upon those days, there were some respects in which they were some of my darkest years, or some of my laziest years. But I thought that in a way they helped to shape me, and they were as influential as my school years.
There will be other parts of this story, such as my lazy days as a clerk, or how these were the times when I discovered the pleasures of the teh / kopi served in coffee shops, or how I spent too much time and money at the arcades, or how I tried to be a big reader of books and failed (I took forever to get through a “Portrait of a Lady”). Or how I spent too much time and money at HMV and Tower (and still failed to keep them alive). Or how I sustained an injury that kept me out of combat, and then tried to play up that injury for as long as I could. Those things are significant but not very worthy of comment. Being a Beetle Bailey is not very interesting.
But the most memorable experiences of most soldiers’ lives, the part of army which is usually enshrined in popular culture, is boot camp. It is the story that is always told for three reasons: 1. what happens in boot camp has very low security / intelligence value, and people don’t have to get much clearance for it. 2. every soldier, regardless of where he later on ends up, will go through boot camp. And 3: it is a great coming of age tale, and there are great comic scenarios, because it is one of the biggest cultural shocks you will ever get.
You could say that in a large sense I am a wanderer. I have done a lot of things that many people think do not directly “add value” to my life. I dabbled in political science when I was a student (and I’m always regarded with suspicion by a lot of other political science people because my “real” major is mathematics). I have been a musician, and I’ve spent so many hours on my music, that people would probably think that it would be a shame if I didn’t have the talent to make something great out of it. And I’ve also been a soldier for the 2 years, and people would say that it is a waste of time. Personally, I would say that national service is a waste of time because it is way too long. But at least 18 months of those 2.5 years is not a waste of time.
It’s probably not a secret that to a large extent, boot camp in Singapore is segregated. Most of the people who did their “A” levels, and had the potential to win scholarships would be placed in certain companies, and most of the people with less stellar academic achievements would be placed in others. The most interesting part of my NS was that I spent my boot camp in the “wrong” company. I was in a mixed platoon, and most of them were from less advantaged backgrounds.
It was pretty horrible for me for many reasons. First, I was a little bit too bookish for their liking. Second, I was not a very practical person, and I did not develop a lot of practical skills. Those would come later. Third, I was also pretty “blur”, and it took me a very long time to learn things. It still takes me a long time to learn new things. What I am good at is that, having learnt those things, I know how to integrate and synthesise those things, and eventually take my level of skill and intelligence to a higher level. But learning new things? I don’t really think so. Fourth, my social skills were not terribly good. It didn’t help that I started trying to speak to them in Mandarin but eventually had to give up because my faculty at that language was just so horrible. Fifth, that platoon was mostly made up of a bunch of people who had to enlist earlier to spend two months getting fit. A lot of my “A” level days were geared towards passing my physical fitness test so that I could avoid that fate, and actually have a holiday after the exams ended, rather than just going straight into the army – that was pretty horrible.
There were always colourful characters in that platoon. There was that old classmate of mine that I had known since I was in primary 4. He was mentally weak and he couldn’t cope with the rigours of army. Eventually he dropped out, and was downgraded. He was also gay, and he could declare that he was homosexual, and that would make him unfit for service. (I think this is the best argument against discrimination against gay people in military service – otherwise you could just “come out” and get out of combat duties.) There was this guy who was probably borderline mentally retarded, but when you played James Brown, he could just jump up and do a pretty decent imitation. My platoon commander was a short man with a Napoleonic complex. There was this time when he wanted to scold me, and he was standing on top of the steps just so as to get above me. It was pretty sad. There was this sikh who always liked to clown around. He could be as irritating as often as he was amusing. He was sent to detention barracks because after lights out, he sneaked out of the bunks and was caught drinking beer, the way that people at the void decks downstairs did that. There was the fellow nerd, who was so gawkish and hilarious that people did not pay him much respect – but eventually he attended Snowy Hill with me and I got invited to help out for the wedding. I was reunited with a friend from secondary two who helped make our class the one that prided itself on terrorizing the teachers so much that they decided to break up that class in secondary three. There was an obnoxious vegetarian who used to be such an asshole that it sometimes made me wonder how many people embrace religion to find spiritual meaning in life, and how many do that to flaunt their moral superiority to others. And last but not least was an eccentric Malay sergeant who was firm but fair with me – especially after we discovered that we shared a taste in Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Of course there was a lot of messing around, especially from Eccentric Malay Sergeant. When people missed the target during range, they would throw empty cartridges at the poor guy's helmet and berate them in their limited knowledge of Hokkien. Or making people stand up and sing funny songs as punishment. Or how you could overturn the metal boxes that they used to transport combat rations and have an impromptu Dikir Barat session in the middle of the jungle. Or how we had to yell and pump our fists and scream "alpha!" when we were starting doing push-ups: this got corrupted, naturally, and in the bunks, every time somebody farted, he would also scream "alpha!" I had some ideas forming in my head during Basic Military Training. I used to think that all this social control was necessary in order to make people serve for a higher cost. Later on it occurred to me that you could build an effective fighting force using more enlightened tactics. I used to think that you had to be very cautious when talking to people who were not from your background. But that was wrong. Later on I would just figure out that you had to open up and concentrate on the things you had in common.
There was this thought that also haunted me – I was calculating the years, and I suddenly remembered thinking, halfway through the screening of one of the instructional videos, that more than half of the time I had with my grandmother was already over. Now when I think about it, it’s really uncanny – by that estimate, my grandmother would be dead in 2015. As it turned out, she died in 2011 – not a completely inaccurate estimation!
But what stayed with me the most, and the biggest takeaway I had from my time in Basic Military Training was what I learnt from my contact with people of a different socio-economic class. I had led a sheltered life, and my life revolved around grades. Sorry, that is very sad but that’s the case. The guys sweated over their careers. Many of them considered signing on, because a military life is one of the most lucrative job opportunities you will have if you’re not really educated. People were looking at sales jobs, or a life of wheeling and dealing. They swore and cursed – most of you who read my blog should understand that I don’t really have a problem with uncouth behavior. I didn’t fit in – but that was not to say that I would never fit in. Eventually I would have been able to get along – except I was probably really in a big hurry to get out of that place.
The most shocking thing to me, however, was that I was a pretty crap soldier. And this was in spite of the fact that I spent a few years as a boy’s scout. In fact I would also say that I was a pretty crap scout, even though I was game enough to give it a go. I wasn’t that much of a practical person. And that is something that rang home to me. Many of these guys were from the street, and a few of them were obviously smarter than me in some respects. It started forcing me to confront something very fundamental about meritocracy.
For many years, we have been in elite schools, and we’ve been brought up to believe that we are there because we are smarter and because we work harder than a lot of the other people out there. But that is only a partial meritocracy. The school system only rewards a very certain and specific form of intelligence. It rewards the ability of people to articulate knowledge gained by rote learning onto pieces of paper within a very short time span. And frankly, not much else. Since those days, we have gone on to broaden the scope of assessing peoples’ abilities, like resourcefulness (not tested in exams), social ability (also not tested in exams) and practical skills (definitely not tested in exams). Those things are tested to a lesser degree.
At that point in time, Daniel Goleman’s seminal book about emotional quotient was only a few years old. Eventually, it would have a great impact on the lives of children around 10 years younger than myself.
I used to believe that the system was fair and just and to a large extent it still is, but it still has a bias, and there are many ways for people to fall through the cracks. To a large extent, people do end up where they deserve in life, but there are many instances where the system is unfairly biased against people who are still good people but don’t have the right kinds of skills. Anyway, I'm sure that Donald Low can explain this idea much better than I can.
At the same time I can imagine that any unfair system will have its defenders – namely those people who benefit from it, and can only lose out if the system has a little more balance. And the big pity is that the system is also such that these people are also those in power, and they can also block any attempt to dismantle that system.
Think about it: national service is a way of getting people to transcend their social class. And by taking the cream of the crop and putting them into the same companies, you wouldn’t get them to understand the broader context in which they live. You wouldn’t understand that – well for those like me, once I step out of the gate, my troubles are over. Even if my family isn’t the most loving one around it’s a really comfortable existence. Then there are those people who book in early to escape problems outside – being chased by debtors, or harassed by gangsters. Or the guy who, upon coming back to camp right after Chinese New Year, was so traumatised that he committed suicide. Or the malay guy who kept on getting ribbed because he was playing for Geylang United – or at least he would be playing for them once he got out of national service. Or the guy who claimed that he quit drugs and that it was a life-changing experience for him. Not to mention the incredibly creative ways that people adopt to keep themselves out of training. I used to think that it was a curse for me to have been dumped in a company with such crazy people but now I’d look back and see that it was a truly unique experience that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. And I would say that when I think about the real Singapore, part of it will be these motley crew that I once had been associated with.