Irresistible Defense: Out of Tekong into the tragicomedy of Singapore

The report that an SAF recruit had tried to swim out of Pulau Tekong has stirred some interest and much amusement even though there is something decidedly macabre about the whole episode and something truly disturbing in the way few people are disturbed by the state’s power in conscript which too many Singaporeans have come to respect as natural, normal and thoroughly acceptable.

If we were to simply look at the situation a little more closely and see what the main concerns the authorities have, we would see that the key individual, the human person involved, is sidelined in place of the power of the system. The absolute power of the state is what matters to the authorities (and for all likelihood, most people under the control of the authorities). It has been said that the young person (perhaps we should refrain from calling him a recruit—surely there’s more to him than an empty identity foisted upon him by the repressive state apparatus of conscription) may have problems coping. Perhaps he was not adjusting well to dehumanization renamed as regimentation and military discipline. Perhaps he was simply not able to cope with the physical demands. But he does not matter.

All matters to the state is that its power must not be compromised even in the symbolic terms of a soldier attempting to run away (or, more literally, swim away). In the article, “Recruit tried to swim out of Tekong camp,” The Straits Times  (July 13 2011) reports that “Colonel Tan [the Mindef spokesperson] would only say that the recruit has been ‘disciplinarily dealt with’.” We must be aware of at least two problems.

The first problem that comes to mind is how the immediate concern of Mindef (and I dare say it is the sole concern, in the short- or long-term) is discipline. Not only is Mindef concerned about punishing the soldier, discipline is the only issue Mindef is willing to address in public. It is presumptuous in telling the public that disciplinary action has been taken. It is shaping the mindset of the public by imposing discipline as a concern they should have when it could well have addressed the public by saying that measures have been taken to help the soldier adjust (especially given that he is a very new recruit).

The next significant problem is the media. The de facto state newspaper cum PAP newsletter appears to be consciously aligning its report to downplaying of maladjusted soldiers. From the article, one realizes that the attempt to swim out of Tekong took place in December 2010. It is not July 2011. It is unclear how such a matter goes unreported for more than half a year and why it is suddenly reported. But the length of time is significant to us—clearly, Mindef and Colonel Tan could have said more about the issue after seven months—for the sake of accountability if nothing else. But the paper is not interested in pursuing this. If it did pose Colonel Tan questions about how Mindef treats enlistees who cannot take the ridiculous oppression of enlistment which he declined to answer, these are not mentioned in its report.

Are Singaporeans not disturbed by the possibility that a forcibly conscripted soldier (I find the tautology here necessary in order to emphasize the point to a Singaporean readership) has to take the rather drastic measure of swimming out of Tekong because he is unable to cope but ends up being disciplined? Are Singaporeans, instead, disturbed by how military discipline and control could possibly be compromised? Have we gotten our priorities totally wrong or is the state-controlled media deliberately portraying and shaping our focus in a way that would facilitate the forgetting of the fact that we are dealing with a human being, only eighteen years old, who has no choice but to be enlisted? (Of course I may be holding certain flawed assumptions. Perhaps he holds a foreign citizenship and enlisted so that he can be a Singapore citizen. But the same concerns about conscription should remain.)

What The Straits Times would rather do, though, is to end on an odious note, quoting former military psychologist, Stanley Chua. First, it reports that Chua “said he hoped this incident would not spark talk that today’s enlistees are softer or that national service (NS) is easier than before.” I am inclined to agree with this simply because I do not believe anyone should expect eighteen-year-old teenagers to be “tough” (whatever it might mean) simply because there is NS for them. Neither do I think that anyone should say that NS is easier simply because that is not the issue anyone should raise when a recruit tries to escape. (It is totally illogical to go, “A recruit can’t take anymore and swims out of Tekong! NS must be so much easier now!”) However the final paragraph is to me tantamount to manslaughter:

He [Stanley]added that it is not the Singapore Armed Forces’ job to prepare young men for NS: ‘The BMT commanders and buddies will only know the recruit for a few weeks… The onus is on parents, who have brought up their sons and should know better how they cope with difficulties or stress.’

No, Stanley (or ST?). If I have a son and I know how he copes with stress, what can I possibly do if I know that he is unable to cope with the sort of stress that NS comes with? You may say that it is not the SAF’s job to prepare young men for NS and help the organization disavow any responsibility or obligation. But, from another perspective, why should it be anyone’s responsibility to prepare their children or themselves for NS? It is as good as telling people, “I’m going to throw shit on your face. You had better prepared to lick the shit. It’s not my job to do anything to prepare you. And no, you are not allowed to run away.” The problem? No one should be throwing shit on anyone’s face. And it is perfectly understandable if the victim does not accept shit being dumped on his face; to “prepare” for the terrible act is to accept it indirectly. Should a person not have the right to resist when someone wants to treat him as a toilet bowl?

Of course, the analogy above would be shitty to most Singaporeans, always charmed by the seductive rhetoric of defense as a masculinity-endowing necessity, who will definitely say that NS is not shit and how it is important and necessary.

Is basic human freedom not equally or more important and necessary?

We want defense to protect a nation. And nations are made of human beings. If in the process of national defense, human beings are dehumanized, is defense itself not anti-human and anti-defense? But we would rather indulge in self-defeating militarism, turning defending subjects into objects of defense.

True inescapability is when people no longer recognize their entrapment. This is the epitome of the debilitating Singaporean condition that goes beyond NS to the heart of post-independence Singaporean milieu.


17 Responses

  1. […] Because it’s OUR land, and… – Musings From the Lion City: What An Idiot! – Molitics: Irresistible Defense: Out of Tekong into the tragicomedy of Singapore – TRE: BMT recruit tried to AWOL from Tekong by swimming to […]

  2. Like him!
    Got guts.
    Got stamina.
    Got good swimming skill.
    No wonder he is fr RI.
    Will make a good leader!

  3. Your penultimate paragraph evokes much thought and reflection. I’ve just finished my NS a couple years back; slogged it out with much negativity and grudgingly. Based on my own experience more than half of the conscripts view NS as necessary and are willing to fork out at least some effort into the training, while an approximate 20-30%? either try to evade the system or put in minimal effort. I remember an officer once said ‘Freedom isn’t free’; a somewhat cliched line but it still bore some impact on me, at least it did mitigate slightly some of my negativity towards NS. The concept of a nation is afterall an artificial one, though one that the goverment likes to promulgate and elevate so as to engender loyalty towards the nation as this will help in social cohesion and allow easier manipulation of the masses. Though, I can’t deny that such sentiments of nationhood are actually tangible and I believe most S’poreans would feel some form of common identity with one another.

    Thus, as much as I hate NS, I feel a certain sense of shame when I think of the prospect of leaving the fighting to others if conflict actually breaks out while sitting back and doing nothing. Ahh, the ironies of life.

    • If Singapore is enough of a nation, there will be people defending it. This, however, is a different matter from conscription. And the power to conscript in times of war is different from the power to conscript all the time without compassion or respect for individuals who just can’t take it.

      • I’m very thankful for your sympathy towards young men (like myself back then) who are for whatever reason reluctant to be forced into serving NS. The most repressive laws are those that dictate the individual to do something, rather than simply prohibit him from doing something. Even after serving NS, the specter of reservist looms large, waiting to haunt me once every year for another decade or so- lol. It is most annoying and irksome.

        Nonetheless, I can see that you agree with the concept that the state should enforce its power on its citizens in times of crises, that is to conscript men only in times of war and conflict. I like this idea very much– the only problem is that freshly minted soldiers lack all the necessary skills to maneuvre as a section, platoon or company; it would be a total mess and such a force would probably be consigned to failure. However, I do advocate ideas such as having a fully professional army and/or reducing the span of NS considerably so as to minimise the disturbance caused to all the poor young men out there.

        • I don’t necessarily agree that the state _should_ enforce its power on citizens during a crisis, but I’m saying that there are different degrees of the power. There may be times when exercising the power appears more justified.

          I anticipated the argument that it would be too late to conscript when a war starts, but I don’t think the only way out is to conscript all male citizens at all times. As you have suggested, there is the possibility of having a fully professional army (especially in this age when so many things are outsourced), in which case all military personnel would be doing the job without anyone threatening to put them behind bars. If Singaporeans were to simply value the principle of not forcing anyone into military duty, alternatives can be explored. But what we see is a stubborn insistence on conscription for all men. As a policy, this is rather horrendous even if we were to disregard the other injustices involved in a system in which people have no choice (including how men are subjected to borderline psychopathic power figures who would use their “authority” to indiscriminately bend people to their will in the self-righteous name of all-important military discipline).

  4. just wasted 5 mins of my life reading this crap

  5. I came from the school of thought that NS is necessary but I felt betrayed when we excuse foreigners, or foreigners turned MPs, or PRs, or children of PRs, from it. I get the impression that citizens are here to pick up whatever mess and thankless jobs, while foreigners and PR sit pretty in their offices and schools, chalking up their credentials. No wonder we are not getting high conversions of foreigners to Singaporeans with many scholars turn morons in our country.

  6. You yield the power of the pen. You have an excellent ability to put your thoughts into words, in very convincing ways. You remind me of a Literature student doing Practical Criticism, except that you do so not on poems or proses, but on life. I enjoyed all your posts.

    I enjoyed reading this one too, but I view conscription differently. There is a Chinese saying: 有国才有家. I believe in this, and I believe a strong armed force is needed to make this possible.

    So I cannot agree that basic human freedom is as important and necessary as NS. NS is a precondition for the freedom of the country, and only when the country is free can we speak of individual human freedom.

    • Perhaps we can distinguish between believing in having an army and believing in conscription. If you believe in having an army, of course you will believe that the state should be able to recruit soldiers. This is not the same as believing that the state should have the power to conscription every person or, in Singapore’s case, a specific demographic (male citizens).

      Perhaps even with the distinction made, you still do view conscription differently. But a view is not immutable truth. So what we have are different views, ultimately. But perhaps you can also see how these views are not equal in Singapore. Your view is often taken as the natural state of things, the truth that should not be challenged. Which also means that other views, even if they are just as valid, are deemed wrong.

      If you would just toy with the idea that you may not be comfortable with… consider how the belief in the necessity of conscription (i.e. leaving citizens without a choice but to join the army) could be rather paradoxical. If we say that NS is a precondition for the freedom of the country (and operate under the assumption that it is true), then the reasoning is that anything that is a precondition for the freedom of the country should be present or preserved. Yet, would you say that NS is the sole precondition for a country’s freedom? How could a country be free (even with NS) if the subjects forming the country are not free?

      On the other hand, we might play with a seemingly radical idea. Let’s say there’s no NS. Let’s say some country invades Singapore and occupies Singapore. Would the people remain forever enslaved or would they eventually integrate into a new political entity? If we are integrated into a new political entity, then we might still be “free” even though “Singapore” will cease to exist. (The continued existence of Singapore as a political entity is not a precondition for freedom.) But let’s go further and imagine that the country that invades Singapore decides to keep the people of Singapore under a form of permanent subjugation, would these people not be asserting their freedom by fighting against the subjugation? Yes, perhaps this would mean that the people would not exactly be “free” but would be fighting for freedom, but let us remember that this is a situation we can end up in even if we have NS. It is a situation we can end up with even if we conscript all men and women. NS cannot guarantee that Singapore won’t be invaded and it cannot guarantee that Singapore will not lose a war if we are invaded. In that sense, it does not necessarily mean that Singapore _will_ be free if there is NS. Yet, in the name of freedom for Singapore, it will always take always freedoms when the policy of conscription is in existence.

      While NS cannot guarantee that Singapore will be free, NS in the form of conscripting all male citizens can actually “guarantee” that the price paid (whether the army wins or loses when there is a war) is the freedom of the individual to choose. You may see the need to have an army, but this does not mean that you have to agree with the policy of conscription. You can have an army without conscription. But if you equate the need for an army to a justification for conscripting all male citizens, you have to also acknowledge that the price of conscription is the freedom of the individual. And this is a freedom that is always sacrificed by the state.


      If you don’t agree that basic human freedom is as important and necessary as NS (if not more important and necessary), it is as good as saying that the freedom of all individuals in a nation can be sacrificed to preserve a political entity as it is. But what is really so important about preserving the political entity as it is, especially when the cost is the enslavement of the very people within it.

      • Having an army isn’t the same as necessitating conscription. But in history no army has won wars when it lacked numbers. Technology plays a big part but ultimately, one needs soldiers on the ground to overwhelm an adversary and bring a war to an end. Without foot on the ground to capture an ultimate objective (whether it is a person or a HQ), a war lingers on.

        The only way I foresee a city state as Singapore can realize such numbers is through conscription. Around the world, voluntary soldiers are mostly from more rural areas of a country. They are seldom from cities like Tokyo, Washington DC, London, etc. Singapore doesn’t have the luxury of having rural areas. Without conscription, there may not be enough numbers to make up a military.

        I see your point that a country cannot be truly free if the subjects forming it are not truly free. Yet, is absolute human freedom truly attainable? We all have to make sacrifices and prioritise in order to live the life we want. If I had a choice, I would have chosen not to work at all. But that means I live a life in poverty, and I don’t want that. So do I REALLY have the freedom to choose?

        Ok, I acknowledge that even if one agrees that absolute human freedom is not attainable, such agreement does not naturally give anyone else the right to take away one’s freedom in another sense (by conscripting its people). But is enforced conscription really enforced in that sense? There is still a choice if one chooses not to serve NS. He leaves Singapore and doesn’t step foot here again. It is a choice; he still can choose. And if this doesn’t constitute a real choice, then equally, the need to work in order to live a decent life doesn’t constitute a choice, either. Then the argument that individual freedom is necessary to a country’s freedom won’t hold out anymore. Because even without NS, there still is no real individual freedom.

        The radical idea you envisaged is radical indeed. If Singapore is invaded and occupied, Singaporeans may eventually integrate into a new political entity – or we may not. I believe the latter is more likely. I struggle to think of any occupied country in past or recent history where its people are integrated into mainstream society beyond political rhetoric. At the very best scenarios, the hate and prejudices are suppressed. If there has been any historical instances where an occupied territory is absorbed amicably into another, there still has to be a phase of years, if not decades, of struggle and possibly bloodshed before such an ideal new situation is reached. I know of no such scenario as a seamless integration. And whether or not such an integration is desired depends on whether we are lucky enough to get an enlightened new government – or master. That means the decision about how we are treated will be passed into another’s hands. Can we realistically expect to be MORE FREE in such a situation than we are now, even with NS?

        If it is one’s view that being invaded and having to fight for freedom under overt or covert discrimination is a more acceptable scenario than serving 2 years of NS, then true enough, I have to concede that such a view must mean that NS is not necessary.

        NS alone cannot guarantee that Singapore won’t be invaded. But a well-run NS, and SAF, can. My belief (not just through state-sponsored media but from my study of militaries) is that the SAF is well run ENOUGH. There will be objections to this view based on one’s own slice of experience in NS, but such objections probably forget the fact that military strength is ultimately relative – if we postulate that the SAF is run at 50% efficiency, this is actually good enough, as long as we know that others are running at 20% only. If we think our soldiers are not strong because one tried to swim away from Tekong, that’s still a stronger army than one whose recruits shoot their instructors and their instructors abuse their recruits physically and sexually.

        Hence, on your final paragraph, you can say that yes, I agree that human freedom is not as important and necessary as NS. Because NS assures us of freedom at the higher order, a freedom without which we would have no individual freedom to speak of. With NS, we FEEL “enslaved” (and you have to agree with me that “enslaved” is a tad too strong?). Without NS, we make possible a doomsday scenario, where we can expect to BE enslaved.

        I guess ultimately, our starting points differ. You come from the point of view of individual freedom (which perhaps at my age, my experiences of life and study of the world, I feel is too abstract); whereas I come as a hard-nosed, practical student of history, which tells me that no country has survived an invasion with its way of life unscathed. South Korea is a nation whose different neighbours have at different points of history decided to walk into their country because they were militarily weak, because their previous rulers/governments saw no need for a strong military. They realize the folly of that now. It is no surprise that they too have enforced conscription.

        • I’m actually not using the word “enslaved” on NS as a hyperbole or figure of speech. To those unwilling to do it and are forced by the law to do it, it is enslavement.

          Our starting points may differ, but the issue is still the same. It would be fine if your standpoint does not in any way affect those who hold a position similar to mine. But it does. For those who think like you, NS is OK. Whether you like serving NS or not, you will still do it because of certain beliefs. And while individuals like you are admirable, it is also important to think of what happens to people who, instead of thinking like you, think like me. The result is that even those who do not subscribe to the same belief in military service and conscription and implicated in the policy that results from such a belief. This certainly is not fair to everyone.

          Of course, you may say that nothing is ever fully fair and so on, but remember: people holding a position similar to mine will never stop you from serving NS if you so think it is necessary. In other words, my view does not quite affect you other than the fact that we may debate about it endlessly. On the other hand, those who hold your position would actually compel people who hold my position to serve NS. It is a view that carries with it an overbearing power. (To clarify, I’m not saying that you are being overbearing. I don’t think you are. But I think you can see how by simply holding the position you hold, you are encroaching into the space of others.)

          It’s not simply a matter “You think it’s necessary, you serve.” It is a matter of “You think it’s necessary, so even I have to serve?!” What I hope is that while you may assert the “correctness” of your beliefs, you can also recognize the problems that your beliefs could create for others.In a way, it becomes an ethical question, which you may not deem practical because you believe yourself to come from a point of practicality and hard historical truth.

          Also, when you say “human freedom is not as important and necessary as NS. Because NS assures us of freedom at the higher order, a freedom without which we would have no individual freedom to speak of,” don’t you think at another level (which I can well claim is higher), without individual freedom, what nation is there to defend and thus what can NS assure us of?

          (As a aside, as history itself will show, NS cannot assure us of victory in a war. Countries with powerful armies can lose too.)

          If we want to speak of facts and practicality, how about venturing to the other big question NS in its implementation and what sorts of effects it has on a day to day basis? Is NS as it is happening in Singapore (not as a principle but as a happening reality) filled the ideals that we have been speaking of? Day to day realities include the way those who are unable to cope are treated, the way soldiers are always under suspicion of malingering the moment they report sick, the senseless enforcement of rules in the great name of discipline that yields no benefit, etc. Of course, this might raise even more issues of contention, but well…

          • (On your ‘aside’, it is true that sometimes, powerful armies don’t win wars. But this is very, very rare. Conversely, weak armies, even when they did win wars, only achieved their victories at extremely high costs. And they most certainly cannot deter war.)

            I agree there are implementation issues in NS but I prefer not to go there, not because I want to avoid the issue, but because as you acknowledged, it opens up a different debate altogether. I also agree with you that the “higher freedom” I speak of is valid only from my point of view, and that one can equally contend that individual freedom is the higher order of freedom, so my assertion was incorrect.

            The argument I want to pick up on, which got me nearly convinced, is your point that my belief infringes on your life, and not the other way round. Indeed I was persuaded for a moment. But on further thought, I still can’t concede. If we suppose that you get your way and one day the government decides that NS is unnecessary, abolishes it, and then we find ourselves the subject of harassment (e.g. we get strip-searched and confined every time we clear an immigration, or we hear fighter jets flying even when deep asleep at 3am and those jets don’t bear our flag), then the views of those who wanted NS scrapped would have impinged on my life – “You think it’s unnecessary, so now I always have to put up with this.” I believe if we don’t have NS, these are by no means unforeseeable scenarios.

            I don’t think you and I will come to a satisfactory resolution. It is true there may be something ethically amiss when we force people to do things they don’t want to do, but to me, such is the consequence of a political system where a democratically elected government is entrusted to make decisions that divide the people. NS in this regard is not different from the way we are made to live with the existing public housing and transport policies imposed on us – policies I don’t agree with but have to obey nonetheless. And if there comes a day the government changes and NS is abolished, people who share my views may well become the ones who lobby for change instead. Of course, such acceptance is just the practical approach to the situation on my part; I know it doesn’t change your disagreement with the ethics of it.

            If I may round off this debate, I don’t think either of us is more correct or enlightened – I certainly don’t claim to be. As I said, we have different start-points and they put us on two diverging pathways. I enjoyed this little debate nonetheless, and I’ll look forward to reading more of your posts (:

            • Erm… If I refuse to sacrifice myself for you, I have impinged on you life?

              Perhaps we can compare the situation to being in the same boat with a number of other people and the boat will sink unless a few people sacrifice themselves by jumping into the sea. If you decide without my agreement that a particular group of people (say, those who post comments in blogs) should sacrifice themselves. If you decide to do it, you would have my utmost respect. But if you push me into the sea before jumping into the sea, you have impinged on my life. On the other hand, if you do not push me or anyone else into the water, the boat will sink. But this does not mean that my belief that I shouldn’t be jumping into the sea or my refusal to jump into the sea has impinged on your life. Because you have no right to tell anyone to jump into the water.

              And notice how it’s going to turn out for me: I will die whether I decide to sacrifice myself or not. So why should I have to die?

              In an extreme version of this scenario, perhaps you have everyone sacrificing themselves. In the end, the boat doesn’t sink. But there’s not a soul in it anymore.

  7. Hahaha…….
    the children of Sin are leaving when they can and near 50% stuck here are thinking of leaving if they can.
    It seems to me that many are looking for a ‘guo’ elsewhere than to belong to a ‘guo’ here.
    ‘Guo’ in a globalized world means anywhere one gets the best out of living.
    Tang Liang Hong, Francis Seow, Tan Wah Piow and Company would be able to tell Singaporeans more about their love for Singapore.

  8. Your analysis is true. The armed forces teach conscripts the various techniques to kill. And those who can perform the techniques of killing better gets rewarded by a marksman badge and prizes.

    And teaching a person how to kill another human being is dehumanizing. In my opinion.

    There are definitely other ways to build national defense. Forced conscription is however the lowest cost method to the sg state-corporation, at the expense of the common man.

    Given that we are not really comparable to South Korea, Taiwan, or Israel in terms of geo-political military dynamics in the immediate region, it is time to examine scrapping the current system and replace it with a more faster/cheaper/better one.

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