A Singaporean Feminist’s Opinion on NS

19337609Photo unapologetically take from TODAY.

Feminist writer Natalie Tan gives her 2 cents on national conscription and on its social implications, in the process reaping frustrations which were sown since the regiment’s implementation, and annoying everyone with the deliberate overuse of the word “feminist”.

So how’d you like the title? Was gunning for the most aggravating/abrasive title possible. Other candidates included:

  1. Chinese Singaporeans and NS
  2. Young Asian Female Looking for Trouble, click to find out more
  3. Should girls be enlisted in the Singaporean army?
  4. Amos Yee Opens Up About NS: The Interview

I also learnt to change my opening lines so that they show up in the link description on Facebook shares and provide a nice summary. Hopefully that does the trick to draw more eyeballs, because otherwise my opening lines have always been non-social media friendly.

Ok your time as an internet reader is valuable. Now that you’re here, are you ready for what I’m about to say? Are you really ready?

Ok here goes.

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I empathise.

No really I do. I decided to write this because I came across the non-news that some Singaporean girl posted a video berating men who complain about NS, and she even compared their physical exertion to that of illegal immigrants. I didn’t watch the video because I didn’t quite feel like spending my data charges on this crap, but it did remind me that I have a lot of thoughts on the topic, and I don’t think there’s a lot going around the internet on the topic from the point of view of anyone in a similar social position to me. In fact, my intuition tells me that people skirt the topic because it’s so difficult to write about it without stepping on anyone’s steel-toed combat boots.

Ok, so I’ve organised the rest of this article to address central, pressing questions. They’re not really classy academic questions, but these are the ones that consistently pop up on discussion forums and are usually met with some Jack_Boi87 comment like “idk lah sua :/”. Not very informative.

Ok first question. Why do you empathise?

I understand why Singapore needs a military defence force. It doesn’t just function on a practical level in the event of war, but it’s also symbolic and a semiotic requirement for any entity claiming to be a sovereign nation. It’s part of the impression. A country will only seem legitimate if it has a government, its own currency and an army. I, however, acknowledge the artificiality of nationhood. Nations are relatively new and their conception coincided with the invention of the novel. Yesteryear’s ideas of colonial empires seep into our present understanding of what it’s like to be a strong polity.

That being said, I think it’s unfortunate and symptomatic of larger social problems that we prioritise the preservation of a nation over the lives of individuals. People with their own lives and concerns and ambitions are reduced to a mere statistic in news reports and budget proposals. The bodies of young men have been objectified and are assessed based on their utility. The army functions like a well-oiled fighting machine and each soldier constitutes a tiny cog. Here I’m going to echo a bit of Foucault (bear with me): the state apparatus depends on the docility-utility of bodies.

A lot of movies and novels make the idea of fighting seem more palatable and even honourable because sacrifice is something that is compatible with the male ego. If you spend a lifetime hearing warmongering messages about how men should prove their worth by showing that they can fight, and then you live in a social environment where it’s difficult to show vulnerability to your male peers, then of course you’re going to need some sort of outlet to earn some dignity. A boy becomes a man when he blows up trying to evacuate his team. After that he is very much a Real Man when his body is encased in mahogany with a flag draped over it. The reality of war is very different though. I reckon most soldiers die very anti-climactic deaths (they forgot something, the weather conditions weren’t favourable, they starved in the cold, they fell sick from bacteria in rivers, they spend 1 month travelling and then die after 10 seconds of gunfire etc). And when you’re on the field, your humanity still exists in you. Of course it’s beneficial for the army as a whole for soldiers to march fearless into battle, but are they really fearless? Will you be if you were activated in war?

These things were more apparent when the British colonisers imposed conscription on Singaporean youths in 1954. Protests broke out because Chinese high school students did not want to serve a state that they did not identify with, and their petition was met with violent action from the colonial government. After the dissolution of colonial rule, military conscription could be rationalised along nationalistic lines, and that’s where all the Singapore is a small country, if not me then who, if not now then when rhetoric comes in.

I know another grievance is that men feel like they have lost 2 years of their lives and they’re not competing well career-wise. I have the suspicion that this is exacerbated by the fact that women are 2 years ahead. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of men to have women as their seniors, especially if they’re younger. That perception is itself a problem, and to be quite frank I don’t think this is a real issue that will stretch well into your adult life, because 1) statistically, women tend to be in different industries anyway, and 2) the camaraderie built from the shared experience of NS will help you in male-dominated industries. Real deals are struck on the golf course, not in the office. Admittedly, it’s different when you’re looking to work overseas. I think it becomes an issue then, because people won’t have the knowledge that you’re 2 years behind because of compulsory military service. I can’t really comment on this aspect because I’ve never spoken to anyone old enough to form an informed opinion on the long term effects of NS on an overseas career.

What do you think of guys who chao geng?

Full on empathy because if I were a guy and I did NS I would definitely chao geng too lol (but then again maybe if I were a guy I would be more encouraged to play sports, then I would be fitter and it won’t be so daunting, idk). Some men will flourish in the army, and some men won’t. I don’t want to discredit those who do well in the army because it does take backbreaking work to get far. It’s not something people are just born with. What I’m saying is that so many men are uninterested, and some are even scared away from “manly” activities because “manly” men have been mean to them in school. I personally know many boys like that because they tend to gravitate towards female friends (we’re less intimidating and know not to make fun of them). They are more interested in things like drawing, gardening, knitting, childcare, writing etc, and some of them are really excellent in those areas. I can see why they would be lazy in the army. If I didn’t care about something then I wouldn’t do it. Simple.

I guess the controversy arises because Singaporeans see NS as a responsibility, a duty. If you are lazy then you’re just shirking your due responsibility and jeopardising national security. And on top of all this, it’s a test to prove that you’re a good man, and no accolades in fashion design or nature photography will ever bring you the same adulation. I think it’s hideous that we think that way, and in an ironic roundabout way, it might even promote belligerent behaviour and make living less safe for everyone. When people see the term “gender role”, they think about women and house chores, but serving in NS is also a gender role, one imposed on men.

I want to clarify that I think it’s a great thing that some men are so dedicated to serving and that they’ve defied so many odds to rise up through the ranks, but I also think it’s fine if men don’t do that, and that they contribute to society by excelling in other areas.

Do you think girls should serve NS?

I don’t know how to answer this question because my real answer is that, ideally, I don’t want anybody in the world to be in the military. No soldiers at all. But obviously that’s not going to happen, so I will try to answer again with that grim fact in mind. Let’s work this out together.

Hmm. Yes, but a transition towards that will have to carefully address and manage social differences so that it benefits our country and doesn’t damage other sectors of living. For example, I know a lot of girls want to get a university degree and be married first before having their first child, and considering that the risks of pregnancy increase after 30, we would like to have all this done before then. Two years of NS will zap so much time from that little window. Maybe NS can be introduced later, once the woman has already given birth? But then she’ll be more sluggish then right? Then again not all women want to have children, but it’s very difficult to make a definite decision about all this when you’re only 18 and you haven’t even met your first boyfriend. It’s also not very conducive to assume that women would give birth because if they don’t then they’ll be treated like selfish spinsters. I really don’t know. Maybe there can be a half-serve half-study scheme for everyone? But that won’t be vigorous enough right, how can anyone be operationally ready like that?

I guess social expectations of what a woman should be like will also have to change before girls are enlisted. I’m sure boys would be happier knowing that girls are enlisted and that seems more fair, but after they ORD, are they going to accept the tanned and muscular women in their social circles? Are men going to respect that a woman will have as much knowledge and experience in the army (assuming that in this hypothetical universe, we do indeed do exactly the same things)?

Maybe women can serve as nurses. That is compatible with current sexist standards of what women should do and how they should behave – caring, nurturing, attending to the needs of other people before themselves, domestic, docile. It’s useful anyway to have a large proportion of the Singaporean population trained in first aid. But if we go along these lines then it sort of defeats the purpose of enlisting girls for fairness’ sake, because serving as a nurse is not as physically demanding and they don’t have to put their lives on the line in the event of a war. I really have no idea how all this can work out.

Before we move on to the next question, it’s really important to point out that I think many women are more capable/suited than men to serve in NS. I had this friend who was the head of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and she was 1) very fit, more so than a lot of boys, 2) was always in leadership positions in sports, 3) very smart, one of the top students, 4) in admiration of military positions. I always thought she would have made an excellent soldier. I had another friend who was super interested in military planes and she knew all about them. She also had a really hardy personality. She also would have made a good soldier. I think we’re missing out on a lot when we gloss over people like them by virtue of their gender.

Are Singaporean girls pampered?

No, not anymore than your average developed country citizen. Singapore is a very wealthy nation, and the middle class here are expected to be able to afford treats like matcha tiramisus and S.E.A. Aquarium tickets. I think Singapore is a pretty pampered country in general, and the government is exceptionally paternalistic.

The answer changes if you switch the yardstick for measuring someone’s level of “pamperedness”. If you’re assessing a girl based on sexist ideas of what a girl should be like, then the millennial Singaporean girl would fall short on a lot. Here are a list of things that we are supposed to do:

  1. Cook and/or bake.
  2. Do all the house chores.
  3. Like and take care of children.
  4. Be loyal and faithful at the side of a boyfriend/husband who is a “man in the making” i.e. he has no money.
  5. Stay slim.
  6. Somehow look very pretty but don’t ask anyone for money to buy makeup and look pretty.
  7. Don’t talk so much, even if you obviously know more about something.
  8. Give birth.
  9. Be attracted to men who are not physically attractive/don’t have good grades/don’t have a job/have the courage to ask us out, because otherwise we’ll be shallow.
  10. Be attracted to Singaporean men otherwise we’re race traitors.
  11. Not go out so much, especially at night.
  12. Study hard and do well in school but then don’t do anything with your degree beyond a regular office job.
  13. Not hold any leadership positions, especially above men.
  14. Be virginal, the best case scenario being that you’ve never dated before.

Tell me, would you be able to obey ALL these rules? It’s difficult, and for a lot of us, it’s not even in our interest, so why would we? I guess if you hold these standards, Singaporean girls will be mighty pampered to you, but the news I have for you is that so are all other women in developed countries, and it’s not going to change your dating prospects, which we all know is the main point of the question. If you choose to stick by these standards, I suggest you work on your own personality, not because it will guarantee you a date, but because in general I think your personality needs work. You’re not entitled to a cooking and cleaning machine because you served NS.

Ok that’s about all I have for today, hope this was useful and interesting in one way or another.

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One thought on “A Singaporean Feminist’s Opinion on NS

  1. Excellent analysis, coming from a guy who just ORD-ed last year,especially the conclusion. Just wanted to point out that for some guys (I was one of them, until I stopped giving a damn when I ORD-ed), the whole point of having girls serve 2 years is to pretty much waste their time as well, and maybe even due to the doubling of manpower (womanpower? Personpower?) NS can be halved. Wishful thinking, maybe.
    Another point is that girls are statistically likelier to be more educated and land better jobs as a whole, so guys (at least ambitious ones) may feel bitter about that and blame a portion of it on wasting 2 years. I mean, our society see the 0.01% of rich guys while ignoring all the poor guys in manual labour. People don’t ask for gender equality in poverty, for example (I know, over-generalisation, but at least a bit of it is true).
    Last point is humourous. My female warrant officer makes grown men quake in their boots with just a glare. There’s quite a few enlisted women, so the SAF is pretty used to it. There’s also a female general now, so the whole image issue is no longer quite as pertinent, imo. They even actively recruit girls back at my vocation, with limited success.
    P.S.: What about serving in the non-military forces, such as SPF and SCDF? But that opens a racial can of worms, so perhaps some other time.

    Like

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