At the end of the movie ‘Ah Boys To Men (Part 1)’, there was this reflection by Recruit Ken thought aloud for the audience to hear – ‘People always say that there is no war in Singapore. But after this incident, I’ve realised… no, there is. The war is inside us. We are our own enemy. If we cannot win the war within, how are we going to fight the real enemy? There are many battles in life. As a soldier, it’s not what I’m fighting; it’s what I’m fighting for.’ Ken was reluctant to serve National Service (NS) for two years, which is the government’s mandatory policy for fit young male citizens to undergo military training, to protect the country due to lack of full-time soldiers. In a bid to escape from training, he indirectly caused an accident, which led to much regret. It was as if he had waged a pointless battle with casualties (including himself) when he was supposed to better defend everyone. It is true that there has been no actual war in Singapore’s post-WWII history. But it is also true that beneath the outer calm, there is turmoil within our minds. For Ken, it was his struggle to make peace with being ‘forced’ to be a disciplined peacekeeper while deprived of freedom to walk away.
As the Buddha taught in the Dhammapada, ‘Though thousand times a thousand in battle one may conquer, yet should one conquer just oneself, one is the greatest conqueror.’ We are always our own primary and immediate enemies. If only we all (especially corrupted power-hungry politicians) realise this and conquer our inner demons of selfish greed, hate and delusion, it would be impossible for any war to even begin in this world. All wars would cease instantly. However, since this is unlikely to occur in the near future, we do need to resolve our inner conflicts to better defend against possible outer enemies. Life is indeed an ongoing battlefield with many obstacles to cross, even if they karmically manifest from our minds individually and collectively, resulting from action and inaction.
The movie was made in conjunction with the country’s 45th anniversary of NS, to celebrate this rite of passage (that does aid growing up), and to remind Singaporean guys on the value of NS. (Some see it as propaganda with NS as the key placement product though.) In this sense, Ken’s last words suggest realisation of the importance of learning to fight for his loved ones, and the country they live in. Ironically, in Singapore today, youths are feeling increasingly estranged from NS. (Some say the movie is for reversing this trend.) A reason for such alienation, which was not addressed in the movie, is increase of new citizens, many of whom, with strategic timing, will never serve NS, while enjoying the nation’s ‘free’ peace. There are already thousands of others, who, when coming of age, renounce their PR status in time to escape NS. Some parents avoid taking up PR status for their sons for the same reason, although returning as ‘Foreign Talents’ later. All these is despite having enjoyed the blessings of the country, with some planning to continue doing so. This naturally gives rise to feelings of unfairness.
It is good to have gratitude to one’s nation with a healthy sense of national pride, but what if its policies become unbalanced, warping the nation so quickly that it becomes tricky deciding what is left to take pride in? If we prefer equanimity in vision, we should have equality or equivalence in action. This is not xenophobia, but dread of divisive policies meant for ‘nation-building’, that can tear it apart instead. Yes, military training is no walk in the park at all, with some unfortunate soldiers and reservists losing lives and limbs in the process. (I had, with a section of fellow soldiers, nearly died together during a near-miss training mishap.) There is literal blood, sweat and tears in NS. Should newbies not make some equitable sacrifices to contribute to the nation? Just as wealth (and connections) could not buy Ken out of NS, merely giving money is no count – only sincere efforts will do. The idea of ‘leave no man behind’ (in Part 2 of the movie) in terms of protecting citizens should apply to leaving no fit and able new citizens out of doing service too. (Incidentally, many see the government’s overflowing import of foreigners to be for ‘economical’ gains above anything else.)
Even without an actual war, is the seemingly loosely controlled population influx not already an ‘invasion’ of sorts? Is Singapore not already subtly but surely slipping away from the ideal society it is supposed to become? The massive intake of foreigners is quickly diluting unique Singapore culture and Singaporeans’ sense of identity. Of course, migration is inevitable and even necessary at times in this globalised world. It should be welcomed for win-win situations, but too much change too soon is bewildering and frustrating to those living in the host country. For instance, the transport, housing, education and employment systems are undergoing much strain from inadequate infrastructural readiness. NS is just one strained issue. (Beyond two years’ training, there are 10 annual cycles of reservist training too, taking much time and effort.)
With this much abrupt change going on, the very definition of Singapore is shifting so swiftly that Ken might as well be wondering what exactly is it that makes Singapore ‘Singapore’, that he is supposed to defend. Is it the one that used to be, that he is familiar with and loves, or the one it is going to be, that he cannot really grasp. It is hard to be patriotic, to defend what you cannot see clearly enough to focus upon amidst the flux. Precisely due to constant change, there is no fixed entity called ‘Singapore’. The pertinent question, then, is… What should Singapore evolve to be? In a recent localised by-election, a growing opposition party defeated the ruling party, which is perceived by many to be lacking in sincerity, by a clear margin. Does this mark the beginning of an ideological battle to reclaim and reshape Singapore? Is collaboration instead of polarisation possible? What will the Ken in you be ‘fighting’ for? A better world for more I hope, with greater equanimous compassion and wisdom.
– A Fellow Reservist Soldier