Friday, May 19, 2006

Power over the body

This essay is about the immense power of the State over every male citizen’s ‘body’ in Singapore. It is prompted by this new controversy that is building up in cyberspace, which revolves around the issue of whether a certain gifted Singaporean violinist should be granted deferment of his mandatory military service. Despite the heartfelt and forceful rhetorical attempts by concerned citizens to help the gifted violinist to plead with Singapore’s defence ministry, I fear that all these voices are not going to make any impact at all at the executive level of the ministry, and of the government in general.

In the first place, the actions of the well-meaning Singaporeans who write in to help the gifted violinist are based on the assumption that the defence ministry has a heart. But it doesn’t! It’s a bureaucratic machine and a machine is just that – a ‘thing’ or ‘network of paperworks’ which does only what it was designed to do originally, with no other purpose. Since it does not have a heart (literally and metaphorically speaking) and has instead a singular focus (to force everybody to serve NS), all the letters that appeal to emotions (e.g. feelings of 'ah what a pity') will simply be deflected like bullets hitting a massive rock, even if individual decision-makers reading them do in some way sympathize with the poor gifted violinist...

As for letters appealing to rational reasoning, they will also fail to convince the bureaucrats, for the ministry will 'reason' that (a) if he's really that good, he will get into the same or another top music school after his NS, and (b) his skills won't weaken during NS (and if it does, then he isn't that good). In any case, MINDEF will be able to retort by saying, in a somewhat circular way, that "if you can't achieve your own professional goals despite the NS hurdle, then you aren't really that good, which then means that MINDEF was right after all to refuse to grant you the deferment in the first place". And through this episode, MINDEF achieves a scarier goal: it once again reminds people of its immense power, which manifests most clearly when it rejects, for the sake of macro-level interests, requests that actually seem reasonable at the individual or micro level.

In any case, the poor gifted violinist would most probably have to accept his fate or karma. It is intersubjectively understood as part of Singapore’s social contract that to be a citizen of this country you have to agree to let your ‘body’ be fully taken over by the State, via MINDEF and through the Enlistment Act. So first you have to let it be consigned to a powerful regime of two years, known as NS (2-1/2 years in my time). Then you have an immensely long period of reservist activity. So this regime operates at two levels which are very creatively known as ‘National Service (full-time)’, and ‘National Service’. The latter term, which is an extremely creative variation of the former, essentially refers to the seemingly endless military regime that continues to bring Singaporean men immense stress, physical ‘torture’ (not literally, obviously), and inconvenient disruptions to their otherwise peaceful and focused working life. A more pervasive pair of ‘sub-regimes’ would be the IPPT physical fitness regime and its associated ‘remedial training’ regime, which strikes fear into the hearts of many Singaporean men over the age of 30 (young men under the age of 30, you won’t understand, so you can stop reading this essay from this point onwards…) :)

One might say ‘oh come on’ and say proudly that HE thinks IPPT is easy, personally, but it’s true that it can be a great hurdle for many people. The remedial training of 8 weeks is simply ridiculous from the individual’s point of view, although the ridiculous nature of the experience is translated from a seemingly non-ridiculous organizational logic (which is to get people to pass the test). At a more fundamental level, one could also ask why there is this necessity to run at such a fast pace for such a great distance? ‘National defence, of course!’ comes the rapid answer. But in this technological era characterized by terrorism and unconventional warfare, I do not believe that the 'bricks and mortar' way of preparing for a war makes much sense. It’s more important to train people how to cope with unexpected attacks (e.g. bioterrorism) and know some basic civil defence skills. Honestly, why waste the precious time of busy professionals who are fighting for their careers and looking after their kids by calling them up so frequently for mobilization exercises, in-camp trainings, 2-1/2 weeks guard duties (euphemistically called ‘protection of installation’ exercises), and even telemarketing-like duties such as ‘detachment IC’ duties, where reservists need to take a list and perform the role of telephone operators, calling up fellow reservists for some ‘secretive’ reasons that cannot be revealed...

I've meditated on the above issues for a long time. I still feel great unhappiness each time I have to drag my feet to run (I hate running, by the way, even though when I was younger I didn't mind it so much.) And I have come to the following conclusion: I think that this regime is actually put in place by the defence ministry for two unarticulated purposes: the first of which is to create an impression that the defence force is always ready to fight. And because the metaphor in use is precisely that – to ‘fight’ (as though it involves guys delivering punches at one another) – IPPT fits well as a complementary regime and a ‘wayang’ show to tell potential foreign attackers that ‘hey don’t pray pray with Singapore okay, our soldiers do IPPT one okay….they do reservist 40 days a year and get mobilized all the time okay….’ The second reason is slightly more hilarious: it is to remind you that your body is actually theirs, and thereby gain an opportunity to reassert and consolidate their identity as an organization and social institution of ultimate power - power over your consciousness (‘how not to think about NS since the letters come at regular intervals each year, ‘reminding’ you of your obligations to Singapore’), and power over every muscle in your body. This is, I guess, legitimate power - one that is legitimized by the 'national security/national duty' argument and supported by many Singaporeans, ladies especially :) So remember that with ‘every step you take, every breath you take’, you are under its total control: ‘Move on, you insignificant hamster! Unless you want to go for RT and have less time for your little hamsters at home and for your hamster job.’ (Don't you think running on the treadmill makes us look a bit like hamsters?) :)

But being a rather optimistic person, I will try to look at the bright side of things. Perhaps this IPPT regime is actually GOOD for Singaporeans because it forces them to exercise. But then if it is indeed so good, my suggestion would be that the age limit be extended to 60 years old, or more (say, 90?). After all, who says that we cannot run when we are in our fifties or older? We can!! And if it’s for national defence, we will do it! And in fact because of its natural goodness, perhaps ladies should do IPPT every year too – all the way until age 60 as well. That would be my prescription for a healthy and secure Singapore which is strongly defended by people of all ages and sexes who can RUN and do chin-ups, even if they have zero knowledge about how to react when there is a simple terrorist or bioterrorist attack. Yes, running is the priority in a war, especially if you are on the losing side. :)


Anonymous Molly said...

Oooh yes!! In fact, NS turns boys into men and girls into women!! NS! NS! NS! PAP! NS! NS! NS PAP! NS! NS!

Fri May 19, 08:56:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

That's the spirit Molly! And 2.4km is too short - we should run at least 24km! Singaporeans are superhumans! Anyway my body is not mine - it belongs to MINDEF, as I have realized over the years...(Boy I do owe them so much, eh...)

Fri May 19, 11:30:00 PM 2006  
Blogger kwayteowman said...

Actually hor, the KTM also curses and swears every time he get the IPPT notification.

Yeah, the KTM is also lao kok kok (no longer Cat X), so he understands the pain.

However, the KTM has come to realise that the IPPT is actually good for him. If not for the IPPT, he would never get off his fat behind and exercise......

There are actually hidden benefits for the country and it's not about going to war.

Basically, if the men are more healthy (even if suay suay kenna forced to be so), they will see the doctor less often and have a lower probability of catching some serious disease. Basically translates to lower healthcare costs for the country.

Wah, perhaps I shouldn't talk so loudly. Scully Khaw Boon Wan suggest to Teo Chee Hean to make reservist longer to keep the healthcare bill down.....

Not trying to defend Mindef. Not like you dunno I'm not impressed with them. Just trying to be fair to IPPT. :-P

Heard that some people really like IPPT. They say it's free money. The KTM however can barely clear his every year, so it's an endless chore.

Aiyah, must take it in the right spirit lah. :-)

Sat May 20, 12:12:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Xin said...

i have no comments thou for the poor violinist IS my friend, a fellow musician as well. He has since been only just playing cards and gigs all day long... and at age 17, the only cert he has (Apart from music related certs) is the PSLE cert!

Sat May 20, 12:15:00 AM 2006  
Blogger jllt said...

Although I don't know what is happening, it would really be weird if the violinist gets deferment. It's almost like countries appealing to Singapore not to execute their citizens because they have violated our laws. Don't know if that makes sense to you... Hahaha...


I have not gone through NS, but from what I have heard and experienced, I think NS is not all bad. Many friends know what they really want out of life after the torturous BMT. They value family more, they know mum IS the best cook. As for IPPT and reservist, maybe it's the case of 'healthy bodies, healthy minds'? :)


The argument of the government owning the bodies of Singaporean males can be applied to the education system as well. Why do we need NAFA tests? Why should we have to run 10 rounds for every PE lessons until the tests are over? If a healthy body is the aim, why can't we just play sports we really enjoy, instead of running the risks of twisting ankles, blacking out, and burning our lungs to go round a circle 6 times, only to end up at the same place?

I do not miss those days.

Sat May 20, 12:17:00 AM 2006  
Blogger yc said...

yes i agree with jllt on napfa tests! A person's physical fitness cannot simply be determined by all those test items.

The government owns not only our bodies but everything else la. haha

Sat May 20, 09:15:00 AM 2006  
Blogger *The Lunatic Fringe* said...

One can always default and serve the national service in the SAF detention centre ala Jehovah's Witness believers.

One can also emigrate.

But for the rest of us who are unable to accept the consequences of not serving, NS, we grit our teeth and bear with the 2-2.5 years in a "vocation" and then go through 10 (formerly 13 year) NS cycle.

While the State may "possess" your body during the 2-2.5 yrs of full-time national service, they cannot possess your mind. Just remember liberty is in your mind. I met people in prison whose attitudes towards life and living is much more positive than mine.

Don't blame SAF, free yourself in your mind or do options a and b - detention barracks or emigrate.

Sat May 20, 02:51:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi KTM: Ah, a fellow lao kok kok reservist! Haha then you must know my pain.... :] Actually hor, Heavenly also knows that there are hidden benefits. But women also fall sick when they get old, do they not? So would u say they should do it too, hehe? Good things must be shared freely... :]

I heard from some doctors that running is actually very BAD for one's knees though. Is it true? (Any doctors around in cyberspace?)

Hi Xin: your friend?? :)

Hi Jllt: It makes sense in a way, and doesn't make sense in another way...Actually, I don't hate NS. In fact I even won some small award at the Unit level cos I was too 'on' during the NSF days ;)

But for reservist, the IPPT 2.4km run should be reduced to 1.2km after age 30. And they should let us learn something useful (e.g. civil defence skills) during reservist than simply waste our time. It's not really the wasting of time that bugs me so much (after all idling around can be fun and relaxing); it's the fact that we don't learn any USEFUL knowledge that bugs me.

Hi YC: Hey! :) Yeah I think the NAPFA test is strange - why does it even have a 'sit-and-reach' station??

Hi Lunatic Fringe: Free myself in the mind? I'm free wat... :)

Sun May 21, 11:02:00 AM 2006  
Blogger trisha said...

Schools do NAPA test so that they can compare which scool got higher scores. Then MOE can see which school has fitter students, then give special awards to schools, also targets for the principal to meet.

If schools just play basketball or ping pong for fun during PE, how to compare with one another? You dont know meh, we love to rank everything related to education?

Sun May 21, 06:28:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Xin said...

heavenly sword: yupz.. :)

Mon May 22, 01:16:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous ted said...

Some people die in NS and many people get "maimed", alot more people get brainfucked.

So tell me, what's so good about NS again?

Mon May 22, 04:38:00 PM 2006  
Blogger kwayteowman said...

What good is NS?

If the Malaysians turn off our water supply, we can march to KL to ask their PM to exprain. Dun want to give us water also must exprain. Even though we got no CCTV cambera recording that they agreed to sell us water, we got proof on paper, so they must exprain themselves. :-P

Is that a good explanation for you? :-P

Tue May 23, 08:35:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

march to KL? get real man....
it only show you have absolutely no idea how our men (esp the infantry men) on the gound turns out to when after marching a few kilometers to launch an attack, all becomes blind fuck!

"bang! bang! bang!" blindly....

i seriously doubt if we can march past johor...

Tue May 23, 01:18:00 PM 2006  
Blogger kwayteowman said...

Are you an NSF or a reservist? :-) If you are NSF, then you I completely understand where you are coming from. :-P

After I become a reservist, I realized that unlike the NSF, the reservists can think and will chop chop get the job done. Motto is: do it once, do it good, then relac one corner. :-P The reservists may be a bit fat and sloppy, but fighting a war requires some brains and maturity.

Perahps it's not as bad as it seems, or perhaps it's because I'm not an Infantry man (maybe Infantry is very jialat?). Or perhaps my unit is different, but I actually enjoy going back for ICT and meeting old friends (maybe the KT grease has caused some brain damage). Still hate IPPT though. :-)

Tue May 23, 02:37:00 PM 2006  
Blogger *The Lunatic Fringe* said...

Heavenly Sword and KTM:

NS starts to make a little bit of sense during reservist as we are a bit older, more mature and have sunk deeper roots into Singapore through our mortgage, CPF, career, own family (spouse and/or children). Hence, there are things worthwhile to die for. Not sure about mortgage and CPF but yes for family.

This year is my 10th and last ICT before going into Mindef Reserve. My unit is doing operational duty and it's more meaningful.

For IPPT, it benefits NSmen because we are forced to exercise like it or not. It at least mitigates the real risk of letting our bodies fall apart physically. For me, this year is Cat Z and just went for IPPT FFI. Last couple of years stamina not as good so just get a pass at SAFRA "air-con" IPPT. heheheh

Enjoy the camaderie of NS, take care of yourself and try to have daughters than sons. :-P

Wed May 24, 09:43:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nation is irrelevant, you'll realise it when the tsunami hits..

Wed May 24, 05:31:00 PM 2006  
Blogger kwayteowman said...

Lunatic Fridge:

Congrats! I still got quite a few more ICTs to go, but I like I said before, the ICTs dun bother me. :-) Perhaps I'm more blessed than others, but I really like the people that I do my ICTs with. :-P

And yes, indeed I agree with you, if we do end up going to war, I will put on my Number 4 and report for duty. Not because of some obscure notion of nationhood, but for my family, for my friends and for my loved ones -- and because I owe it to the fellas with whom I have been serving my ICTs. :-)

Perhaps the KTM is a stupid idealist, but he does believe in the adage, "ask not what your country can do for you ...." and also that Singapore is more than the PAP. :-P

Actually hor, if I got sons, I'm quite happy to put them thru NS. What doesn't kill them makes them strong lah. If I suay suay have a violin prodigy for a son, I might change my tune though. :-P

Wed May 24, 11:13:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Xin said...

and there...appeal rejected.

Thu May 25, 04:49:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous ted said...

Of course the KTM can say anything he likes provided he didn't have any sons that get maimed, killed or become mental retards.

Thu May 25, 08:57:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Just to reiterate some of the main points in my essay once again (for future readers passing by):

I'm not dismissing the importance of NS(fulltime) or Reservist. My essay was focused more specifically on Reservist, and it argues that some components can be improved. And it is precisely because I want Reservist to ACTUALLY contribute to real effective defence (instead of just being an enjoyable gathering/party with camaraderie/wayang) that I wrote this essay.

I shall have more to say on 'patriotism' in a future essay...

Fri May 26, 01:13:00 AM 2006  
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