In Singapore, you’ll notice a curious sight. Whether it’s shopping malls, Kopitiams (our word for coffee shops), or the red-brick corridors of any university dormitory, the same olive green round neck t-shirt pops up again and again. The reason for its ubiquity? Our state-mandated conscription.
If you’re a Singaporean citizen, male, and above the age of 18, congratulations! You’ve just earned a 2 year stay in the military. Depending on who you ask, you’ll either be met with tales of hot-headed camaraderie or horror stories told through gritted teeth. For me, I’m 20, so calling it the worst years of my life may sound a little too optimistic.
My first day was a long hot summer afternoon. The air heaved, cloying with humidity as tears were shed and quickly wiped away. I waved at my parents, but not for too long. You didn’t want your gaze to linger; god forbid they think you’re a Mama’s boy. After this separation, the rest felt easier. Your identity card, your clothes, your phone, your personal items – stored away or locked up. My plain t-shirt and jeans were neatly folded and placed at the back of my locker, not to be seen for the next two weeks. In their place, bundles of camo-wrapped uniforms and standard issue clothing, earthy shades of green and black meant to disguise you in the depths of a tropical jungle. In a way, it did it’s job even before I stepped foot into those muddy thickets.
Sitting on a chipped plastic chair with my shirt off, I pressed my eyes closed, trying to focus on the buzz of the razor. It came in bursts and spurts. One minute it felt distant, like the hum of an airplane flying overhead. Then it raked through my hair like a tractor, and I felt the earth shake as it nipped my ears. I could feel my dark black hair falling on my shoulders, sticking to my sweaty skin as little tufts broke apart and shattered. “New year new me”, I muttered, half-smiling as I caressed my pale scalp, stubbled like a freshly-mown lawn.
The only thing I had left was my name. (I’ve been told I have a very common face). When everyone has exactly what you have, you never realize how much you’ve lost. For me at least, that lasted until I saw my shadow. It was mute and unfamiliar, spread out in front of me like a distant relative at a funeral. I didn’t even realize it was, well, me, until its disconcerting synchronicity struck the back of my neck in a shiver. I had dismissed it as a shade cast by our dim fluorescent lights, or just someone else’s shadow. But no, it was mine, a cut-paper figurine thrown onto the concrete floor, sewed to my feet. I had never seen a bald shadow, receding from my touch like a dark coast — I felt myself splintering. How many days had it been since I saw my family? Who was I before all this?
The thing about uniforms is that they make you feel like you belong, perhaps to something bigger than yourself. It’s easy to confuse that intoxicating feeling with purpose. We were taught to take pride in our uniform, to wear it as a badge of honor. “No other citizen of any other country can wear what you wear,” and that stirred me, it made me feel special, valued even.
More than that, it made me feel suave. This was the peak of masculine fashion, the epitome of raw “manliness”. This was the blueprint for cutthroat coolness, the base of all pieces labeled “military fashion” on Farfetched from Dolce & Gabbana dog tags to purple-hued BAPE camo jackets. Yet, the more I learnt about my uniform, the more I saw our desensitization to violence. You could say this is the zeitgeist of the 21st Century — close enough to the world wars to repurpose its remnants, just far enough to forget its atrocities. Our smoke-filled television screens bleed into the choking numbness of everyday life. I barely blink when I see today’s COVID death toll. The world moves past images of deforestation and war like it’s a wake – it doesn’t matter if you’re not dead, you’re treated like it. We wear garments forged in humanity’s darkest days, posing for pictures in bomber jackets as Russian troops begin their slow march to Ukraine. My uniform had an upturned collar to prevent rifle sling abrasions, a shirt that folds into a triangular bandage, even inward-buttoning sleeves that prevented entanglement with objects: all these features were made for a purpose – war. This uniform is what I would die in.
You never really notice how much you’ve changed until it hits you that you’re a soldier – a lean mean killing machine, like Rambo or the Terminator, but much less muscular and with no jawline. Becoming a part of the military had a finesse to it. Some call it “induction,” others choose “conditioning,” and those with a talent for marketing brand it as “settling-in.” I prefer “defamiliarization”– slow, gradual and subtle. It’s the routines that gently steep you in warming waters until you think boiling is normal. It’s the second I smirk as my bullet threads straight through the head of a black cut-out, and I don’t remember that my shadow looks exactly like that. “Headshot!,” I quip, and high five my buddy.
I was 19. Too young to vote, old enough to kill. My life belonged to the country before I even had a say in it. This uniform marked me as property of the state.
Something else peculiar happened, I was marked as a “man,” too. Whether it was my full combat uniform, or just an army t-shirt, it signaled maturity, bravado and a subtle shift into the ranks of adulthood. To others, it was a sign that I had gone through a uniquely Singaporean rite of passage. To me, it meant that on some level, I had common ground with any other Singaporean male. Naturally, and much to the annoyance of everyone else, conversations between guys would revolve around our time in the military. What unit were you in? How many mosquito bites did you get? Did your girlfriend leave you too? As combat acronyms shifted into colloquial lingo and common grievances created new connections, what seemed like innocuous banter often veered into toxic masculinity. It was a subtle descent. One person would make a sexist comment, and no one would speak out. Then, others felt like it would be a safe space to share their toxic views, and no one would speak out again. This process would repeat until what started as a hesitancy to speak up became a fear of not fitting in. It may sound easy to break out of this process, but even the ones meant to push against this culture unwittingly reinforce it.
In her speech at 2021’s Institute of Policy Studies-Nathan Lecture Series, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research, Corinna Lim spoke about the homophobia and misogyny perpetuated by military culture. However, in that very same speech, she stated that “The men that I spoke to described national service as a hyper-masculine experience. National service is designed to toughen up our boys. And to build bonds between males across ethnic and class divides. However, there are aspects of national service that bring out the more negative norms of masculinity.”
My ears turn red at the glaring tension between her critique of hyper-masculinity and the paternalistic support of “toughening-up.” I had heard this before. “You’re men! Man up!”. That was the exhortatory call my encik used in our field camps as we sat for hours in the rain watching our shell scrapes turn into a muddy slop. As that two-and-a-half foot hole swelled with brownish water, my eyes burned. The rain stuck to my face like tears. I was utterly miserable, possibly more so than I had ever been in my life, but this was what it meant to be a “man”.
This idea of trial by fire, the need to forge a man, was the very reason so many lost themselves in “locker-room” talk and emotional repression. When I nodded along as my bunkmates rated women on tinder as “cheap” or “fuckable,”, it wasn’t because I agreed, it’s because I didn’t want to disagree. It was for the same reason I bit my lips shut as my skin scraped off during knuckle pushups. I disagreed with the way my bunkmates talked about women but I wanted to “toughen up” too. Maybe I was just too sensitive?
The problem with tying expectations and qualities to gender in such an essentialist way is that positive and negative aspects are often flip sides of the same coin. Being tough and enforcing toxic stereotypes both fed into a culture that prevented speaking up. Strength, manhood, masculinity, these were buzzwords applied to different situations for the same purpose: to tell you “shut up and bear it.” So, when she says “negative norms,” I think to myself, what positive norms? What else do I have to strive for or risk invalidation?
Currently, my hair has grown back as I live as a civilian. I don’t think about routine orders or tense up when I hear the familiar clop of combat boots. However, even outside of camp, every time I wear my army shirt to sleep or a singlet out to jog, I feel this specter return. It haunts me… this expectation that some part of me has to have changed. Men talk to me with the same imperious toughness, and the rest expect me to be like that. I find myself constantly trying to outrun my uniform, to disentangle myself from its muddled greens and wartime designs. When every man in Singapore owns the same uniform, you never really leave the military, you never can.Become a Patron!