Remember this iconic photograph?
I sure do. When it went viral on the Internet in 2011, I was still a chao* recruit in Pulau Tekong. The picture caused such a massive scandal that the officers in my unit postponed physical training to give us a lecture about public perception and upholding the image of the Singapore Armed Forces.
While the picture was a huge story outside, nobody in my unit gave it much thought because we were too tired. The only thing we could think of was when we would book out.
Now, it seems that NSFs can’t even book out in peace because on Tuesday, a keyboard warrior named Elaine went on AllSingaporeStuff to complain about NSFs causing a traffic jam at Pasir Ris when they book out of their Pulau Tekong camp and head home every Friday.
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Her logic: It is too much of a privilege for these boys in green to have parents pick them up. She insists that these army boys are “enjoying their conveniences at the expense of other innocent motorists!” and hopes the authorities will take action against them.
Bryan Pang, 22, who was a recruit who got picked up by his parents during BMT, disagrees with Elaine. “I tell my parents that I can go home alone, but they chose to pick me up because they haven’t seen me for a week,” he explained.
In any case, he sees nothing wrong with it. “If I take the train, people will complain about NSFs overcrowding the trains.”
These comments have prompted me to rethink this iconic image of NS. At the time, everyone in my unit found the picture outrageous because we were young and proud to defend the honour of the No. 4 uniform. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not so sure anymore.
While the recruit in question was almost certainly remiss in letting the maid carry his field pack, NSFs do not deserve the infamy and scorn levelled on them as a consequence of the photograph’s publication. The subsequent maelstrom reflects a problem of attitude on the part of our society – that of taking the service of our NSFs and NSmen for granted.
Elaine’s grouse about our soldiers’ contribution to traffic congestion is a blinding example of such behaviour. It is also the latest in a long series of ridiculous complaints that show a lack of basic respect towards our servicemen. Earlier in May, a woman complained about having to share a Grabcar with a “bad-smelling” NSF who just wanted to get home. In 2015, Kallang Leisure Mall came under the spotlight for trying to ban rain-soaked NSFs from sheltering in its premises lest that they make the floor slippery.
In any other country, incidents like these would spark public outrage and ridicule. Elsewhere, we can find spontaneous acts of generosity towards servicemen – like this American businessman who bought dinner for 400 US troops stranded at an airport.
“I figured, I want to make the picture look a little better, and offered them $50 apiece to go to those restaurants and have a warm meal on me,” said Shlomo Rechnitz on Fox & Friends after seeing the troops sitting on the floor and eating out of paper bags while civilians ate in bistros.
In Singapore, we get the reverse – people treating NSFs as a public nuisance because they do not respect the people who serve.
Granted, our troops are not fighting any wars currently or placed in life-threatening scenarios, but national service nevertheless represents a two-year span where you have to sacrifice your time, your comfort and your personal ambitions. These are the boys who would risk their lives to put out fires, resuscitate a Minister in a medical emergency, or march 72km for an allowance that in no way reflects the value of their work.
The sacrifice is even greater for aspiring musicians, athletes and anyone who is starting out in a highly-competitive field that values youthful reflexes. For them, the two-year NS stint is more than just endless push-ups and running – it represents a sacrifice of their golden years, when they are at the peak of their ability.
Given these sacrifices, should we really be shaming NSFs for taking up space on our roads or on public transport?
Our government does show its appreciation for these young men. In every news article, Mindef repeats its catechism that NS is a rite of passage and a cornerstone of our independence. For NS50, every serviceman receives cash vouchers worth $100.
However, these will just be empty measures if people like Elaine continue treating NSFs as a public nuisance. No doubt the vouchers will be appreciated by our NSFs, but how about some basic gratitude from the very people who benefit from their service?
I’m not suggesting that we suddenly become the USA. Nobody expects Singaporeans to honour our troops with public displays of patriotism, but the least we can do is to avoid making their lives a pain. Life as a recruit is tough enough without vigilantes STOMPing your misdemeanours and questioning your right to use public spaces.
So please, show a little graciousness by being more patient in the Pasir Ris traffic. Those guys have gone through hours of gruelling training and they’ve waited all week to see their loved ones.
And you won’t see a single one of them complaining about how your presence has delayed their journey home.
* smelly in Hokkien. “Chao recruit” is a common term, occasionally used abusively, to describe recruits.