Standing in the sweltering heat of my ORD parade, I couldn’t help but feel like an imposter. I was about to receive the award for “Outstanding Soldier” in my battalion. Though I had worked hard in my two years of national service (NS), I wondered what I had done to deserve it.
As a naturalised Singaporean, I was the first from my family to enlist into NS. On that fateful day at Tekong, I watched my parents tearfully wave farewell with their newfound patriotism. They were just as clueless about the army as I was and their only expectation was that I be safe and happy.
A week into Basic Military Training (BMT), I realised that “becoming a man” wasn’t as easy as it had looked in Mulan.
What started with a haphazard force-prep was followed by a series of unfortunate events, including a potentially-fatal grenade throw, a mental breakdown during field camp, and the lowest fire-movement score in my entire company.
Through all this, I still had the mystic ideal of becoming a commander at the back of my mind. I find it hard to pinpoint my command-school obsession to anything. I had never felt like one of the boys. And command school represented that ideal of masculinity.
It was something I felt I could never achieve: a plaque on the wall that I thought would confirm my manhood. Eventually, I didn’t make it to command school. Instead, I went on to become a corporal in an artillery unit – and ended up loving my two years there.
But not everyone is so fortunate to have loved their NS experience.
On Jul 14, an anonymous post on Facebook page NUSWhispers made the rounds on the Internet. It details a current NSF’s experience with toxic masculinity and, particularly, parental pressure for him to go to command school.
Upon his posting as a logistics quartermaster after BMT, the Whisperer reported his parents’ reaction: “I was berated for being in a 姑娘 (“gu niang”; which translates to “sissy” in Chinese) vocation which was meant for ‘useless’ people. They encouraged me to lie during family gatherings to avoid embarrassment.
“One time, they said that I would not get any inheritance from them because a “姑娘” does not need money as she is not the breadwinner of the family. That last one really hit close to home as I have never, nor will I ever, ask and pry about money let alone family inheritance, so for them to think that I was eyeing their money was really heartbreaking to me.”
In his post, the Whisperer listed the units that his parents would have approved of: Guards, Commando and Officer Cadet School.
The breaking point for him was when his parents told him that they would not be attending his specialist graduation parade. What is clear is that their reaction has less to do with national service than a distorted perception of manhood.
I, too, imposed a distorted perception of manhood onto myself. And two years out of the army, I still see it lingering: For the past fortnight, I’ve been training my younger brother ahead of his NS enlistment in August.
Sergeant-style, I’ve created impromptu training regimes for him, yelled at him to lower his push-ups, and incentivised him with food (and when that failed, alcohol). But when I looked at his defeated face after one of our night-time workouts, I realised I was becoming everything I had tried to fight against.
In my efforts to help him, I had forced my expectations on him, rather than allowing him to live his reality. So what if my brother failed his IPPT? So what if he didn’t make it to the Advanced Batch, like I did? I now found myself guilty of toxic masculinity.
Now, in light of the Whisperer’s account, I am taken back to my ORD parade, appreciating it more.
I stood among a group of five exemplary soldiers. Tanned, chiseled and stoic, they looked like the ideal soldier. They must have been chosen for their bravery, attaining insanely high IPPT scores, or perhaps their performance on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, I was being awarded for… what?
While I was grateful to be considered an “outstanding soldier”, my success was not one that was visible in the thickness of my biceps.
It was work that people don’t talk about: nights in the armskote with my sergeants, the creative assistance I provided to my battery commander, the connections I forged in my battery. I had grown to love all of this, so why did I feel inadequate?
In the seconds before I was called to receive my award, my eyes caught some frantic movement among the spectators.
My grandfather, 83 at the time, was jumping over drains and pushing through a crowd of unsuspecting spectators, just so he could get a good view of his grandson. He stood precariously close to my Commanding Officer, with his iPad plastered in front of him, fiddling with the screen to find the camera app.
In 1959, he joined the prestigious Indian civil service. When he started, he was far from being the best officer. But no matter how many times he fell off the saddle of his horse, nothing changed the fact that he was serving his country.
Whether or not I was “man enough” didn’t matter anymore, as I looked at my grandfather.
Manhood isn’t found in the space between your chest and the floor in a push-up, or in the speed of your calves on a rubber track. It’s not sewn into the pixelated fabric of your uniform or the plastic of your helmet.
Just like NS itself, manhood is what you make of it.
What gives me hope is the outpouring of love on the NUSWhispers post.
One netizen tried to lift the spirits of the Whisperer by likening the Singapore Armed Forces to a car.
“Think of the army as a Supercar. The engine alone is nothing without the aerodynamics of the car. Vice versa. Pop that engine into a proton, it won’t perform. Fit out a proton with a supercar interior. Still won’t be seen as a Supercar. Reality is that everyone plays a part. Just like a car, every part is important and know that your role is important as every other role.”
So, whether you’re an office clerk or a transport operator, any army commander will tell you that the backbone of the army relies on even the unglamorous vocations. We need to emphasise the value of all the parts. Not just the shiny exterior or the revved-up engine – but all the intricate parts of the car that make it work.
Through this lens, I am forced to rethink my ORD parade.
As my name was announced, I lunged forward in a panic, starting my march on the wrong foot. I then proceeded to salute my commanding officer too early. Somehow, I had even found a way to screw up my “crowning moment”.
But it didn’t matter, because being the perfect man didn’t seem all that important to me anymore. The idea of “manhood” evaporated just as my fixation with command school did.
I finally realised that we were all part of something greater than us.