On a Slow Train Out of Pasir Ris

You get a lot of time in the army. Not, unfortunately, a lot of time to eat, sleep, or clean yourself up, but you do get a lot of time to think. These are a collection of random, possibly disjointed thoughts which occurred to me in my spare time. Some of them are not pleasant, but I think it would be healthy to get them out of my system sometimes.

Wednesday 15th May

I think the army depresses me.

I’ve only been here for six days, and yet I feel like I’ve seen enough. The army is an organization that systemically saps potential. It values uniformity over efficiency, and its bureaucracy’s only purpose is to perpetrate itself. I have no idea why I’m here - here in a PES ‘C’ Company which is filled with misfits in the most literal sense. Half of us have asthma (no strenuous activities), half eczema (no uniform). In my section of 15 men, three can’t march, and one has depression severe enough they don’t dare let him touch weaponry.

And they call us soldiers

Saturday, 1st June

I’m an actor.

This subway car I’m standing in is my stage. My costume is the finest livery the Singapore Armed Forces can provide– jockey cap, a set of clean, well folded No. 4 and a pair of polished steel capped leather boots. My script is written into the rulebooks of the SAF soldier’s manual. We’re not allowed to sit on public transport when there others standing. We’re not to be seen lining up for taxis. The black duffel bag whose straps are digging into my shoulders can’t be placed on the floor, even if it means I run the risk of knocking over half a dozen fellow passengers whenever I shift my weight on this bumpy train ride. We’re the front line actors hired by the SAF in its war, not on terrorism or any hypothetical future battle, but against public perception and opinion. For an army that doesn’t fight, and maintains its purpose as one of deterrence, image is everything.

I look at my reflection in the train’s windows. We look the part and even play the part there and then in the public’s mind, but we’re not soldiers. Were a knife welding assailant to materialize there and then, my first instinct would be to turn and run, for we are neither fit nor trained for this. Being PES ‘C’ recruits, we are the drivers, clerks, storemen and technician of the army, but fighters we are not. The laws of probability dictate that in all likelihood half the men in the same carriage are better soldiers than we are, and yet we are the ones giving out our seats to them, all because of the uniform we’re wearing. I feel like a fraud, a liar, a puppet. The uniform and bag on my shoulders are merely costumes; my actions and gestures are not my own, but merely that dictated by the script I’m following.

The train rolls slowly into my stop. As I leave the train I feel an uncontrollable urge to turn, take a deep bow and curtsey to the passengers. Are they aware of the performance they’ve just witnessed?

Thursday, 13th June

The smokers are marching off again, singing their happy little smoking song, doing their happy little smoking cheer. It’s strange, almost grotesque, how cheerful they are as they go off to shave minutes and hours off their lifespans and inflict lung cancer and yellowing teeth on themselves.

The army, like the rest of the government, attempts ostensibly to reduce the number of smokers. While the government’s attempts have, as a whole been relatively successful the same cannot be said about the army’s. The army places heavy restrictions on Recruit’s ability to light up. Recruits are -

  • only allowed to bring in a certain number of sticks. In our camp it’s 15, for 5 days
  • to only light up in designated places. To get there, as with getting anywhere the smokers will have to form up and march, hence the songs and cheers
  • to seek permission before going off to smoke. Withdrawing of smoking privileges is a valid form of punishment, though not really effective as different smokers have different levels of tolerance

There are many possible reasons for these restrictions - for the health of those not smoking, to keep lit cigarettes a safety distance away from any inflammable materials, to instil discipline (yeah, right) but one thing they definitely will not help is the smokers get rid of their nasty habit. These restrictions forces the smokers into their own clique. It reinforces the social bonds that is the main reason why smokers smoke, other than the high they get out of their cigarettes.