As the team’s sole National Service survivor, I dug deep into the trenches of my Army Daze and wondered if NS really turned me from Ah Boy to Man…
Singapore’s National Service, not-so-affectionately known as NS, often seems to get a bad rep. Just this month, a man was sentenced to 16 weeks in jail for defaulting on his NS obligations. Before that, news coverage was of servicemen who died or got severely injured while in service. There are also stories of those who have been mentally or emotionally scarred and traumatised by military conscription. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We’ve seen positive and uplifting anecdotes from those who’ve excelled during NS and after their service.
Meanwhile, ask the man on the street about NS and you’ll get polarising feedback. Some love it, some hate it, and others say they’re indifferent. But hey, at the end of the day, it’s what you make of it, right? As for me, it wasn’t a walk in the park, but it wasn’t the end of the world either. Here’s a roll call of the misconceptions and realities of NS. Readers, sedia!
The misconceptions of National
Slavery Service in Singapore
1. You’re stuck in camp throughout the two years
The thought of leaving your comforts behind is daunting. Goodbye bed, goodbye air-conditioner, goodbye Netflix, and others. But your resort stay won’t last for long. Think of it as a two-week cosplay camp. (Come to think of it, just think of NS as cosplaying.) After that, apart from the week-long field camp, you’re free to go back home every weekend.
Will it be the same after you’ve completed Basic Military Training (BMT)? Well, it depends on your vocation and which camp you end up in. Some can only return during weekends. If you’re lucky, you get to go home every day. Manifest that. But some prefer to stay in camp. We don’t talk about them.
2. You can’t use your fancy phone when you’re in camp
Back when I was serving
my sentence NS, we weren’t allowed to bring camera phones. So everyone either carried Nokia phones or removed the cameras on their phones. Yes, imagine surviving two years on text messaging and mastering Snake.
Nowadays, the military has fully embraced technology, so everyone gets to bring in their funky phones with cameras attached. Just be sure not to take photos and videos exposing sensitivities (military or otherwise) or engaging in, ahem, sexual activity. It’s not worth it getting charged and being hauled to prison just to prove something or show off. Look, I get the uniform kink, but seriously, don’t end up in jail because of it!
3. There are no women in the military
To all the antifeminists, misogynists, incels, old-fashioned thinkers, and whatnot – sorry to disappoint, but NS isn’t limited to the menfolk. This isn’t the 1960s, you know. You’ll encounter female recruits, officers, and instructors… need I say more? As long as you don’t make sexist remarks or do anything unwarranted towards them (aka behave yourselves), you’re all good.
4. Only the fittest and manliest survive
You wanna be on top? Of course, you can. It’s a misconception that only the fittest and manliest can handle National Service. During my time, I had a section mate who was childlike and a bit of a softie, someone you’d want to baby. He breezily did more than 10 pull-ups and completed his 2.4km run within 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, some men are built like brick houses but get assigned to PES B2 or beyond. (PES, or Physical Employment Standard, is done after your medical screening and determines whether you’re fit for combat assignments.) Or they become clerks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the math isn’t mathing.
Speaking of the fittest, if you think you’ll get a hot body during your NS stint, think again. Yes, there are plenty of physical fitness moments, but you’ll also learn things like marching, rifle handling, and combat work. There’s not enough time to work out. In fact, some men have lamented that NS caused them to lose their gains. Leave the body goals to after NS, when you have more time (and money).
5. Trust no one – it’s a dog-eat-dog world
In the two years, you’ll meet different types of dudes – manly men, feminine men, queer men, smart men, clueless men… Everyone’s in the same boat, and you’re just trying to stay afloat. Your physique, behaviour, and even educational level don’t matter. Everyone’s bro game becomes strong in NS. My unit had two guys who were practically inseparable. They did everything together, including collecting lunch, taking breaks between deployments, and inspecting toilets. Now, that’s what I call bromance!
Here’s another story: at the height of my field camp, the entire platoon was told to “knock it down” and “hold it there” because someone didn’t dig a hole deep enough and took a stinking dump. Our sergeants and officers discovered the shithole (literally and figuratively) and punished us until one of my section mates caved and admitted he was at fault. Looking back, I don’t think he was. He probably covered up for someone else so we could recover from the whole thing. Or maybe he did it. I don’t know.
Anyhoo, another caveat – just because you’re working with men doesn’t excuse them from cattiness. Let me tell you, men are just as bad. Who would’ve thought NS could be the place that breeds bitchy behaviour in men? Oops.
6. You’ll only have two brain cells left
They say your brain disappears once you put on the uniform. And in some sense, it’s true. You’re obeying commands, there are rules and instructions to follow, and you’re not required to use your noggin when taking any tests. On top of that, everyone speaks in truncated English, Singlish, or vulgarities in between each word. NS is the only place where your grandmother performs tasks better and faster than you, it seems.
Regardless, who says you can’t use your brain? Serve smartly and never forget the unspoken golden rule of every NSman – you can do anything, but don’t get caught.
7. You get to fulfil your Michael Bay movie fantasies
Contrary to popular belief, the rifle is, more often than not, just an accessory to look after. You won’t be firing it that much; even when you do, the maintenance isn’t worth it. Well, what about grenades? You’ll throw it a total of one time, and that’s during BMT. Once deployed to your unit, the rifle becomes your only other responsibility. The upside? You learn how to take care of something that’s valuable. Think of yourself as Frodo and the rifle as the One Ring. It’s your precious…
8. Nothing lasts forever in NS – especially relationships
Everyone knows the urban legend: when NS comes around, relationships crumble. That depends on both parties, though. I’m no expert, but if your relationship is doomed or on the brink, NS has nothing to do with it. A two-year conscription means nothing if relationships can survive distance, age gap, and even language barriers. If they’re using NS as an excuse to break up, tell them to cut the crap and be honest. Unsurprisingly, most boys end up being single while serving NS.
9. Your NS allowance is never enough
Let’s talk facts – GST has increased to 8%, and the cost of living in Singapore has risen astronomically. Will you survive on your pittance of an NS allowance? As Destiny’s Child would say, no, no, no…
However, you can make do if you’re living on essentials. Eat from the cookhouse or at home and cut down on excessive entertainment. If you really need to go out, consider the free things you can participate in. Oh, and remember to set aside some money for your savings. It’s a good period to save (if you haven’t been doing so) and build your rainy day funds.
10. You’re free after those two years
Just kidding! You wish you were done and dusted after two years. But it’s only a matter of time until the Ministry of Defence informs you of your reservist training. Some are called back immediately after, while others wait until they’re activated. Reservist cycles last for ten years or until you reach the age of 40 (50 for officers). Let’s not forget the annual physical fitness tests, too.
Some welcome reservists. They treat it as a “holiday camp”, a respite from work and the outside world. Others dread it and want to get it over with as fast and painlessly as possible. It’s a bit like NS, except for the duration (two weeks at most) and a pretty lax itinerary. Reservist is a good time and place to reconnect with your green buddies, reminisce about NS, and have a jolly time going for outfield. (Okay, not the last one.)
Life lessons from National Service in Singapore
Trepidation, resentment, acceptance. Those were my feelings before, during, and after National Service. It’s natural to be nervous about something you didn’t choose to participate in. During the initial weeks, I hated being there. The stiflingly regimented life felt suffocating. I despised the fact that two years of my life were taken up by NS obligations.
But slowly, it became bearable. I made friends, and NS didn’t feel so bleak (other than field camp). During unit life, I learnt a lot about myself and grew as a person. I became more comfortable with who I am and realised that I’m capable of leading a team. I never thought I had it in me. Perhaps military conscription matured me.
During National Service in Singapore, you’re not a boy, not yet a man. After going through it, you realise NS is something you didn’t ask for, but it’s secretly what you need. Plus, it’s always a fascinating anecdote to tell – one shared by every Singaporean son who calls this island home. As long as you don’t make NS your entire personality or where you peaked in life, you’re all good.