Friday, July 15, 2011

Irresistible Defense: Out of Tekong into the tragicomedy of Singapore

Irresistible Defense: Out of Tekong into the tragicomedy of Singapore

The report that an SAF recruit had tried to swim out of Pulau Tekong has stirred some interest and much amusement even though there is something decidedly macabre about the whole episode and something truly disturbing in the way few people are disturbed by the state’s power in conscript which too many Singaporeans have come to respect as natural, normal and thoroughly acceptable.

If we were to simply look at the situation a little more closely and see what the main concerns the authorities have, we would see that the key individual, the human person involved, is sidelined in place of the power of the system. The absolute power of the state is what matters to the authorities (and for all likelihood, most people under the control of the authorities). It has been said that the young person (perhaps we should refrain from calling him a recruit—surely there’s more to him than an empty identity foisted upon him by the repressive state apparatus of conscription) may have problems coping. Perhaps he was not adjusting well to dehumanization renamed as regimentation and military discipline. Perhaps he was simply not able to cope with the physical demands. But he does not matter.

All matters to the state is that its power must not be compromised even in the symbolic terms of a soldier attempting to run away (or, more literally, swim away). In the article, “Recruit tried to swim out of Tekong camp,” The Straits Times (July 13 2011) reports that “Colonel Tan [the Mindef spokesperson] would only say that the recruit has been ‘disciplinarily dealt with’.” We must be aware of at least two problems.

The first problem that comes to mind is how the immediate concern of Mindef (and I dare say it is the sole concern, in the short- or long-term) is discipline. Not only is Mindef concerned about punishing the soldier, discipline is the only issue Mindef is willing to address in public. It is presumptuous in telling the public that disciplinary action has been taken. It is shaping the mindset of the public by imposing discipline as a concern they should have when it could well have addressed the public by saying that measures have been taken to help the soldier adjust (especially given that he is a very new recruit).

The next significant problem is the media. The de facto state newspaper cum PAP newsletter appears to be consciously aligning its report to downplaying of maladjusted soldiers. From the article, one realizes that the attempt to swim out of Tekong took place in December 2010. It is not July 2011. It is unclear how such a matter goes unreported for more than half a year and why it is suddenly reported. But the length of time is significant to us—clearly, Mindef and Colonel Tan could have said more about the issue after seven months—for the sake of accountability if nothing else. But the paper is not interested in pursuing this. If it did pose Colonel Tan questions about how Mindef treats enlistees who cannot take the ridiculous oppression of enlistment which he declined to answer, these are not mentioned in its report.

Are Singaporeans not disturbed by the possibility that a forcibly conscripted soldier (I find the tautology here necessary in order to emphasize the point to a Singaporean readership) who takes the rather drastic measure of swimming out of Tekong because he is unable to cope? Are Singaporeans, instead, disturbed by how military discipline and control could possibly be compromised? Have we gotten our priorities totally wrong or is the state-controlled media deliberately portraying and shaping our focus in a way that would facilitate the forgetting of the fact that we are dealing with a human being, only eighteen years old, who has no choice but to be enlisted? (Of course I may be holding certain flawed assumptions. Perhaps he holds a foreign citizenship and enlisted so that he can be a Singapore citizen. But the same concerns about conscription should remain.)

What The Straits Times would rather do, though, is to end on an odious note, quoting former military psychologist, Stanley Chua. First, it reports that Chua “said he hoped this incident would not spark talk that today’s enlistees are softer or that national service (NS) is easier than before.” I am inclined to agree with this simply because I do not believe anyone should expect eighteen-year-old teenagers to be “tough” (whatever it might mean) simply because there is NS for them. Neither do I think that anyone should say that NS is easier simply because that is not the issue anyone should raise when a recruit tries to escape. (It is totally illogical to go, “A recruit can’t take anymore and swims out of Tekong! NS must be so much easier now!”) However the final paragraph is to me tantamount to manslaughter:

He [Stanley]added that it is not the Singapore Armed Forces’ job to prepare young men for NS: ‘The BMT commanders and buddies will only know the recruit for a few weeks… The onus is on parents, who have brought up their sons and should know better how they cope with difficulties or stress.’

No, Stanley (or ST?). If I have a son and I know how he copes with stress, what can I possibly do if I know that he is unable to cope with the sort of stress that NS comes with? You may say that it is not the SAF’s job to prepare young men for NS and help the organization disavow any responsibility or obligation. But, from another perspective, why should it be anyone’s responsibility to prepare their children or themselves for NS? It is as good as telling people, “I’m going to throw shit on your face. You had better prepared to lick the shit. It’s not my job to do anything to prepare you. And no, you are not allowed to run away.” The problem? No one should be throwing shit on anyone’s face. And it is perfectly understandable if the victim does not accept shit being dumped on his face; to “prepare” for the terrible act is to accept it indirectly. Should a person not have the right to resist when someone wants to treat him as a toilet bowl?

Of course, the analogy above would be shitty to most Singaporeans, always charmed by the seductive rhetoric of defense as a masculinity-endowing necessity, who will definitely say that NS is not shit and how it is important and necessary.

Is basic human freedom not equally or more important and necessary?

We want defense to protect a nation. And nations are made of human beings. If in the process of national defense, human beings are dehumanized, is defense itself not anti-human and anti-defense? But we would rather indulge in self-defeating militarism, turning defending subjects into objects of defense.

True inescapability is when people no longer recognize their entrapment. This is the epitome of the debilitating Singaporean condition that goes beyond NS to the heart of post-independence Singaporean milieu.