“The soul which has no fixed purpose in life is lost; to be everywhere, is to be nowhere.”
It’s been exactly five months since enlistment day, and in this short period of time I’ve experienced both joy and anguish in equal measure. Singapore practices conscription, ensuring all able-bodied young men contribute in one way or another towards serving the nation. Most of us, myself included, are drafted into the Army, where we don our pixelised uniforms and begin our two-year journey as an NSF (National Servicemen Full-time). While national service isn’t – and neither is it meant to be – wholly enjoyable, it’s given me many insights; some of which I hope to be able to relate to you over the course of this blog post.
Military life, at its core, is founded upon regimentation and discipline, both of which very much vital in the training of a competent – or should I say accomplished – soldier. Some individuals thrive in such structured environments, for they’re able to turn rules and regulations into solid footholds upon which they can begin their ascent up the ranks – one that is fueled by strict adherence to military norms and commitment to their cause. I term these individuals “green men”, men that are determined to make the most of their military life and will do so in an honest and passionate fashion.
At the other end of the spectrum are “red men”, men who resent the fact that national service is compulsory – believing it to be a waste of their precious time. A common misconception is that these men are unwilling to serve their country – in fact, some of them are the most patriotic people I’ve ever met. One must know the difference between love for one’s country and love for one’s self. These men pledge allegiance to the latter, and are thus generally unmotivated throughout their stint as an NSF. They might be willing to give back to the country in which they were conceived, but they also believe that there are other, less painful ways to do so. I will not go into the methods that they employ to avoid or lessen their duties (I could write an entire book on that), but believe me when I say they’re as committed to their ways as “green men” are.
So where do I lie on this spectrum? Well, to answer this question I would have to first take you though my military life thus far. When I first set foot into Pulau Tekong, the island where I underwent my first phase of military training, I was absolutely brimming with positivity, having been encouraged by many of my seniors who held leadership positions within the armed forces. If they could find purpose in the army, why couldn’t I? Heck, this very blog is centered around finding self-purpose in the first place! But as I waded deeper into the waters, I quickly realised my feet weren’t going to be touching the bottom for long. Surrounded by throngs of “green” and “red” men alike, my values were immediately threatened, my long-held beliefs swayed by the sheer force of collective thought.
You see, popular opinion is against “red men”. They’re often said to be lazy and irresponsible individuals who can’t even find it within themselves to serve the country that has given them so much. Yet, these men, despite their questionable attitude towards national service, are just doing what makes them happy. Looking after one’s own well-being can’t really be said to be selfish, can it? When all else is stripped away, isn’t that the paramount pursuit that all humans should undertake? If they can find joy and fulfillment in minimising their military agony, who are we to question them?
This is further complicated by the numerous vocations that an NSF can be posted to, each of them offering wildly levels of hardship to those who are lucky – or unlucky – enough to be roped in as one of their own. I’m not discriminating against those who are given administrative roles – while they are vital cogs in the machine that is the Singapore Armed Forces, it’s impossible to deny that they have a far cushier job relative to other vocations such as elite combat units. Yes, there are people who are perfectly fine with being in a physically demanding vocation, many in fact find pride in their duties, believing themselves to be men of mettle and valour. However, it’s nearly impossible for the vast majority of us not to cast an envious glance at those who suffer less.
Following my BMT (Basic Military Training), I was sent to SCS (Specialist Cadet School), where I would begin my training to become a Third Sergeant. Though training was rigorous, I pressed on, hopeful that I would land the vocation of my dreams – to be part of the Medical Corps. As I opened my posting orders after eight arduous weeks, my dreams were ripped violently apart, leaving nothing but a sea of despondency in its place. For days I drifted between the lanes of anger and denial; the odds were so infinitesimally small! Out of thousands of fellow conscripts, I was one of around fifty to be selected for the Reconnaissance Commander Course, notorious for its difficulty. I was to become an infantry scout, a thought that hadn’t even crossed my mind in the months prior.
I’ll admit, the weeks separating that moment to the present haven’t been easy, but in this period I may have found the secret to finding purpose in national service. It’s not about finding where you are on the spectrum, but rather, one has to choose where they want to be on the spectrum and be unwavering in their commitment to that decision. I had to pick, knowing full well that whatever I chose would change the course of my NSF journey. I’ve had enough of fluttering aimlessly, toggling between the “green” and “red” faction without end. So, on that fateful day when I was presented with my jungle hat after a twenty kilometer route march, I chose.
And now, as I paint my face green for another day’s worth of outfield activities, the face staring back at me in the mirror reminds me of the path that I have chosen and must therefore take. If I’m committed to be a “green man”, the blood in my veins had better run green as well.