Gritted Teeth and Stoic Strength
Singapore bildungsroman parades ambition and range
By Zhang Ruihe
From Boys To Men
Life sometimes has a strange way of being perfectly aesthetic. There are days that seem so well-crafted that it becomes difficult not to believe that a Great Stagemanager is not somewhere back there in the wings, calling all the cues, making sure that lights, sound and action are all perfectly coordinated. So when I came across not just one but two articles in The Straits Times this week headlined ‘From Boys to Men’ (on, surprise surprise, this year’s passing out parade and how NS makes men out of boys), I felt as if I had been unwittingly co-opted into some surreal piece of postmodern theatre. Or the real-life equivalent of The Truman Show.
From Boys to Men: A Literary Anthology of National Service in Singapore is a kind of Singaporean bildungsroman, in more ways than one. At the most basic level, it examines the journey from innocence to experience that all NSMen have to go through. At times this involves a triumph over danger, whether real or imagined, as in Dheeraj Bharwani’s ‘Misfire’, a short story about a young second lieutenant who has to detonate a misfired round on his twentieth birthday. At others the feeling is not one of triumph, but of quiet reflection on ‘the sense of tragedy’ that undergirds the fact of mortality, as in Toh Hsien Min’s ‘Casualty’, about a soldier who dies of a mysterious illness. Sometimes, growing up involves the sharing of experiences between the older but not necessarily wiser soldier and the struggling rookie, as in Colin Cheong’s ‘The Hill’. Beyond the personal, however, the anthology also chronicles the coming-of-age of a nation, from the early days of independence to our current attempt to come to grips with the joys and dilemmas of being young and successful. Goh Kasan’s beautiful elegy to his childhood home in Sarimboon, long since acquired by the government and turned into a military training area, reflects on how the nation’s dreams of success have become tarnished, ironically, by their own fulfilment. Finally, the collection also shows how our writers have developed their craft over the years. Some of the works here almost certainly belong to their early periods, as can be seen most clearly when set side by side with their later writing, sometimes within the same collection. Koh Jee Leong’s ‘Arrival’, for example, is very raw compared with his more recent work, which unfortunately is not published in the same book. On the other hand, Toh Hsien Min gets a much better deal with the two poems here, one of which is clearly more skilfully executed than the other.
In a sense, NS is the perfect platform for chronicling the development of a people and their art. No other ‘national’ topic has the potential for stirring up such a wide spectrum of responses from at least half the population of Singaporeans aged 55 and below. That the responses revealed in this anthology fall into something approximating to the normal distribution so beloved of statisticians, (with the majority registering varying degrees of vague acceptance,) is perhaps to be expected, given that many of the writers come from broadly similar educational backgrounds and social circles. This raises all sorts of issues – how far can this anthology be seen as representative of the average Singaporean’s perceptions of the NS experience? Should such an aim even be on the agenda? And will the Average Singaporean stand up please? One of the weaknesses of this anthology is that it does not seem representative enough to merit its ambitious-sounding title, but perhaps this is something that is easier said than done. After all, a small country with a fledgling literary community that is still trying to establish itself in the eyes of its people has a long way to go in terms of widening its pool of writers beyond the usual catchment of (mostly foreign-) university educated, middle-classes.
NS is a peculiar institution – often feared, sometimes hated, yet part of the social contract for all male citizens and permanent residents, an unavoidable part of life that calls for gritted teeth and stoic strength. Hence the vague acceptance. Of course, this acceptance is never unquestioning. That would be taboo in literary circles, and even poems from the Old Guards of Singapore literature like Robert Yeo (‘Boys in Jungle Green’) and Kirpal Singh (‘Meeting the NS Challenge’) with their gungho nationalistic fervour, betray just the slightest unease at the ‘ghosts which needed to be laid, put to rest’. While both poems acknowledge the gruelling mental and physical challenges faced by young soldiers during training, they give these difficulties the briefest of nods before returning to the overriding imperative to ‘secure our home’. Perhaps this is understandable. After all, a young nation struggling with the burden of independence has no time for navel-gazing, a task that perhaps has to fall on those who come after, who have the luxury of time and security in which to reflect on and question what used to be simply a matter of survival. Still, it is difficult to understand how an old hand like Kirpal Singh could have allowed clearly unpoetic lines such as ‘this was the new republic’s defence’ or ‘and others simply hugged and hugged’ to sneak into his writing. Ditto lines like ‘Here you will dig a trench today / So your neighbour will know / You’re doing it for a tomorrow’ from Robert Yeo’s poem. Quite clearly, this is not their best work, and one is left wondering if they are juvenilia taken from Singapore’s early years of independence.
Other, mostly later, works probe more deeply and frankly into the underlying causes of the unease that is so obliquely voiced in the work of Yeo and Singh. Most locate it in the exercise of power that lies at the heart of any institution and that enables it to operate with a tolerable level of efficiency. It is when this power is used arbitrarily and in ways that run counter to basic human decency that the protest is loudest and most clearly articulated. In Gilbert Koh’s quietly masterful ‘Chiang’s Heatstroke’, the memory of the blatant cruelty of a platoon commander draws a repeated ‘lousy bastard’ from the ex-solider, even after the passing of time has allowed other aspects of army life to become fondly remembered. By allowing the reader access to Chiang’s thoughts while sketching the anonymous platoon commander with the quickest of strokes, Koh contrasts the individual’s suffering with the anonymous face of authority. The poet’s greatest achievement here, though, is not profundity or originality of thought or expression, but the creation of a distinctly Singaporean diction with nary a ‘lah’ or ‘meh’ in sight – quite a feat considering some of the other, less successful attempts in this anthology. It is difficult to pin down, but one need only read the poem aloud to appreciate the very local flavour right from the opening lines. Even the most penetrating psychological insights are expressed in the most casually Singaporean way:
Simple, unsophisticated even, but familiar and hence evocative. Not many poems can claim as much.
In contrast, ‘Platoon Sergeant, Nee Soon Camp’ by Toh Hsien Min, tries too hard to be too many things at once, and in the attempt the first casualty is authenticity of diction. This early poem serves as an interesting companion piece to ‘Chiang’s Heatstroke’. Like mirror images of each other, these two poems deal with very similar subject matter from opposite perspectives – here, it is the tyrannical Platoon Sergeant whose voice we hear as he conducts a drill. Even their respective strengths and weaknesses seem to mirror each other, for where Koh reveals a strong grasp of Singaporean English, Toh’s Singlish comes across as awkward and contrived; and where Toh’s more complex poem probes more deeply into the psyche of the officer to reveal the insecurities and frustrations behind his blustering exterior, Koh’s poem is simple, almost, some may say, to a fault. Still, despite the care that Toh takes in fleshing out the sergeant’s character, the attempts to reproduce the sound of Singlish as it is spoken, (‘All you Air-Level kids don’t know no shit’) reveal an inconsistency of the sort that would certainly not appear in Toh’s other work, as the much more controlled ‘Casualty’ shows.
What ‘Chiang’s Heatstroke’ and ‘Platoon Sergeant, Nee Soon Camp’ do share, however, is an unconcealed (because easily justifiable) anger at the lack of compassion in the way officers deal with their charges. More interesting, however, are the works in which the criticism is not directed at any specific misdemeanour on the part of the powers-that-be. What the reader senses, instead, is an impotent rage, carefully expressed in the guise of metaphor or irony. In an opening stanza reminiscent of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The General’, Paul Tan’s ‘Parade’ hisses through clenched teeth at the necessity of putting on a parade in honour of a retiring officer. Boey Kim Cheng captures this simmering resentment more subtly, and successfully, in ‘Tattoos of a Private’. Compact, with a coiled-up energy so tightly reined-in that the words seem always on the verge of bursting out of their skin, the poem uses the dragon tattoo sported by a gangster-turned-private as an ironic metaphor for emasculation (NS is meant to turn boys into men) when it metamorphoses from ‘armour / when fists are clenched and daggers / drawn’ into ‘a pussy cat / unrolling its rage’. The same note of hapless compliance is sounded in another of the eight poems by Boey in this collection, ‘Halt’, but this time the frustration explodes in the startling ending:
Desperate, explosive resentment is one response to the boredom of routine. Another would be melancholic anger born of too many empty hours spent ‘waiting / for the next bark’, which is Alfian Sa’at’s response in ‘Ode to the Army’. In fact, melancholic ___________ (fill in noun as appropriate) is the tone most characteristic of Alfian’s work even at the best of times, when his eye for the telling detail works in tandem with his fine poetic sense to make his words leap across metaphoric distances in a single bound, and survive the attempt. The morbidity of ‘buntings… strung like decapitated kites’ (‘Ode to the Army’), the childlike wonder in ‘fireflies / Tinselling the crowns of these trees’, and the sensuous detail in ‘Again my fingers reach / To decipher the Braille / Of your moss’ (‘Half a Soldier’) all carry this trademark melancholy, and though skilfully done, one does wonder, sometimes, if this has become all too easy for our most lauded young poet, and if perhaps it is time for him to explore new stylistic ground. However, there is no disputing the boldness and originality of thought in the three poems featured in this anthology – spanning a whole range of concerns from racism to post-ROD blues, they reveal a mind that is never content with simply skimming the surface, but always questioning and questing.
Not all the writing is angst-filled or angry, though. There is plenty to celebrate, or, at least, smile at. Most of the humour is found in the prose pieces, (perpetuating, perhaps, the Romantic myth that poetry has to be like a Mills & Boon hero – dark, brooding and intense), but even then it is a gentle, ribbing, or self-mocking humour. Terry Tay’s ‘Chronicle of a Third-Rate Soldier’ revels in descriptions of the heroics of the “Elite” battalion. A case in point: rising from the “dead” during a mock battle to argue over who was shot first. Names are also a perennial source of amusement, as seen in ‘ROD Loh’, Umej Bhatia’s short story about a solider whose name resembles every soldier’s freedom cry. Then there is the humour of literary allusion, such as in Alvin Pang’s “Night Manoeuvres” (more on this later), which pays playful tribute to Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in the telling of a torturous field march.
Most heartening of all, there are works here which speak of the rewards and lessons gained from the NS experience. Put a group of Singaporean men together and the conversation soon veers towards NS – testimony to the role of NS as the great equaliser of Singaporean (male) society. Trite though it may sound, the common experience does result in a greater sense of bonding and camaraderie, and it is this aspect of military service that is celebrated by quite a few writers, whatever else they may think of NS. ‘Field Camp’ by Cyril Wong does this especially effectively, its neat, spare stanzaic form capturing the essence of what is felt by soldiers at the end of the day:
Almost similar in subject-matter is ‘An R.O.C. Friend’ by Boey Kim Cheng. Here, too, fellow soldiers hunker down in solidarity against the vicissitudes of army life, a lighted cigarette their sole ‘proof against / a world gone madly keen / on fits of tears’. The same quiet appreciation of the little luxuries permitted the soldier in training is seen in ‘Field Bath on Hill 265’, a poem which is mentioned here also because its detailed account of the entire process had the force of a minor epiphany for this fortunate female who has never had to experience the pains of military service.
Gender is an interesting non-issue in most discussions about NS. Unless the debate specifically addresses the perennial question of whether women should do NS, most women are usually left floundering in the sea of unfamiliar acronyms and military jargon. Hence, for most Singaporean women, thoughts about this particular national institution tend to revolve round questions of involvement and non-involvement. Even the titles of Wena Poon’s ‘Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not’ and Chia Yueh Chin’s ‘Women Do National Service Too’ show this fundamental dialectic at work. These two short stories are a valuable addition to the collection, not only because they represent female perspectives on what is often an exclusively-male arena, but also because they offer a less subjective examination of the place of NS in Singaporean society. The provocative title of Chia’s work prepares readers for its main thesis, that bearing and rearing children is also a form of service to the nation, an idea that has been jokingly articulated elsewhere, and which Chia develops to its full comic potential by pushing it to its logical conclusion. Of course, there are more serious issues that lie artistically concealed beneath the ‘Under One Roof’ humour. What exactly does it mean to ‘serve’ the nation? If service entails some form of personal sacrifice, then shouldn’t this be acknowledged or recognised in some manner? Questions like these are also dealt with in ‘Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not’, but Wena Poon’s contribution hits closer to home because it does so in the context of one of the most heated national debates of 2002: the stayers versus quitters issue. The debate is dramatised by the unspoken tension between two families that represent both sides of the deliberately exaggerated divide. Though this results in a certain loss of subtlety, Poon does take care not to romanticise or vilify either group – a much better showing, it must be said, than what some newspaper articles managed last year.
In most ways, the strength of this anthology lies in the individual merits of the works featured. What I am not so sure about, however, is the work done by the editors in putting the volume together. The rather dubious amount of attention given to some writers and the choice of works has already been alluded to earlier (eight poems by Boey Kim Cheng out of a total of fifty-one pieces? a combined total of nine contributions by editors Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia? raw early writing that in no way matches up to the writers’ more mature work?). What seems really unforgivable, however, is the careless editing that resulted, (in)famously for readers of the QLRS Forum, in mistakes like the removal of the stanza divisions in Alvin Pang’s ‘Night Manoeuvres’, or the mysterious obliteration of clear divisions between prose sections in ‘Tekong’ by Daren Shiau. These are not simply matters of typographical integrity. Due to this editorial negligence, the full force of Pang’s witty allusion to Dante’s ‘Inferno’ is all but lost together with the stanza divisions, and Shiau’s piece sometimes jumps erratically from scene to scene without any sense of narrative coherence. My disappointment was in no way lessened by the fact that I really should have seen it all coming, what with the inconsistent formatting of the contents page. I can only hope that in future, more careful proofreading will be done before a book actually goes to print.
Editorial boo-boos asides, this is an interesting, ambitious collection of writing that attempts the difficult task of spanning almost forty years of history while capturing a whole range of responses to the complex issue of NS and what it means, in different genres and by a range of different writers. That it sometimes doesn’t quite live up to its promise is, perhaps, not something that it can be faulted for and that definitely provides something to work towards in future.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003