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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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Gritted Teeth and Stoic Strength
Singapore bildungsroman parades ambition and range

By Zhang Ruihe

From Boys To Men
eds. Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia
Landmark Books (2002) / 196 pages / SGD 17.00

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:

Someone said “Don’t worry, you’ll
Be all right,” so many times
He was sure he wasn’t going to be all right.

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:

Send me to a war. Anything out
of this blind end. Give me real bullets
and fat grenades to blast
this routine and you
off the face of this story.

[Page 1 | Page 2]

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003


About Zhang Ruihe
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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Handle Poetry With Care
Yeo Yen Ping reviews Felix Cheong's Broken By The Rain.

How To Be Seriously Alone
Gerard Yee reviews Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone.

Getting the House in Order
Sheo S. Rai reviews People Like Us.

On the Familiar Made Exotic
Wena Poon reviews Thomas Kitching's Life and Death in Changi.

Related Links

Interview with Koh Buck Song

The hidden $1.25 billion cost of National Service

Chiang's Heat Stroke

From Boys To Men
External link to Select Books.

National Service
External link.

Who are we doing NS for?
External link.


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