Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003

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Gritted Teeth and Stoic Strength
Page 2

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:

a new exhaustion binds our bodies

to the trench’s edge, turning our amity
into a deeper shade of quiet.

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.

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003


Focus-group anthologies - why so many of them? Discuss this in the Forum!

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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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