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My NS experience

Originally written for Fever Avenue, in January 2012. 

I’ve had some pretty unique opportunities in my life to experience things that not all of my peers do. (I’m not sure how unique that makes me- I don’t know as much about others as I’d like to, because not everybody is as vocal about their individual experiences.) My National Service has been an interesting and bumpy ride, and for some pretty unusual reasons. Most interestingly of all, perhaps, it has provided me with the opportunity to renew and strengthen one of my most fundamental convictions- which I shall describe later.

I remember when I went for my medical check-up a few months before I enlisted. I struck up some casual conversation with the guy beside me, and we got along really well. We spent several hours together, doing test after test. I believe he was from Catholic JC. We had lunch together later on at a nearby hawker center. We exchanged emails, and he’s on my MSN contact list somewhere- but I can’t remember who exactly he is anymore. After all, we only interacted at a superficial level for the briefest of moments. But we clicked. It would have been highly likely that we’d have enlisted at the same time, perhaps in the same batch. Perhaps we would have been buddies. A bizarre twist of fate led to me being slapped with the suspicion of having some strange heart disease. (I don’t have it.) As a result, I enlisted in a completely different batch, and lost touch with him completely.

Over at Tekong, I met a rather eclectic mix of people, including, naturally- a couple of guys that I really clicked with. But we only spent 5 days together, and we never did much apart from attend lectures and eat meals together. We did have some fun, and I think I remember a couple of poignant moments smoking (illegally) with one of them in the wee hours of the morning… but after 5 days, we parted ways. We became “Hi, how are you doing, how’s everything been, what unit are you posted to, how’s NS been treating ya, can’t wait to ORD man, okay take care, gotta go!” friends.

Then I got posted to my unit (I still call it “my unit”, though I’m not there anymore, because that’s where my heart is)- I was to be a storeman at Hendon camp; home of the Commandos. There I got to mix with some people who I would never typically encounter in my regular social circles. Initially, they seemed a bit cold and distant, but after a while they warmed up to me. I especially enjoyed getting to know the regulars, many who were well-adjusted, competent and decisive older men who I grew to admire deeply. I liked pretty much all of them- they were fit, confident and just plain awesome. There were many women, too- the parachute riggers- all of whom were pleasant to interact with. Most of them were heavy smokers!

I remember some funny moments, some ridiculous moments getting scolded unnecessarily by our grumpy superior, lots of waiting, lots of sitting around- sometimes in listless boredom, sometimes in profound, meditative states. I mostly saw my colleagues as people I co-existed with- I was a little bit closer to the guys I’d smoke with. None of us ever had particularly deep conversations- it was jokes, complaints, the usual stuff between colleagues, I suppose. We did get closer after we had drinks and a barbecue at someone’s place- we learnt to see each other as people who were more than the roles we played in camp every day. It made life in camp a lot more tolerable- knowing that we were all human.

Out of the blue, I had my vocation changed for me because of some administrative stuff, and I found myself shipped off to another side of camp. I had to clear out my cupboard without any warning, and ended up leaving a few things behind. I never really got to say goodbye to the guys who would then ORD before me- one of them does talk to me on Facebook from time to time, about little nothings.

Before I knew it, I found myself uprooted and moved to a new environment- new office, with new storerooms, new responsibilities, and a whole new range of items to worry about. I clicked quite well with the guys, who were a little more educated- one guy played guitar, a couple of them smoked occasionally. I remember commiserating with one guy about his girlfriend problems. We had some funny moments, and we bonded over work and bumming around together. I knew I wasn’t supposed to stay there long, though- I was only supposed to be there until my signals course came around.

I packed up everything I had and went to the faraway Stagmont camp, where I met a whole new bunch of guys. I befriended several of them quickly. Many of them were fresh enlistees who just completed their BMT. The sergeant in charge of us was going to ORD really soon, and he was as light on his feet as you would expect such a man to be. We had lunch together, went to our bunks, made our beds. I flipped through the manuals, and I found them quite interesting! (I can’t talk about them here. Heh.) I got to know the smokers, as usual. One of them had an incredibly thick foreigner’s accent. Just as I was just getting a little comfortable, I received news that I was to report back to my previous unit- I could not do my Signals course without having done at least a PES C BMT- and I had only done the PES E “Residential Induction” course. So I went back to Hendon. It was drizzling heavily as I left, lugging my large black bag with me. I caught a cold and started sneezing in the rain, as I found myself lost- in more ways than one- in the middle of nowhere on the opposite end of the island. It was a rather dark moment, and I felt like a helpless pawn being thrown around by unsympathetic forces beyond my control.

I spent a few more weeks with my buddies at the signal office before the notice came around. I was to go for basic military training- the proper one, which I had been denied the opportunity to experience earlier. I headed over to the SAF Ferry Terminal with the big black bag they had issued me when I first enlisted, my uniforms, some clothes and supplies. I hadn’t, after all, been issued a field pack, helmet or load-bearing vest, being certified unfit for combat. I chatted with another guy who I met at the bus stop, and before long we accumulated an entire posse of recourse soldiers. We spent several hours talking about life in our previous units, shared some laughs on the ferry ride to Pulau Tekong, and found ourselves sitting around with more waiting. Some of us sneaked off to a smoking corner at some company I don’t remember (we hadn’t yet known which we were going to be posted to). As I began to get to know them, I received word that- you guessed it- I was to return back to my previous unit, because I lacked the items that I wasn’t issued, and I would have to get them from my previous unit instead. I clearly remember thinking- man, I was looking to have some serious fun with those guys. I was pretty sure that some of us would have become really good friends. It wasn’t meant to be. I wouldn’t recognize any of them if I saw them today. But had we perspired, cried and bled together, some of us might be attending each other’s weddings.

Finally, after lingering around for another couple of months at my office at Hendon, I found that I was to be posted for yet another BMT Recourse- for real this time. Amusingly, I had a dental appointment on reporting day. I seriously contemplated trying to get out of BMT again- I was thinking about how I’d have to miss Paramore’s 2nd concert in Singapore, and my girlfriend’s 21st birthday. But I decided that I was going to man up and confront my circumstances head-on. I went to Tekong after my dental appointment, chucking together what equipment I had (barely 50% of what was required!) just an hour before heading there. My section comprised entirely of recourse soldiers- the only recourse folk in the entire company. We would go on to have a heck of a ride- challenging, fun, tough, meaningful. I have so many wonderful memories and I’ve become good friends with many of my buddies, and we chat regularly on Facebook. We’re definitely going to meet up in the future for drinks and whatnot. I struggle to describe what the experience felt like- let’s just say that I felt more alive in those few weeks than the whole time I was in JC.

After I completed my BMT, I returned to Hendon to find two of my favourite colleagues missing- they had completed their service while I was busy doing pushups and firing rifles on an off-shore island. I couldn’t make it for their farewell dinners. I imagine we’d have a chat if we bumped into each other in the future. But before I could get much closer to the new guys- within a week, actually, I found myself posted back to Signal Institute. Again.

Over at Stagmont Camp (again), I found, to my pleasant surprise, 3 of my platoon mates from BMT. I also bumped into a fellow local musician, a junior of mine from secondary school, and a guy who helps out at the coffeeshop that I hang out at all the time. A week later and already we began to click. Already I sensed that we were going to have some pretty hilarious memories. And we’re just a random bunch of guys, really. There’s a half Japanese guy in my bunk, and a cell group leader. Quite the motley crew. We were going to have lots of fun, and then we were going to take a picture for memory’s sake, and then go our separate ways.

Somewhere along the line, it hit me. That’s how it works. All of this is incredibly random. The randomness of it all isn’t so immediately obvious if you’ve had a fairly straightforward path in life, because then your illusions of fate, soulmates and BFFs or what-have-you might not be challenged. But if you hop schools, travel around or seek some other form of breadth of experience, you’ll learn a simple truth- people everywhere are pretty much the same on the inside, and pretty much everyone’s capable of having meaningful relationships with others. (There are always exceptions, of course, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular piece.) BMT will be memorable regardless of who the guys are around you- as long as you go through the experiences together. That’s what counts.

Everything is incredibly fleeting, fragile, improbable. All our relationships, everything we value. That we exist at all. We never realise it most of the time. The stranger who passed by you on the street earlier could have been your best friend, if only something happened just slightly differently. People come and go. All we can do is appreciate the light while it lasts. It might not seem like much, but most of us never even do that- indifferently assuming that our lives are somehow stable, our relationships meant to be. We couldn’t be further from the truth. The universe is dripping with infinite possibility, and that makes every single interaction an incredibly precious opportunity.

PS: Here’s a fun story. During my Signals course, there was a day where we were supposed to make these wire joints- 20 per person. Quite labour-intensive, especially if you’re a beginner (as we all were). My bunk was the designated “duty” bunk that day, so we were doing area-cleaning, and didn’t have enough time to complete them. (I couldn’t even get started; I’m terrible with small-scale precision.)

The rational thing to do would have been to call our commander or course sergeant and ask for an extension. Instead we prepared an elaborate setup, hung our flashlights from the ceiling, and sat together chatting as we helped each other, labouring late into the night. It felt like some sort of covert operation, us against a cruel, irrational world. We were just co-existing till then; we became buddies that night. As luck would have it, the sergeants were doing rounds that night, and we were caught for not sleeping past lights-out. I’m not sure who it was who asked us the next day- “Was it worth it?”

My answer now is the same as it was then, and the same as it was for sneaking out of school, and all that other stuff that I’d love to share with you but I don’t think I should write about. Totally worth it.