A life where cleaning a 4kg chunk of metal takes precedence over cleaning yourself, where travelling to any destination involves swinging your hands and legs in sync with 50 other people, where drinking water from your bottle must be preceded by a fiery recital of the SAF core values, couldn’t be more different from the civilian lives we were plucked from. But armed with a wry sense of humour, you’ll realise that the army offers its own substitutes to the comforts and conveniences of civilian life.
During field camp, in lieu of 5 star toilets, there were elaborate latrines made of metal poles, plastic, and cloth, thoughtfully furnished with dividers and locking doors. In lieu of 3 Michelin-starred meals, there were mess-tins of springy instant noodles doused in the sharp tang of curry seasoning. And in lieu of the songs on my iPhone which accompany me on my weekly runs, there were army songs to stave off boredom as we plodded along on route marches.
Their facile and inane lyrics may suggest otherwise, but army songs were a veritable source of entertainment and diversion as we inched forward on our route marches. With proud proclamations that ‘we are the best in the SAF’, lustful love stories about a girl in the ‘corner of the bar last night’, resigned remarks that the girls in the army are like ‘Frankenstein’, army songs run the gamut from adulatory, to licentious, to humourous. Put simply, army songs are whimsical. They don’t take themselves seriously, which makes them great fun to shout out. Even while I hunched our shoulders under the stubborn weight of a field pack and scrunched my face with the sheer exertion of walking, I found my lips curling into a smile from the ludicrous lyrics.
Very little in the army belongs to you. While your uniforms, water bottles, and backpacks may be yours, they don’t belong to you in the sense that you can’t customise them or express your individuality through them. Everything is standardised. So I’m more inclined to see these items as the tools of a soldier, not the belongings of an individual.
Army songs, however, are one of the rare things you feel you truly own. They are firmed steeped in tradition, and are passed down from our commanders, but the decision to sing them is uniquely ours. There is an art to choosing the song to suit the zeitgeist of the platoon – be it the dread on the march to field camp, the exuberance on a book-out day, or the prosaicness of a routine march to a routine activity. Those more enterprising among us have taken the liberty to compose parodies replete with inside jokes, and even entirely new songs to caricature our platoon sergeants.
Above all, army songs are quintessentially ours. They, more than any uniform, represent who we are as a collection of Singaporean sons united fortuitously, trying to make sense of National Service. It does not take a new, inventive song to express ourselves. The zeal with which we sing our songs, the inflection and melody of each line, the way we shout ‘Hawk Coy’ – these define our collective identity. Everyone on Tekong sings the same songs, but it’s the subtleties – the way a particular song i/c mispronounces words, the way we sing about our ‘Ang-Moh’ platoon commander, or the way we all sing ‘Kiri Kanan’ with boisterous relish – that let me know I’m with a band of brothers who have shared a common experience quite unlike any other.
When I say army songs are something we own, I’m not just referring to us as individual platoons or companies. I’m also referring to us as generations of recruits. There is a frankness and angst encapsulated within army songs which suggest that they were composed by fellow recruits, bottom-up. The sheer silliness of army songs belie a deeper melancholy and resignation about being forced to spend 2 years in an unfamiliar place, doing unfamiliar things with familiar people. The physical strain of an army life is a common theme – ‘everyday, doing PT, with my rifle and my buddy and me’ – as is the psychological pain – ‘I’m a long long way from home, and I miss my Mama so’. Nostalgia about our previous carefree lives only makes us feel worse; we see ‘children having fun, but we are holding guns’. And if the message isn’t clear enough, we declare unequivocally that ‘I don’t want to lead an army yeah, I just want to lead a simple life’ – faced with the punishing and unforgiving demands of army life, all we aspire towards are the simple pleasures of life.
However, it is perhaps notable that even as army songs bemoan the unpleasantness of NS, they never dismiss the importance or need for NS. We sing about the ‘aching in my heart, and my body full of sweat’, but in the same breath, we recognise that we ‘have to go’, and that the best we can do is ‘hurry back home’. There is a steely determination and quiet resignation when we sing about going ‘where the brave men die’ because we ‘love our land’. In asking ourselves ‘why must we serve’, we recognise that our obligation to fight for Singapore is a given, and all that remains is to rationalise a deeper meaning for these 2 years of our lives.
In many ways, these songs that we sing each day reflect my mindset towards NS. For decades, every Singaporean at the brink of adulthood has had to put down books and pick up rifles to defend his nation. Reaffirmed by movies like ‘Ah Boys to Men’, the policy of NS is almost beyond reproach, an unquestionable reality of our existence. We have to serve NS, so just like how we sing our army songs, we do it together. We do it with humour. And we do it with pride and a sense of duty. After all, the most important duties are those that convince us to transcend and look beyond our individual selves; we strive to fulfil those duties in spite of the inconvenience and discomfort because we know they are important – not because we have to, but because we should.