Chivalry, thy last name is NS

The article is an excerpt from SAF50, a book published by the Ministry of Defence, tracing the Singapore Armed Forces' involvement in humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the region. A downloadable PDF version of the book is available from the website

On the 50th year of the SAF, an institution so inextricably linked to our nation's identity and survival, it may be timely to make a case once again for the other sacred Singaporean institution - national service.

Not that there is a growing voice to slay this sacred cow, but as an artist, a lover of poetry, music, literature and all things lofty and sublime, I have my own case, my personal defence of this tradition, this custom that is as old, or in our case as young, as our beloved country.

Either way, it is all that we have known since the beginning of modern Singapore's existence. And with the world being an increasingly dangerous and volatile place, we really do not want to be stripped of our core defences, relying only on our wealth and material possessions, which will be worth nothing overnight if the country's security is compromised or our sovereignty threatened.

Taking away two years of a young man's life might seem cruel to the young man who is raring to go out and live large. But to those who have been through this distinctly Singaporean male-bonding experience, many would attest to them being some of the best times of their lives. If not the best, certainly memorable and enriching.

A time when our boys are standing at the doorway to manhood, with opportunities and possibilities before them; a time when they are not yet corrupted by society to chase after selfish and illusive ambitions, or broken down by life to live without courage or passion; a time when they can still be reinforced with values that are noble and right, that might see them through life and its onslaught of cynicisms, challenges and difficult moral decisions.

Yes, a time when it is still okay to be romantic and daring, bright- eyed, hopeful, idealistic, patriotic, strong, brave, loyal, brotherly, vulnerable, weak, broken, triumphant. Because through all these ups and downs, they will not be alone.

They will certainly learn much about life, about friendship, about sacrifice, and about values that will stay with them, and carry them through life. And who knows what life might present them with?

They will even be made to think about death, a taboo subject in our society, but something a soldier will have to treat with sacredness and respect on a daily basis, knowing they have to be cautious and disciplined to safeguard their own lives and those of their buddies, and understanding that, ultimately, their duty as soldiers is to protect and preserve the lives of their countrymen.

For those who have a case against NS, citing safety and hardship issues, I do not understand.

As a parent, do we not want our children to live a full life, and be as prepared for life with all its unpredictable and harsh conditions as possible? As women, do we not want our men to be capable of noble and valiant acts, men of substance we can love and count on to defend and protect us when the need arises, no matter how slim those chances might be?

As men, do we not want to be challenged and disciplined, at a young age, rather than suffer the humiliation of being disciplined at a much later stage in life, when it is all rather late to learn certain lessons? I have learnt from divine wisdom that hardship and discipline often go hand in hand, which later brings peace to those who go through that tough training.

Not only do two years of training as a soldier make a young man physically and mentally resilient (not to mention attractive), it is also a crucial rite of passage that marks the life of a Singaporean son.

I may not have a brother that served NS, but I have many friends who have. And there is that unmistakable glow of confidence in them, that transition from the awkward and self-conscious boy I knew in school to that steady and reliable man who is to accompany me on life's journey for years to come.

No doubt, there is a unifying force in this Singaporean institution called national service. It is seen by many who favour it to be a social leveller, a rite of passage, a legacy passed on from fathers to sons.

For me personally, and here I may be charged with being old-fashioned, but I regard this singular Singaporean tradition to be the last vestige of chivalry we can lay claim to. Honour, glory, duty, sacrifice, courage and all those qualities that make the human spirit soar. I hope we never go to war, but I also hope we never forget these qualities we can live out in our lives during peacetime.

The writer is a multi-talented artist who first sang Home for the 1998 NDP, and worked with Nexus, Mindef, on the Total Defence campaigns What Will You Defend? (2009), Home - Keeping It Together (2011), and 30 years of TD: Because You Played A Part (2014).


This article was first published on August 23, 2015.
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