When emotions steal a march on reason

When emotions steal a march on reason

Of the many things I have learnt to appreciate about Singapore since coming to live in Japan, gender equality is near the top of the list.

Here, chauvinism is a way of life. When a woman quits her job to get married, her colleagues congratulate her warmly and throw a party.

If that happened in Singapore, those colleagues would be saying: "Siao ah, only one income, how to buy house?"

On many fronts, men and women are treated with more evenness in Singapore than in many other countries - except when it comes to issues such as national service (NS).

That is why I was fascinated by the furore last week, when the Singapore army banned a verse of a popular marching song after receiving a complaint about the lyrics.

The verse in question contains the following lines: "Booking out, saw my girlfriend/Saw her with another man/Kill the man, rape my girlfriend /With my rifle and my buddy and me."

Now, there are at least two questionable phrases in this stanza, even if you disregard the eccentric tenses. Murder and rape may be common war crimes, but they are no more acceptable than the wilful destruction of grammar.

However, the verse was deemed offensive not because it glorified killing, but because it trivialised rape.

The complaint came from the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), which said it was "troubled that NSmen were bonding over misogynist lyrics".

Since rape is no laughing - or indeed singing - matter, many Singaporeans spoke out in support of the ban. And not just women, too; it was men who first brought the lyrics to Aware's attention.

But there was also a huge backlash against the ban, from NSmen as well as some women, questioning the need to crack down on what they saw as an insignificant issue.

There is no link between these lyrics and the incidence of rape, some said. ("Words are powerful," Aware replied.)

Others sneered that protesting against this song was making a mountain out of a molehill; Aware should be targeting the many more graphic contributors to rape culture, such as video games and movies, instead. (This criticism ignores Aware's other work, it said.)

Several also took umbrage at Aware's single-minded focus on the word "rape" - why not complain about the word "kill"? (That's not "our particular expertise", said Aware.)

The ferocity of this reaction took some by surprise. Even my unflappable editor said: "Guys are unhappy? Are they serious? The lyrics are shockingly appalling."

She is right. And so are the good women at Aware, who have worked hard to advance the cause of gender equality.

To them, this is a serious cause.

"Why are so many men so deeply attached to the idea that NS should involve singing about raping women?" they ask.

But that misses the point: While the clash over Purple Light is indeed about gender equality, it is not actually about differing views on rape.

None of the people who have spoken out against Aware's move disagrees that rape is a heinous crime, and no NSman is dying to sing about raping his girlfriend.

Rather, it boils down to a more fundamental issue of gender inequality: Since women are not forced to give up years of their lives to NS, there are some aspects of it that they will never understand.

Like how Purple Light is among the army's most beloved ditties; no surprise, as the competition includes such gems as "Left toe, right toe, keep up the tempo/ Left toe, right toe, eh-o-eh-o".

Singing it lifts the spirits of tired, trudging soldiers. Not because it is violent - many versions of the song don't mention rape - but because it is catchy and meaningful.

I've known grown men to get misty at the last verse: "ORD, back to study/Got degree, so happy/ Can't forget, still remember /With my rifle and my buddy and me."

The offending verse, abhorrent as the "rape" line is, touches a chord in every NSman who has watched his girlfriend progress with her life while he is stuck in the army.

So when NSmen heard of the ban, many reacted defensively: "Why is someone attacking one of my best memories of NS and gloating about it?" they thought.

Their distress stems not from resistance to removing a rape reference, but from NSmen feeling underappreciated for their sacrifices, while bystanders pick at one of their coping mechanisms in the spirit of female righteousness.

To Aware's credit, it has called for greater equality for men and women with regard to NS. But that is a feat that will require much more effort, from many parties, than writing one complaint letter.

In the meantime, both Aware and NSmen - for that matter, all women and men - could do with a bit more sensitivity and empathy.

Just as men need to learn there is no such thing as a "casual mention" of rape, women should be aware that NS is fraught with strong emotions for men. We may never achieve true gender equality, but we can try for some form of universal compassion.


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