The recent two-day NS ‘boot camp’ for women, organised by the Women’s Integration Network (WIN) Council’s Ang Mo Kio Women’s Executive Committee, was met with many negative reactions by Singaporean men.
Plenty of the negativity appeared to be very visceral, and a neutral bystander might be confused as to why there was so much of it. I’ve seen numerous women, for example, who read these negative comments online express their surprise. After all, there is no doubt that the WIN organised this with the best of intentions, and had a benign objective. According to the WIN:
“the organisers hope to give women a glimpse of what our national servicemen go through so that they can better relate to national servicemen’s experiences and demonstrate stronger support and involvement in NS and defence.”
Here is an attempt to explain why. Whenever someone, from a position of privilege, attempts to mirror the harsh experiences of people who went through those experiences not out of choice but through forces beyond their control, that mimicry belittles their suffering, and that invokes plenty of negative emotions. We might not like to admit this, but in this particular context, women are in a position of privilege since they enjoy all the benefits of citizenship that men do, but do not have to give up two years of their life to serve the military in order to preserve it. In some ways, the NS ‘boot camp’ is similar to slum tourism, and the controversies surrounding both have similar roots.
Imagine, for example, if a bunch of rich Singaporeans paid good money to attend a two-day camp, organised by the local Community Centre, to understand how it is like to live as an ‘ordinary Singaporean’, where they are taken out of the comfort of their Sentosa Cove bungalows and made to live in a HDB flat, visit wet markets and cook their own food – how would people react? Even if this camp had a benign purpose of trying to help rich Singaporeans appreciate the level of inequality in our country and show them a side of Singapore they might have never seen, it would no doubt offend a large number of people who would consider this an attack on their dignity.
Every day, young men are forced against their will to give up two years of their young adult lives and put their dreams on hold to do something that many of them, quite frankly, would rather not do.
What blasphemy, you might say – aren’t all Singaporean men patriots who would happily die for the country? Look, we need begin to be honest with ourselves and admit that national service is not something that most people would choose to do if they had a choice, since if this were true, then there would have been no need to make national service compulsory in the first place – people would just sign up on their own, men and women included. There are exceptions, but most of us serve our country because it is our duty, not because we have been dreaming about doing it our entire lives, and it is okay for us to admit this.
Hence, what this camp does is remind plenty of men of a harsh inequality – that for men, the suffering and the sacrifices of national service is part of a compulsory duty; for women, it’s a commodified experience.
To be fair, there are schemes that attempt to get women to better relate to the experience. For example, the SAF Volunteer Corps, which aims:
“to encourage Singaporean women, first generation Permanent Residents and new immigrant/naturalised-citizens to do their part and provide the opportunity to participate towards Singapore’s defence by strengthening support for national service and sharing the burden with the national servicemen.”
What makes this different is that it does not commodify the national service experience by creating an itinerary that purports to reflect the experience of Singaporean men while marketing it as something “fun”. Instead it allows its volunteers to be an actual part of the national service experience and demands from them a minimum level of commitment and discipline, which probably explains why when it was first announced, it was not met with the same negativity.
To be clear, I am not trying to say that this “boot camp” should not have taken place – in fact I think quite a lot of good can come out of it in terms of making women more aware about the experiences that men face, and this in turn might lead to greater support for things like benefits for NSmen etc. However, we cannot run away from the fact that national service is an inherently unequal policy, and something like this which reminds Singaporean men about this inequality will necessarily attract negative reactions.
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Cover photo credit: TODAY