Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Army Daze - How Boys Will Not Become Men

I thought it is time for my gentle readers to re-visit a post I wrote a while ago...

The army advertising machine is one of the most well-oiled and efficient system ever devised by man. The slogan , "Where boys become men", has become a mantra on the lips of millions that any advertising company would be over the moon should their slogans for their clients attain such a cult following. Yet, many should understand that a slogan is a mere advertising tool to appeal to the consumers and ensure that they remember a particular product due to its catchy phrase. In other words, it may not necessarily represent the truth and that applies for the army too - it does not make one become a man.

However, a 'man', like any other word, is a subjective concept and it benefits everyone should we stick to a particular definition. Being a man, represents an attainment of maturity, independence, rationality, humanity and morality; one that is able to provide for himself and others materially and emotionally. By that definition, the only semblance of being a man that the army could claim credit for would be bulking up the poor boys who have their lives coming into a screeching halt for two years. The physicality achieved, if the poor boy has any body mass to bulk up with, may offer his girlfriend either a sense of security or a fantasy come true as she is euphoric that she finally has a boyfriend that is as bulky as Hugh Jackman in Australia. Thoughts of her boyfriend washing himself like Jackman in that movie meant that the boy could finally "provide" his for his girlfriend emotionally - albeit in an erotic way.

At this point, most proponents of the slogan would demand that I do not ignore how serving national service is a rite of passage where one acquire survivor skills akin to the tribal initiation rites into adulthood or that it teaches values such as selflessness, cooperation and discipline. In response to that, I will thus address such naivety in two parts; the male initiation rites and the teaching of values.

With regards to the "rite of passage" argument, the person's naivety is revealed in the fact that he or she does not comprehend the significance of the tribal initiation rites but is only mystified by the whole affair. The tribal initiation rites is a spiritual, mental and physical training for the boys in order to equip them with necessary skills to survive and mature. The skill of hunting, outdoor survivor and resourcefulness is much needed in their community in the jungles to survive and in terms of providing for the whole tribe. Therefore, apart from the spiritual aspect which can be gruesome and not relevant in this discussion, these rites truly make boys become men in the sense that they are equip with necessary skills to actually survive. In relation to our urban landscape, if the army really sets out to transform boys to become men, the basic military training will therefore consists of cooking classes, teaching the boys how to clean, iron and sew and personal grooming courses in terms of appearance as well as etiquette. In addition, I believe that we are all equipped with an instinctive will to survive and that should a boy be left alone all by himself in the house where he has to cook, clean and wash his own clothes, I have no doubts that he will learn to acquire those skills and mature naturally as with millions of students who have studied abroad have done.

Furthermore, I can never subscribe to the idea of "breaking the boy to make a man" for it is outright barbarism. Hurling unnecessary insults and abuses during training only makes a boy into a baby where the recruit will learn that the only form of expression is through the use of expletives; relinquishing their ability to articulate their thoughts in a rational fashion. It will reduce communication into an orgy of distasteful utterances like a baby gone wrong. It never brings the willpower out of anyone. For willpower implies the perseverance out of one's own accord to endure whatever adversity one faces. Therefore, forceful imposition undermines this unique quality of the human spirit. This ideology therefore can never be a part of the training as a "rite of passage".

As for how the army teaches one good values, I am utterly disappointed at the parents who are hoping that the military would do their job. Also, I am disappointed at the little faith people have in the human spirit that we are capable of instinctive goodness. Why do one need to depend on the army to be taught such values? What about moral education in religious institutions and schools? Perhaps, the Ministry of Education needs to meet with the advertisers for the army to discuss on how to improve their brand name which results in people putting more faith in Singapore's education.

Aside from that, I would like to scrutinise the myth that military instills discipline. The concept of discipline is certainly severely misunderstood. The illusion of the soldiers marching in unison with precision does not necessarily mean that these soldiers have discipline. Discipline, like all other values, must be exhibited in a spirit of one's own willingness and not be coerced or forced into doing something out of the fear of punishment. True discipline is exhibited when the recruit actually wants to take on a strict regime in the earnest wish of becoming a highly trained soldier that has the ability to protect his country and fellow comrades in a time of war. Therefore, should the soldiers not have this self-willingness and do it any other way, one cannot say that the army has instilled a sense of discipline in them. Otherwise, dogs, slaves and prisoners are masters of discipline by that flawed equation.

As such, the army cannot claim any credit of making boys into men. Like all advertising gimmicks, we must see the product for what it really is and not be lulled into naivety by a catachy phrase - national service is merely a feeble solution to a problem of national security (a topic that must be left for another discussion as it is not directly relevant to this post). Like the recruits in Michael Chiang's hit movie, 'Army Daze', the military advertising machine has cast a fog and puts us in a daze.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tea for Two

It often takes the most mundane and unexpected circumstances to shake you out of your stupor and make you realise what is important and what is real. For me, that lovely circumstance was having tea with Beverly at Foster's today.

I met her only expecting to catch up with her and wishing the very best as she leaves for Boston. Never did I expect that in our conversation she told me a few things that really struck me and really got me thinking of who I am, what am I and what I want to be.

In the midst of our English indulgence, the topic of ancestry, roots and origins came up. She told me about going to the heritage centre in Chinatown just to revisit some of our traditions. Additionally, a meeting with her grandparents early in the day led to the discovery that her family tree is scattered across China and Southeast Asia which certainly surprised her. In that vein, she mentioned of her wish to bring her traditions over to Boston as she remains rooted to who she is and her faith.

On any occasion, I would have let out a chuckle or sorts for I rage against certain aspects of my traditions for its backwardness and hate to confine myself to who I am by such traditions. Well, I am not saying that I totally reject my Chinese roots for I do appreciate its cultural value and its intellectual history but its conservative outlook does not suit me. Also, being a true believer of the Arts, I believe that every artist, in the words of Nobel Laureate Gao XingJian, is a citizen of the world. In my interpretation, we make out to be who we are and we we want to be for the countries and it traditions that we live by are artificial demarcations that we have set upon ourselves.

Yet, it is as if the Camomile tea I was sipping had a calming effect on me as I actually got to think about what she really meant. It is not about being confined by tradition but so much so as a basis of who we are. Like it or not, we are influenced by our roots and our upbringing. In a sense, our origins and culture gives us some integrity of humanity for it is the beginning and our upbringing that is steeped in that culture leads us to the present us and it is for us to decide how our future turns out. If we were to reject every iota of the culture that we are born into, we are thus throwing ourselves into a web of contradictions. This is because we are seeking to define ourselves in our self-created vaccum but the only problem is that our sense of our utopia is a mere modification of the confines the real world. Hence, this new definition of us still stems from our tradition and culture.

So how do I synthesise what I have believed for so long with this new found outlook? Well, I am sure that we seek to define ourselves in the best possible way and if we were to look at different cultures, there is a common thread of goodness in them that is expressed in a variety of ways. They all do espouse a set of universal values which is what Thomas Jefferson would term as Natural Law. Therefore, the self-portrait that I seek to paint would be the same no matter how I do it but the cultures that I take from and adopt are form my pallete and the culture that I am born into forms my inspiration and template. Hence, with the materials in hand, I am at leisure to improve this inspiration and template to complete my masterpiece. But at the end of the day, the first stroke on the canvas to define who I am comes from being Chinese.

Thank you Beverly.