“U.K.! Come here a while.”
As I brisk-walk to my coy warrant, I read his face to determine if I’m being called over for a lighthearted chat, or if I have to steel myself for a barrage of complaints about how standards are dropping in the coy, the training is too relaxed, and the men are asking for too many privileges.
Why does my coy warrant call me “U.K.”? After 25 years in the navy, he’s found it easier to christen every seaman with a nickname than to try remembering their actual names. And everyone else joins in the fun too. So the shorty is called “Primary 5”, the skinny guy is called “Boat Hook”, and I’m called “U.K.” because I studied in London.
At least, I thought that was the only reason for this nickname. I found out much later that my coy warrant thought I really was from the U.K. because I don’t speak with a Singlish accent, and also because I don’t speak Tamil like other Singaporean Indians. Now assured of my Singaporeanness, he’s made me promise to become an MP for Punggol in the future – mostly because it’s his constituency, but also because in his estimation, it’s better that I serve the young voters of Punggol than the old fogeys in Jurong.
In this sense, the SAF is more than just a crucible of personal transformation – it is also an incubator of great creativity. Take the sergeants and warrant officers for example. They invent the most amusing nicknames, insults, teaching methods and punishments in order to break the monotony of military life. For instance, when someone forgets to close the door when entering the office, he is made to go out again and “collect back all the air-con that escaped”. There was also the briefing on prohibited content on mobile phones when one warrant officer euphemistically warned everyone to delete all “romantic action movies” from our phones. On another occasion, a chief snidely remarked that a certain seaman who had missed a deadline was learning how to be Michael Learns to Rock… because he was “25 Minutes Too Late”.
This creativity often filters down to the men too. When an NSF was excused by the medical officer from excessive exposure to sunlight, people said he was “excused photosynthesis”. A memelord created a whole set of memes based on everyday occurrences in the unit to spread a little cheer amongst unmotivated conscripts. There truly is a wellspring of creativity in the SAF waiting to be harnessed. But it is often squashed by the tedium of routine and the rigidity of military discipline. In such an environment, it takes deliberate effort to remain positive when it is so much easier to succumb to weariness and wallow in cynicism.
I’ve had much to be cynical about during my stint in the navy. I imagine the laundry list of complaints does not differ much between NSFs, and usually includes allegations of double standards and favouritism, unnecessarily strict adherence to rules, excessive effort spent on pointless work, and the ease with which blame is pushed around. The last item on this list was the most demoralising for me – when you’re constantly faulted for others’ slip-ups, your motivation to work naturally dwindles as you grow increasingly convinced that you will be blamed for something no matter how hard you’ve worked.
Then there’s also the near-impossible balancing act between following orders and being proactive. On the one hand, offering suggestions to improve work processes is sometimes too much of an uphill task, and so it’s just easier to follow the established routine. But on the other hand, NSFs are often reprimanded for behaving like robots, so they start taking initiative again, only to be chastised again for “taking shortcuts”.
But what annoyed me most were the times I was treated like an idiot, especially after spending five years in university. To be fair, there were times when I deserved it. Apart from those instances, I just had to grit my teeth and clench my fists. There was one instance, however, when a scolding session became so ludicrous that I refused to eat any more humble pie. It went something like this:
Chief: I said before that this is what the seamen should be doing everyday. So did you?
Me (after realising that the present perfect continuous tense was more suitable than the past tense): No Chief, we haven’t been doing that.
Chief: Did you or didn’t you?
Me (slightly confused): No Chief, we haven’t been doing so.
Chief (visibly irritated): Hey, can you answer my f***ing question or not? “Did not” is past tense, “have not” is future tense!
And that’s when I nearly lost it.
On hindsight, I appreciate these humbling experiences. They showed me my flaws and weaknesses, allowing me to work on them in order to become a more resilient, confident and honourable person. They also highlighted the fact that education and intelligence are two different things; attainment of the former does not guarantee possession of the latter. I may have had high educational qualifications, but I could do some pretty stupid things, and I certainly wasn’t as street-smart as many of the seamen. That made me more conscious of the need to rely on others’ strengths and ideas so as to carry out our work to the best of our collective ability.
That’s the greatest aspect of NS – men of different educational, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds have to work together as a cohesive unit to achieve mission success. The alternative is intolerable friction and failure, and failure is unacceptable in the military.
This means that everyone has to adjust their expectations, working style, and even the way they communicate. When I first entered the unit, I remember feeling uncomfortable with the fact that most conversations were carried out in Mandarin/Hokkien. At times, I felt excluded and foreign, which was compounded by the fact that I speak “high-level” English (I was often told that my ang moh is too cheem). But such is the beauty of our multicultural society that whenever I was around, people would “switch from Channel 8 to Channel 5” – an adorable colloquialism that always brings a smile to my face!
As one of my commanders said to me, being placed in this unit has given me a unique opportunity to work with a diverse group of people – an opportunity that I may never have again. For that, I’m extremely grateful.
Indeed, gratitude smooths the NS journey. Ultimately, the best way to cope with frustrations and dispel cynicism during NS is to focus on the positives as much as possible. It’s easier said than done, but also easier done in the navy than in the army. I never had to go outfield or carry a rifle. I could book out on most days, although I did spend three hours travelling everyday – but that gave me plenty of time to read on the train. Busy training periods were always followed by lull periods. Although I did have to sail under the mercilessly hot sun and sometimes through violent thunderstorms, I never had to charge up the hill in full battle order.
Perhaps more significantly, I developed a deep appreciation for Singapore’s maritime history, and the navy’s role in guarding her maritime industry. The navy is not only unique in its mission but also in its traditions, many of which stretch back several centuries. Bizarre and archaic as some may be, they’re a gateway to a proud global fraternity of intrepid sailors, one that I feel privileged to be a part of.
In fact, life in the navy illuminates so many of the metaphors that we use on a daily basis, often without thinking twice about their nautical origins. When I begin my new job in a few weeks, “learning the ropes” will hold special meaning for me. “Being in the same boat” reminds me of every sailing I’ve been on, when every crew member has to look out for one another. The symbolism of lighthouses (clear guidance in uncertainty), anchors (steadfast even in rough seas), and rudders (seemingly insignificant but very powerful) is more real to me now that I’ve seen the actual objects.
Such lofty sentimentality is often drowned out by the drudgery of work – greasing movable parts, tightening bolts and nuts, splicing ropes, etc. But even work could sometimes be fun. On sailing sorties around the island, I felt the wind in my hair and sea spray on my face, and admired Singapore’s skyline from a different perspective. Of course, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture – a dutiful seaman is supposed to be a vigilant lookout, not a cruise passenger. But even while on duty, I could still catch glimpses of gigantic ships at sea, the beautiful yachts of Sentosa, mesmerising sunsets, and the vast expanse of blue sky which is so often blocked by Singapore’s skyscrapers.
On more than one occasion, inclement weather was followed by a cheery rainbow which immediately dispelled all gloom and lifted the soul. I clearly remember one sailing when I saw a rainbow stretched above the glimmering skyscrapers of the CBD as we sailed past Marina Bay. It’s an image I will carry with me for life.
In fact, it’s more than just a pretty picture in my mind’s eye. It’s a perpetual reminder that if I want to enjoy the splendour of a rainbow, I must be ready to sail through stormy seas. And as hard as it may be, I must try to be thankful for the rough seas of life. After all, smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.