Smooth Seas Never Made Skilled Sailors


“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. 


Every Singaporean Dialogue Session Ever


Enter emcee.

Emcee: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. The event should start in about 5 minutes, but don’t count on it since most Guests of Honour are fashionably late. Although this reminder will most likely be an exercise in futility, I’ll say it anyway – please switch your mobile devices to Silent mode. Thank you.

Enter Guest of Honour. Audience sits uneasily, waiting for the emcee to ask them to rise, but Singapore is trying to be more casual and informal now, so an eerie silence hangs over the auditorium.

Emcee: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the 2019 #YouthCanDoIt@SG Leaders Engagement Conversation Ministerial Dialogue Forum Session. (Mobile phone rings, all eyes dart towards the offender). My name is Emma See, and I’ll be your emcee for today.

Today, we have the pleasure of hearing from our distinguished speaker, Minister for Education, Second Minister for Health and Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure Dr Tok Tu Long.

Minister for Education, Second Minister for Health and Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure Dr Tok will be sharing with us about changes in our nation’s education landscape, after which our moderator, Mr Foo Ling Yu, will facilitate the dialogue session.

Please do not record this session or post anything about this online as this is a closed-door session and we want to have an open and frank discussion with the Minister. But we can’t have everything we want, can we?

(Forced laughter from the emcee, which is the cue for the audience to chuckle along. One man guffaws a bit too loudly.)

Emcee: I will now introduce our Guest of Honour, Minister for Education, Second Minister for Transport and Coordinating Minister for National Security Dr Tok Tu Long.

(Dr Tok stands up but returns to his seat upon realising that the emcee has to read out his illustrious resume first.)

Emcee: Without further hairdo, please put your hands together to welcome Dr Tok on stage. Dr Tok, please.

(An usher guides Dr Tok to the stage just in case he doesn’t know where the stairs are.)

Dr Tok: Good afternoon all. It’s good to see so many enthusiastic young faces here, and I look forward to having a robust dialogue with you even though I know I’ll be doing the lion share of the talking.

I’ll say at the outset that I’ll try to keep this short, but I won’t really. Let me begin by repeating the same thing I just said to a Straits Times reporter a few days ago. Also, here are some crucial reminders about Singapore’s small size and complete lack of resources, which means we are sustained only by talented, hardworking people. That’s why we make every school a good school, so that every good graduate can get a good job and make good money to sustain a good life.

We all want our children to chase their dreams and fulfil their potential, especially the potential to become doctors, lawyers and accountants. But we also need to build a robust and resilient workforce that is ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution. In order to future-proof our economy, we must build relevant capabilities in our educational institutions and build synergistic relationships between the academic and corporate spheres. We must also focus on re-skilling and lifelong learning programmes for all workers, which can be developed through public-private partnerships. Digitalisation is the cornerstone of a dynamic and innovative economy, and we need a whole-of-government paradigm shift in order to transform our workforce into a future-ready one.

Thank you, and I look forward to a lively discussion. But we can’t have everything we want, can we?

(Rapturous applause from the audience as Dr Tok walks to one of the sofas on stage, accompanied by an usher just in case he gets lost along the way.)

Emcee: Thank you for your speech, Dr Tok. I’m obliged to say that we all benefited from your erudite comments, no matter how accurate (or otherwise) a statement like that may be. At this juncture, I would like to hand the microphone to our moderator, Mr Foo Ling Yu. Ling Yu, please.

Moderator: Thanks Emma. Well I’m sure we’re all brimming with questions to pose to Dr Tok, many of which will probably have nothing to do with his earlier comments on Singapore’s education system. But I request that each person asks only one question, with no sub-questions, preambles, points of information, follow-up questions or tirades. Please be mindful that others want their time in the spotlight as well. Also, please state your name before asking your question. With that, let us open the floor for questions.

Questioner #1: Thank you Minister Dr Tok for your very enlightening…

Moderator: Sorry sir, could we have your name please?

Ahmad: Very sorry for that, my name is Ahmad. I would like to ask Dr Tok what he believes the government should do for workers who are unable to keep up with the rapid pace of economic change, and are left behind?

Dr Tok: That is an excellent question. In fact, it’s so excellent that I need to buy some time. So let me ask you – what do you think the government can do?

Ahmad: Dr Tok, I really have no idea, that’s why I’m asking you the question.

Dr Tok: We have a slew of policies and programmes in place which I will explain now. (Presents an alphabet soup of acronyms.) Hope this answered your question.

Ahmad: Thank you Dr Tok, it did. But even if it didn’t, I probably wouldn’t say so because others are getting impatient.

Moderator: Next question please.

Questioner #2: My name is Mark. In 2016, the basic tenets and core assumptions of international relations were called into question by the double whammy of President Trump’s election and the British people’s decision to vote in favour of Brexit. These seismic shifts in the Western world have upset global markets and thrown the liberal project of global economic integration and free trade into complete disarray, sending ripples of uncertainty all the way to our neck of the woods and casting doubt on the ability of statisticians to paint an accurate picture of public opinion…

Moderator: Is there a question Mark?

Mark: Yes I was getting there. So my question is this – in light of the unpredictability and volatility of geopolitical trends and economic patterns, what should the government do to help Singaporeans who are unable to keep up with the breakneck speed of global change?

Dr Tok: Essentially, you’re asking the exact same question that was asked earlier, which makes me wonder if you were paying any attention at all. But I’ll provide a different answer so as to not make you feel bad.

Moderator: We have time for one more question.

Questioner #3: I would like to ask the Minister – if you had one wish for Singapore, what would it be?

Dr Tok: Thank you for asking such a grand question. You’ve given me an opportunity to demonstrate my profound optimism and wax eloquent about lofty ideals, which will undoubtedly provide juicy soundbites for the media. My wish is for all Singaporeans to chase their rainbow, and never settle for second-best. As we press on towards a brighter tomorrow, let it not be happiness that we pursue, but happiness that pursues us.

(Stunned silence gives way to enthusiastic applause.)

Emcee: Thank you very much Dr Tok. Another round of applause please for our distinguished speaker and our moderator. (Claps into the microphone to encourage more audience applause.) 

We have come to the end of the 2019 #YouthCanDoIt@SG Leaders Engagement Conversation Ministerial Dialogue Forum. Thank you for your attendance here today. Please remain seated as our Guest of Honour heads to the reception first to start eating. I know we all want to eat as soon as possible.

But we can’t have everything we want, can we?

Of Dreams and Reality


“I want to go to Raffles, study forensic science, and join the FBI in Quantico.” That’s what a young 11-year-old boy told me recently.

He has it all planned out. He’s pored over the Raffles school website, chosen his future JC, and even knows the prerequisites to study Criminology at NUS. He laid out his plan with such earnestness that I felt guilty about the poisonous cynicism brewing within.

I was initially encouraged by his choice of my alma mater. In fact, I felt obliged to defend and nurture his ambition. Another kid overheard our conversation and rudely interjected, “Raffles? Oh, it’s impossible to go there.” It was a miracle that I didn’t snap at the kid – I just frowned upon his pessimistic pronouncement and merrily told my motivated young friend to ignore such barbs.

But once he started talking about the FBI, I felt I had to inject some sense of reality into the conversation. The questions spilled out of my mouth like a leaky toilet: Have you been watching too much TV? Do you know how selective the FBI is? Are you sure foreigners can join the FBI? How will you get American citizenship? Isn’t the Singapore Police Force a better idea?

Not a hint of dejection. In fact, he was quite sure that FBI applicants only need to be US residents, and even if that’s not the case, he was certain it’s not difficult to become a US citizen.

So cute, so innocent, so naïve, so…

“Stop.” The word rang firmly in my head, as a pang of guilt gripped my heart. It’s so often said that Singaporeans sacrifice their dreams on the altar of conventional, cookie-cutter success. Why was I coaxing this young boy to join the rat race so early in life?

Of course this kid will encounter hurdles and brick walls, but I don’t need to tell him that now. He’ll discover that along the way, and I’m sure his maturity will keep him in good stead. He’ll learn to overcome barriers, reformulate his goals, and keep pressing on.

Maybe I was just trying to temper his dreams with a dose of reality. But it’s better that his reality is shaped by his dreams.

You Happy or Not?


I can’t think of any other country that takes happiness so seriously. It seems that at least once a year, Singaporeans must engage in a national discussion about whether they are happy or not, why they are happy or not, why they should be happy or not, and how to be happy or not.

In 2012, a Gallup study claimed that we are the unhappiest country in the world. That generated a lot of soul-searching. Then in 2016, the World Happiness Report named Singapore as the happiest country in the Asia-Pacific region. That got us scratching our heads – either the definitions of happiness used in both studies were vastly different, or we have schizophrenic mood swings.

Then in recent weeks, people got unhappy with how happy Nas Daily made us out to be – because heaven forbid that we allow a foreigner to be happy about how happy we are! Unless that foreigner is Neil Humphreys – then that’s OK because he lived in Toa Payoh for ten years, was vice-chairman of the Tanjong Pagar United Fan Club and acted as Sir Stamford Raffles in Talking Cock The Movie.

About a year ago, another foreigner told the whole world how happy the sunny island of Singapura is. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author, wrote an article in Nat Geo that praised Singapore as one of the happiest places on Earth. The ever-cheery Mothership team picked it up and summarised Buettner’s claims in an article that raised incredulous eyebrows all over the country.

Buettner lays out three different versions of happiness in Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore, and seems to place them on equal footing. But from his own anecdotal snapshots of the three countries, I see a glaring difference between these three types of happiness.

Happiness in Costa Rica and Denmark are linked to Pleasure and Purpose respectively. Buettner’s happy Costa Ricans are portrayed as simple folk, full of lighthearted mirth and humour, basking in the joy and love of family and friends. The happy Danes are able to pursue their most cherished passions because their basic needs are provided for by the government, allowing them to ascend Maslow’s hierarchy with ease.

Meanwhile, happiness in Singapore is associated with Pride, or “life satisfaction”. This apparently stems from the success that most Singaporeans are able to achieve in a mobile society through their own hard work. In an annoyingly trite depiction of this success, popularised even more by Crazy Rich Asians, Buettner highlights the luxurious sports car and multi-million-dollar house of Douglas Foo, founder of Sakae Sushi, along with other trappings of our ultra-modern and opulent city-state.

Should these 3 Ps – Pleasure, Purpose and Pride – be placed side by side? I think not. Pleasure and purpose are defined individually, while the pride of success is largely socially constructed, at least in Singapore’s context. In other words, Costa Ricans and Danes can still be happy regardless of personal circumstances or society’s opinions. But Singaporeans are happy only in comparison with others.

According to Buettner’s depiction of life in Singapore, personal wealth and social status form the bedrock of citizens’ happiness. He makes this quite clear by suggesting that happy Singaporeans “tend to be financially secure (and) have a high degree of status.” Discussions about wealth tend to invite comparison with others. Status is also comparative by definition. So then, happiness becomes a matter of social comparison, which dovetails seamlessly with our national culture of kiasuism – being “scared to lose”. Happiness is set by society and not by ourselves, robbing us of our autonomy.

How about those who are not financially secure and don’t have a high degree of status? Where is their happiness? It’s telling that Buettner’s happy Costa Rican is broke, his happy Dane earns a modest salary, and his happy Singaporean is a multi-millionaire with a trophy case of business awards. Even the choice of photos reveals the stark contrast between these forms of happiness. The images used in the segment on Costa Rica show merry dancers in a bar and a jubilant family surrounding a bubbly baby. The portion on Denmark has a photo of children harvesting their own vegetables.

And the images of happy Singapore? A rich father buying a Porsche for his son. Girls partying on a rented yacht. A chic woman’s reflection in the storefront window of a showroom at Marina Bay Sands.

Perhaps the primary reason for Singaporeans’ vitriolic reaction towards Nas Daily’s portrayal of Singapore as an “almost perfect country” is that we have embraced the misguided notion that happiness is denominated in dollar bills. That explains why one of the rants directed at Nas complained about CPF contribution rates, the high cost of HDB flats, and the imminent rise in GST. Of course, no one will deny that financial security and material comforts do contribute to happiness, and that poverty is miserable. But happiness that is solely based on our bank accounts is volatile and fleeting.

I’m no authority on happiness, and I’m certainly not a bundle of joy. But I’m sure many would agree with me when I say that we need to decouple our idea of happiness and fulfilment from material goods and social status. And we need to do it fast, if we know what’s good for us.

This is an expansion of a Facebook post I published in October 2017.

Fuzzy but Free

“Just walk without your specs.”

Now why would I do that? I was in a volatile city in a foreign land, walking on a barely familiar path with someone I hardly knew. She had myopia, not as severe as mine, but she casually ambled along the pavement without lenses, completely unperturbed by the haziness of her vision.

I’d heard that people do some pretty crazy things in Jerusalem. There’s even a psychological phenomenon named after the city – the Jerusalem syndrome – where mentally stable people feel the inexplicable need to shout Bible verses, deliver sermons, wear white gowns, or single-handedly trigger the coming of the Messiah. Of course, staggering around like a blind bat was nowhere near the insanity of tourists suddenly assuming biblical personas, but it was an odd suggestion nonetheless.

The year was 2013. I was on an exchange programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I met some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered. My roommate was a religious American Jew who sat in darkness during the Shabbat (that was when I learned that observant Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath). I attended lectures with a Japanese diplomat who had witnessed first-hand the turmoil of Mubarak’s overthrow in Cairo. I vaguely recall a middle-aged Ugandan man who spoke animatedly as he extolled the virtues of Kabbalah, the ancient tradition of Jewish mysticism. I distinctly remember my bewilderment when an American student railed about the “irresponsibility” of Israeli soldiers on the tram who had strapped their magazines to their rifle butts… instead of keeping their weapons loaded and cocked, ready to respond in the event of a terror attack.

But I spent most of my time with a Chinese student from Canada, the same one who had nonchalantly suggested that I walk the streets of Jerusalem with blurred vision.

“I can’t see a thing without my specs,” I protested.

“But you already know the way from campus to the accommodation block. Can you see the cars and pedestrians? That’s good enough.” Her reply was striking in its simplicity. But that changed abruptly as the conversation took an unexpected leap into the terrain of new-age spirituality.

“Just free yourself!” she exclaimed. “Why do you need to remain in control of your surroundings? Do you really need to see everything clearly?”

How did she turn a silly little dare into a philosophy lesson? Did I look like a Beatle sitting at the feet of the Maharishi?

Stunned and slightly amused, I let her words sink in. As outlandish as her remarks were, I admired the carefree attitude behind her words, which stood in stark contrast to my own uptight and cautious disposition. Maybe my hesitation really did indicate a need for absolute control over my surroundings. Perhaps I needed to embrace a tiny bit of insecurity? After all, hadn’t I already hopped on a plane to the Middle East completely alone?

I never thought I would engage in such deep soul-searching on the street. But those were the streets of the Holy City after all.

With straight back and puffed-up chest, I smugly removed my specs and made my way back without incident. Rather than feeling crippled by blurred vision, I felt unburdened, unencumbered, free. There was no bridge resting on my nose, no smudges to wipe off, no barrier between my eyes and the strange new land before me – a land I would soon make my home for two years.

It was an unremarkable event but it’s remained in my memory as a helpful metaphor for life. We will never completely understand the events in our lives, or immensely complex geopolitical trends, or even the innermost thoughts of our loved ones. The mundanities and vagaries of life coalesce into foggy obscurity. But we can still move forward. Naturally we’d like to have 20/20 vision all the time, but there’s no need to fret if we don’t have full clarity. We don’t need to know or understand everything.

It’s liberating to know that there’s freedom in the fuzziness.

We’ve Scored an Own-Goal


These uplifting words were prominently displayed in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in the week of the 2016 Chingay Parade. Do they ring true or ring hollow?

What impeccable timing – on the day of the FIFA World Cup Finals, the Ministry of Defence announced that the first Singaporean to enter the English Premier League will not be allowed to defer his National Service enlistment. I don’t care too much for football, but I imagine that this is sad news for Singaporean football fans.

Actually, I think it’s a killjoy for all Singaporeans. The news that Ben Davis, a 17-year-old Singaporean who recently signed a two-year contract with Fulham FC, is legally required to postpone his dream of playing in the EPL was greeted with derision, frustration and despair by netizens.

MINDEF claimed in its statement that “it would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development”. It also stated that in sports, “deferments are granted only to those who represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for Singapore”.

In response, many netizens have advised Davis to give up his Singaporean citizenship and chase his dream. Some have even assured him that Singaporeans will bear no grudge against him.

Besides offering a window into the general sentiment of Singaporeans, some of these online comments put forth compelling arguments against MINDEF’s decision, which are worth contemplating.

Davis’ sporting career is a form of national service

One of the sentiments expressed by netizens is that Davis is proudly flying the Singapore flag on the global sporting stage by playing in the world’s most popular football league. While the Government’s perspective is that Davis is merely seeking to further his own career, several were quick to point out that his achievement serves a greater purpose – to inspire young sporting talent, and to broaden our society’s definition of excellence.

As one person commented on the CNA article, “our idea of national service needs to be updated”.

Just imagine – Davis’ Singaporean heritage is going to be mentioned every time he plays in an EPL match. But he will not only be an ambassador for Singapore. In the same way that Joseph Schooling’s victory united and inspired Singaporeans, Davis has the potential to become a rallying point for Singaporeans.

In “Total Defence” parlance, Davis can contribute to strengthening our social and psychological defence by giving us something to be proud of as a nation, and by demonstrating that Singaporeans are free to pursue their dreams. On the contrary, MINDEF’s announcement has discouraged Singaporeans, many of whom have encouraged Davis to flee the country – like a prisoner escaping a bleak jail cell.

Davis’ success is the reason we serve NS

Other commenters have lamented that a country that pours cold water on a young boy’s dreams is not worth defending.

One of our most popular army songs asks the question, “Have you ever wondered, why must we serve?” The response: “Because we love our land, and we want it to be free…”

These lyrics remind us that the safety and security of our nation is not the ultimate goal of NS. We stand ready to protect our nation so that all its citizens can live meaningful lives, free to pursue their values and ambitions. We deter aggression to guard and preserve the lives of our fellow citizens, but we do so believing that those lives can be lived to the fullest.

Of course, MINDEF is right to say that “all male Singaporeans liable for full-time NS put aside personal pursuits to dutifully enlist and serve their NS”. What is implied is that if every Singaporean son has to put his dreams on hold for two years, Davis should do so as well. But this ignores the fact that Davis’ opportunity is time-sensitive. As many netizens have argued, he will no longer be at the top of his game after two years of NS and will miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Public sector scholars, on the other hand, can still pursue further studies after two years of NS, and yet they are still offered deferment.

Davis is even more “local” than Schooling

This episode has naturally invited comparisons between Davis and Schooling, who was granted two NS deferments to continue training for the Olympics. Davis’ father declared, “If Joseph had not been given the deferment and opportunity he would never have won the Olympics.” MINDEF also preempted the inevitable reference to Schooling by stating that deferments are only granted to those who represent Singapore in international sporting competitions and are potential medal-winners for the country.

In this TOC article, reference is made to a Facebook comment highlighting the irony of this comparison. The netizen points out that Schooling spent most of his training years outside Singapore and was granted deferment, while Davis spent most of his time training locally but is told to serve his duty first – all because the former could (and did) bring back an Olympic medal, while the latter is seen to be merely “serving his own interests”.

Davis still intends to serve NS

Davis’ father has stated that he wants his son to return to fulfil his NS obligation. Several online comments stress that he is not asking for exemption. His father stated in no uncertain terms that Ben will serve in the military, just like his older brother has. He also claims that he has been “completely transparent with the authorities”, keeping them informed of his son’s scholarship and contract with Fulham FC.

But what if Davis decides to continue playing in the EPL beyond 2020? It’s certainly possible that after experiencing the thrill of professional football for two years, he would want to keep going. At the same time, however, it seems like Davis is quite strongly rooted in Singapore. He grew up in Singapore, studied in the Singapore Sports School, and has a father who recognises the importance of his three sons serving their country. He’s also close to his family, and is probably not going to jeopardise his citizenship by defaulting on his NS obligation.

It’s impossible to predict what Davis will do beyond 2020 if he is granted deferment from NS. But in the eyes of many Singaporeans, now that Davis has been denied deferment, the logical course of action is to give up his Singapore passport rather than give up on his dream. After all, he still has British citizenship. In other words, Davis is almost guaranteed to leave Singapore if he is not granted deferment.

Presented with this pragmatic argument, the Government may respond that the principles of equality and fairness in military conscription should be upheld. But pragmatism has trumped principle before. Michael Fay was given four strokes of the cane instead of six when President Bill Clinton intervened. Our government also gave its assurance to the British authorities that David Roach, the StanChart robber, will not be caned if he is extradited to Singapore.

Even then, in granting deferment to Davis, principle isn’t really being sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism. The principle of fairness in military conscription recognises that deferment should be allowed in certain deserving cases, and a strong argument can be made that Davis deserves deferment.

Davis’ father and the Football Association of Singapore are appealing MINDEF’s decision. I sincerely hope that Davis’ deferment is granted, and that he does return not only to fulfil his NS obligation but also to revive Singapore’s floundering sports scene.

Ben Davis has worked extremely hard to achieve his aspirations. Judging from online reactions, the decision to bar Davis from pursuing his own goals may be an own-goal in itself.

Incredible Irony


Like millions of millennials across the globe, I watched the much-anticipated Incredibles 2 as soon as I could. And I was not disappointed. Of course, it’s impossible to recreate the magic of the first movie – I remember being so captivated by The Incredibles as an eleven-year-old kid that I watched the movie a dozen times more and memorised the entire script and soundtrack – but the sequel was still highly entertaining.

Once again, Disney/Pixar brewed an excellent concoction of thrilling action, cute comedy, quiet suspense, and tender moments. But beyond pulling on heartstrings and getting the adrenaline pumping, the film also weaves in broad concepts usually reserved for discussion in university classrooms. For instance, a central theme of the film is the potential incongruence between morality and legality. Should the Supers carry out their heroic work even though they are illegal? Is it right for them to break the law in order to change it, as Helen Parr ponders with her husband? Why should Supers be punished for doing the right thing – and why is the government so wary of altruism?

Another obvious concept is that of traditional gender roles, which are reversed when Elastigirl is chosen for the mission at hand while Mr Incredible assumes the role of caregiver to their three children. Other ideas that are tossed up include: the partiality of the penal system towards the wealthy (Violet sarcastically remarks that the apprehended villain will probably get out of jail soon because she’s rich), the great responsibility that comes with great power (à la Uncle Ben Parker), and the power of mass media to influence perception and change policy. (In fact, as this Vox review puts it, the film is “the rare superhero movie that may have too many ideas knocking around in its noggin”.)

But the theme that really piqued my interest had to do with the villain and her goals and motivations. Despite her facetious name, the Screenslaver is actually quite a profound character, especially for a kids movie. While Winston Deavor, the glib-tongued head of a telecommunications conglomerate, wants to change people’s perceptions of superheroes and restore public trust in them, the Screenslaver (his sister Evelyn) wants to destroy their reputation and ensure that they remain illegal forever.

What’s her issue with Supers? She reveals her motivation in a brilliant monologue:

Society has become docile in the age of mass media. People are easily influenced by what they see on their screens, and have become obsessed with superficiality and artificiality, preferring game shows to playing games, talk shows to talking, and travel shows to travelling. This passivity is exacerbated by the existence of superheroes, who are now reentering the media landscape thanks to the efforts of Winston Deavor. As a result, citizens have become too lazy to fix their problems, choosing to rely on Supers to do the dirty work for them instead of taking matters into their own hands.

What Screenslaver wants to do is to combat this debilitating social phenomenon. But instead of challenging people to reduce their media consumption, she takes their media obsession to an extreme by hypnotising them through their screens. Her ultimate aim is to enslave the Supers through this mind-control technology and use them to wreak havoc, inciting public fury against them. (At one point, the hypnotised Frozone basically becomes Magneto from the X-Men and declares that superheroes will assume their rightful place as superior beings.)

Of course, Screenslaver is not doing this out of public duty. She merely resents the fact that when her father’s life was threatened by a burglar, he chose to call his superhero friends instead of running to the safe room and was killed as a result. But her hard-hitting tirade does serve the larger purpose of provoking public discussion, not only by the fictional society in the movie but our own society as well. Have we become obsessed with superheroes, especially with the never-ending stream of superhero blockbusters hitting the silver screen? Has our love for this genre made us weak and apathetic? More generally, have we saturated our lives with vapid entertainment and blunted our creativity in the process?

Indeed, there is greater depth to this villain than meets the eye. And similar to Killmonger in Black Panther, the Screenslaver seems to have won the moral argument even though she chose destructive means to achieve her goal. But here’s the most impressive part – Screenslaver’s monologue is teeming with clever irony. Because the audience in the cinema is guilty of the same charges brought by Screenslaver against her own society.

In fact, I was admonished by the villain of a superhero film for watching yet another superhero film!

But wait – at the end of the movie, Screenslaver is placed behind bars and the Supers come out on top. Since the villain lost, does this mean that I’m let off the hook? The answer is an emphatic “No”, for as Screenslaver is shoved into the police car, she sneers at Elastigirl and reminds her that even though she saved her life, “this doesn’t change anything”.

Personally, I think that there is potential for Screenslaver’s character to be developed even further. In fact, this persona is extremely relevant in the era of smartphone and social media addiction, when people are literally enslaved by their screens. Nevertheless, Screenslaver is a sophisticated character who provides an enlightening social commentary, cleverly presented in a paradoxical manner that is hopefully detected by the audience.

Note: Interestingly, I came across this video review just before completing this piece, and it also highlights the same comic irony of Screenslaver’s monologue, calling the film “potentially very subversive”.