Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Last Days of Innocence

March 8 2012 was a pretty amazing day. I was on a bus when I bumped into a chap that I hadn't seen since my days as a military recruit. It was quite funny. I sat in my seat, looked at the chap sitting across me and suddenly asked him where he did his basic military training. Then it dawned upon us, we knew each other and we proceeded to talk rot about old times. He couldn't remember my name but he remembered me.

Anyway, it turned out that we live near each other and so we ended up having tea together. I said to him, "BMT was full of shit," and he replied," Be at least we were in the shit together." He was right.

Military training, as anyone who has been through it, is a very demanding excercise. Basic military training in particular is tough because you're moving from the basic life of a civilian to that of a solider. The body has to go through something of a major metamorphosis. For those of us who are used to doing things like waking up at noon, army life starts out as something as a shock when you have to wake up at 0545 and are expected to be bright and energetic.

For me, this was an especially tough time. My body was used to regular bouts of beer and Hagan Daz ice cream. It never occured to me that it was necessary to do things like walk more than ten minutes let alone go for a run at 0600.

For many of us "middle class" boys, the army is also something of a social shock. In Singapore everything depends on your academic qualifications. During the last year of the A-level examinations, parents will do EVERYTHING to spare their children of distractions form getting the all important A-grades. No expense is spared into making sure that the kids have all the time they need to focus on exams. It's not just material needs that are provided for. Parents struggle and sell their souls to ensure that the kids will mix with like minded kids from similar backgrounds - kids who will be focused on their studies.

This is a world away from what basic military training is. Nice middle class kids who have never heard a swear word in their life are suddenly addressed as "chee bye" (Hokkien dialect for cunt) and the funny thing is that is usually meant as a term of affection.

If you're from a particularly religious family, life in the army can be particularly shocking. Imagine moving from an environment where the regular discussions are on Biblical meanings to one where you discuss getting Biblical knowledge of the street hookers in Geylang Lorong whatever? Sensitive souls do have it rough in the initial days of basic military training.

Having said all of that, Basic Military Training was probably my last days of innoncence. For all the "horrible" culture shocks that made the army, this was the one period in my life where the people I met and mixed with were out to help each other.

I remember being physically weak. The physical training was a bitch and part of military idea of training is to pick on the weakest guy. The idea being the others will make life miserable for you and you have every incentive to find the physical strength that you never thought you had.

Funily enough, my platoon mates never allowed me to feel like shit. Each and everyone I knew encouraged me when I was feeling rough. I was one of the few people who lived in a place that didn't start with "Blk xx" and yet I never felt resentment for being the "rich" kid who needed to be taken down a peg or two.

I look back at my experiences during BMT as happy ones because of the people I was with. It's the experience that allows me to have faith in Singaporeans no matter how awful I find many of the local attitudes may be. Somehow, I have faith that young Singaporeans have some genuine goodness somewhere in there.

Ironically, I'm saying all of this on March 9, 2012, the 15th year that has passed since the disaster in New Zealand that killed Ronnie and Yin Tit. Swift Lion was what you'd call one of those defining moments. Attending the funerals of these two kind hearted young men with so much potential whoes lives had been cut short so brutally, brought home the message that we were doing had a consequence. It was heart breaking and til this day I cannot get over the fact that despite the loss of human life, nobody in an official position took responsibility for what happened.

Yet, I can also accept that this was the last moment of innocence that we enjoyed. Army life is funny in that everything is dependent on rank. When you're a recruit, you are basically the shit that people scrape off the bottom of your shoe. When you have rank, people have to be nice to you. However, while privillege comes with rank, you suddenly discover the ugly side of things. The army, whatever anyone tells you is filled with politics and those with a bit of rank and power spend a good portion of their time trying to score points against each other. In short, the army is like nearly every work place -it's a snake pit.

I think by the time Swift Lion took place, I had been acustomed to life in the unit. The political games were part of daily life. Suddenly the accident happened and the reality that we could have been next shocked the living daylights out of us. We, for once, acted as if we were a unit.

It's now 15-years since I've left the army. Life as a one-man show in an industry dominated by big multinationals is tough and you often get to see the nasty side of people and organisations. I remember joking with Zen in her pre-Aric days that we were similar, we got fucked for a living.

I'm admitedly a lot more comfortable now than I was back in the army, but talking about those days gives me some comfort. It reminds me of my lost days of innocence when all I really worried about was doing push ups and having a laugh with friends who didn't care about your background but accepted you for being you.

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