Letter To An Indignant National Serviceman (Either You’re In Or Out. Right Now.)

July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

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Foreword for non-Singaporean friends: Singaporean men have to serve a national service liability (NS) with the armed forces, usually between the age of 19 to 21, and subsequently have to return yearly for a 1 to 2 week familiarization training  for 10 years (in-camp training, or ICT)

Dear M,

I’m glad to have had the chance to work with you during the time we served our National Service liabilities. I think you’re a man of unlimited potential. Your work with us, while you received occasional praise from superiors, have been nothing less than indispensable.

I take In Camp Training to be a revisit to foreign lands, a different culture, with its own quirks. Familiar people and practices, just the stuff you love to hate. (I have the bias to say that well heeled independent Singaporean travellers have no problems dealing with their national service). And National Service is yet another facet of Singaporean culture, even if its a kind of culture we’re not intimately familiar with after we’re done with two years of national service liabilities between the ages of 19 to 21.

Caveat Emptor:

My personal beliefs and experience tell me that National Service in Singapore brings more benefits than evils, that the lessons in discipline, hard work, perseverance, “buck-up-and-shut-the-fuck-up manliness”, tolerance, and meeting interesting people, acquiring strange experiences, far outweighs the dull bureaucracy, bad food,  interpersonal and rank politics that every able bodied Singaporean male will face up to.

National service is a yearly one-two week obligation that seems a complete hindrance to our life. It takes us away from our current projects at the most inconvenient of times and makes us wonder what we’re actually trying to achieve in those fourteen days. I’ve had my doubts too, really.  I do hate to spend time away from Mom, Dad, the afternoons spending hours reading a book at a cafe while listening to the French couple next to me argue about something, missing out all the chances to flirt with tangueras at tango Milongas. It might even screw up my plans for the Great Himalayan Adventure.

If I were to spend two weeks of my life away against my wishes, I’d like to  do so at least in ways I find it productive, and to the best of my abilities, on my own terms.

Meaningful and dignified, at least to myself. ( I actually do look in the mirror every morning.)

Sometimes I see it as a test of what I’ve learned so far since the end of  those two years of liabilities from age 19-21.

I want to learn to co-exist with people I normally would not prefer to, at least for two weeks. I’d like to test out entrepreneurial theories and tips from the guys at 37Signals, within a uniformed and bureaucratic context. I want to see and find out if I could make the workplace a little less dull, and a little less unbearable.

Slothfulness, spending my mornings stuck in the bunks cuddled in bed, then, is a no-no for me. As Thoreau said in Walden,

The Vedas say “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the finest and most memorable of actions of men, date from such an hour.”

National service in-camp training certainly isn’t some poetic or artistic activity, and can hardly be thought of as so.

But our own thoughts and actions certainly are. Have mornings been your finest hour, M?

And so I probably understand less than 1% of why you’re reluctant to participate in our work in the Intelligence branch, that you feel that your yearly obligation is a waste of time, and you’d rather spend the time sleeping away the morning, spending nights with friends, food, and wine, while everyone else bothers with the cumbersome fitness tests, weapon drills, battle procedure familiarization. Of the reasons why you weren’t present when you’re most needed in the office, and gave no valid explanation for your disappearance. Of why you couldn’t put your two years of NS experience to use, and guide those around you who are still eager to learn from you.

The Stoics understood of a world of unfair consequences, randomness, and of situations out of their own control. But they also strongly believed in exercising the choice to respond to randomness in a dignified manner.

When pressed against the wall, to be forced into unfavorable situations, your choice is in how you face up to the cards you’re dealt with. Marched to the execution grounds, facing the chopping block and the hooded executioner, you have two choices: leave screaming, wailing, cursing those who put you there, plead for your life.

Or get dressed in a sharp suit, pressed shirt and tie, smile, and give compliments to those who’ve been a positive impact on your life, before facing the moment of truth.

All his adversities he counts mere training. Who, moreover, if he is a man and intent upon the right, is not eager for reasonable toil and ready for duties accompanied by danger? To what energetic man is not idleness a punishment?

-Seneca the Younger

My friend, I come to the ultimatum of my letter:

“Either you’re in or you’re out. Right now.”

-Danny Ocean, Ocean’s 11

Your presence is deeply felt by each an everyone of us whom you work with, but so is your absence. We’ve seen how you can get things done when you’re “on the ball” and “raring to go”, but somehow at an equal rate of probability, your switch is often turned “off”. Then everyone gets angry and distracted by your aloofness and myriad of excuses.

Yes, you’ve mentioned, you really rather not be here every year. If that is to be the case, we’d wish you the most earnest success in getting out – to another department, or better, another army unit. Because if you want to stick around, we demand 100% commitment from you, the same for everyone of us on this team.

If the answer is no, we’d rather not see you again for each of our one-two week in-camp trainings.

I’m surely in no position to judge your reasons for discontent, and I won’t do so. But for the sake of the well being and mental focus for the team, you’ve got to make a choice.

Either you’re in or out. Right now.

Best Wishes,



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