By Eugene Ong
For a while, I was part of an unusual assembly of men; men with Cro-Magnon features, faceless men with something to prove, men with nipple rings who could barely speak English, barge men with strong thighs waiting to bang their wives again when this charade was over. It was a great concourse of men, many in ill-fitting uniforms in the barracks. The men made their overtures of friendship and prepared for a three-week stay of regimentation at Tanjong Gul camp Gul, whose Malay name came from flowers that bloomed at midnight. The mandatory haircuts we suffered before these training sessions were careless. They did little to bring youth back to our faces. Nobody was really young, and everybody wanted out.
As we drew our rifles, there were the gruff exchanges of handshakes, and curses another conscription cycle out of ten we had to fulfil. Ten disruptive years! Eddie, our officer commanding, made it clear that although everyone was in for tough exercise, he was filled with great zeal. He lectured on our company's fighting objectives with firmness and rectitude, emphasising all commanders, sergeants, signallers, the pioneers and the 84mm mortar team work together. Hell would be empty because all the devils were out. "There's going to be a Heli-insertion night mission, so I want all of you to be mentally and physically strong." Athletic Captain Eddie, the A.C.E. trying to look undisturbed even though there were men scratching their arses or half-towelled idiots emerging from the bathrooms. There were public rituals of camaraderie carried out in the bunks when he rallied us at night. I saw the bigger-sized men on their creaking beds, pretending to hump each other. Chain-smoking, grey-haired men in their singlets clutched at their PlayStation portables. The timorous few tucked themselves in a corner and were rarely heard from again during the training stint.
Though the choices of friendship were maddeningly diverse and difficult to navigate, I had become close to another non-commissioned officer, Daniel, who was soft-hearted and approachable. He worked in the metal textiles industry and had a good head on his shoulders. When I met him, he was already 35. He kept an impossibly clean, taut bed and was always in his tightly-laced Gore-Tex boots, waking me up at six daily to ask if I wanted to have the cook house's speciality yam cake for breakfast. ("Fuck no, Daniel.") He had, however, invested considerable energy to refashion himself, running shirtless and leaving us in his wake.
"What the hell did you eat? Check out that V-taper!"
"You lost all that baby fat."
"My God, your face is bloody sharp now. You're a new man!" And he'd smile as if his body was preened for the next flight of his life.
"Hate to burst your bubble, Daniel," I said. "But we're stuck here. Can you imagine going outfield for the next five to six years of your adult life, when really we should be doing more important things outside?"
"Country needs us as cannon fodder."
"We're not spring chickens anymore. And there are still some immature assholes with us."
There was Alan really a child in a man's body. An officer who was perennially cruel, he turned these weeks of conscription to his advantage. Outfield, he swung his parang at branches and hacked at exposed tree roots. Once, we looked at him setting ants on fire using lighter fluid. "Very fucking unnecessary, Alan." He bullied the lesser of us and withheld off-passes to those who genuinely needed time off from training. Others applied their camouflage crθme as eyeliner. When they had run out of ammunition blanks, they used rocks to hurl against faux-opponents. Nobody sanctioned this craziness, not even the officers who pushed their voices through the melange of smoke flares. There was ribaldry even in the darkest mission manoeuvres at night, where the men broke off from our marching columns to take smoke breaks.
"Martin, you chee bye. Anyhow smoke."
"Relax man, I blew the smoke under my uniform." Some grim reaper of a Major caught them hiding in the foliage "I told you lot about light discipline. For the last time, WHO IS SMOKING?!"
"Sorry, Sir!" Motherfucking small fry.
"What did you say? What company are you in? Why are you not wearing your night vision goggles?"
"It's almost 7am, Sir!" Motherfucking small prick.
I remembered all the pricks and the company's brutish slog through the dark. The soggy tracks bore the careless imprint of a giant organism. Was it truly tactical movement for this horde? My only thought was the emplacement of the machine gun, just putting the damn thing down. My shoulders remembered all 12kg of it. Some of the men collapsed from heat exhaustion. I ran into Daniel along those unlit paths, always checking the integrity of the line and looking vacantly at me, like someone tired after running a great distance.
"Why do we do this?" I had asked him.
On off-nights, when most of the other men charged out to steamy dancefloors in town (precious time away from the wife), we swallowed the hours and allowed our bodies time to recover. Staring out the wide windows, I entertained ideas of departure the smell of spilled diesel from the military transport line prompting thoughts of jailbreak. When Daniel's mobile phone rang, he jolted upright and paced the corridors of our bunk. Poor Daniel. Still believing in love with the fervour of an adolescent. After a muffled conversation, he sat awkwardly on my squeaking bed, smoothing the edges of the blanket.
"Bro. Everything okay?"
"Yes. I think so," he said, looking at my notepad. "What are you doing?"
"Just recording," I replied. "So I can remember all this when I get out." I sat up cross-legged and paid more attention.
"How are you? Was that your girlfriend?"
"Yes," he said slowly, his eyes following the circular motion of the ceiling fans.
"Looked like a serious conversation."
"Yah, just trying to fix things at home."
"How long have you been with her, man?"
"About a year," he said. "But I thought you should know that she's my cousin."
"I didn't." I controlled my reply. "Your first cousin?"
"Must be really difficult. How's that going to work out?"
"I'm trying," he said tonelessly, anxiously. "But her mum doesn't approve."
"This is on your mother's or your father's side?"
"No wonder I see you on the phone every night."
"It's not easy."
"Sometimes, when I bump into you outfield, you look damned depressed."
"It's affecting our relationship. She's starting to think it's not possible."
"I think in some situations, it's acceptable. But I'm not sure." I offered the best advice I possibly could. "You'd have to love her very much to want to marry her."
Perhaps sensing Daniel's anguish, a few of the guys from our platoon intervened fraternally and pulled up chairs. Daniel withheld his thoughts, but we accepted the unbidden gesture of camaraderie.
"We'll talk about this later?"
"Whenever you're ready."
Soon, everyone around my bed began speaking softly. An unexpected change. We divulged a little more of ourselves, the pointlessness of the attack missions and our plans after these training stints.
"I'm scared for the main exercise next week," someone said.
"I don't know how Azhar does it. Fasting this month, and no water when he's outfield. That's willpower."
"I met Eddie outfield. Even Captain Singapore looked destroyed. Ready to strike, my ass." We joked about how nobody would rape and plunder this country once we lined up the women on the beaches for the enemy to see. Through these chuckles, Daniel switched off the remaining lights and lay on his clean, taut bed, his handphone clutched to his chest.
At dusk, the soldiery tyrannised the parade square. Without the presence of the senior commanders, there was a lawlessness that arrived after dinner. On their own mysterious accord, the floodlights lit the parade square. Hearing the commotion of bodies near the armskote room, Daniel and I observed a group of riflemen moving with purpose. Soon the 84mm mortar grunts wrestled Alan and a few other officers to the ground, ripping off their grey vests and stripping them to their ankles. Unleashing spools of comms cord, they bound them tightly to the tree trunks on the edge of the parade square.
It was a minor stage set of hell. They broke cyalume sticks and dumped filth into the jerry cans. They deposited soft drinks, lubricants, flannelette and even peed into its opened valves, before pouring them onto Alan's face and considerable girth.
"Fuck you! Fuck you!" he screamed. The other expletives trailed off in dialect. Another red-faced officer, Edmund, tried to smile and had his glasses whipped off onto the pavement. Not all of it was horseplay; there was genuine struggle and contortion. Some of the company's non-commissioned officers, including the undersized men retreated into our rooms on the upper floors of the barracks.
"Don't know if we should be cheering or hiding," some pipsqueak said. "Painful to watch. They're half-naked."
"Should we be worried?" I asked Daniel.
"No, I don't think the men will target you," another one said. The guys in our bunk only had small tiffs with their wives, surely nothing like this.
"Why the fuck not?" I objected. "We hold rank."
"Both of you were not with the original unit. Got some history lah. Don't think they will come for you." Nevertheless, we took the initiative and barricaded our door, moving not one but two beds against the entrance and locking the front windows.
"Switch every fuck thing off!"
The air became unbearably still. Someone put his headphones on and huddled underneath his blanket. Soon we heard raucous laughter and the slamming of doors along the corridor. "Hong Kan ah! Hong Kan ah!"
A few of the company's officers and sergeants' names were being called out up the stairwell. Apparently, there was some crumpled name list going around, and the men were picking us off like the last candies on a plate.
"Better get the hell out!" Daniel and I sprang into action and clambered out the back window sills and onto the narrow parapets of the barracks. We slid down the water pipes like overgrown monkeys. Despite our wearing slippers, there was more urgency to my escape than his. We mustered every ounce of traction and ran to the neighbouring training shed, frantically observing the surroundings for signs that someone saw us.
"Fucking Lord of the Flies moment!"
"What?" he panted.
"Why the hell would they do that?" I screamed. No bed for us tonight.
"They want to have some fun before they go home."
"Fun? By ragging anyone who offended them in the past?"
"It's some revenge issue with the officers."
"Oh come on! They have wives and kids! What's Eddie doing about all this?"
"I saw him tied up."
We sat on the concrete floor, my hands still shaking. As we waited for the sounds of violence to subside, Daniel closed his eyes and rested his back against the support beam of the training shed. Later, in the early hours of the morning and in between fitful intervals of sleep, I looked at him curled up in his shorts and singlet against the chill. Was he awake? Was it safe to go back? There was no sound except the rhythmic chuck of the large-tailed nightjar a cryptic mating call heard only at night.
"Daniel, are you up?" Silence. "Daniel?"
Perhaps he was dreaming about his girlfriend, because she belonged to the real world outside free to shape and reshape the contents of her life. His cousin, no less. Perhaps she never would, or could love him.
The aftermath of our army stint was baffling. Some clown delayed the company's out-processing by filching, of all things, a metal buckle from a military jeep's seat-belt. Were they still addled by the heat? We cleared arms and waited the administrative afternoon out on sheet-less mattresses.
"All clear to go," Eddie finally said.
There was already a queue outside camp the men's prim, tidy wives picking them up in their Japanese saloon cars. Through the glass windows of these vehicles that streamed out, I saw the superficial conformity of men, wives and kids. I made my salutations to as many men I knew.
"Glad to have worked with you."
"Let's catch up over beer."
"Glad to be in the same platoon, man." Despite the hurried resumption of normalcy, I was rehearsing a script.
"Want to share a cab back, Daniel?" I asked. "Good to talk before I see you next."
"Oh, I managed to get a ride back with one of the men."
"Going to see your girlfriend?"
"I need to settle something with her later."
"Hope she's happy to see you again. It won't be easy when the cycle starts again."
"You take care yourself. Aren't you leaving?"
"I'll wait. Too crowded." I clapped him on his shoulder, before he ducked into someone's car. "Update me man," I called after him. "Update me."
I looked on as this unusual assembly of men petered out, till there were only the loiterers left, and the sentries at their guard posts waved us along.
In the last few cycles of conscription, there were new detachments of grey faces to take the place of those who had completed their obligations to the country. Our unit was now tasked with the protection of vital installations on Jurong Island child's play, considering the hellish missions and endurance marches. By then, there were odder personalities that trickled in Richard, for instance, who sat on his helmet holding up a paperback like some discarded intellectual mandarin.
"You're reading Virginia Woolf?" I asked him.
He looked straight at me. "She writes in a style we call stream-of-consciousness."
Most of the guys at the tail-end of our conscription cycle were hitting 40. The original hard-bitten nucleus of men dropped off the radar. One was prosecuted for pimping, a few ridden with venereal disease, night-blindness or cold sweats never to be seen again. Others pursued overseas doctorates and deferred themselves indefinitely. We had semi-reliable intel of someone who towed his family into the Commanding Officer's office, where he made his wife and kids plead on his behalf to be deferred.
We unhappy few were stationed on a watchtower that reared up along the edge of a breakwater. The view opened to a dystopian world of oil refineries: behemoth steam crackers, distillation and cooling towers, catalytic converters. The graceless machinery shuddered while we did our vehicle patrols along strangely unpopulated compounds. Despite the smell of burnt plastic, to the East and South, there were comforting views of sunlight reflecting on a highly polished sea.
In our five-storey outpost, we carried our live ammunition, our communication sets, our packed lunches, our assortment of entertainment: analogue radios, Young Parents magazines, newspapers that we would read over and over again during these twelve-hour shifts. There was nothing much to do except watch the play of wave and tide, commiserate on the state of our bank accounts as well as feed the fish below.
We lay our sweat-stained uniforms over the ledges to dry, letting them flap and stir in the tropical breeze. Ridiculous. It was bad field discipline, letting a military outpost look like some high-rise tenement. At night, there was the reverberating jingle of a song that kept playing "As long as you follow." Fleetwood Mac.
"Follow your bank account, damnit."
"Did you know Exxon Mobil makes more than a million a day?"
"That bloody giant wok that burns at night?"
"What the fuck, a mil? I think the industry makes more than that daily."
"Patrick knows. He works in petrochemicals. But he's figuring out what watch to buy for himself when he gets out."
"Fucking Rolex, of course!"
"Fuck, what am I doing with my life?"
"Fuck, I'm a commercial pilot outside. But if the country wants to pay me to be some glorified security guard, I'm okay with it."
"Fuck, what happens if some Indonesians were to swim here?"
"Just shoot them."
"No sir, seriously, if we spotted some of them at the breakwater?"
"Just shoot them!" And we half hoped something like that would happen, though the only drama was the occasional tanker ship careening in to refill its LPG reserves.
"Tango Three. Stop feeding the fucking fish!" Our communications set crackled.
We tolerated the morning heat but savoured the windy nights, where the oil refineries looked like magical pinpricks of tungsten orange from the tower. My machine-gun assistant, Eric, sidled up to me in the elevated turret post where the cool night wind whipped at our faces, testing our resolve against sleep.
"This is not so bad," Eric smiled. "Compared to those missions you were telling me about. Where are your friends now?"
"Deferred and trying to live their own lives. But I'm still stuck with the unit. Last cycle."
"At least we have radios and some decent shelter."
"Beats a day at the office. I think."
"I can't fight," he confessed. "I knew that from day one. I'm not meant to be a leader. It's just not me."
"You think I volunteered to fight for this rock?"
"I had some friends too. They lost interest completely in the army when we got older."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it makes a world of difference," he said. "It makes a huge difference when you're a family man now the last time you would be king of the hill." He went on to explain that some men were good in everything the country threw at them. "They'd know how to strip their weapons under 10 seconds, how to navigate, how to survive, how to fuck other people."
"I've seen all types, even the siao ones. Country has too many Captain Americas already."
"I'm not one of them. The guys under my command knew it too and left me alone.
"Heck, there was this one time we got off the Chinook in total darkness," he recounted. "Couldn't see shit. Some zealous motherfucking officer comes up to me where are we now, Sergeant? Where are we? I said how the hell do I know? I just got off the freaking chopper!"
"God! No more G.I. Joe moments for me anymore, Eric. This is my last obligation. Giving Singapore my burnt lungs on Jurong Island." I coughed, thinking that they were already caked in some gelatinous soot.
"Ten years of this shit takes chunks out of you," I continued. "And I've nothing left. At least this time, we don't have to lug the fucking GPMG outfield."
"I'm counting down the days."
"I can't wait to get out. Permanently." I assessed my comrades regularly, who were prone to drowsiness despite the scheduled rosters to stay alert. Despite the hard deck chairs, they managed to lie supine on them, legs sprawled, their features lost in the folds of a jungle hat. National Service's always been disruptive, I thought. Our routine was defined by appetite, boredom and nicotine cravings. One of the men I barely knew occupied himself with cleaning the Port-a-Pumper toilet at ground level. It was an obscene capsule choked with faeces which he worked away at, bleached by the sun. When I asked him why he bothered, he kept mumbling, "没关系, 没关系."
"Clocking up the days," I thought.
And as the afternoon wore on, these listless men sat at the top of the windy watchtower. The clouds threw dapples of shadow over our faces. I squinted at the sea, looking forward to the future a soporific conclusion to this madness. The madness of soldiering through a decade, and of having ten years packed into a frayed field bag a portmanteau. I had a composite memory of all the different physiques and faces of the men over the years. Some broken more than others, like beasts of the field. Though I never saw Daniel again, I sometimes thought of him and that terrible, singular night we escaped to the training shed. That rawness of terror. I'd liked to imagine he married his true love, and that the roads opened up smoothly for him, before he too, vanished from mind's eye.
We rested our eyes on the distant horizon from our tower ramparts, scanning this stretch of sea that was itself part of a bigger ocean. For all we knew, curious seamen eyes stared back at us. We glassed the calm seas for the swimmers, the would-be perpetrators and the intruders. They never came, of course.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020