By Simon Vincent
I never took my NS stint seriously.
This was partly because the hierarchical state of affairs and excessive regimentation were anathema to me. It was also because I could never respect superiors whose idea of an order consisted of an effluence of juvenile and vulgar words.
The way I coped with NS and its debilitating language was humour.
In that spirit, I have compiled a list of observations on questionable words and phrases used during NS.
To those who think I am being flippant towards NS, I simply ask you to wonder how you would feel if your boss at work or your teacher at school spoke in the manner outlined below. Would you really take him or her seriously?
To those who believe the NS institution should be given exceptional status and not be subject to public scrutiny, well, I really have nothing to say; I know not how to respond to such a preposterous suggestion.
To those who are about to enlist in the latest intake for NS, I say: Forget that dull Recruit’s Handbook the SAF issues you. Let this article be an alternative guide to NS. I promise to not just inform but also entertain. You could also use it as a checklist to see if what I am saying is true or not.
Do Whatever You Want, Just Don’t Get Caught
There will be many rules you will have to to abide by during NS; some of them sensibile, some of them inane, but the most important one to know is not even official or documented. This one overarching rule is often proudly repeated by sergeants and officers in every camp:
Do whatever you want, just don’t get caught!
A rule about how to break rules is irony par excellence. One wonders if it is an invitation to transgression. If an NS man is disciplined for breaking the rules, is it simply because he had been too stupid to cover his tracks?
Perhaps the non-rule rule is an admission that excessive regimentation necessarily devolves into absurdity. An NS man is toeing the line when he follows the (official) rules. Yet, if he were to break the rules and avoid getting caught, he is nonetheless still acquiescing to the SAF; he does what he wants, but covertly, as requested by his superiors.
“Rules,” as the saying goes, “are meant to be broken.” The brilliance of an unofficial, invisible rule is that it can never quite be broken.
Always remember: Do whatever you want, just don’t get caught!
Of all the verbal tics used in the SAF, the most ridiculous one has to be aahneh. Aahneh is a modification of the word anneh, which means older brother in Tamil. With the new word, the first syllable is stressed instead of the second. As slight as this modification may seem, the new word attains a meaning inexplicably different from its original.
When a Chinese or Malay officer refers to the Indian soldier under his charge as aahneh, it is usually with some bizarre sense of affection or patronising undertone. Aahneh means Indian child or Indian compatriot instead of older brother. One can only ponder with wonder how this strange inversion of meaning could so successfully take place within the SAF despite its absurdity.
So pervasive is the practice of referring to Indian soldiers as aahneh that even some Indian commanders will refer to Indian soldiers as aahneh.
Thankfully, outside of military camps, this terminological effrontery has not taken root; as if the SAF is keen on preserving its exclusive right to the aahneh slur.
The child sucks its thumb as a substitute for the mother’s nipples that it has gotten used to sucking for milk. Generally, most people overcome this stage of their development and never look back.
It is strange, then, that in an institution like the Singapore Armed Forces, which is reputed to morph boys into men, thumb-sucking is propagated as a common metaphor to describe ineffectuality.
When a commander issues an unfavourable order and is met with remonstration by his men, he pacifies them by saying “too bad, suck thumb.” In other words, the commander says “You have no choice as to this matter at hand, do as I say. Be obedient children. Regress!” One would look in vain, though, for any nurturing – motherly – feature to the hierarchical state of affairs that is the SAF. No mother’s milk here, just the odour of passivity.
Soldiers who are close to each other are sometimes called suck-cock buddies by other men. The phrase usually invites laughter. Its vulgarity seems to pass over almost everyone’s head.
Boy will be boys, right? Is a little homophobia going to harm?
SAF: Serve and Fuck Off
This phrase perfectly captures the bo chap attitude with which a lot of men serve their NS term.
SAF officially stands for the Singapore Armed Forces. In popular parlance, though, it also stands for the perception that in the SAF, you Serve And Fuck off.
The détournement expresses the feeling that NS is just a transactional requirement; a hindrance to be accepted; a resignation to a two-year military fate.