This happened to me when I was serving National Service. I think I was 20.
Army was never a bed of roses, but it had its share of good memories. One of my favourite was guard duty.
Guard duty carried with it many negative implications: heavy responsibilities aside, guard duty meant foregoing precious rests after a hard day’s training. It meant surprise turn-outs by the officers and senior NCOs on duty. Finally, guard duty meant not spending Saturday nights out of camp with loved ones.
But for me, guard duty meant quality time with the soldiers too.
There was something honest about the nights. When the sun withdraws down the horizon in the evenings, precious light goes with it. In the night, colours lose their deceitful power and fade to give way to shadows and grey contours, and our other senses sharpen. It is at night when the colours of our skins lose their meanings, when the clothes we wear fail to mask the sound of our voices, when we truly begin to hear each other differently.
Also, something about the night compels us to share our deepest secrets, fears and hopes.
Thus, it was during the wee hours of the night, that I got to meet people from walks of life different from my own. Most of the men from my unit were under-educated, and many did not even finish Primary school. The benefits of a proper education, which developed the rational train of thought to deal with life’s difficulties, were denied them. Lacking that, however, they often compensated with street-smartness or almost religious determination. Nevertheless, their youth made them an emotional lot.
There was a 19-year-old who lost his parents in a freak car accident. There was another who hoped to inherit the little bookstore that his mother had set up in a Primary school. Then there was a notorious gangster-boy who told me that, before the Army made him quit, he thought drugs were better than sex. Or the one who had big plans to expand the family business of collecting scrap metals from the shipyards.
From them, I extracted information ranging from the exquisite teachings of Buddha, to the more profane stuff like how to delay orgasms when visiting prostitutes.
On one particular occasion, I found myself the subject of scrutiny, rather than the observer.
The observer, in this case, was a soldier by the name of Boon Han.
I first noticed the boy while he was on cookhouse duty. An entire platoon had assembled after lunch, and their NCO barked the command to turn them towards the direction of their company bunk. I scanned the platoon casually, and noticed one soldier watching me with a peculiar interest.
As the platoon began marching, the soldier cocked his head towards me for just a second too long. It was not the familiar look of recognition that I recognised during romps at the beach or the concrete valley. It could be a flirt, had there not been a hint of genuine detachment.
I could not decipher it, but neither could I dismiss it. The soldier was strikingly handsome, and his stare had lodged itself firmly into my consciousness. The more I thought of the soldier, the more I wanted to know more.
Thus, on one Saturday morning as I reported for Guard Duty, I instantly spotted that face amongst the guards that day and obtained the soldier’s name from the Guard register book: Boon Han. I then arranged my duty hours to coincide with his sentry duties in hope of coaxing an answer from him.
Our first two-hours together were not fruitful. After an initial introduction, I shuttled between the personnel gates and the vehicle gate, allowing a cheerful string of soldiers to book-out for the weekend and a solemn parade of trucks heading out for a field exercise. When the last rover finally made it through the gate and I made my last salute to the vehicle commander for the day, I turned back only to find another soldier taking over from Boon Han. Before Boon Han headed back to the Guard Room, he cocked his head towards me with a friendly grin.
That grin made the hours in between our next shift together seem even longer.
Presently, Boon Han strode up from the Guard Room to relief the sentry. I waited patiently for the other soldier to disappear from sight, and turned to him.
There was no easy way to breach the topic about a stare. I beat around the bush, and worked with hypothesis and stereotypes: “Which Secondary school did you attend? Where do you party during the weekends? Do you have any girl friend? Do you watch . . . football?”
Boon Han fielded the questions good-naturedly. He lived in a kampong, and attended schools I never heard of. He had a string of girlfriends. He enjoyed contact sports, and had not even heard of any gay discotheque that I mentioned.
The more he offered up his answers, the more perplexed I got.
“Perhaps,” I thought, “I was reading too much into a friendly stare.”
Eventually, I resigned to pacing the main gate restlessly, waiting for the shift to end. Several minutes passed, whereby I sneaked careful glances at Boon Han. When Boon Han did catch my eyes, the soldier would smile that lethal smile of his, setting my heart a-flutter with wishful thoughts.
“How I wished he could be gay too,” I thought. From what he said, it did not seem so.
When Boon Han suddenly spoke, I was taken by surprise that I missed every word.
“What did you say?” I asked, going nearer to the sentry.
“A friend of mine said he saw you at the gay beach,” Boon Han repeated.
This time, I was careful to hide my surprise.
“What?” I countered innocently, “How can he be sure it’s me?”
“A friend he was with knew your name.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t think I should say. He’s in this camp too.”
I secretly kicked myself. Many people I met at the gay hangouts used fake names, and the significance of it did not hit me fully until then. I forgot how small Singapore was.
“But he told you mine!” I protested. Great! Now I’ve admitted that I was at the beach!
The beach was Fort Road. In the 90s, the stretch of reclaimed land was settling. It was deserted and made an ideal ground for gay men to seek each other out.
“He tells me everything.”
“Are you his . . . lover?”
“No,” said Boon Han, betraying a little disgust at the suggestion, “but we came from the same kampong.”
“You mean, you’re not . . . “
“No, Corporal, I told you I like girls.”
“So that’s why you were giving me that funny look at the cookhouse! . . . Did you tell anyone in camp about me?”
“You better not!” I said, a little scared, a little agitated.
“Don’t worry, Corporal. I don’t enjoy getting people into trouble.”
“Good! I have my job to do, and I need the men’s respect – I don’t want them to use this . . . thing as an excuse to disobey my orders. What I do outside has nothing to do with what I am in camp.”
For the remainder of the shift, Boon Han stood at the sentry point, careful not to stray a look in my direction. I positioned myself as far away from the soldier as the rules allowed, so that I could avoid speaking to him.
Numerous questions remained unanswered: if the soldier-friend was not Boon Han’s lover, what, then, was their relationship? What prompted a gay guy to confide his beach rendezvous with someone who was clearly outside of the ‘circle’? And why had Boon Han chosen to bring up the subject?
I wanted some answers, and I had one last shift to find out.
The two of us were awakened less than an hour after we lain down. The Guard Commander strode in and turned on all the lights.
‘TURNOUT!’ he shouted at the resting soldiers.
Everyone got up, groggy for a second or two, and began making their way out of the room. Chains rattled loose, and weapons were released and collected.
Within a minute, all the guards were outside the Guard Room, doing our hentak-kaki in front of the Duty Officer.
The D.O. made a check of the guards’ accessories, and, satisfied that everything was in order, fell out the guards.
Boon Han did not go back to sleep, but hung around outside the toilet for a smoke. I took the opportunity to sit beside him, lighting a cigarette myself.
“I am sorry if I raised my voice to you unfairly just now,” I offered.
“It is okay, Corporal.”
“You must be very close to your friend.”
“Yes. We grew up together in the kampong. When the villagers were relocated to Hougang, his family and mine remained neighbours. We also went to the same schools together.”
“And you were posted to the same camp,” I added, “when did you find out he is gay?”
Boon Han paused, as if to think when to begin. I watched the soldier flicked ash into the drain beneath. Under the light, a mosquito hovered restlessly, momentarily deterred by the smoke.
“It was a year ago during BMT. My girlfriend broke up with me, and my family was having some financial problems. My parents fought a lot then, and, of course, I wasn’t used to the army training. When I booked out of camp, I went home to find that my parents had fought again. My mother would be crying, and my father would go out drinking and not come back until late at night.”
All the while Boon Han was talking, he looked straight ahead towards the almost empty parking lot. I scrutinised the soldier in profile even as he spoke.
“Must be tough,” I goaded him on. His profile was perfect. Boon Han’s hair was cropped short, but it was clear he had natural curls. His eye-lashes were unusually long, and they softened his almost wickedly harsh eyes.
“Yah. If you think BMT was xiong, you should see my house then. So I stayed away, and took him along for company. We hung out at the arcade, and then went for shows in town. And I’d spend the nights at his place rather than my own.”
“He had only one bed, so we shared. Sometimes late at night, I can hear my parents quarrelling next door. My friend . . .”
“What’s his name?” I grew tired of hearing ‘my friend’.
“Bang Seng. Bang Seng and I would be up all night, because I couldn’t sleep. So we talked. Well, I did most of the talking. He just listened.”
Boon Han’s shoulders were broad, and his waist slender. Further down, I could imagine muscular thighs underneath the thick layer of uniform. A mosquito was circling behind the soldier, trying to find an entry point.
“He and I grew closer each day, and I could tell him anything. So, one night when I woke up in morning, I found Bang Seng had curled up to me, holding me like a bolster. It didn’t bother me.”
The mosquito landed on one of his thighs, and stuck its needle in as far as possible. It retracted almost instantly, and hovered to another spot a few centimeters away and tried again.
“From then on, we slept in each others’ arms. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong about it. Then one night, I dreamed my parents had quarrelled again, so I ran out of the house to look for my girlfriend. She began to comfort me . . .”
Boon Han’s cigarette ended, and I offered him another.
“Thanks . . . Corporal?”
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone what I am about to tell you.”
Boon Han paused before he decided to believe me.
“Where was I?”
“You dreamed you were with your girlfriend . . .”
“ And we kissed, and she made me lie down on the bed. I closed my eyes, and she began to take my trousers off.”
The mosquito must have found a spot, for it was staying contentedly in one spot. Boon Han didn’t seem to feel it, and I did not want to interrupt the story.
“When I put my hands on her head, I felt it was unusually short and prickly. I woke up from my sleep, and found Bang Seng sitting up, bowing over. My pants were unbuttoned.”
Suddenly, Boon Han raised his free hand and slapped his thigh. When he brought his palm up, he found no trace of the mosquito.
“What did you do?”
“I punched him in the face. He fell back and landed on the floor heavily. I was about to hit him again, his mother was knocking on the wall from the other room. She had heard the sound, and asked if anything was wrong. I looked at Bang Seng angrily, and he looked at me in panic. His mother knocked again, so Bang Seng said nothing was wrong, and he fell from the bed.”
“I buttoned up my pants. I wanted to leave. But then I heard him sobbing, and didn’t. His nose was bleeding, so I helped him clean up the blood. When he finally calmed down, I asked him, ‘why did you do that?’ That was when he told me that he had always been in love with me.”
“I never guessed he was like that until that night. He begged me not to tell anyone, and asked me if we’d still be friends. I said I’d think about it.”
Boon Han scratch his buttocks. I thought to myself: cute butt!
“We didn’t see each other for one week. But during that time, I thought about all the times we spent together, and how he took care of me like a brother, and I told myself I should not end our friendship. So we met and I told him that. He was so happy he cried again.”
“And I began to spend the night at his place again. At first, he did not do anything. But after a week or so, he asked me if I could let him touch me. I refused at first, but he was persistent. I finally agreed, and every night at his place, I would let him do . . . what he did the first time to me.”
“Did you do anything for him in return?” I wondered what the two looked like together in bed. I began to picture the handsome Boon Han lying in Bang Seng’s bed, without his pants on, while the latter was hunched over in lust.
“No,” Boon Han said firmly, “I always close my eyes, and imagine that it was my girlfriend doing it. I didn’t even want to touch him.”
Why are you telling me all this?
“It did not bother me at first. He was very helpful to me, and I was just returning his favor. But recently, he started asking for us to do more. I refused, but he would not give up. I still want his friendship, but I still want to lead a normal life! I want a girlfriend, I want to marry. I can accept him as he is, but I don’t want to be like him. I need someone to tell him that!”
“You mean . . . you want me to talk to him?”
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?”
Boon Han turned to face me for the first time.
“I didn’t tell him,” a genuine fear shone in his eyes, “I didn’t tell him because I don’t want to tell him!”
I could only stare at him blankly.
“You don’t understand what I’m saying?” asked Boon Han desperately.
“I didn’t tell him because I am afraid to lose his friendship! His family and he are closer to me than my own mother and father. If I lose him, I will lose another family. But I have enough problems of my own, and I don’t want more problems! Why can’t he see that? Why can’t he understand that everyone has their own problems, and that he is not the only one suffering? Sometimes I feel like he is good to me just because he wants sex!”
Shame swept into me instantly, because it was what I wanted to.
Luckily, the Guard Commander appeared and announced that it was time for us to take up position at the main gate.
I took the opportunity to calm myself while he put on my accessories. As I strode towards the gate, I knew the right thing to do. Boon Han was looking at me expectantly.
“What your friend did was wrong – if you did not want to do it, then he has no right to insist. But, it is useless for me to talk to him. You must talk to him yourself. Don’t wait until you are in his house to talk to him, take him outside – to a hawker centre, to a MacDonald. He will behave in a public place. Tell him firmly that you will not let him do those things to you anymore, and don’t spend the night in his room. If he is really your friend, he will respect your decision. If he keeps pressuring you, drop him! If you allow this thing to go on further, it will be harder to say no. By then, you can only blame yourself.”
Boon Han nodded. After I spelt out what he should do, it seemed so easy and obvious a solution. His face lit up.
“Thank you, Corporal.”
With that, we lapsed into silence for the rest of the shift. Perhaps he was rehearsing his talk with Bang Seng. I was, for the first time, confronted with the reality that what I wanted was certainly not what others wanted.
Although I told myself that I had done right, I could not help but feel that I had somehow betrayed one of my own. More importantly, I could not forget Boon Han’s words: we all have our own problems – he is not the only one who is suffering.
Night after night, I stood at the gate listening to the soldiers share their stories – stories of broken families, broken hearts and impossible dreams. Compared to them, my life so far had been a bed of roses – besides the pain of living in the closet, I had the benefit of a good family, an overseas education and fair shot of a decent future.
It was almost 3 decades since I parted ways with Boon Han. I could not remember what he looked like, though I imagined he had found a good wife and is now a kind-hearted father. Hopefully, Bang Seng had let go of his crush and turned his attention on someone who could return his affections. Perhaps they remained good pals who respect and love each other.
But I never forgot the lesson Boon Han taught me. I often reminded myself that, even as I faced almost weekly negativity from media and the news about homosexuality, that no one else – gay or straight – had it easy.
No one holds the monopoly to pain and suffering.
This is the last chapter of Ottobiography.
I have started a new project with the NUS research group Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovations (SynCTI). My task is to research and create a comic book, the 6th in my science comic series Sir Fong’s Adventures In Science, then bring the knowledge and passion of the cutting-edge science to young people.
I must pour all my time and energy into the book.
Also, I would like a longer time to write a full ‘Ottobiography’, one that requires time to plan, grow and rewrite into a coherent whole.
I have truly enjoyed writing the last ten stories, revisiting various events of my life with a fresh outlook that often surprised myself. I am glad that you have enjoyed the shares, and hope that some of it was useful for you. I’d like to thank Ravi Philemon and The Independent Singapore for the opportunity!
I leave you with this final chapter. The lesson I learnt from this event has stayed with me till today. It’s a little long, but then I truly was reluctant to leave the writing. Thank you for taking your precious time to read!
Part 1 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-first-time/
Part 2 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-reunion/
Part 3 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-the-grand-canyon/
Part 4 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-all-my-lovers/
Part 5 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-a-gay-teacher/
Part 6 of OTTOBIOGRAPHT: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-a-tale-of-two-dogs/
Part 7 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-letters-from-students-and-a-parent-2007/
Part 8 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-mother/
Part 9 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-diary-pages-from-the-states/
OTTOBIOGRAPHY: Guard Duty
This happened to me when I was serving National Service. I think I was 20.