By Kirk D’Souza
In Raffles, we are encouraged to be open-minded and outward-looking. We are told that we should explore different vistas and paradigms, immerse ourselves in different cultures and communities, and never put a cap on our imagination. But as much as we hate to admit it, this doesn’t change the fact that Raffles is a bubble.
This is certainly not a unique feature of our school. Life is a boundless array of experiences, both good and evil. It is natural that only a modicum of its vastness can be encapsulated in any school. Yet, if we look at the socio-economic and educational backgrounds, hobbies, likes, dislikes, perspectives and priorities of Rafflesians, we won’t find a lot of variety. In other words, this bubble is pretty small, and is definitely not representative of Singapore’s society.
But it’s a different ballgame altogether once NS begins. When I enlisted, I suddenly found myself in a strange environment, reporting to demanding (and sometimes mercurial) commanders and training with people I would have never imagined meeting. I stepped out of the bubble and into a paradoxical experience—exhilarating yet nerve-wracking, liberating yet stifling in some ways. It was this sort of tension that allowed me to grow and learn a few lessons about life—lessons that I would like to share.
Look on the bright side of life
NS can be terribly frustrating. You are housed on a separate island on weekdays during Basic Military Training (and weekends if you’re unfortunate enough to be confined); your freedom is restricted; a high level of discipline is expected; your platoon mates may be CKWs (Chao Keng Warriors—people who feign illness or injury) and time is often wasted. There are times when your sergeants hurry you to get ready for the next programme, and you end up waiting for an hour, doing absolutely nothing. Then your sergeants hurry you again and the training starts. This experience is neatly summarised in the phrase “rush to wait, wait to rush.”
There are a few ways to cope with such frustration. One way is to let off steam in the bunk. Another way is to call home and talk to your parents. Both are necessary, but neither of them really deal with your frustration at its roots. It is much better instead to stay optimistic and remind yourself to be grateful for all good things.
“The year is 2012, not 1967,” I told myself during BMT. “You’re not being trained by the Israelis. Generations of Singaporean men survived this, and they had it worse than you. You still get to enjoy your weekends. The food is usually quite good, and you’re getting more hours of rest than you did during your school days. You hear birds singing every morning, and your camp has a lot of greenery.”
And best of all, I had great friends. I fondly remember the discussions we had in the bunk, the Monopoly Deal games, the singing sessions, and the joy and pain we shared. Meeting my friends was the one and only thing I enjoyed about booking in every week.
Enjoy making all sorts of friends
During my BMT, I met guys from other JCs, polytechnics, ITEs and even someone who stopped attending school after PSLE. Three of my platoon mates had lived in Shanghai/Canada for most of their lives, and came back to fulfil their NS obligation as Singapore citizens. In the navy (where I was posted to after BMT), many of my friends had studied up to ‘N’ or ‘O’ level and conversed in Hokkien.
As you can imagine, my friends were very different from me. But I could learn from everyone. Everyone had different talents, whether it was singing, dancing or just making people laugh. Some were not academically-inclined, but were skilled with their hands and possessed great physical and mental strength. One friend who had studied Nursing at ITE inspired me with his compassion. The boy who stopped school after P6 impressed me with his willingness to learn. I realised that there was no need to be afraid of the guys with huge tattoos, and even if I disapproved of the smoking, drinking and clubbing that some guys loved, I could still be friends with them.
NS affords each of us a fantastic opportunity to befriend people we would never have dreamt of meeting. It is a common refrain that NS is a social leveller. All are praised and punished together, regardless of educational background or social standing, and all NS men share common experiences, common songs and a common language (terms like “eye-power”, “wayang”, “suck thumb” and “OTOT” come to mind).
This is an opportunity that should not be wasted. Find out more about the lives of your friends, understand the priorities and aspirations that others have in life, and learn about the joys and grievances that they face.
I remember having an interesting conversation with a friend in the navy who came from a humble background and had completed his N levels. He was impressed that I had received a scholarship, but couldn’t understand why I wanted to study Politics in university. “Why don’t you study something that will earn you big bucks, like Business?” he asked.
I was quite taken aback. “I don’t need a lot of money,” I said.
He replied, “Why don’t you want lots of money? You can buy a big house, luxury cars…it’s the good life!”
I share this story not to come across as self-righteous, but to drive home the importance of making all sorts of friends, because that is how you can understand a bit more about life outside the four walls of school.
Kindness is a common language
In the navy, I initially found it difficult to communicate with my cohort mates. I couldn’t speak Hokkien, I didn’t listen to the same Chinese songs as them and I didn’t have the same interests as them. We couldn’t have very long or meaningful conversations, mainly because of the language barrier.
Eventually, it was the simple acts of kindness like offering to iron someone’s shirt or sharing my Oreos that broke the silence. Of course, I had to be careful that my kindness wasn’t exploited. But I quickly learned that actions speak louder than words, and that such acts of kindness can help you to relate to anyone.
Next year, whether you start NS (guys) or university (girls), seize as many eye-opening opportunities as possible as you step out of your bubble. But keep in mind that as you step out of one bubble, you are merely stepping into another, albeit a bigger one. We must all learn to continue expanding our vision throughout our lives.
Kirk D’Souza was the President of the 30th Student’s Council, as well as Head Boy in Year 1-4. He graduated from RI in 2011. He is the recipient of a Public Service Commission scholarship and will read political science at the London School of Economics.