The Mall, is the only mall in Brunei and thus it can be aptly named, the Mall.
I told myself to get down to doing some reflections on the 10 days in Brunei, which just as it was with BMT’s Field Camp, were 10 life-changing days. Not the least bit due to the fact that I was appointed CW2 of my new vocation, CSS, and boy did it make me see things in a completely different light than when you are just a normal cadet with no responsibilities.
Going into Brunei, I knew it was going to be one hell of a challenging period and a part of my life, let alone NS life, that would change me completely. But the extent to which it did surprised me remarkably when I look back now on it now. I figure I was fairly excited for the trip because it meant taking a plane after so long (though I realize I kind of fear plane rides these days) and a sweet 3 hour boat ride and a new place to explore and stories to tell when I came back. But as soon as we reached the challenges came in hard and fast – the in-processing was messy and troublesome and there being so many facets to handle, quite frankly overwhelming. Add to that the fact that I hardly knew anyone well enough except for those from Tango and Hwach, I knew I was in for a rollercoaster 10 days. It was the first time that I genuinely looked forward to outfield cause it provided some sense of respite. Soon the enjoyment from outfield did not stem from the dislike of something else but rather from the intrinsic ability to enjoy cold nights tending to a fire with new friends, having buffets of Maggi and trying to conquer commando ants and stealthy centipedes that take you by surprise.
In Brunei, I felt my self-confidence and self-esteem challenged multiple times (something that I thought I was growing out of but clearly is a source of vulnerability even today). I remember clearly (don’t think I’ll ever forget) one of the most terrible moments being when I was trying to address the whole course regarding some announcements for the next day and my face, without control, turning red and at that exact moment some people a few paces in front started saying something and laughing (it may or may not have been about me but at that point one can only put cause and effect together huh) and it took so much to just push through that announcement and I headed straight for my bed right after, hoping my composure wouldn’t give way. Another distinct moment that I’ll remember is when I was trying to reason out an issue with a superior and he told me “not to cry. You want cry go bunk cry.” – I couldn’t help but wonder if he was seeing through the cumulative days of emotional weight or just saying it as a way to get on top of the issue at hand but whatever it is all these really just got me thinking. Is there no room for emotions in the journey to being an officer, let alone in the army? And if so, me being so completely unsuited to the kind of leadership that is expected of an officer, why am I here? I went into this journey hoping to challenge myself by doing that which I know I’m not cut out for but maybe I’ve crossed one line too far in my attempt to do something that isn’t ‘me’. After all, there are many ways for one to give their all in the army, to make the most of their time – it doesn’t necessarily come via going this one specific route, does it? As they often told us back in Hwach Council, the role doesn’t define you, what you do defines the role. As cheesy as it may seem to someone on the outside (or as it did when I first started on that chapter of my life), it made complete sense at the end having had the chance to do the things that went above and beyond my basic scope in Council. So I find myself back at the same juncture that I always think that I’ve left behind but never truly have: why am I here?
Another lesson that I took away from my time there was the realization that it takes a lot to be truly selfless. In my time in Tango, I wasn’t any appointment holder and always felt a bit odd while everyone was off busy doing so many other stuff while I was generally not required to do much. I always wanted to help but never did unless explicitly asked because I thought it was enough that I listened to all the instructions of the appointment holders and did the basic that I was supposed to. But coming to Brunei when I saw everything from the other side and where, in order for things to work, everyone had to do contribute more than just the basic, I realized that there really is not limit to how much one can help. And that to help, it meant sacrificing things that are a precious rarity in army: be it admin time, sleep time or being able to use the phone to give a quick call home (funny how it all has to do with time). And sacrificing that is a lot harder than one can imagine. Even in the higher echelons of leadership, I sometimes find that genuine concern for those under you doesn’t stem from an innate desire for safety but rather the fear of one’s career “hentakaki-ing” (not progressing) if something goes wrong. Where did the authenticity go? While thankfully this isn’t true of all leaders, it really does raise the question of what will happen in times where desperation is real? To what extent is the culture of everyone covering someone else in order to cover their own backs going to work. I still believe that for the large part people are good, people are still genuine and kind but I hate that life still finds a way to prove that there is always an exception to the rule.
(Also I realize I should give a special shoutout to Ramu here for travelling all the way to Pasir Ris for an hours worth of talk the evening before flying!)
And the last lesson can be encapsulated in the lyrics of Lost Stars, “Who are we? Just a speck of dust within the galaxy?”. Brunei made me realize that what I’m doing is just a small speck in this huge huge huge world where so much is going in places that I can’t even imagine exist. That ants crawl up a mountain and logs fall to the ground and crocodiles swim across a river and a masseur heads home after having a bumper crop of Singaporean soldiers at his shop and an Indian national sells shoes in a small shop in the heart of Brunei hoping he can get by without giving away too much of a discount and so on. The world is so huge and there is so much to explore and experience and glimpse into the lives of the thousand who inhabit this giant blue and green orb and I hope I can do that once I am out of here because it really calls out to my heart. The 10 months I’ll have before Uni begins I hope will be well spent – learning and growing and doing the things that I’ve really wanted to since I ran out of the hall after the final A Level MCQ paper. But for now, no matter how ambivalent I feel about where I am and what I am doing, I have to go through, I don’t have much of a choice and hope that the best comes of it all.
(Thankful to the above people for new beginnings and familiar past throughout Brunei.)
And as for post-Brunei? These past 5 days of pure freedom have been thoroughly liberating :’) While I may not have met or done everything that I wanted to and I still struggle to find the balance between family, friends and passion, the feeling of being with familiar faces is a thoroughly unparalleled one. Yet begins the part of the year where people are slowly but surely going away and on to their next stages of their life, and while I’m excited for them I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness mixed into the nostalgia that things won’t be as how they were before.
10 days in Brunei were perfectly timed before National Day and got me going on the things that mattered again, and now we head into the homestretch of the year, the best of every year – Diwali, Christmas, Hari Raya and sheer festivity and thanksgiving. Here’s to landing this plane right on the runways of winter.