On Different Roads and Privilege

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I’ve been in the army for slightly over a year now and while I was at first scared that it’ll be a challenging journey for me, someone who’s does not fit the common definition of masculinity very well, I’ve come to appreciate the journey for what it is the most – the chance to interact with people from all backgrounds, each with different goals and dreams, each with different stories to tell. And through that, find what bring us together, find what makes us, to use the cliched but evergreen phrase, one united people.

I enlisted 2 months earlier than the rest owing to my terrible lack of fitness (while not unfit, I was barely pushing my body to optimum, let alone the limits) and the only thought that was through my mind in those early stages was how I’d be missing out on a really kick-ass trip to Bali (which really saddened me a lot although I was super happy the rest were having a ball of a time) and essentially how I lost two months to myself to explore my passions and interests on my own. Even now, time is the only thing I think about when I find myself pondering about NS.

But life/God had another plan for me in those two months… and boy was it one that I needed, and actually one that I myself didn’t even know that I wanted. A chance for me to get out there and truly meet people, all sorts of people that I didn’t even know existed – people so colorful, writing stories that I didn’t know could be written, distinct new tales I never heard before that defined them. People nearly 7 years older than me to some who were in fact younger. Each brought something to the table that no one else could offer. And what a difference that made to those extra 8 weeks.

Whether it was the platoon mate who taught me the importance of living and appreciating the moment when he told me not to think about the next 15 weeks ahead but rather the long weekend to come for our first bookout, or hearing about the different struggles that people had in life: losing family members early in their childhood, being forced to take an extra semester solely because they failed one module for a reason that wasn’t even of their own doing, coming back mere weeks or days before enlisting and having to live away from family for extended periods of time and so much more. These were all stories that I would never have had the chance to hear had I gone in with the rest of my peers where the batch would be largely homogeneous…

And it’s only through these past 12 odd months (and in particular over the two days of duty during this CNY weekend, but I’ll get to that later) that I’ve realized what I missed out on over the years as I’ve walked down the path that I have after Primary School: I missed out on the chance to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, defined not based on a common set of 4 papers but rather on a variety of experiences and different standards which they hold themselves to.

NS has been thoroughly enlightening when it comes to meeting people outside my social circle of sorts, people so fundamentally different at the core of their being yet so beautiful in coming together to form the intricate social fabric that exists in Singapore. A social fabric which I experienced an increasingly shrinking part of as I grew up. NS has opened me up to the different realities facing different people and for that I’m deeply thankful, and is truly one of my greatest takeaways from Army once I come to the end of my two years service.

And that leads me onward to the connected issue of privilege… something that I have seen surface up even more recently not just in the news as a social issue but something that is closer to home, something very personal especially in the lead up to commissioning and in the mere 2 weeks of being an officer that followed.

This post may seem a bit out of the blue but I just felt that I had to write this in light of my duty over the past 2 of 4 days…

After spending those nights in camp and just interacting with people who spent it with me made me realize that when it comes to National Service, everyone really speaking just wants to do their best. Be it whichever role you serve in, or whatever vocation type or whether you are in frontline postings or more behind-the-scenes operations, everyone is trying to give their best and to say that someone has “given” more simply because they are an officer is reducing the contributions of everyone else to a mere footnote. It’s a hierarchy simply because that’s the way the system functions more efficiently… however take away any part of that hierarchy and the whole system falls on itself. Being in OCS and going through all that I did was nothing but a privilege and to be honest, there are so many other people out there who deserve to be in there too but for reasons unknown, or reasons that aren’t exactly justifiable, weren’t given the chance but they still choose to do the best they can and be the best that they can be.

I’m reminded of Angelina Jolie’s speech at The Academy’s 2013 Governors Awards:

I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life.

And why across the world there’s a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films, and better speeches — only she sits in a refugee camp.

She has no voice.

She worries about what her children will eat, how to keep them safe, and if they’ll ever be allowed to return home.

I don’t know why this is my life and that’s hers.

I don’t understand that, but I will do as my mother asked, and I will do the best I can with this life to be of use.

I’m reminded to never take any of the things that I’ve experienced in life for granted. I’m reminded to always be thankful for what I have. And above all, I’m reminded of my obligation to make this reality of mine, a reality for others by living a life of use.

As I’m about to turn 20 this year, I don’t think this sobering reminder could have come at any more appropriate a time. I’ve a long way to go but I can make my life count. All I need to do is to live this life right, just the once.

As with love, as I saw on today’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat, it’s not always about the big gestures but the small things that add up to that something big.

And I pray that I will always keep these lessons in mind as I make my way through the 20s and beyond.

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