Singapore men are the new women

So says my platoon mate Dilbert Chua, 433rd Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment Bravo Tactical Team Seven Section One Second Light Anti-Tank Weapon Gunner and journalist.

He makes that sweeping statement while we clean our new SAR21 rifle after a day at the firing range, and after receiving a phone call from his girlfriend, who has obviously exasperated him somewhat.

We’re sitting at the foot of our beds while we meticulously rub carbon off the gas regulator and the other small parts of the unfamiliar weapon with pieces of flannel held with tweezers. Takes a lot longer than the old M16, we complain.

Singapore men are submissive, can follow orders and are easily trained.
Dilbert’s girlfriend apparently hasn’t been sensitive to the fact that he is in camp for all of six days sacrificing his precious time for the security of the nation. She has asked him to help her assemble her new IKEA cupboard on Saturday, the day we get out-processed, without as much as an iota of consideration for his tiredness and need for some tender loving understanding.

A piece of flannel 2 inches by 1 inch is too thick when folded by the eye of the five piece pull-through rod to be pulled through the barrel of the rifle. We struggle with the cleaning. There’s still carbon all over the little nooks and crannies of the rifle.

Singapore men are the new Thai women.
Dilbert says Singapore women use and abuse Singapore men. Singapore women are obviously oblivious to the universal hardship that Singapore men have to endure: 13 years of part-time National Service, 2.5 years of full-time National Service, going to university and graduating 2.5 years later than Singapore women, getting jobs later and still expected to be the bread winner and provider for parents and children, and still be expected to wow women and sweep them off their feet. It’s a hard life. It’s a Thai woman’s life.

And the parts of the rifle are just as hard to put back together as they are to clean.

Welcome to Buangkok, a million miles from care. In fact, a million miles from anywhere

Today, I managed to see other people apart from my family, by visiting my platoon mate’s new flat in a new housing estate called Buangkok. I went only because I was curious to see what Buangkok looked like. It is very far. You can see Johor from the upper floors. It was a very nicely done up flat though, complete with government issued bomb shelter. A bomb shelter on the 16th floor sounds ludicrous, and everyone I spoke to didn’t have any explanation as to how people would survive trapped in a bomb shelter on the 16th floor when the rest of the building is hit by a bomb. Being Singaporeans, most people preferred not to question the government’s apparently unexplainable wisdom, and continued using their bomb shelters as spare store rooms.

Symptoms of fire

Symptoms of fire
Last week during ICT, we were treated to the usual round of lectures, done by instructors in an army of the 21st century – powerpoint slides, flash animations, the works. Lectures usually precede practical field training, and despite our sniggering, they usually help in our understanding of what we’re supposed to do in the field.

Except for our fire evacuation drill. The first slide was of five points, and titled ‘the five symptoms of fire’. My mates and I spent the next twenty minutes giggling, and could only remember three ‘symptoms’: heat, bright light and smoke.

‘Symptoms of fire’ became our catchphrase for the week.

A breakfast menu

A breakfast menu
Once upon a time, not too long ago, but long enough to feel sentimental about, I cooked up to three meals a day for the girlfriend.

We lived off Anzac Parade, on Lenthall Street in Kensington. Just the two of us.

In the summer, she had a job at the Hyatt Regency which was then located on top of the hill at Kings Cross, where the famous Coke neon sign was. As she was the only one in the house with a job, I had the housekeeping duties. I shopped for groceries, thinking up dishes as I pushed the trolley down the supermarket aisles.

Breakfast: Tuna on English muffins with asparagus and swiss cheese.

6 English muffins
1 can tuna
1 can asparagus spears
1 doz slices, swiss (or nearest) cheese
black pepper

I’d wake up an hour before she did, at 6am, and quietly go to the kitchen to prepare the breakfast that would ensure she was in love with me the rest of the day.

The sun was already up and peering through the living room windows. It used to get so bright in the mornings that you’d get a sunburn if you didn’t cover yourself with the blanket properly. I’d sing softly to myself as I took the muffins out of the bag and put them on the chopping board where I cut them in horizontal halves. Two muffins. The other four went back into the bag, later to be devoured by myself in a less delicate fashion.

La donna è mobile
qual piuma al vento
muta d’accento
e di pensiero

Sempre un’amabile
leggiadro viso
in pianto e in riso
è menzognero

La donna è mobil
qual piuma al vento
muta d’accento
e di pensier

È sempre misero
chi a lei s’affida
chi le confida
mal cauto il core

Pur mai non sentesi
felice appieno
chi su quel seno
non liba amore

(Woman is changeable
Poor feather flying blind
Sweet words, then so unkind
Changing her little mind
She’s always amiable
Beauty to spellbind
Laughs, cries, she doesn’t mind
Lies when she’s so inclined

Woman is changeable
Feather that flies blind
Sweet words then unkind
Changing her mind

He’s always miserable

He that will trust in her.
He that confides in her
Gives up his heart to her
Yet he can never be
Free from his misery
‘Til he embraces her
Won’t know what love can be)

Opening a can of tuna takes some effort, especially when you don’t want to spill the oil onto the kitchen counter. A lot of kitchen towels are employed. It’s best you open the can till you’ve left 5′ of the 360′ hanging as a hinge. You then use a fork to pry it open, dig out the contents into a bowl. And this is where the art begins.

With the fork, I’d massage the tuna into a paste, not too fine, not too coarse, blending freshly ground black pepper at intervals.

By now, she would have woken and would be heading to the bathroom. I could then turn on either the tv or the radio. This day, I turned on the radio, because the cricket hadn’t started on the tv. Triple M 104.9FM. Coffee or tea? Tea, she says. I’d put the kettle on, take two mugs, two Lady Grey tea bags out and put them in the mugs.

Same deal with the can of asparagus. Drain the water and set the spears on a plate, and cut them to size so they can fit on top of the muffins without drooping over the sides too much.

Placing the four muffin halves on the board, I’d spoon the tuna evenly on them, then place the muffins into the toaster oven, already pre-heated for a minute. It takes a minute for it to be slightly toasted. I’d take out the halves and arrange the asparagus spears on top of the tuna, and place one slice of cheese on top of each tuna muffin. Back into the oven they went. This time, I had to watch as the cheese melted, wrapped itself over the asparagus and tuna, browned slightly and drooped over the sides and not a moment longer.

With tongs, the tuna, asparagus and swiss cheese open muffins were ready to be served, two halves on each plate, with a slice of tomato on the side for good measure.

Juice? Orange, please. Tea was ready by then too.

We’d sit, eat, and I didn’t have to wait for her to tell me she enjoyed the breakfast. You are making me fat, she’d say. Then don’t eat, I’d say. We don’t say much else. I’d ask her what time she finished that day and whether she’d like dinner.

Yes.

OK. I’ll go to Coles again later.

Absolute discomfort

When we’re not sick, we forget the aches, the drowsiness, the struggle to have control over our faculties.

I think I am talking about what it will be like in the next week during in-camp.

No matter how much I prepare myself mentally for the training, it never seems adequate for the gradual shock of being knee deep in mud, baked in the sun under the kevlar helmet that now collects evaporated sweat on its underside, buzzed by a hundred mosquitoes and stung by ants just as stunned to find your limb isn’t a plant. You can talk about it to death. But the shock comes from having to stay that way, assaulted by the heat, the itch and the dampness for hour after debilitating hour.

Then comes night. Your eyes struggle to adjust. Everything is a blur and fumble. They give you night vision devices which only shows everything up as green in colour, and gives you motion sickness. The mosquitoes seem to multiply exponentially. The volume of their buzzing increases several hundred decibels it seems. The ground is damp when you sit on it, and you are still sweating. Worse, your uniform begins to stink as bacteria grows on the fabric. Three more nights to go.

Every single square inch of your body is irritated. You gradually become aware of the immense acreage of your skin. A few reddish welts appear on of all places, your knuckles. The goddamned mosquitoes really know where to sting where it irritates most. Knuckles, between fingers, ears, middle of your back. You’d put more repellent on if not for the fact it keeps getting washed off by your own sweat and the chafing that is already turning your skin red-raw.

You tell yourself you’d love nature if only nature loved you more.

Your nose, if you were fortunate enough not to have a cold or flu, is assaulted by the plethora of different smells. First up, your stinking uniform. That unmistakable sourish smell. Then, repellent. Then, the mud. Then, the sourish smell of the soldier next to you. You try to block everything out, but you can’t, and you can’t sleep because of that. They tell you to sleep, because there’s a mission in two hours, and you’re desperate to sleep, but can’t…

A few loud buzzes by mosquitoes looking for the next best place to sting after scoring all your knuckles, two ears, eyelids and lips, and you’re just putting down your arm from waving ineffectively at them when a whisper goes up “wake up wake up, get ready”. There’s a few muffled grunts in reply, and some soldiers in your section fall back to sleep, but their mates rustle them up again. You stand up and pick up your weapons and gear as quietly as possible, but nevertheless clanging every possible thing against every possible hard surface, prompting another whisper from the dark “shhhh. quiet”.

You listen half asleep to instructions and then excuse yourself to stumble several meters from the group to take a leak. You will your urine to pass quickly, so as to minimize the chances of any insect invading the insides of your pants. You stare at the dark to make sure you have been pissing downhill too. And of course, you excuse yourself just before passing urine, to make sure any slumbering spirit has vacated the area just in front of you.

The next few hours you trudge quickly with your tactical team, hoping the guy leading knows where he’s going. Your back aches to high heaven, your smell has turned a different kind of sour, you are hungry and the welts on your body are swelling as your pores open up again.

You walk for what seems like many hours. You see the dim blue light of dawn. That pause in the weather just before the sun rises. It may rain or it may shine. Either way, there is a strange morning breeze. You feel refreshed. It takes a bit of the sour smell off. The men in front of you suddenly make frantic hand signals. A thumbs down signal followed by a flurry of hand signals. Enemy in front. 100 metres. Entrenched. GPMG. Section two left, section three right, section one stay with me. You are awake now.

There is a fizzing sound and a sudden smell of burning cord. You are more awake now, because in 4 seconds a flash bang grenade (thunderflash) explodes at your feet. You and your mates are pushed instinctively into action. Thumbs flick switch from safety to semi on the rifles and you raise your weapons, point and shoot three round bursts at where you think the enemy is, because you haven’t seen them yet. Someone sees them and yells directions. The battle starts and ends about ten minutes later. You are exhausted, thirsty, but very awake. You smell burnt gunpowder all over, and it’s still coming from your weapon. It is a comforting smell. If it’s raining, you like the warmth of your rifle. If it’s dry, you like the smell.

You get a bit of a rest over the ‘enemies dead bodies’ while the support team comes and patches the injured up, counts the dead and replenishes water. You check yourself and discover you’ve torn a trouser leg and your knee is bleeding and your knuckles are cut up. You pour a bit of water over your wounds and joke about it to the guy next to you who seems to be in worse shape, so you shut up. You are asked to ‘stand down’ after half an hour, and you finally take off your helmet, drink a whole bottle of water and fumble through your backpack looking for something to eat. The supply train comes and distributes more ammunition and food and the next hour is spent reloading bullets into magazines and waiting for further orders. By now, the sun is up and angrily drying up your sweat, matting your hair and hardening your uniform. If it’s raining, the drops pelt your skin through your uniform and you feel as if your underwear has shrunk two sizes.

And you have to do it all over again for the next three days.