I recall how my secondary school social studies text hailed national service as an opportune means to forge racial unity. A memorable sound bite from the textbook went along the lines of how after national service, brown would be the only skin colour of Singaporean males.
But the reality is racial relations are more than just the superficiality of skin colour.
It is discriminatory security classifications;
It is poor representation across units;
It is institutionalised bias;
It is a matter of unshared experiences;
It is an issue of dissimilar lingua francas;
It is a mentality of a second-class race;
It is the race category on the 11B and the G50 security form (that some would never be required to fill up);
It is the surprise and concomitant isolation of being the only member of the extended family to be enlisted into the army and not the fire service;
It is the segregated cookhouse tables;
It is being nicknamed by your skin colour or by the lack of your foreskin;
It is finding sole companionship in a fellow minority from another platoon;
It is the patronizing concerns and attempts to “integrate”;
It is the question of will you die for your country on that demeaning questionnaire.
It is a matter of trust and a matter of institutional distrust.
There is a section from a Malay-majority battalion seconded to my base. We were playing billiards in the mess when my Tamil colleague remarked that the only Chinese soldier from that battalion was sitting alone away from his section.
I retorted with a tease that he probably acutely understood how the Chinese guy felt. He didn’t get it for a while, and then as if the entrenched racial paradigm effaced by friendship was again callously resurfaced into explicit terms, he gave a knowing chuckle.