For six hours straight, a cross section of Singaporean male society passes through me – Chinese, Indians and Malays, lawyers, taxi drivers and doctors. I stand between three thousand of them, mobilised reservist men, and the comforting normalcy of their civilian world.
Before them, stands a monumental technical and logistical effort of scores of army units, thousands of man-hours of NSFs and months of pre-ops sweat-stained preparation and hair-pulling. And there I am, seconded begrudgingly from my underground world – a salesman for the monumental effort.
The clock hits 1730hrs. My unit commanders are suddenly jittery satellites in an anxious battle to stay in an orbit of self-control. Their nervous and ceaseless pep-talks for me are more therapeutic for themselves, than it is intended for me. They make it sound as if my entire NS life has led up to upcoming 5 minutes of instant grandiosity or eternal ignominy. When your previously self-respecting and self-possessed CO is a fidgety mess, you know an even bigger dinosaur is lumbering round the corner.
The dinosaur struts in. There are stars on his epaulette. His massive entourage too are star-studded – there are not even chevrons or crabs, just purely, entirely, and in totality, stars. With their colourful assortment of berets, it’s like a flying circus of army chiefs.
And after the flying circus departs, I’m bludgeoned by a volley of handshakes and back-patting. And then I’m back to being a salesman for the thousands of reservists men. They are my former teachers (one of whom instantly recognises my voice under the facelessness of the uniform), future bosses, neighbours and my sister’s boyfriend.
Their issued rifles are brand-new, freshly unwrapped from bubblewrap, ready as hell for war, killing and the misplaced honour of fatal nationalism. The men themselves, however, are anything but ready. There are long pink-dyed hair under those sloppily-strapped helmets and beer bellies under those faded uniforms. An elite unit, for heaven’s sake.
Two moments stand out memorably: (1) a struggling NSmen, a fractured left arm in a sling, and his rifle in his other arm; and, (2) another NSmen with a head-full of grey hair and wrinkles, his rifle an unfamiliar burden in those hands long moisturised by the years of peace.
They say our lives are but a moment in the eternity of the nation.