What are you defending?

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A whole lot has been said and written about National Serviceman Lim Zi Rui’s comment that he didn’t know what he was defending anymore. He was referring to how to huge influx of foreigners into Singapore has led him to a state of being lost; that he couldn’t identify with the Singapore he was fighting for and defending.

First things first: it is perfectly normal to ask this question. The question “What am I defending?” is applicable to all citizens of Singapore, not just National Servicemen, and it comes in a myriad of different forms.

“Why am I staying in Singapore? Why haven’t I migrated?” At the root of it, it is a question of investment. We are putting something in - our time, our toil, our lives - and we want to know what it is we’re doing all of this for. It’s probably the most fundamental question of life if we expand it to a more macro, existentialist level.

In the information age we live in, the notion of a country, like many other age-old paradigms, is undergoing change. Countries used to be about geographical boundaries and physical territory. While a geography teacher came up to me the other day reminding me that these things do matter because humans are intrinsically tied to where they are physically located, I think citizenship has evolved to become more intangible, and it would be disastrous if we continued to define it as a one dimensional concept.

Ivan Lalic’s poem Places we love came over me with such clarity, that the places we love are more than physical spaces. “Space is only time visible in a different way”, goes the poem. I love Arizona because of my time as an undergraduate there, and I’ve made it a point to revisit her, but it’s not the same Arizona I remember. The people I know have moved to different cities, we’re all older and at different points in our lives. The mountains and sunset remain, but little else. I love her still, for what she was to me in that stage in my life.

In the same way I love Singapore. For what she means to me. For the memories I’ve made here, and for the memories I hope to create for my children in the relative safety of this place. She is a half-written story we all find ourselves thrown into, and are responsible for how she will be remembered in the annals of time.

I would that she be remembered for her multi-cultural beauty, a collection of dreams by various peoples who have come from all over the world. I would that she be remembered for her compassion for the less fortunate, for her coming-of-age as she realises that not all that glitters is gold, and the celebration of life is more valuable than the pursuit of money.

More than just defending Singapore, we need to actively take part in the writing of her next chapter.

May it be one for the ages, and Singapore - us - a force for good in the world.

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6 Comments

The problem is that our national service system does not exactly inspire confidence.

I have no issues with foreigners coming to Singapore to work, study, play and build businesses. In fact, I love working alongside foreigners in my company.

The issue - which Lim Zi Rui - pointed out is the inequitability in terms of what I give to my country (the most precious 2.5 years of my life when I was young) compared to foreign counterparts who stroll right in and by the time I am done with my National Service, I am already 2.5 years behind my foreign-born peers in University. In return for the most important 2 and the half years of my life, all I get was some ridiculously low monthly stipend AND even worse than that, to have spent my time in a badly managed, badly organised Army, wasting time executing training exercises that hardly make any logical sense.

I guess its all about why-i-serve-and-you-dont-need-to-serve. Why we serve NS while foreigners can come in and enjoy the fruits of our ancestors. Many locals think that foreigners come, go thru the education system and then move on to greener pastures. Locals study, enlist and then fail to get a place in local universities. Losing the 2 years to NS is rubbing salt into injury. What do you think of this?

I don't think there's a solution. Unless Singapore decides to give up NS and have a full-time army. But that doesn't mean that the birth rates will go up, we will be more attractive to MNCs and a whole lot of other issues.

Globalization means more foreigners on our shores. We see that phenom all over the world. Its effect is amplified in a small place like Singapore. Can we keep foreigners out yet remain attractive to foreign investors? I don't think how that is possible...

Thanks for the beautiful piece (once again). Singapore is worth fighting for, worth defending for. All of us have a pivotal role to play in writing her next chapter.

Regarding Calvin Cheng's comments, it is not merely the 2.5 yrs or 2 years active NS. For many many Singaporeans, it is also the yearly reservist commitments (I use the word "reservist" as "NSmen" can be quite confusing): the annual ICTs, the mobilisation manning, the overseas exercises, the difficulties of getting exemptions, trying to balance your reservist liabilities with your career or business obligations or your family obligations. While the government has tried to introduce measures to make life better for reservists, there is still a lot demanded on our citizen soldiers. A good test would be to make NS voluntary to first generation citizens or PRs and I will not be surprised to see virtually zero take up rate. That would only underscore the point that NS places huge demands on our citizens. On the other hand, I also agree that there are positive aspects of NS such as the friendships and camaradarie I enjoyed with my fellow citizen reservist or ex NS colleagues. But that is not enough to outweigh the burden NS places on citizen soldiers. Ironically, nowadays I always joke to my wife when I am going back to reservist training that I am looking forward to going back to camp as it is the only place where you see so many Singaporeans without foreigners, something of a novelty these days. The government has to make a greater effort to make its genuine citizens feel that they are greatly appreciated. The government has to make the distinctions between (1) citizens and (2) PRs and employment passholders more obvious. The lines which the state blurred over the past 5-10 years have to be redrawn and reemphasized. For us citizens, this is our home and we have to live here and fight for the country regardless. For others especially PRs and employment pass holders, they can always go back to the countries of their origin. Frequently we forgot the fact that many PRs chose to keep their original nationalities betrays their loyalties. There is nothing wrong with them being loyal to their countries of birth. However,by the same token, they cannot expect to enjoy the same benefits as full fledged Singaporeans. To allow them to do so merely contributes to the unhappiness that many Singaporean citizens have been feeling for something as highlighted by Lim Zi Rui. I love my country and I think we should impose higher standards and requirements for citizenship Majulah Singapura.


I think I'm "blinkered" in my thinking about citizenship and the concept of nationhood :) And perhaps gladly so. What am I defending? My family; my life here -- one that I'm used to. I'm reacting with that stubborn streak in me that says I may not live in a paradise but if you come with hostile intent and push me around, I'd want to push you back. Simply because if I act like a pushover, I'd hate the person I am.

it is always people that make a place. seeing buildings/structures you recognise and which figured in your life, is also part of what makes a place your home. in singapore, food also figures in the equation.

however, wen more and more of your friends and family leave or are simply too busy on the treadmill of life to have time for you, when the buildings around you are perpetually changing, when you can't even be sure that your HOME will not be sold by your neighbours in an en bloc, it is hard to feel attachment for the place you have spent most of your life in.

rapid growth and change may be good for the economy, but that, really, is about all it's good for. especially wen does not benefit from it.

as for life in the armed forces, i am constantly puzzled why nothing is being done about the mindlessness and bullying that goes on there, when so many complain about it.

but i guess that is inevitable wen $ signs seem to be all that matter in spore life, wen making a profit from your home figures so large, when the infrastructural impact - let's not even talk of the devastating social impact - of flooding the country with outsiders is not considered.

i regret a great deal that i didn't immigrate all those years ago when i looked around the world and decided at the end of a 10-yr search, that i would stay here. the people and the place have become unfamiliar and ugly after decades of many ill thought through policies that have encouraged both to develop in unwanted ways.

i am glad that i will probably not be around to see the struggles of elderly sporeans who have
spent all their savings on HDB flats and find they have nothing left for their old age. and all because they did not stand up, speak out and put their foot down when these developments were in their early stages.

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