'Field Camp' © T Kwek

What It's Like

It’s one thing to expect it, and quite another to be prepared. Two years’ uniformed service are required of every male citizen and second-generation Permanent Resident, and while some are posted to the police or civil defence forces, most serve their time in the Singapore Armed Forces: a vast and (from a new recruit's perspective) utterly confusing bureaucracy. For much of our lives up to that point – in movies, songs, plays and books; at home and at school – we’re told what's coming, but there's something about the first march, first field camp, or first live-firing exercise that catches everyone off-guard. 

I left the country for further studies after four months’ service in 2013, and will be returning this summer to complete the rest of the expected time. Many of my new friends on this side of the world have asked me what it will be like – and here is my attempt at an answer. 



What It’s Like


How do I tell you now about the way 

they placed it in his hands, a baby’s weight, 

just as tenderly pulled his shoulders back 

to take the heave and coil, every fresh blow 

leaving him sore, the sour echo of this 

is how you kill a man? 

    It takes a man 

to do that for his country, they said, and there 

in the wet scrape it seemed almost true, 

knowing a body’s length of fresh earth lay 

upturned, packed tight to rest his barrel on, 

not daring to move, legs and torso stained 

with an afternoon’s digging, as ten at a time 

slipped away to practise advancing 

from point to point, or picking up the dead, 

the whole earth shattering beneath them. 

Don’t be scared, 

these aren’t even live. 

He learned to play dead, always the lightest 

in the group, the one his friends would plan 

to evacuate, arms crossed over one 

another’s to stabilize the casualty, last man 

claiming his rifle where it fell so we don’t 

give the rascals anything. 

If you’re lucky, 

he’s still breathing (and always, the refrain) 

if not, don’t move him. 

It’s hard to tell 

the truth of it – even half, he thinks – but these 

are the things he knew, or maybe knows now, 

or wishes he did, is what I’m saying. 

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