Master Commander

Ruminations of National Service and fatherhood.

By Alywin Chew      8 May 2019

It could be said that my life bears a semblance to National Service. Between the ages of one and five, life was like Basic Military Training (BMT). I spent weekdays at my grandparents’ home and only got to see my parents during “book out” on weekends. Just like BMT, tekan sessions were part and parcel of my life. My maternal grandmother wielded the cane like an RSM with a pace stick. I moved back with my parents when I started primary school and this was the beginning of “unit” life.

My bunk was located at a fortress atop a hill. Some of you might have heard of this compound before: Normanton Park. Yes, I kid you not. I grew up in an estate that was built specifically to house military personnel and their families. My father was a combat engineer captain. He seldom talked about his vocation other than how he had to build bridges. For many years, I thought combat engineers went to war with screwdrivers and yellow hard hats, dropping bridges on the enemy. What a weird way to fight, I thought.

A kid from Block 2, whom I always played hide and seek with, bragged about how his father was a fighter pilot. That seemed way more badass. I was dismayed – my father just didn’t seem cool enough. Dad’s temperament, too, was anything but cool. He would yell the moment I dropped a grain of rice from the table during dinner, returned home just a few minutes late, or forgot to turn off the airconditioning after waking up. Everything I did had to be done with military precision.

Whenever I came across a character that I did not know during Chinese revisions, my dad would yell “Semula!” and make me check the dictionary before rereading the passage from the beginning. So, yes, hearing the platoon sergeant yell it again during actual BMT triggered post-traumatic stress disorder. No, the MO didn’t believe me.

As such, I hated learning Chinese. But Dad’s pedagogy was somewhat effective. “Somewhat” because I scored straight As in primary school. Today, however, the only three Chinese characters I remember are those of my name. Needless to say, I’m not very good at Mando-pop karaoke sessions (unless we’re talking about Jay Chou songs).

Even today, little has changed. A few months ago, when we were having lunch at a hawker centre, my dad interrogated me… about parenthood. “We haven’t really decided if we want to have kids. Besides, it’s so expensive to have a child these days,” I told him.

He flew into a rage. “You should have decided a long time ago – your whole life hinges on this decision!” he yelled. “If you have kids, you can count on them to support you when you’re old. If you don’t, you’re going to need a lot more savings than you think you have!” “Erm, okay. I’ll think about it,” I said. “Son,” he continued. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re having problems getting the job done. I’ll gladly sponsor the IVF, if needed.”

I almost choked on my kopi peng, aghast that my father had doubts about my virility. It was then that I realised how MINDEF had made an error with my dad’s posting. It’s clear he was born to be in the air force, not the combat engineers. As you can see, he’s very good at helicopter parenting.