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What should we do about National Service?

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
5 min read

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Reviewing toxic masculinity in Singapore

Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) gave her final lecture as part of the Institute of Policy Studies-Nathan Lecture Series over the past week. She talked about toxic masculinity, and the need to tackle unhealthy, sexist mindsets in Singapore that give men and boys a skewed understanding of what "being a man" means.

What's particularly grabbed attention is Corinna's suggestion—actually, a recommendation that AWARE has made for years—that National Service be expanded across combat and non-combat roles, and be made gender neutral. Corinna argued that National Service as it currently exists props up hyper-masculinity, and that there is a culture of homophobia and misogyny within that environment. She says that making NS gender neutral can help address that: "The equal participation of women in NS will automatically make national service less masculine."

A lot of attention has been paid to that quote, and its drawn a lot of valid criticism. Chucking women into NS might "automatically" make it less masculine in the sense that there it won't be as overwhelmingly male, but that doesn't address toxic masculinity. There are many spaces that women have entered that are still toxic and misogynist AF, and all that means is that women have to put up with more shit while just trying to do their damn jobs.

But the wider point about reviewing National Service and rooting out toxicity deserves more consideration. We've never had a proper talk about this, largely because the powers that be aren't actually interested in reforming NS much, and also because raising this topic often sets off the exact toxic masculinity women are talking about. There are a lot of men online who complain about the sacrifice (in terms of time, energy, and money) they've had to make serving NS, dismiss issues of sexism and gender discrimination with "well, women don't do NS"... but still get furious and defensive if women criticise NS as an institution.

Prior to this week I was generally in agreement with AWARE's suggestion that NS be expanded to a variety of roles, and be made gender neutral; not because I like NS as an institution, but because it seemed like a fair and attainable step. But the response to Corinna's lecture this past week has been enlightening and made me think harder about whether such a change would really be dismantling an oppressive and unfair structure, or perpetuating it in a different guise. Personally, I'm in favour of the idea of getting rid of conscription, but I don't know how we can seriously talk about this without being flamed to hell and back.

In any case, NS isn't the only environment where toxic masculinity thrives. A previous issue of this newsletter drew attention to cases of violence against women (and a few against boys), which I followed up with a special issue on the importance of consent. Over the past week, the police started investigating an online poll that ranked female Muslim religious teachers. Vice, too, has picked up on Singapore's "pervert problem", and highlighted the cesspit that is the Eat-Drink-Man-Woman forum on HardwareZone, where people post photos of women (including yours truly) that are then subjected to objectification and lecherous comments, or sexist and misogynistic insults. I try to keep swearing to a minimum in this newsletter just so I can use it for effect at choice times, like when I say, from the bottom of my heart, fuck HardwareZone.

AWARE has shared a Twitter thread summing up some of Corinna's main recommendations, given over the course of her lectures. Click the tweet below to read them:


A playground for the rich, even (especially?) during the pandemic

The pandemic has been terrible for a lot of people, many of whom have been really struggling financially. Yesterday, the government just announced another $800 million package to support those affected by this current kind-of lockdown. The Jobs Support Scheme has been extended to retailers, gyms, and the arts, while workers suffering income loss will get a one-off payout.

There are others, though, for whom things seem to be going swell. As Bloomberg puts it, "Money is sloshing around Singapore like never before." Given the pandemic situation in other parts of Southeast Asia plus the political situation in Hong Kong, rich people who used to pop in and out of Singapore are now choosing to stay for longer periods of time or seek residency. It's fuelling the property market as well as demand for luxury cars and memberships to things like wine clubs and golf clubs. How the other half lives...


Prisoners’ rights and prison wrongs

On Thursday night the Transformative Justice Collective had an online event in which formerly incarcerated persons talked about their experience in the state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centre and in prison. You can catch up on the session here.

I live-tweeted the session (you can click on the tweet below to open the thread) and learnt a lot. Many of us who are privileged enough to never have to experience the DRC or prison system don't know anything about what it's actually like, and are content to just assume it's all fine and part of maintaining "law and order" and that the people who are in there deserve it anyway. But hearing Joseph and Ashley share last night really drove home the point that inmates should have rights and should still be treated with dignity and respect. A lot of our system is still punitive and not necessarily rehabilitative, and can also vary from person to person based on what social and cultural capital you might have.

TJC is working on a report summarising the event, which will go up on our website when it's ready. Meanwhile, here's my thread:


This section is for the We, The Citizens community to send messages of encouragement to one another, and to spotlight local businesses that might be struggling at this time. If you have a shout-out, or a local business that you’d like to spotlight, please reach out! Reply to this newsletter, or contact me with a message you’d like me to put into the weekly wraps.

Note: Spotlights on local businesses are just to help them amplify their reach at this difficult time. They don’t amount to We, The Citizens endorsements and I’m also not charging for advertising space.

🍱 A friend sent this to me via Twitter. Kint’s Kitchen is a Japanese home-based kitchen that operates mostly on Instagram. They do islandwide delivery: it’s free if you live in Punggol or Sengkang, otherwise free delivery only kicks in for orders above $60. You can place your orders here.

🥘 If you’re craving Indonesian food at a time where most of us can’t even go to Batam, the highly rated My Home Café at Junction 9 in Yishun is here for you. Bestsellers are: Sweet Martabak, Mie Ayam Rica (with 4 levels of spiciness), Soto Betawi, Pempek etc. They do islandwide delivery for $5 via the Makanguru app. More details here.


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Kirsten Han

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.