Seeing the debate on National Service as defining the “true” Singaporean, I find the idea that our communal identity is constituted by our training into violence and warfare to be abhorrent. Only with the rise of nationalism and the nation state are communities defined by their armies and their military might, and we have that revolting French Revolution to thank for the idea of a “nation-at-arms”.

Let other Singaporeans wring their hands over who truly is part of their community of violence and war infliction. I would have no part at all in this debate. Instead, I prefer to critique this very mindset itself.

Medieval Christendom

The idea of a “standing army”, full time permanent professional armies even in times of peace and conscription or “nation duty” to fight wars, was a concept very much alien to the middle ages. The idea that a community was defined by the presence of a military was unheard of. Sure, wars has existed from the most ancient times, but with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the idea that warfare was a “professional” or “national” affair, a highly specialised trade and permanent part of the civilised world, died with the Empire.

Ironically, Medieval Christendom was actually more ‘peace-loving’ than any of the times before or after Christendom began to collapse. Wars were limited, empirical affairs, the affairs of mainly kings and aristocrats which rarely involved the civilians. Kings and aristocrats fought over well-defined goals to secure concrete territories or titles over cities or lands. Wars had clearly defined objectives, securing a castle, killing a certain aristocratic house, etc. The communal identity of villages and the populance were not defined by whoever occupied the castle and were largely independent of it, and it was in the interest of nobles to distinguish between the aristocratic family and combatants hired by them, and civilians who were largely unrelated. Both kings and nobles and villagers were subjected to a vaster Christendom under the Pope, who can threaten an interdict should wars get out of hand, and wars were delimited by religious places and events, no fighting in churches, the right of sanctuary, no fighting on Good Friday, etc. Violators could risk excommunication and made to do exacting penances for such public offenses.

Democracy and the Nation-State

But with the advent of the modern nation-state, the nation came to dominate an exclusive right over the entire person, civilian or combatant, the limited wars of kings became the total wars of modern states. The line between combatants and civilians becomes blurred, no surprises that it would be the French Revolution that would coin the phrase “nation-at-arms” to draw everyone into a national struggle. Before, wars was the affairs of kings and aristocrats, none of the villagers problem, kings can of course call for a draft, but such a move was highly unpopular and kings who do so must always be wary of a peasant uprising. (There was a show depicting a discussion between an English aristocrat and an English merchant during the American War of Independence. Upon learning that the merchant was still trading with the Americans, the aristocrat objected saying, “But we’re at war with them!” “No”, the merchant replied, “the King is at war, but I have no quarrel with them.”)

With the expansion of the participants of wars, and the expansion of war as a social reality, came the professionalisation of war itself. Standing armies which were the exception in the medieval times became the norm again, just like the good ‘ole days of the Roman Empire. Before, wars were somewhat limited affairs, it made little sense to have a ‘professional’ army when wars would be quickly over, and armies would be disbanded in peace time. “Professional soldiers” were mostly mercenary groups. But with the rise of the nation-state, wars became the affair of all, wars expanded in its scope and its duration, and from there was born the modern permanent solider and the national conscript. (It is perhaps ironic that one of the grievances of the American colonies against the British was that the British kept standing armies in America in peace time, now the Americans are keeping standing armies… everywhere else in the world.)

War Making: A Comparison

Thus with the rise of the nation-state, democracy, etc, the very nature of war itself changed. Before, wars were the affairs of kings and aristocrats, fought for clearly defined empirically limited goals, and when those goals were secured, the wars ended with it. But now wars were about “freedom”, “democracy”, “self-determination”, etc. But these goals are nebulous, ill-defined, who can tell when such goals are achieved? Thus now we have endless “war on terror” which has no discernible goal, no empirical objective. They go on and on and on… Before war was the exception to the norm of the civilised world, but now wars are a permanent and essential part of the civilised world. Conscription and standing armies are now a must to secure “national defense” and to permanently protect the “nation” who is now our god from whom all things come and to whom all things are owed, even our very lives, and as opposed to all the other nation “gods” whom we are in permanent and suspicious opposition. And of course when the nation-state commands such an all-encompassing loyalty over all, as I said, civilians and combatants are not distinguished, everyone is fair game, drone wars can legitimately kill both combatants and civilians who are ALL part of the same ideological struggle of nebulous goals, the incineration of German civilians in Dresden is justified, and of course, it is “good strategy” to spare the lives of American combatants by nuking Japanese cities and committing mass murder against Japanese civilians.  Sure, there was great slaughter of civilians during the medieval times, villages were burned and sacked. But such acts were universally condemned by all Christendom, the clergy could demand of the perpetrators hard and long penances for such violations. But today, we simply call it “collateral damage”, and just shrug our shoulders.

In what sense of the word have we progressed?

P.S: Although the following post is about the relation of the Christian community to the meaning of NS, but I believe it also articulates the first steps towards an ethics of war-waging.

Why Malay-Muslims in Singapore should be Proud of the fact that the Military finds them Problematic

7 thought on “Doth Violence a Citizen Make? On National Service and the “True” Singaporean”
  1. Very weird. Why are you talking only of western history? Surely it’s better to take Chinese or Indian history as a reference for us in Singapore? You’ll find many many cases were kingdoms, empires and states had to maintain standing armies. Entire kingdoms have fallen because of weak militaries. And the Chinese experience of being bullied by the Western imperial powers has of course burned itself into the psyche of not only China, but of all Asian countries.

    In Singapore’s case, the experience of the Japanese occupation sealed it for us. Never will it allow itself to be so weak that another state can simply conquer it within two weeks.

  2. Why would it be better to take Chinese or Indian history? Singapore was a british colony, not part of the Chinese or Indian empires.

    And you’re missing the point. Why should the masses of people and ordinary civilians care if the “kingdoms” falls? The “kingdom” is the business of the king, what do the people care which house occupies the throne as long as the throne is occupied?

    And this “Chinese” experience of being so called “bullied” by Western imperial powers is an abstraction. Which “Chinese”? The Hong Kongers? The concept of being “Chinese” is already quite a rarefied concept as a racial concept, even less as an unified political concept which we are all somehow implicated in.

    And as for Singapore’s case of being occupied by the Japanese, please, that’s mere rhetoric and propaganda excuse for militarism. Let me ask you, if there was a power like the Japanese capable of defeating the British, would Singapore standing by itself stand any chance? Unless of course a defeat is somehow more glorious when suffered exclusively by oneself, I fail to see the relevance of invoking the Japanese occupation as a justification for Singapore’s militarism. The only way this argument can work is if you claim that Singapore can do a better job defending itself than the British, and so good that they can overcome the Japanese as they were in WWII. But I highly doubt you can ever prove such a fantastic counter-factual thesis.

    1. I think you miss the point.

      1. People here identify more with Chinese or Indian history than with western history. Racially, we are not majority causcasian or European.

      British colony? Are you serious? We may enjoy western food, western music, etc. but do not let that lull you into thinking that we identify with western history.

      2. Fall of kingdoms. You may think the masses don’t care, but where do you think slaves come from? That’s right– conquered peoples.

      Kings raised armies to wage wars and protect their own kingdoms from others. Nations do the same today. What’s so difficult to understand?

      3. Which Chinese? Are you serious? Does it matter if one is from hk, Malaysia, Singapore or even Taiwan?

      4. Japanese occupation. You miss the point again. It’s not about who could have stood up to the Japanese. It’s about not relying on others. And it’s about, once bitten, twice shy.

      If you’ve been raped, you would never dress provocatively again. Because the experience scars you. Same for occupation. You never ever want to take that risk again. Rational or not, the thought process is the same– I will do whatever it takes not to be raped again, not to be occupied again, etc.

  3. 1. People? What people? Who? Got any statistics? And who is this “we” who identifies with who?

    2. Erm… the history of slavery is much more complex than simply being conquered, there are many different types of slaves, and a sizeable portion of them were debt slaves, people who sold themselves into slavery because they couldn’t pay their debts.

    Kings raise armies to protect their titles and certain aristocratic privileges like taxation over the peasants, and of course in exchange they are supposed to protect the peasants from disorder by adjudicating disputes and from pillage, etc. But it is a matter of indifference which king or noble house provides the service as long as it is provided. The case is different with a nation where the people is supposed to identify with the nation come hell and high water.

    3. Yes, it does actually. Because “Chinese” as a race is an abstraction and empirical reality doesn’t so neatly collapse into your convenient boxes and all encompassing categories and definition.

    4. I don’t see what’s so great about not relying on others when relying on yourself is going to get you the same results. As I said, is the defeat somehow more glorious when suffered by one’s own failure?

    Well, at least you concede that for this point, it isn’t a rational deduction. 🙂

  4. You miss the point.

    1. What makes you think that people here identify with European history?

    2. This is not about the history of slavery. It’s about why people care about the king’s wars. When kingdoms fall, pillaging and looting takes place, along with slaves for the conqueror.

    3. What evidence do you have that the Chinese race is an abstraction?

    4. I don’t concede anything to you. I do point out that nations raise armies to protect themselves, especially if they’ve been occupied like Singapore. I don’t see why you think raising your own army merely prolongs ones’ eventual defeat. Can you prove that? Especially when counter examples, like the Vietnam war and the Afghanistan war show that even superpowers like us and soviet union can be defeated by much smaller opponents?

  5. 1. I didnt say they did identify with European history, you’re the one who brought up thevpeople identification thing, not me, i think the identification point is an irrelevance to the discussion, whether of Asian or European. But since you brought it up, you prove it.

    2. Again, what people care about king’s wars? From which period of history? Which peoples, cultures, etc? You cant make sweepung claims like that without specifying. When kingdom falls, pillaging, looting and slavery doesnt necedsarily follow, sometimes it could be liberation from their “own” people’s tyrants by foreigners. There is no necessarity that being ruled by your “own” people is always better, sometimes being ruled by foreign powers maybe better fir the locals are as susceptible to tyranny as foreigners. (Ask the Mynammar whether they prefer the british or their military dictators, or the hong kong if they prefer the colonial administration or their “own” chinese rulers)

    3. What evidence do you have that there is some empirical feature unifying all the pluarity of “chinese” people which they all share in common? Genetics? Unitl you can prove such a thing, it is merely an abstract linguistic convention.

    4. Well, it is up to you to prove that Singapore can stand a chance against the Japanese, you’re the one trying to justify national defense not me, although as i’ve pointed out at the start, tjis is a counterfactual thesis you’re going to be hard pressed to prove…

    And using Vietnam and Afganistan isnt proving that*Singapore* can defemd itself against the Japanese…

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