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Written by Ng E-Jay
21 November 2013
Last week, it was reported that the women’s advocacy group AWARE complained to MINDEF about sexist and offensive lyrics in a popular army song, Purple Light. It was initially reported that MINDEF subsequently banned the song, but it was later clarified that MINDEF had not axed the song entirely, but merely ordered that the offending lyrics be removed that the original verses be restored, which are not offensive or misogynistic.
This created a furore in cyberspace, and netizens fell quickly into two dividing camps. One camp claimed that AWARE had done the right thing, and that sexism and misogyny should not be tolerated in this day and age. The other camp claimed that AWARE had no right to interfere in men’s affairs — in effect, perpetuating the very same sexism that AWARE has been trying to root out all these years.
It is highly ironical that while many male netizens regularly bitch about how NS sucks and how the government has reserved “Jobs For Foreigners, and NS for Singaporeans”, these same netizens now turn around and claim to be proud and passionate about National Service, and express dismay that a women’s rights group has chosen to “nitpick on them” when “the women themselves do not serve NS” and therefore have no right to comment on what they sing.
These same netizens now extol the sacrifices, camaraderie, and shared hardships experienced during NS, and claim they have the right to bond over whatever lyrics pleases them, saying that it is all in good humour and it does not mean they will actually carry out those dastardly deeds in real life. This is hypocrisy.
This reaction is wrong on many levels. It shows how deeply entrenched sexism and misogyny is in Singapore society. It shows a lack of understanding that words can and do hurt, and that negative attitudes and unworthy social norms can be reinforced through verbal repetition. This reaction shows that advocacy groups like AWARE and other feminist activists have a long road ahead of them in combating the prevailing attitudes of the day that are holding our country back.
National Service is no small sacrifice for a young man to make, but that does not give him the excuse to perpetuate sexist or misogynistic attitudes. Critics have argued that “it is only a song”, that AWARE should “find better things to do”. These critics do not understand the power of normalisation.
When a group of people normalize something that is inherently sexist, chauvinistic, obscene or derogatory, it is indicative that our value system is wrong and that we have become uncritical, and unthinking. We go down a slippery slope in which we slowly become numb to what is abhorrent or immoral. We start to take discrimination as the norm and demean and objectify women. Then soon we will see our core values get picked apart one by one, slowly dehumanizing ourselves like a frog eased into water that is gently put to the boil.
National Service is something forced exclusively onto males. But this does not mean females cannot comment when things have gone wrong. Everyone is entitled to act on his or her convictions and moral judgement, and advocate what is good and necessary for society as a whole. Saying that only those who suffer NS liability should be allowed to comment on NS is like saying that only those who go to jail should be allowed to improve the prison system.
Women must have equal rights even though they do not do National Service. NS is not a ticket for men to regard themselves as superior to women. The fact that the state has discriminated against men by compelling them to forfeit two years of their lives does not give men the right to use that discrimination as an excuse to be hurtful and sexist towards women.
NS is a deep and monumental sacrifice thrust exclusively onto men by a patriarchal PAP government that seeks to perpetuate patriarchal values. Men should focus on resisting patriarchy and the system which treats them as expendable digits that can be carelessly sacrificed in a time of conflict. Patriarchy hurts both men and women alike, and ideally should have no place in the 21st century. By going after AWARE, male critics have barked up the wrong tree and missed the forest.
Rape jokes are not harmless. Jokes about killing a man when he has stolen your girlfriend are not harmless. You can claim that you will never do those things in real life. Yet these things do happen in real life, and singing about them hurts all victims of such acts, past, present and future.
If there is one thing that has come out of this Purple Light fiasco, it is that patriarchal attitudes, sexism and misogyny are still deeply entrenched in Singapore, and the work to correct these unfortunate attitudes will be long and hard. That is why we must support organizations like AWARE.
National Service is something that is forced onto young men at a time when they would most rather be starting out on a career or pursuing higher education. It takes two full, precious years out of a young man’s life and robs him of a head start in life. The young man starts his working life behind women and behind foreigners, and coupled with recurring liabilities in the form of reservist training, NS compounds a young man’s frustration when he find himself facing an ever more competitive economy whilst starting off on such a handicap.
NS is no small sacrifice. An intelligent, productive male could find that he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential income over his entire working career as a result of being handicapped by two years of NS. The opportunity cost is staggering.
That is why men, even though they are deeply resentful of NS, feel the need to be compensated for their sacrifice, sometimes by being regarded as superior to women. NS perpetuates patriarchal and chauvinistic attitudes.
This is the song that started the fiasco:
“Booking out, see my girlfriend
Saw her with another man
Kill the man, rape my girlfriend
With my rifle and my buddy and me.”