‘Dad, when I grow up, must I be a soldier?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘If there is a war, must I fight?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Will the soldiers shoot at me?’
‘If they shoot me, will I die?’
‘Yes, you might.’
‘Then, must I fight?’ he asked.
I took a long pause and finally said, ‘Yes, Shaun. You must.’
He went back to his movie without a word.
As a young parent, I read several books by child experts and subscribed to the view some of them held that a child’s values are shaped in the early years of his life before he hits his teens, and that the child will live thereafter by that set of values.
That flashed through my mind as I stopped before responding to his final question.
That he was going to internalise what I was going to tell him and live by it made giving a response to that question even more burdensome.
From the time Shaun was born, I had strived to teach him not only what is right but also the art of self-preservation. Many of his lessons were on how to survive: learning to swim, keeping off the road, how to assess risk, the list goes on.
That conversation was the first time that I had ever told him that there were some things in life he had to do, even if it meant that it could cost him his life.
I did not sleep easy for many days after that. Shouldn’t a father be teaching his son self-preservation?
But I put the thought aside after a while, concluding that I did the right thing.
The issue came back to me several years later when it was raised by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, then an MP. He sparked a spirited deabate in Parliament in 2002 when he raised a question which his son had put to him: ‘Daddy, if there’s a war, why should we fight for Singapore?’
Like many, I have grumbled about the army, NS and in-camp in the past but I have never questioned the necessity for having NS. It is not because I am ultra-patriotic or a military freak. During my NS and in-camp days, I, like any normal well-adjusted soldier, slacked off, too. But I was, and am, a firm believer of NS.
I remember my Mum fretting over how my younger brother, then a twig-like teenager, was going to survive in the army. This was two years before he was to be enlisted. My brother Tony was apprehensive too. Having already completed full-time NS then, I spent much of the two years prior to Tony’s enlistment psyching him up and preparing him for the army.
By the time he went in, he was not only ready for NS, he also did fairly well and enjoyed it, too. Twenty-five years later, after having served my full-time stint, I found myself doing with Shaun what I did for my brother – psyching him up.
My advice to my son was that he should not waste his time being mediocre in the army.
‘They teach you combat skills but that is only part of it,’ I said.
It is the whole range of other skills he would learn, lessons he would pick up that would see him through life that were important – how to get along with people, how to work as a team, how to focus and complete a mission and how one sometimes needs to overcome sleep and exhaustion and be single-minded to complete a task.
‘Then, of course, there are the friends you will make who will remain buddies for the rest of your life,’ I said. Recently, a good friend whose son enlisted in the army a year earlier, told me how he had seen dramatic positive changes in his son after his enlistment.
I have occasionally told my friends who grumble about their kids being enlisted that if they did not want to focus on how it is the duty of every person to fight for his country, then focus on what their sons will learn there. That might be so for my friends, but for my son Shaun, it will not only be about how good it will be for him.
It is also about duty. I don’t have to tell him because deep down, he knows.
About The Author: Mathew Pereira is currently the Sports Editor of The Straits Times. Between 2004 and 2008, he wrote several columns which talked about his personal experience of fatherhood. This piece was one of many in his collection of fatherhood stories. Mathew is a member of the Fathers Action Network (FAN).
First published on 16-01-2012.