IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Purple Light: Good riddance to bad ditties

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 24, 2013 

When I heard that a verse in a military song with a line about rape had been banned from the approved list that national servicemen have to sing, I thought it was a great start. Ban the whole song and another two dozen or so terrible songs, and we would be on to something.

There are a lot of things I had to become aware of when I entered national service. The main thing I learnt was how important it was to look busy all the time, especially when not doing anything at all, and how to stretch out a simple easy job because it prevented you being assigned more difficult jobs.

The other thing I was not aware of was how much singing there was going to be, and just how terrible the lyrics were.

You have to sing on the way to eat, on the way to training, while sitting on the ground waiting for a lorry to take you somewhere. The reason for this constant rhythmic yelling was that it built up soldierly values, increased camaraderie, and made my instructors happy, because if we were singing, we men would be too preoccupied to perform acts that might undermine our abilities as soldiers, such as thinking.

The songs we were taught back then were of two types. There were the approved patriotic songs (dull but correct) and the unofficial ones (stupid but fun). It quickly became clear that if nothing else, the approved songs helped us tell which guys were the ones we could not trust: They were the ones who would start singing the approved songs, hoping to score points with the officers. The rest of us preferred to sing the dumb songs, or not sing at all.

When I say they were dumb songs, I mean they were childish and silly. In my time, Purple Light had no sexual meaning, probably because, like most of the other unofficial songs, it came to us from guys who sang them in the Scouts or National Cadet Corps. I doubt there was much call for M18-rated sex and violence imagery around secondary school campfires. The other tunes we sang were pirated and modified versions of marching songs from other countries.

I googled Purple Light - the song with the offensive verse - and found another verse based on the old joke about not letting one's soap fall on the floor while in the barracks showers. So, if it is any consolation to Aware - the women's group which petitioned for the banning of the song - the rape reference in there is equal opportunity.

It seems that between the time I was in national service and now, things got creepy. Let me take a stab at the reason: 18-year-olds do not have the best decision-making processes. Newly enlisted boys are people whose idea of acting grown-up is drinking till they are puking into drains outside clubs. These people had been allowed to express themselves lyrically. We all know what happens when 18-year-olds write songs: You get Justin Bieber. If that is not offensive, I don't know what is.

Knowing how the army works, I can believe that they had wanted to put a kibosh on unapproved songs for a long time. First, the typical unofficial song is a cheeky complaint about bad food, bad equipment and unreasonable commanders. The topics are as far removed from the standard song sheets about fighting and dying for our country as they could possibly be.

Second, the new twist, as we have all just found out, is that the content had become just a little sick. Both are are excellent reasons for a ban. I believe Aware put something into motion that was probably inevitable.

There are people who are making a fuss about the song ban, saying that it is the work of crazy feminists sticking their noses into a man's world. First, they should note that there are women in the Singapore Armed Forces and have been for decades.

Critics of the ban should also keep in mind that military life is defined by what you cannot do. I used to wake up in my bunk, remembering the checklist of things I could not do, and then I would try to not do them as quickly as possible. Not being allowed to do things and the military go hand-in-hand. One less song? Throw that in the pile of cannot-dos.

My old company sergeant major had the right attitude towards us when we were all 18, which was a mixture of pity and contempt. We actually believed that singing tough songs with tough words made us tough.

For example, he found out that a bunch of us liked to hang around shopping centres on weekends to whistle and make smoochy noises at the girls passing by. If we were such bad boys, he asked, how come we had to do it in a group?

"I can bet none of you has the guts to stand there by yourself and whistle at girls. You know why? Because you are cowards," he told the group of us.

We went silent at that. We all knew he was right: It wasn't about looking cool at all, it was about male bonding and intimidation and feeling that much taller because as a group, we frightened someone alone and weaker than we were. I think if my sergeant major were around today, he'd order the guys singing songs about hitting or raping women to replace the word "girlfriend" or "girl" with the name of a soldier's real girlfriend, or sister, or mother.

Then he would probably make us sing it 20 times. I don't think we would want to sing it much after that.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 24, 2013

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