Just Saying

Real men don't look down on women in the SAF

My report on actress playing an officer in Ah Boys To Men 4 movie draws a host of sexist comments

Lately, I've noticed something.

The people who want women to serve national service the most also have the lowest opinion of women in general.

I felt this to be true, but never had much proof of this until recently, when Facebook comments were posted on an article I wrote about the movie Ah Boys To Men 4.

The latest instalment of this military comedy, due this November, will for the first time feature a woman as a main character. Singapore-raised, Hong Kong-based actress Apple Chan will play an armour unit officer.

Some background: For decades, women have served in the Singapore Armed Forces in all sorts of roles. They fly planes, repair ships, command tanks and artillery, train soldiers and interpret intelligence.

It has taken four movies for the world of Ah Boys to approximate reality. Nothing too controversial about that. As a journalist, I'm happy that, at last, the hugely popular Ah Boys movies are correcting the myth of an all-male military they helped perpetuate.

But stepping into that comment stream was like stepping into a hot, sweaty, steamy men's locker room - you know, the room that exists in the excuses of men after they are caught on tape talking about sexually harassing women.

Actress Apple Chan at Sungei Gedong Camp for the press conference of the movie Ah Boys To Men 4, where she plays an armour unit officer. The latest instalment of the military comedy, due in November, features a woman as a main character for the first time. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS

The report came with a photograph of Ms Chan in uniform, and of the 100 or so comments, many were about her face and breasts.

I tried to find one comment that spoke of how good it is that the contributions of women in the SAF were finally given recognition, but could not find any in the heap of sex jokes.

In with the muck was one person who asked why a woman deserved to be in the film when Singapore women "have been shirking their national service duties for 50 years".

A lot of this belittling of women in the military has to do with the idea that if women can do what men do, it makes that task less manly and therefore of less value. Military work is now - shudder! - "women's work".

That you can't shirk something you were never asked to do is the obvious answer, but no one in that thread said that.

Instead, we got plenty of men issuing urgent press releases about how Ms Chan's picture was triggering a healthy reaction in their pants.


What are these men looking for? Applause?

Or more likely, the Facebook catcalling is just a way of telling women to stay in their place.

It's why no one said anything of substance to the person who asked why women "shirk" national service.

What are those who want NS for women really saying?

From what I can glean, there is the idea that NS buys the full rights of citizenship. That is rubbish, and goes against the National Pledge. ("We the citizens... one united people... based on justice and equality.")

Mixed up in there is the idea that as men do it as a duty and it is good for the country, NS would be even better if both sexes did it.

Let's get it straight: Some duties are defined naturally ("don't smell bad") and some by law, and NS is the latter, so let's not get the two confused.

Then there is the idea that NS "improves" people, and that women need "improving".

It all ties back to the presumption of female inferiority.

Honestly, if you really felt that, I would welcome your suggestions on what courses the SAF should run to improve Singapore's women. Chin-ups?

Would women with better upper-body strength raise your opinion of them?

Somehow, I doubt it.

A lot of this belittling of women in the military has to do with the idea that if women can do what men do, it makes that task less manly and therefore of less value.

Military work is now - shudder! - "women's work".

That thinking stems from how we've all been brought up to think that national service turns "boys" into "men", as if NS were like drinking a magic potion made of testosterone, gunpowder and horse sweat.

A lot of the "boys into men" idea came from marketers who wanted to popularise military careers.

That ploy is backfiring now, when falling birth rates are causing people shortages (I almost said "manpower" before "shortages") in the military, which is now looking for qualified Singaporeans of every kind.

From my experience, anything that 21/2 years of NS taught me about being a man - if such a thing were even possible - was all gone after six months of civilian life.

But you know what is the most important step you can take to turn yourself from a boy to a man?

When you see a woman in an SAF uniform, stop issuing reports on what your other brain thinks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'Real men don't look down on women in the SAF'. Print Edition | Subscribe