Millennial Mind

Toxic masculinity: Time to tackle it on all fronts

Sexist norms are not uncommon in a hyper-masculine environment. Time to face up and address them in national service.

With so many young men living and training together in such close quarters during national service, there can be an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, macho-ness and ritualised humiliation, says the writer.
With so many young men living and training together in such close quarters during national service, there can be an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, macho-ness and ritualised humiliation, says the writer.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

When Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research, called for a review of national service to weed out toxic masculinity, I thought it was a fairly straightforward proposal and so was surprised by the subsequent backlash.

Her message bears some recapitulation since it was later widely misinterpreted. Briefly, she said many men she had spoken to described NS as a hyper-masculine experience, and that there are some practices, such as the use of homophobic slurs and the shaming of soldiers using sexualised language, which promote unhealthy norms that can be done away with.

She also argued that the Government should expand NS beyond the conventional military, police and civil defence roles to include other non-combat ones, such as in care roles in the healthcare sector and social services.

This is with the ultimate aim of letting all enlistees, no matter their gender, choose in what capacity they serve. With more diverse roles, NS can become more inclusive, and both women and men can then equally participate in what has become an important rite of passage for half the population.

She concluded that currently, "there are aspects of national service that bring out the more negative norms of masculinity... The equal participation of women in NS will automatically make NS less toxically masculine".

Almost immediately after it was reported, her speech attracted naysayers from both men and women, although by far the biggest portion of comments, especially on Facebook, were from men who do not think NS is all bad.

Some viewed her comments as an attack on the relevance of NS. Others said serving NS instilled in them discipline and teamwork.

Such views do not substantially detract from Ms Lim's points. She neither called for an end to NS nor said it served no edifying purpose.

She merely chose to focus on its impact on gender relations and norms, and proposed a suggestion to do away with the ills while getting more people involved.

Ditto those men who exclaimed that "men and women are biologically different". Ms Lim is calling for a wider range of roles, so that people of different physical inclinations and mental dispositions can participate in NS. There are already women who excel in the military, which means any gender difference preventing females from serving NS might be less stark than imagined or can be accommodated.

I found most problematic the response from the men who reacted by insisting there was no toxic masculinity in NS. This pointed denial, I believe, is not grounded in reality.

WHERE IS THE TOXICITY?

Once relegated to classrooms on gender studies, the concept of "toxic masculinity" is now tossed around periodically, usually to refer to cultural pressures on men to behave in certain ways traditionally associated with being "manly" that are bad for society and themselves.

These behaviours tend to lead to domination, aggression, homophobia, suppression of emotions and a dismissive attitude towards women as inferior or as sex objects, or both. What is toxic is not masculinity, but rather the perversion of certain traits. For example, strength is a positive trait; domination of and disrespect for others are toxic.

Research has shown that all-male environments have a tendency to foster such cultures. Without the presence of the opposite sex, it is not uncommon for some inhibitions to be loosened. "Locker-room talk" - all-men chats after a testosterone-fuelled game - is, after all, a well-documented phenomenon. This is not to say all such single-gender environments are by definition toxic, but that without vigilance, they can become so.

It is unrealistic to expect the men in Singapore to be immune to such tendencies. With so many young men living and training in such close quarters, there can be an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, macho-ness and ritualised humiliation, especially in an environment that prioritises physical fitness and the ability to endure pain.

A caveat, however, is that men's NS experiences are not homogeneous. Although most start out in basic military training, they are later sorted into one of more than 30 different vocations, where they learn more role-specific skills - to be a combat engineer or a signaller, for example.

Selected others go to command schools like the Officer Cadet School for further training to become higher-ranked commanders. They are then allocated to vocation-specific roles to lead their men.

The people they interact with, their job scopes and their daily lives vary, ranging from those who go home every day to those who stay in camp, and those who do paperwork to others who spend days in the field - all of which shape their NS experience and how they behave.

There are effectively many different sub-cultures in NS, differing from "civilian life" to various extents, although the many stages of NS mean that the men are bound to encounter some problematic instances.

A trainee with a commander who habitually yells "Are you a guniang (woman)?" experiences a different reality from one whose commander is generous with words of encouragement. The norm fostered by a commander who believes in humiliation and vulgarities as a way to assert authority is different from that created by one who ensures his orders are listened to without dehumanising language.

During my NS, I saw a commander's sexist taunts repeated by trainees to one another, such that it became trivialised. Like former president Donald Trump's influence on US politics, language used by the top trickles down and corrupts, changing the bounds of what is acceptable and even desirable.

There are of course, as Ms Lim pointed out, much worse examples. It is not uncommon to hear references to one's mother or sister, sometimes in the context of rape, although these are (one presumes) never seriously intended.

One also hardly needs to be reminded of the offensive lyrics in the now-edited Purple Light song sung by army boys to boost morale. Before the recent change, the murder and rape lyrics had been sung by almost all boys - in different platoons and companies - while marching, sometimes unthinkingly, sometimes in bad humour.

The question to ask then is when men say there is no toxic masculinity in NS, is it because they cannot recognise it?

REAL CHANGE IN VALUES NEEDED

This question relates to a bigger gripe, mostly voiced by young women on Twitter, following Ms Lim's speech. In particular, they challenged her belief that NS would be "automatically" less toxic with the inclusion of women, questioning if it would be a safe space for them should they be included.

Leaving aside the fact that Ms Lim prefixed this with the "equal participation" of women - which is for sure not any time soon - such concerns must be taken seriously, and understood in the wider context of society.

Having experienced casual sexism outside of NS, whether at home, in schools, or on the streets, is it a wonder that women are questioning if a co-ed NS is a good idea?

As some have pointed out, if they are already having trouble getting universities to take action regarding complaints about voyeurism or molestation, what would ensure that camp commanders would not also disregard the issues they raise?

Perhaps, with the inclusion of women, the worst excesses in NS would be curbed. But without a real change in values, sexism will not be eradicated.

The bigger solution, as the rest of Ms Lim's speech pointed out, lies in tackling toxic masculinity on all fronts, calling out such instances even outside of NS, by recognising that they also exist in cases of bullying, orientation camp games, and the use of sexist language in daily interactions.

There are many different types of masculinity, some harder, some softer, some prioritising physical strength and military prowess, others prioritising wit or integrity. The common thread that runs through all should be respect for all, regardless of gender.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 06, 2021, with the headline 'Toxic masculinity: Time to tackle it on all fronts'. Subscribe