Arts & the Army

Published on 26 July 2017

At first glance, there are fewer things more diametrically opposed than arts and the army — one seems about perceptions, the other about physicality. So why has the army inspired so much of the arts in Singapore?

By Jo Tan

You wouldn’t necessarily think of the arts and the army as complementary: one is about creative expression, while the other tends to emphasise uniformity; one examines thoughts and feelings while the other is big on action.

“Also, I think that the role of artists is to question the status quo, whereas a good soldier is an obedient soldier, who can carry out orders immediately and effectively, at least in the lower ranks where Singaporean [National Servicemen] NSmen spend most of their two years,” says poet/playwright and 2001 Young Artist Award recipient Alfian Sa’at. “There, the smart-ass asking questions will get into trouble.”

Yet, the Singapore arts archives are full of army-inspired opuses, ranging from whole anthologies of army-centred literature, to visual art collections and plays, including Frago by Lucas Ho, which ended its run last month, and Army Daze 2, itself the sequel to Army Daze the Musical, itself a musical adaptation of the Army Daze play that was once a book and also a movie. One wonders how the army is seemingly so conducive to the arts — is there even room to make art in the frenetic physicality of army life?


According to Adin Kindermann, singer of indie band Stopgap, the answer is yes. “The thing about the army is, when you’re free, you’re really just free,” he says. “I was an officer and I had to chiong (Singlish for go all out) in camp. But during lull periods in the day, or after booking out, your time is yours because you can’t really be asked to bring your work home. So my bandmates and I would jam every weekend, or gig, and definitely write songs — some of our army experiences definitely found their way into the music.”

The songs from Stopgap’s album Totems were written when almost all of the members were serving National Service (NS) in the army, and include ‘Run Out’, a catchy tune about completing NS.

The musicians of Stopgap weren’t the only artists who got to create work while in the army. Visual artist Kamarulzaman bin Mohamed Sapiee was assigned to what he called a nine-to-five vocation as a “storeman”. He was allowed to take leave to represent Singapore in Nottingham, England, at the inaugural World Event Young Artist showcase.

Film-maker/multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan got an even sweeter deal. “In my artillery unit, they were looking for video editors, so I signed up. At the time, the computers you had at home were more powerful and better for the job. So for one year I was just working from home, and Alfian got in touch with me and I started designing multimedia for theatre projects. It was a productive time for me artistically, one that arguably launched my artistic career,” recalls the 2012 Young Artist Award recipient.

BAND CAMP Since many of Stopgap’s members were in the army when they were writing their album, band vocalist Adin Kindermann (far left and bottom right) thinks it appropriate that at least one of their songs would be inspired by national service.


Of course, while the above artists might be exceptions to the rule, even those whose military postings allowed them less time for extra-curricular activity still took inspiration from their army experience, which manifested in works after they completed their national service.

“Some of my own experience went into Invisible Children,” Tan says of his internationally acclaimed 2008 film that is a collage of stories about Singaporeans, with one segment set entirely in a Singapore army camp. “The film is all about various Singaporeans contemplating escape from different situations. It’s reminiscent of a Brian who decided not to go back into camp one day, and became the first recruit in his batch to be charged during Basic Military Training. My punishment was to be locked in camp after everybody had booked out and clean the whole building by myself. I went into a period of deep depression, but that actually evolved into self-reflection which snapped me out from a bratty, angsty teenhood, and gave me the sensitivity — to issues, to people — to be a better artist in general.”

Ho, the playwright of Frago, agrees. “NS teaches empathy. It teaches you to seek to understand other people from different worldviews and backgrounds, and why they work with you, or won’t. You won’t get very far if you’re just angry and entitled all the time,” says the former armour infantry vehicle commander. “Empathy is very important for writing complete characters, especially when they are not like you.” Frago boasts no fewer than 10 diverse army buddies who find themselves checking back into camp and each other’s lives for reservist, only to discover no one is quite the same as before.


Ho wasn’t the only one who managed to get character inspiration from his army life. Michael Chiang, playwright of the now seminal work that is Army Daze, says, “The army for me was an environment where I met so many different types of people that I normally wouldn’t have because I was in school in a controlled environment with people from very controlled backgrounds. Then overnight, I met all these other types of wonderful individuals, and formed a special bond with them because we went through such intense, physically demanding experiences together, for a common cause, away from family and friends in the outside world.”

Chiang spent his army life as a trainer of recruits from all walks of life, which may have influenced the characters in Army Daze, a motley crew of NSmen from different races and social classes in Singapore.

Tan adds, “The physical and emotional intensity in the army brings out the best and worst of people, which is always a good basis for interesting art. Personally, I experienced a concentrated shot of Singapore in the army — I saw some prejudice that was very extreme, but also unexpected optimism and goodness, which renewed my faith in people. Experiencing that wide spectrum of humanity is very useful for a film or theatre-maker to craft plots and relationships.”

Indeed, while the comedic Army Daze might be Singapore’s most high-profile example of army art, many other examples deal with aspects of the army that are no laughing matter. The award-winning play Charged by Chong Tze Chien, a 2006 Young Artist Award recipient, took inspiration from Army Daze’s racial, cultural and personality clashes, but followed these clashes to a tragic instead of comic result — a Chinese soldier shooting his Malay colleague, and then killing himself.

Ho explains, “Because the army is so much a part of Singaporean life, artists can use it as a relatable reference point to explore other issues. Charged is not about the army as much as it is about race, as intelligently explored through a plausible scenario when cultural difference is pitted against the concept of military homogeneity. The army is a rich collection of such seeming contradictions that are great for making art — self-preservation versus sacrifice, preparedness versus prudence in the use of national resources.”


Alfian is an artist who has always thrived on seeming contradictions. He wrote several published poems about the army, including ‘Ode to the Army’, which uses the larger organisation of the military to discuss a sense of self, and the challenges faced. Meanwhile, visual artist Kamarulzaman explores some supposed military paradoxes in his tongue-in-cheek visual art series, Soldier of Fortune, depicting toy soldiers spray-painted in 18-karat gold paint and sometimes placed in counter-intuitive scenarios, such as leopard-crawling on a piano, urgently communicating via walkie-talkie in front of a kitchen counter, or assembling with rifles in front of a home entertainment system.

“As someone who had a less physical posting but who still contributed to the nation in the form of taking care of the military inventory, I wanted to show that being a soldier is not just about being garang (fierce and/or foolhardy), you can seem in a state of comparative restfulness but still be a soldier. The gold paint on toy soldiers was to juxtapose the elite staus that comes with rank and vocation in the army, with the possibility that these officers might — in the best-case scenario for all of us — never be tasked to do any actual fighting.”

Chiang also theorises that one particular aspect of the army makes it appealing subject matter for any artist, or any person. “It’s a very recognisable symbol of authority in Singapore, and it’s always fun to question authority, whether you’re an artist or not,” he quips.

Alfian agrees. “There was a line that really struck me when I watched Neo Hai Bin and Chong Woon Yong’s staged reading of their original script When the Cold Wind Blows — when the army barber comes, you realise the power of the state extends to something as intimate as how much hair you have on your head. When something is as all-powerful as that, it definitely becomes a very attractive subject to question and explore.”

SALUTE TO ART Contemporary visual artists Kamarulzaman bin Mohamed Sapiee (whose work is featured above) and Kevin Tan (work featured on the right) continue to draw inspiration from the army.
SOCIETY IN ITS SIGHTS Plays like Chong Tze Chien’s Charged use the army as a springboard to discuss social themes like racial and cultural conflict.

While the army inspires the arts, rest assured it’s a two-way street — the arts often help to immortalise the nobility and heroism of soldiers. The ongoing Commemorating NS50 Through Art exhibition, for one, features majestic displays, including acrylics, calligraphy and sculptures by members of the Singapore
Art Society. Society president Terence Teo says that the artworks aim to recognise the hardship and sacrifices made by past and present NSmen. Also, artists like Tan work together with the Singapore Army year after year to put together the National Day Parade and inspire patriotic pride in our armed forces.

“I suppose there is a perception that artists are more sensitive, but I don’t think I can claim that the army was harder for me than for anyone else,” says Alfian. “Actually, I would say that as an artist, you have the mental fortitude that comes from being able to take a step back from even the most difficult experience, and envisioning it as material for a future creation on a canvas, or a musical score sheet. We’re also good at seeing the humour in a situation, at looking at a scenario and thinking, ‘Wow, this is so Waiting for Godot.’ ”

Army Daze 2 is on from 4-20 August at the Drama Centre Theatre. Catch the Commemorating NS50 Through Art exhibition at Suntec Convention Centre Linkway 2, 3 and Concourse area from 30 July to 13 August.

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