Expat Kids Open Up About the Culture Shock When Doing National Service

Becca Stine

After several years living away from Singapore, I spent my first weekend back in the city walking through Arab Street with a video camera in my hands, trying to capture a world that once felt familiar, but that I’ve never truly connected with. I felt disturbed by my feeling like a stranger to my birthplace, and hoped that maybe capturing the city through film would draw my eyes to the parts of me in it.

I craved a deeper understanding of what lay behind the perfect paint that covers each building, beneath the spotless cement sidewalks, and beyond the exorbitant lifestyles and fashionable businesspeople that manoeuvre the city. Joshua Kim, a friend who graduated from United World College and recently finished his National Service in 2017, joined me so we could catch up. As we stopped in the alleyways to film the open back doors of small kitchens, along with the pigeons resting on the rooftop of the nearby mosque, we noticed how we blended in with the other tourists. We captured the city streets, but failed to communicate with them.

“They couldn’t even understand me,” Kim began. “My accent,” he went on, referring to the challenge of connecting with the other Singaporean boys in National Service. It was the first time in his life where Kim’s average American accent was incomprehensible, and the moment he realised how separated he had lived from Singaporean people and culture all his life.

“We lived in a bubble,” he ended.

When every Singaporean male or second generation male Permanent Resident finishes high school, he prepares himself to serve two years of National Service (NS). International school boys who intend to hold on to their Singaporean citizenship are required to serve as well, and this two year commitment is often their first real introduction to Singapore’s culture and its people.

“We feel foreign right, we’re considered foreign right, even though we’re not actually foreign,” says Rahul Sundar, another graduate from United World College who is one month from completing this 24 month National Service.

As we sit outside of the Coffee Bean in Holland Village, where many international school students meet up on Friday or Saturday nights, Rahul speaks of the culture shock he experienced upon entering National Service, despite being born in Singapore and having spent all eighteen years of his life in this city.

Similar to Kim, the shock first came with the difficulty to communicate. Sundar found that his platoon mates couldn’t understand his accent, and he had no choice but to adapt to theirs. For the both of them, it was what made them stand out as “foreign”, and made communicating sometimes impossible.

“I just shied away from speaking a lot,” Kim says, “Because I knew that I was different, and that I sounded different, and that the more I spoke, the more people would notice it.”

Sundar, on the other hand, spoke of adapting to the “Singaporean accent,” explaining that it’s a two way street: “They adapt to you and we likewise adapt to them. Start using some of their slang.”

While Kim claims that his foreign accent drew attention from his supervisors and landed him a position as commander in the army, it wasn’t exactly a good thing.

“Despite being in command school, I ended up shying away from it because of feeling like an outsider. Not feeling like I belong. I felt this weirdness leading a bunch of kids that I couldn’t empathize with,” he said.

Many of the boys he was in charge with had various family issues and had dropped out of school. For them, NS was an escape from their lives, whereas Kim’s escape came during his weekends away from camp. He had lived a comfortable life, and was now struggling to connect to those with different, and more difficult upbringings.

“In the army it’s a saying that you have to lead by example,” he says, “But I found it hard to do that … If anything goes wrong you have to be there, but I haven’t been through what they have so it’s very hard.”

“We were like the ang moh guys even though we’re not ang moh,” is how Kim puts it.

Despite their Singaporean citizenship, their distinguishable accents, private school upbringing, sense of humour, and relationship to family made them foreign to their platoon mates.

In addition, both boys speak of a basic difference in their sense of humour.

“They would make the kinds of jokes that people like us would cringe at,” Sundar explains, before also noting that the distinction between his sense of humor and his platoon mates’ probably came down to a difference in education. He recalled hearing jokes where homosexuality was portrayed negatively; while his platoon mates didn’t seem as open-minded towards such topics, LGBT issues have always been a part of regular and open dialogue within both his academic and social environments.

Which is perhaps hardly surprising, considering that in contrast to the typical Singaporean education, the international school curriculum infused Sundar and Kim with western ideals that filled them with ambitions their platoon mates didn’t share. “They were reaching less far than I wanted to reach,” Kim adds.

While Kim worked hard in school to eventually pursue a higher education outside of Singapore after National Service, most of his platoon mates planned to remain in Singapore to work and support their families. “They’re thinking about girlfriends, marriage … for us it was just like, we don’t need to worry about that,” he shares, an observation which drew his attention to the differences in their financial circumstances. In comparison, he had grown up surrounded by a wealthy community, where university isn’t a question but an expected pursuit.

In essence, Sundar and Kim found themselves confronting two versions of Singapore: the international school reality that they grew up in—a generally wealthy population of students that lacked Singaporean representation—and a multi-faceted, complicated, and incredibly cultured Singapore. Kim admits, “My perception of Singapore was based around the bubble that I lived in at UWC. I literally had no Singaporean friends, and I only realized that after. I realized how significant that was. Because to me it was just like being in Singapore meant being around people that talk like me, being around people that are privileged, and being able to go where ever you want and spend as much money as you want.”

While Sundar and Kim spent their Friday nights booking private tables at Kilo Lounge, where only a small percentage of locals were often seen, most of their platoon mates spoke of Thai discos, and other facets of nightlife that the boys had no idea even existed.

Despite their differences, however, the required two years of National Service is as much about receiving military training for the good of one’s country as it is about working together and embracing differences. Sundar shares that “The biggest shock for me would be that everyone is the same there, and you’re never used to that. Everyone from different walks of life, different wealth classes, racial groups, and so on.”

Sundar spent his two years of National Service in the Infantry Unit, the lowest unit placement, where the boys he lived and trained with were often less educated, with some sporting prison records, and many struggling with various family issues. He spoke of his initial shock upon his admittance into the unit, as he expected that his quality of education would land him a more prestigious posting. With of his international school friends placed into commander training positions, he expected to receive the same treatment. But it didn’t happen.

“At some point people start to realize that you don’t just get things because of where you were born and raised,” he says.  

Despite their backgrounds, everyone in Sundar’s unit wore the same uniform, slept in the same facilities, ate the same food, and received the same training for two years. There was no room for differences, and thus no room for prejudice.

“Technically I am Singaporean, I just didn’t have the upbringing of the average Singaporean,” Sundar says, discussing how he discovered what it meant to be truly from his birthplace.

“I got to experience what their childhoods had been,” Kim echoes, “And I had to learn to be more quiet about mine and listen to theirs more.”

In one instance, Sundar speaks of a platoon mate whose father struggled with mental issues and committed suicide when he was young, causing him to drop out of school twice due to emotional and financial difficulties. Because of this, the boy was less academically qualified. This, for Sundar, explained the correlation he observed between the kind of education his platoon mates received and their openness to learning about other cultures and ways of life.

“Maybe some of them aren’t so open to meeting people from different walks of life,” he said, which limited some of the dialogue he could have with the boys he lived with.

Eventually, Sundar and Kim get around to addressing the entitlement that had grown in them during their years at UWC, and the way in which NS has expanded their narrowed understandings of their home and their lives.

“I had this very arrogant attitude,” concedes Kim, “I’m better educated, I’ve lived a better life in Singapore, I know Singapore … It was a surprise to me how different things were.”

Both boys reflect on a kind of awakening that National Service provided, from the deep variety of people to the lifestyles that represent Singapore. From their limited experience of the people at expensive nightclubs, and shopping malls down orchard road, “I just saw what everyone else from around the world would see,” Sundar says. Before National Service, Singapore wasn’t anything more than the perfect and luxurious image it projected on the news and Google images. “You realize that the life we lived was just a small, small portion of Singapore, and is not what the locals experience,” Kim acknowledges, especially in the way in which his life at an international school was very globally focused; it prepared students to pursue higher education outside of Singapore, focused on non-profits and inequalities that existed in countries like Cambodia, and Ladakh (in India), almost disregarding the more complex injustices and differences that exist in an everyday Singapore.

“We live in Singapore, but we’re thinking outside of it the whole time,” he adds.

National Service gave Sundar and Kim a better understanding of their home, albeit with different outcomes. While NS can be a great equaliser, the two year experience does not necessarily guarantee the same outcome for everyone, even for international school students.

“I feel way more at home here,” Sundar said, as gaining familiarity with local slang and now having a community of Singaporean friends to connect with has allowed him to find his place in a city he now knows. Kim, on the other hand, says, “I realize how different I am, how comfortable I am with not Singapore, and how I miss the not Singapore life I used to live.” With the same awareness that Sundar has developed, Kim has experienced a separation from his home.

“I know what’s out there but I don’t live it,” Kim says, “I live in a condo in not a very Singaporean neighborhood. My condo is full of expats. I feel more comfortable still … I still have not been able to embrace what Singapore is despite being a Singaporean citizen.”

While the immersion in his Singaporean context and culture has allowed Sundar to connect more deeply with his home, in the case of Kim, it has simply put his differences in much clearer focus.

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