Jul 14, 2009

Baaaad Language

A letter to the ST Forum:
ST July 14, 2009
Horrified by many profanities in matinee show on NS life

I ATTENDED the matinee show Own Time Own Target at the Drama Centre in the National Library building over the weekend. One magazine lauded it as a 'laugh out loud, rediscovery of zany side of national service'. I presumed this meant it was a family-type show and took my two teenage sons, aged 16 and 14, to the show on the premise of a MediaCorp-owned magazine review.

To my horror, I was cringing uncomfortably in my seat the whole show, highly disturbed by the language used. I do not have a problem that the language was coarse and in dialects. But it was offensive when every sentence and curse uttered by the officers (rightly or wrongly, provoked or otherwise) at the NS boys in the drama was a profanity of the female genitals.

The show was a full house, with young and old, males and females equally represented. I am sure I was not the only one who was disturbed by the excessive cursing and swearing by the officers at the recruits. My observation was that people laughed out loud not at the clumsiness of the recruits but mostly because they felt uncomfortable with the profanities.

As a mother, I find it hard to imagine that after years of sheltered school life where students are taught values, to be gentlemanly and polite and respect their elders, these boys have to do NS run by officers who do not blink an eye when they curse their mother, sister, girlfriend and the whole female population by way of conversation.

My boys were shocked to realise that NS is a rite of passage where they will be officially subjected to bullying, shouting and cursing - nothing gentlemanly at all.

If this is a light-hearted look at life of NS boys during basic military training, I fear to know what my boys will face in their real-life situation when they enlist. Please, someone, assure me this is not so.

Wee Hua Boey (Mdm)

Laremy Lee is one of the two playwrights for the above show. He happens to be a fan of my blog and my poetry book. He also gave me two free tickets to watch his play. I'll be going this weekend, with my wife. Thanks again, Laremy.

But no, I am not bringing my kids to the show. Why not? Well, the MDA advisory for the show clearly states, "Strong language (16 years and above)". My kids are below 16, so that's that.

Mdm Wee should have read the advisory too. What's she doing, bringing her 14-year-old kid to the play? Surely the MDA advisory was clear enough. She has no grounds to complain now.

But don't worry, Mdm Wee. When your sons go to NS, they will definitely receive their fair share of curses and swear words. But if they're most other people's sons, they'll quickly get into the habit of doing a lot of army cursing and swearing of their own. It's just another kind of vocabulary. :D

I couldn't help but feel amused by Mdm Wee's sentiments. "My boys were shocked to realise that NS is a rite of passage where they will be officially subjected to bullying, shouting and cursing - nothing gentlemanly at all."

That's so ... quaint. This is the army, my dear. The boys are supposed to learn how to shoot the enemies, bomb them to bits, kill them with a bayonet etc. No, there's nothing very elegant or gentlemanly about war.

What are my views about the use of profane language in movies and plays? I don't think well of gratuitous profanities (that is, where profanities are used just for the sake of using them). On the other hand, in some contexts, profanities are pretty much ... necessary.

It would be very seriously difficult to do a proper movie/play about soldiers and military life, without featuring some profane language. The show just wouldn't be authentic or realistic. It would just be ... fake and dishonest.

I once watched a BBC documentary about the British commandos (it was on the Singtel Mio channel). That was a documentary, so it's as real as any TV show can get. The BBC featured the commando training and also interviewed some commandos. For the interview segments, about every 15 seconds or so, the soundtrack would go beeeeep, to edit out a bad word popping out of the soldier's mouth. And that's when the man was trying to speak politely (because he was being interviewed on TV).

That's the reality. The army is just not the the place where people go around saying please, thank you, excuse me, you're welcome etc.

Incidentally, my own poetry book, Two Baby Hands, contains a few instances of profane language too. Profanities show up in three or four poems (out of a total of about sixty poems). As a poet, I am very, very particular about every single word I use in each poem. It just turns out that sometimes, a profane word is the best word. And artistically, you just gotta stay true to your vision, you know what I mean?

Below is one of those poems. Somewhere in it, I used the word fucking. There was really no other option. Making love would have been totally wrong, for the context involved no love. Fornicating would have been too pretentious. Having sex would have been just too colourless. But fucking ... In the poem's context, it was definitely the best word. No regrets.

Incidentally, this poem was part of a set that won me $10,000 in a national literary competition.

Kuala Lumpur

Outside a noisy bus station
on a bright hot day,
I met a young man
about my age
who wore jeans, a singlet
and a smile as bright as
his twinkling eyes.
He knew I was from
out of town and
to make sure I understood him,
he spoke in Malay, Hokkien,
Cantonese, Teochew
and broken English,
offering to get me anything,
anything I might possibly need -
a taxi, a cab, a place to stay,
a coach ticket or a woman
("All my girls, clean!" he said confidently)
and a room to go, immediately available,
here he jerked his thumb up
to point out the upper floor of the
old coffee shop next to us.
Downstairs, there were students,
clerks and blue-collar workers
having lunch, but
upstairs, by a
dark narrow stairway,
was another kind of trade altogether.

That night I stayed at the
hotel puduraya,
looked out from
my eighth floor window,
and saw him, still there,
on the other side,
cheerfully accosting passers-by
with his offers.
I could not help but
imagine it:
in a little room
above a coffee shop
to the sound of honking traffic
warm naked flesh pressing mine
working hard
while downstairs he talks
to strangers, trying to get
my lover
one more body
for the night.


-ben said...

Apparently, Madam Wee missed this article:

A Curse or Two Might Quell the Pain.

Inquiring minds would like to know, was her language as genteel (as she professes) at the delivery ward?

rapha said...

The lady should also be concerned about the weightier matters of NS- her son is going to lose 2 years of his life and the dangers posed by the training.

Anonymous said...

holy fuck, you said the f-word!

JamesNeo said...

She should be more concerned if her son did not suffer greatly from the bad habits in army: wayang, siaming , push arrow haha, reduced brain function (become more stupid especially if her son is men ). The reduced brain function will affect her sons education in the first year for many people except some genius. How i know it affect mine anyway 9yrs ago.

Anonymous said...

forum always print comments that was processed outside the ears, not between.

Juz wonder wat sort of rubbish her husband told her about NS... assuming that he is a local boy

Anonymous said...

Seriously, maybe her husband isn't Singaporean or didn't do NS cos he would surely talk about his experiences in army. Come on man, profanities are fucking common!

Anonymous said...

The naiveness of the Female is one main reason why NS should be compulsory for female so that these females can wake up their Fucking idea .

Anonymous said...

Nice poem!

littlecartnoodles said...

Even if Mdm Wee's sons get Singa the Courtesy Lion as their army instructor, they would still have many opportunities to be on the receiving end of such language from irate bosses, dissatisfied clients/customers and fellow road users.

Ser Ming said...


"Wear green, excuse brain!"


Anonymous said...

George says,

The writer of the letter has a point about the excessive use of profanities by OFFICERS.

In fact, as far as I know and had experienced, it was not the commissioned officers who habitually used bad words on recruits and NSmen, most of the time it was the noncoms (ie the NCOs) who are the culprit.

I should know since I was among those who were trained at SAFTI when the Israeli instructors were there and our local NCOs, including those became among the first to form the cdo bn. Some of the fittest ranger trained officers, were so humble and soft-spoken it is unbelievable that they had undergone some very tough training in the US.

I became an officer myself. And yes sometimes some very tough talking was necessary to motivate the average NSF at that time, but the constant use of profanity was not the only recourse to getting the guys to move.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I'm not sure if Mdm Wee knows the difference between officers and non-commissioned officers. Even if she knows, she probably doesn't care.

Her concern is really with how the soldiers who will have authority over her sons will treat her sons ... not so much with the specific shapes and lines on the sleeves of those soldiers.

Jack said...

I watched the show Own Time Own Target quite some time ago, I must say its well done! Its so hilarious that even the ladies will laugh at, and certainly make men feel nostalgic.

Its definitely not suitable for kids (but that's what make the show even funnier)

Thanks to Mdm Wee's comment, it brings up the reason why there's a desperate need for girls to go NS. 1 year or even 6 months is fine, be it clerk or nurse, just put them in!

Ape said...

Better for the sons of Mrs Wee to be subjected to bullying, shouting and cursing during the BMT and learn how to deal with it, than to suffer for the rest of their NS days and their adult lives.

小肥与阿宝 said...

There, she said it herself:

"...after years of sheltered school life..."

Beyond the schools, can one continue to shelter his/her son/daughter from this and other realities of life?

But maybe she's saying one should not use profanities, at all.

Anonymous said...

Holy f**k you mean they use profanities in the army?? /s

Someone needs a reality check badly.

Anonymous said...

I have not seen the play, was it like 1G & 2G SAF or our present 3G version?

She can possibly take heart that then was then, now different already!(?javascript:void(0))

小肥与阿宝 said...

But I think we have to be sensitive towards her concern too w.r.t. using vulgarities related to the female genitalia. I would agree it is disrespect.

Anonymous said...

for fuck's sake.... its just a play and if we're fucking concerned about everyone being offended...might as well not stage the play at all...fucking rubbish... can't make everyone happy.

PanzerGrenadier said...

The army does try to reduce the use of vulgarities. In BMT, they use he euphemism "Gentlemen" but on occasion, the NCOs (or specialists as they are now called) would use the occasional cheesepie and guniang etc.

But I recall even my BMT platoon commander using the occasional f-word.

Majullah Singapura.

Anonymous said...

i think she's just a rare exeception who doesnt know about or expect profanities in army. i mean, who is she kidding!? like kids in school dont go cursing profanities long before they are in NS. she's a naive female, but i really think she's the minority.

Anonymous said...

Silly woman.

I'm an infantryman. In a standard close assault drill, I am effectively expected to fire a 5.56mm into someone's chest, stab him in the stomach, twist my bayonet, rip his guts out, then smash his head in with my rifle butt while he cries for his mommy.

And I can't f--king curse?


ken said...

currently im serving my ns in scdf.
im a chinese and i like to say my term in "bmt" was not as bad as it seems. scdf emphasises alot on anti ragging, and vulgarities are very minimal. only to those who truly deserve to be scolded. or passing statements in an attempt to show their dissatisfaction. there has been no direct insult against us in any way. most of my officers are also nsf, they just wanna serve and leave. as for army or police i donno. people tend to underestimate the scdf training methods compared to army. i guess theres something worth being proud of to declare im a trainee.=p

Jack said...

"I'm an infantryman. In a standard close assault drill, I am effectively expected to fire a 5.56mm into someone's chest, stab him in the stomach, twist my bayonet, rip his guts out, then smash his head in with my rifle butt while he cries for his mommy.

And I can't f--king curse?"

You can do that, but Mdm Wee expect you to apologize to the victim after what you did.

Profanities run in the army, I bet some Officers can't speak a proper sentence without the f-word.

Anonymous said...

hi mr wang, she's obviously quite naive about the bad language aspect, but the main point i took away from her letter is that she was also very uncomfortable with the careless misogyny involved. the cursing of mothers/sisters/girlfriends/female body parts.

when i was twelve, cursing "knnbccb" was pretty much the standard and none of us thought too deeply of it, but in hindsight it was horrifically sexist.

i understand you've already seen the play and enjoyed it - was there as much female-related cursing as she implied?

- caroline

Anonymous said...

I've seen the play and I don't recall an exceptional amount of female-related cursing, at least such that it made me uncomfortable (I'm a woman). It was certainly present, but it seemed no more misogyny than male-related cursing is misandry (don't be such a d*ckhead, you c*ck, etc). What makes such terms offensive, I feel, is the intent behind the word rather than the factual meaning of the word itself.

Besides, I can see good reason why there are more female-related curses than male-related curses - I believe the instinct of many men is to protect their womenfolk (sister / girlfriend / mother / etc) rather than their male relatives, so cursing these women is more likely to provoke a response than cursing their male relatives.

Yau said...

Somehow you get the feeling that this mother keeps her sons under lock and key - pampering them like babies.

Artxy said...

i'm an nsf too. it took me quite some time to get used to the profanities traded so freely in the army.

'f-' and all other forms of vulgarities were used as substitutes for 'hi's and 'bye's. instead of saying 'hello', someone wld say 'f- you!' to me.

was really disturbed at first (since my family doesn't tolerate vulgarities and my elder brother ever tried to cane me when i'm rude). but eventually, after a few months, i got used to it and pretty much enjoy the good-natured teasing.

somehow, i still flush quite a bit when people used ccb on me. but it's the paiseh-erm-eh kind of flush. nowadays, i quite enjoy listening to such mindless banter (despite not using vulgarities myself).

vulgarities, in itself, is just a whole new set of language. it's the tone that's used which matters.

wld like to assure mdm wee that if she raised her kids well, she won't have to fear them learning all the baaaddd language. and that, it's good, even ideal, for people to do with some roughing up.

Unknown said...

What the f---, which planet did she come from?? I'm a mother myself and I use the f-word very often! In fact, I worked once in a construction site when I was single and all these hokien swearing words were flying around often. Honestly, the site managers & supervisors love having lunch with me because they know they can be themselves and not feel awkward when I'm around. Of course, each time the curse had to do with female, they'd always excused themselves first before swearing!!! Even today, whenever I go back to SIN to visit, first thing we said when we meet will be "K-N-N ... you still look the same man!!!" It's kinda like our code already!!!
All in all ... i pity this woman's sons!!! They're gonna suffer soon!!!

Yau said...

I had a slightly different reaction when I was in the Army. I had spend my high school in an Australian boarding school and "learnt" to swear the western way - using christian religious terms and english words like c@#k sucking mo@@fo@@ wh@@@. I stunned SAFers with my profanity. I guess they hadn't heard that style of swearing - hence the bemusement. On another note - I had a commander who swore ridiculously a lot, he looked more like a librarian really. And he seemed to use the profanity as a means to assert his authority. I didn't think too much of him.

Anonymous said...

I strongly believe many Singaporeans are too sheltered... This should be reality (OTOT made it real)and many kids in Singapore need such hard knocks to get rugged.

If you can't even take a peacetime training as elaborated in OTOT, try going to a real war. People next to you dies. I strongly recommend you and your children watch the first part of Saving Private Ryan (battle at Omaha Beach). You don't train them this way in peacetime, you can't even win a battle... not to say a war.

Alfred said...

oh my frakking goodness!
this frakking cunt of a FEMALE exists?
sadly but frakking true, our bitch-frakking-nipple-sucking kids nowadays are too frakking sheltered like a horse in a frakking barn.