“I’ll have to double check our regime. We normally finish our training and duties by 19:00 hours which is 22:00 for you back at home. I will call you when I have finished.”
This simple precursor to our lengthy conversation immediately illustrated to me the change that had occurred in my friend. I first met Aravind Thiruselvam in our second year of high school. He was a slightly built boy, carefree by nature and nothing about him was extraordinary. We spoke often and freely, tongue firmly in cheek and with smiles on our faces. We were never restricted, never rushed.
In organising our chat, the first time I had spoken to him verbally in seven months, his specification of time struck me as odd. Though recruits instinctually utilise the 24 hour format, I had yet to process that my long-time mate was not quite the same person I knew – he was now a soldier in the Singapore Armed Forces.
A native of Singapore, Aravind had not lived there for many years. But in line with the nation’s policy, Aravind was required to provide two years of military service for his mother nation. His fate was a stark contrast to the majority of young adults in Australia. In the concluding years of an individual’s high-school journey, one begins to lay foundations for their future. Whether pursuing further study, an early entrance to the workforce or an apprenticeship, it is in this period of time that plans are established.
For Aravind, however, his journey to self-actualisation was disrupted by his impending departure from his adopted home. March 26th saw him depart Melbourne. He left with minimal fanfare, not from a lack of love and support from friends, more from a collective inability to fathom the magnitude and nature of his situation.
Though a great period of time had passed since he left, Aravind remained in reasonably regular contact with our circle of friends at home. However, he rarely opened up in detail about his ventures in Singapore.
This was about to change. Conversing with me from his base in Choa Chu Kang, Aravind revealed the daunting prospect he and fellow young Singaporean males face.
“The way it is set up, we must come home and serve the nation. If not, you get blacklisted. Say I’m on a business trip down the track and I didn’t serve the nation, I’d be arrested and sent to court.”
Singapore’s regulations are maintained in accordance with patriotic values.
“All the elders protected you when you were young and you must do the same. That is their ideology”.
Aravind’s completion of the Victorian Certificate of Education was the same as any of his contemporaries. He had the exemplar performance of his older brother to follow and dealt with the same challenges all other students combated. However, as his friends pondered their potential outcomes once leaving school, Aravind had to process his fate.
“My parents drilled it into me that after Year 12, you are going to serve the nation. They told me when I was 10 years old, but I just didn’t think it would come true.
“Then it actually happened.”
Despite having forged a livelihood in Melbourne, Aravind had no choice but to embark on the 6000km voyage. It was a world away from where his heart – and his home, were left.
“We got transported to an island that existed for the sole purpose of converting civilians into recruits.
“We got our heads shaved and were punished easily.”
I realised that Aravind was detailing his forced metamorphosis from boy to man. Though many elect to pursue a career in the army, it is a path generally walked by those who thrive in the gruelling conditions, are prepared for the mental and physical examinations and most crucially, have an innate desire to contribute to their country through military service. For those not born and bred to carry out this duty, the induction is unforgiving.
“They put you in scenarios where you’ll ultimately cry, get angry, or break. It’s mental torture, in its own unique way.”
Everything was designed to uphold their operative motto – speed through skill.
The initiation tested Aravind and forced him towards a fateful crossroad. He would either rise to the challenge and survive, or crumble under the pressure and suffer. The relentless intensity was like nothing he had encountered. But Aravind and his compatriots soon realised that an ‘all for one and one for all’ mentality would be their saving grace and thus “the brotherhood” was formed.
Though the recruits had the backing of one another, they each had to deal with tangible anxieties. Aravind was allocated the vocation of signaller, but had to undergo combat training. Having never so much as raised a fist at a peer in his life, Aravind was given a grenade.
“I remember pulling the pin from my grenade and my hands were trembling. I threw it like my life depended on it, I was frightened.”
In addition to being tested by their personal fears, the recruits were being thrown into positions of leadership and being asked to sink or swim. Aravind was designated as head of his group for a smoke grenade practice run and saw first hand how the environment disrupted the psyche of individuals.
“One of my team members, he threw his grenade, it bounced off a tree and rolled backwards. He freaked out and ran into the smoke.
“Before I could stop him he went in, I couldn’t see him. He came out with smokey eyes and was completely delirious. It was a shock.”
The young men resided in bunks together. Sixteen people to a bunk, double decker beds with each person granted no more and no less than a table, a light and a fan.
“We’re out in the open, but this is our jail. It’s bare and there is no entertainment – just each other.”
In these places of ‘leisure’, discussion often turns to the future. In a sub-world dictated by routine, the minds of the young men “bound by the law” often race toward the future.
“We’re always thinking and talking about the day when we’re unbound by this service, when the two years is over.”
Having served for six months, Aravind has 18 months of duty ahead of him before he can return to Australia for good. The days are like clockwork, but the progression towards freedom is slow.
“We do our morning exercise, roll call, we do our jobs, some days we have networking, others radar watch, sometimes we are on the servers, we have lunch, do it again, have dinner before some time to ourselves.
“It’s very repetitive, very monotonous.”
Though the expansive grounds of Hillcrest Christian College in Clyde are a far cry from the drab dwellings in his humid bunker, Aravind credits part of his adaptation in the army to his place of education.
“School taught me some routine, but then there’s the tremendous culture shock,” “The way they treat and punish you, it’s different to the way teachers handle you.”
At this point Aravind calls over his friends to join in the conversation. The trio, who cannot be named for security reasons, are fatigued but in good spirits. It is late in the day and their formalities have been completed – this is their time to relax. Their perspectives are derived from a more patriotic base than Aravind, but Aravind’s initial apprehension is clearly common.
“We can’t know what to expect, but since our family members and forefathers served, we must follow suit, it’s a societal norm for us,” explains one of the boys.
Two of the boys begin to outline their plans for the future.
“I want to study business,” one states.
“And I want to become an engineer,” the other follows.
The third, who as yet is unsure of his aspirations after the army, acknowledged the persistent struggles the recruits face, but offered a positive thought.
“We’re more appreciative of everything we have, and will have down the track. You learn to value your freedom.”
The group depart and thank me for my time. I found that interesting in itself – I had only uttered a sentence here or there in the space of 10 minutes and I was the one receiving appreciative words. You begin to realise how much the recruits treasure any fleeting escape from their enforced lifestyle they get.
Aravind speaks optimistically of his plans for the future and with a steely resolve that the confines of his army base have imparted on his being.
“I want to study commerce. I messed around in VCE with assessments. I cared, but I didn’t give 100%,”
“I realise now how important studying and knowledge are,”
“I’ve matured to the point where when I go to university, I know I will give everything I have.”
And Aravind’s voice was left me with no doubts as to the truth of those words. The determination protruded from his prose, as if symbolic of his defiance to his circumstances.
I was sure of it now, I was not speaking to a boy, I was being addressed by a man. It was evident that through the experiences Aravind had endured, he had developed a sense of desire that cannot be acquired in a classroom, workplace or household. His hunger for success was being fuelled by his plight.
I was, in a way, envious of him. Not of his duties or situation, but of his unbridled passion for success.
Aravind openly admitted that he’d “been swearing a lot and drinking a lot” and that “they’re bad habits.”
The blunt honesty was reflective of his self-content. Though his situation is not ideal, Aravind is making the most of what he has and what he can gain. He is treading ground none of his associates from his graduating year had to even consider.
March 2018 will see Aravind return to Melbourne. And his homecoming will offer him freedoms he will have thoroughly earned. He sees it a resumption of his life and though he is not yet close to the final straight, he is already planning out his post-service future. And while he never asked to be thrust into the demanding domain of the armed forces, he is adamant his time will not be for nothing.
“I know what it is like to struggle.”
But it is acceptable to struggle. One can struggle, so long as they survive. And Aravind’s drive is too strong to ever let him give up. He may continue to struggle – but he will be stronger for it and one day, he prosper because of it.