Sunday 17 November 2013

Offensive verse of army song, Purple Light banned

By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 16 Nov 2013

A VULGAR verse of a popular army marching song, Purple Light, has been banned, in an unprecedented move by the Singapore Armed Forces to curb the use of offensive language in camps.

This followed a complaint by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) three months ago that the offensive lyrics condoned violence against women.

In a letter to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the gender equality advocacy group objected to the verse: "Booking out, see my girlfriend/Saw her with another man/Kill the man, rape my girlfriend/With my rifle and my buddy and me."

MINDEF did not respond to queries by press time yesterday.

* Purple Light has not been banned, MINDEF clarifies

AWARE's executive director Corinna Lim said in a statement yesterday that the group was alerted to the offensive lyrics by seven national servicemen during a workshop in July that was held as part of AWARE's ongoing campaign to stop violence against women.

Ms Lim said: "These misogynistic lyrics tolerate and normalise the violent sexual abuse of women, condoning gang- rape as a justified punishment for infidelity."

She added: "Such lyrics may encourage young men at impressionable ages to objectify women, and contribute to an environment where violence against women is trivialised."

The offensive verse of the army song was one of the issues that AWARE raised to MINDEF as part of its ongoing drive to stop violence against women. It declined to reveal the others.

Army songs like Purple Light and Training To Be Soldiers are military cadences traditionally chanted or sung by soldiers to the beat of a route march or run.

News of the ban on the improvised lyrics went viral online, drawing mixed reactions from servicemen. Some servicemen told The Straits Times that lyrics of army songs are often modified and should not be taken seriously.

Operationally ready national serviceman Bjorn Lim said: "The song has been around for so long and I don't think there has been any negative impact on the servicemen. It is just for laughs. Why take things so seriously?"

Others like marketing executive Joseph Chen, however, backed the move to drop the sexist lyrics. The 29-year-old, who completed his full-time NS stint in 2006, said: "Although it is just a song, singing it repeatedly may instil the wrong attitudes towards how men treat women."

Good riddance to bad ditties
Ban on Purple Light and other silly songs may be something to sing about after all
By John Lui, The Sunday Times, 24 Nov 2013

When I heard that a verse in a military song with a line about rape had been banned from the approved list that national servicemen have to sing, I thought it was a great start. Ban the whole song and another two dozen or so terrible songs, and we would be on to something.

There are a lot of things I had to become aware of when I entered national service. The main thing I learnt was how important it was to look busy all the time, especially when not doing anything at all, and how to stretch out a simple easy job because it prevented you being assigned more difficult jobs.

The other thing I was not aware of was how much singing there was going to be, and just how terrible the lyrics were.

You have to sing on the way to eat, on the way to training, while sitting on the ground waiting for a lorry to take you somewhere. The reason for this constant rhythmic yelling was that it built up soldierly values, increased camaraderie, and made my instructors happy, because if we were singing, we men would be too preoccupied to perform acts that might undermine our abilities as soldiers, such as thinking.

The songs we were taught back then were of two types. There were the approved patriotic songs (dull but correct) and the unofficial ones (stupid but fun). It quickly became clear that if nothing else, the approved songs helped us tell which guys were the ones we could not trust: They were the ones who would start singing the approved songs, hoping to score points with the officers. The rest of us preferred to sing the dumb songs, or not sing at all.

When I say they were dumb songs, I mean they were childish and silly. In my time, Purple Light had no sexual meaning, probably because, like most of the other unofficial songs, it came to us from guys who sang them in the Scouts or National Cadet Corps. I doubt there was much call for M18-rated sex and violence imagery around secondary school campfires. The other tunes we sang were pirated and modified versions of marching songs from other countries.

I googled Purple Light - the song with the offensive verse - and found another verse based on the old joke about not letting one's soap fall on the floor while in the barracks showers. So, if it is any consolation to AWARE - the women's group which petitioned for the banning of the song - the rape reference in there is equal opportunity.

It seems that between the time I was in national service and now, things got creepy. Let me take a stab at the reason: 18-year-olds do not have the best decision-making processes. Newly enlisted boys are people whose idea of acting grown-up is drinking till they are puking into drains outside clubs. These people had been allowed to express themselves lyrically. We all know what happens when 18-year-olds write songs: You get Justin Bieber. If that is not offensive, I don't know what is.

Knowing how the army works, I can believe that they had wanted to put a kibosh on unapproved songs for a long time. First, the typical unofficial song is a cheeky complaint about bad food, bad equipment and unreasonable commanders. The topics are as far removed from the standard song sheets about fighting and dying for our country as they could possibly be.

Second, the new twist, as we have all just found out, is that the content had become just a little sick. Both are are excellent reasons for a ban. I believe AWARE put something into motion that was probably inevitable.

There are people who are making a fuss about the song ban, saying that it is the work of crazy feminists sticking their noses into a man's world. First, they should note that there are women in the Singapore Armed Forces and have been for decades.

Critics of the ban should also keep in mind that military life is defined by what you cannot do. I used to wake up in my bunk, remembering the checklist of things I could not do, and then I would try to not do them as quickly as possible. Not being allowed to do things and the military go hand-in-hand. One less song? Throw that in the pile of cannot-dos.

My old company sergeant major had the right attitude towards us when we were all 18, which was a mixture of pity and contempt. We actually believed that singing tough songs with tough words made us tough.

For example, he found out that a bunch of us liked to hang around shopping centres on weekends to whistle and make smoochy noises at the girls passing by. If we were such bad boys, he asked, how come we had to do it in a group?

"I can bet none of you has the guts to stand there by yourself and whistle at girls. You know why? Because you are cowards," he told the group of us.

We went silent at that. We all knew he was right: It wasn't about looking cool at all, it was about male bonding and intimidation and feeling that much taller because as a group, we frightened someone alone and weaker than we were. I think if my sergeant major were around today, he'd order the guys singing songs about hitting or raping women to replace the word "girlfriend" or "girl" with the name of a soldier's real girlfriend, or sister, or mother.

Then he would probably make us sing it 20 times. I don't think we would want to sing it much after that.

AWARE missed an opportunity to engage
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 24 Nov 2013

This much is true: Singaporean men love to criticise the army. But what we love to hate are those who we think have not earned the stripes to disparage the military.

So when a deejay called our men fair-weather soldiers for not training through the episode of haze earlier this year, netizens pounced on her online post and flamed her.

Then, in August, the National Geographic Channel's publicity stunt for its TV series on the army - featuring hired actors in military attire responding to drill commands from the lunchtime crowd in Raffles Place - rubbed the men the wrong way. Commanding soldiers, even pretend ones, is a privilege civilians shouldn't get to experience, sniffed those who had served.

Now, we have AWARE's petition to eliminate obscene lyrics referring to rape from the army marching song Purple Light. Those angered by what they see as the women's organisation meddling are asking: Why should outsiders tell the armed forces what is appropriate behaviour?

While citizen soldiers have turned moaning about the army into an art form, every time there is a perceived slight on the SAF from other quarters, suddenly it's all about pride and honour and the sacred call of duty.

Perhaps there is a fear that the conscript's sacrifice is somehow diminished when those who haven't walked a mile in our boots question what we do. This attitude is personified in the film A Few Good Men, when the marine colonel played by Jack Nicholson snarls at Tom Cruise's lawyer character to pick up a weapon and stand a post before presuming he is entitled to answers about how the colonel runs his military base.

In short, "don't comment if you haven't served" is something many who have put on the uniform believe.

AWARE's persistence in pursuing the matter is understandable, given its position against sexism and offensive attitudes to women.

I believe AWARE had a point in raising the issue. But I also feel AWARE bungled by rushing to condemn because by doing so, its message was lost completely on soldiers baffled by the sudden attention to song lyrics most don't dwell on, much less take seriously.

Instead of persuading or educating our servicemen that it is deplorable to trivialise something as heinous as rape, AWARE left the men swearing at how little the women's group knows about the army.

It singled out Purple Light, although that song is far from unique. There is a whole repertoire of indecent army ditties featuring girlfriends, underwear, sex and other topics unmentionable in polite company.

Petitioning the Defence Ministry about one verse in one song seemed to many soldiers like a knee-jerk reaction and it showed how woefully clueless AWARE was about army culture.

AWARE has since released a further statement that it is investigating lewd lyrics in other army songs.

As if army songs are military secrets.

And what will AWARE uncover next? That military instructions are often peppered with swear words in a variety of languages and the most colourful dialect cusses involve mothers and private parts, among others? Or that when bored men congregate in the barracks, the talk can drift to girls and sex, and the conversations should not be repeated elsewhere?

And then, what?

Frankly, it's hard to see the day when the SAF bans swearing and dirty talk because a women's group protested.

But who can tell. I'm in the midst of my reservist stint now, and something strange happened at the start that I never saw coming.

On Day One, a warrant officer - one of the no-nonsense enforcers of military discipline - told us plainly that obscene lyrics were not allowed in all army songs any more. "Now women love the army, they want to serve too," he said, referring to the ongoing debate about women and national service.

The roomful of operationally ready national servicemen, mostly in their mid-30s and having served almost two decades, burst out laughing. It was just too hilarious to see our stern-faced warrant officer laying down the law on something that had been a part of NS life from the day we enlisted.

Over the next few days, we heard the deep, throaty voices of younger full-time national servicemen singing military songs scrubbed of bad words.

But if I know the army, the NSFs will respect the "ban" for a while, before the newly illicit words creep back again.

After all, soldiers have long internalised the mantra "don't get caught", which we refer to cheekily as an unofficial SAF core value. NSFs might even get a thrill out of doing something now deemed illegal.

I don't doubt that AWARE is genuinely concerned about vulgar lyrics leaving an indelible mark or worse, shaping the wrong attitudes to violence against women.

But it would have achieved far more by attempting to understand our men in uniform a little more, and the role army songs play in military culture.

The women could have then embarked on a more meaningful engagement process aimed at changing attitudes, perhaps with longer- lasting results.

Instead, getting all worked up over a song has just put the men on the defensive unnecessarily. It's been an unfortunate battle where everyone loses and nobody wins.

When emotions steal a march on reason
By Fiona Chan, The Sunday Times, 24 Nov 2013

Of the many things I have learnt to appreciate about Singapore since coming to live in Japan, gender equality is near the top of the list.

Here, chauvinism is a way of life. When a woman quits her job to get married, her colleagues congratulate her warmly and throw a party.

If that happened in Singapore, those colleagues would be saying: "Siao ah, only one income, how to buy house?"

On many fronts, men and women are treated with more evenness in Singapore than in many other countries - except when it comes to issues such as national service (NS).

That is why I was fascinated by the furore last week, when the Singapore army banned a verse of a popular marching song after receiving a complaint about the lyrics.

The verse in question contains the following lines: "Booking out, saw my girlfriend/Saw her with another man/Kill the man, rape my girlfriend /With my rifle and my buddy and me."

Now, there are at least two questionable phrases in this stanza, even if you disregard the eccentric tenses. Murder and rape may be common war crimes, but they are no more acceptable than the wilful destruction of grammar.

However, the verse was deemed offensive not because it glorified killing, but because it trivialised rape.

The complaint came from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), which said it was "troubled that NSmen were bonding over misogynist lyrics".

Since rape is no laughing - or indeed singing - matter, many Singaporeans spoke out in support of the ban. And not just women, too; it was men who first brought the lyrics to AWARE's attention.

But there was also a huge backlash against the ban, from NSmen as well as some women, questioning the need to crack down on what they saw as an insignificant issue.

There is no link between these lyrics and the incidence of rape, some said. ("Words are powerful," AWARE replied.)

Others sneered that protesting against this song was making a mountain out of a molehill; AWARE should be targeting the many more graphic contributors to rape culture, such as video games and movies, instead. (This criticism ignores AWARE's other work, it said.)

Several also took umbrage at AWARE's single-minded focus on the word "rape" - why not complain about the word "kill"? (That's not "our particular expertise", said AWARE.)

The ferocity of this reaction took some by surprise. Even my unflappable editor said: "Guys are unhappy? Are they serious? The lyrics are shockingly appalling."

She is right. And so are the good women at AWARE, who have worked hard to advance the cause of gender equality.

To them, this is a serious cause.

"Why are so many men so deeply attached to the idea that NS should involve singing about raping women?" they ask.

But that misses the point: While the clash over Purple Light is indeed about gender equality, it is not actually about differing views on rape.

None of the people who have spoken out against AWARE's move disagrees that rape is a heinous crime, and no NSman is dying to sing about raping his girlfriend.

Rather, it boils down to a more fundamental issue of gender inequality: Since women are not forced to give up years of their lives to NS, there are some aspects of it that they will never understand.

Like how Purple Light is among the army's most beloved ditties; no surprise, as the competition includes such gems as "Left toe, right toe, keep up the tempo/ Left toe, right toe, eh-o-eh-o".

Singing it lifts the spirits of tired, trudging soldiers. Not because it is violent - many versions of the song don't mention rape - but because it is catchy and meaningful.

I've known grown men to get misty at the last verse: "ORD, back to study/Got degree, so happy/ Can't forget, still remember /With my rifle and my buddy and me."

The offending verse, abhorrent as the "rape" line is, touches a chord in every NSman who has watched his girlfriend progress with her life while he is stuck in the army.

So when NSmen heard of the ban, many reacted defensively: "Why is someone attacking one of my best memories of NS and gloating about it?" they thought.

Their distress stems not from resistance to removing a rape reference, but from NSmen feeling underappreciated for their sacrifices, while bystanders pick at one of their coping mechanisms in the spirit of female righteousness.

To AWARE's credit, it has called for greater equality for men and women with regard to NS. But that is a feat that will require much more effort, from many parties, than writing one complaint letter.

In the meantime, both AWARE and NSmen - for that matter, all women and men - could do with a bit more sensitivity and empathy.

Just as men need to learn there is no such thing as a "casual mention" of rape, women should be aware that NS is fraught with strong emotions for men. We may never achieve true gender equality, but we can try for some form of universal compassion.

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