The transformation

This is a wonderfully written entry (dated 2005-04-26) by Alfian Saat in his blog about the transformation of the civilian to the NS man:

NS 1: boots

Army boots are instruments of amplification, and that which it amplifies is personality. Out of the context of footdrill, where synchronicity is the ideal—the sound of a hundred boots should be that of a singular personality—the boot also imbues individual gait with an auditory character. Due to the rigidity of its skin, the boot limits the possibilities of articulation of the foot; its high cut, corseting the ankle, further accentuates this imprisonment. It is impossible to tip-toe while wearing boots, without severely wrinkling the front; similarly it is difficult to try walking with the feet inwards or outwards.

What this translates into is a limited repertoire of walking styles, which in turns casts boot-wearers into stereotypical categories. On one hand, we have those whose boots strike the floor with clear, precise thuds: the heels dig in first, followed by the rest of the sole, with the planar discipline of an opening drawbridge. These boots belong to those in positions of authority; the ones who stride unerringly; who bring the line of each of their steps to a choreographic finish (not flourish, since the impressive rigour of the gait is marked by an absence of excess). On the other, we have those whose boots tend to shuffle; the feet are being dragged—passively to denote a slovenly temperament, actively to denote resentment.

In both these instances—the commanding clop, the sluggish scrape—character is expressed through the manipulation of the boots’ weight. Ultimately, army boots, like most other military signifiers, serve to stratify their wearers. For some, their boots represent the ennobling weight of duty; for others it is the ball-and-chain burden of service.

NS 2: sleeves

The number 4 uniform can be worn 2 ways: as the smart 4, where the shirt sleeves are folded up to the upper arms, or as the long 4, where the ends of the sleeves are buttoned at the wrists. The degree of formality attributed to these two modes of dressing differs markedly from civilian costume: long sleeves (associated with cufflinks, miniature ironing boards, the executive) indicate the casual posture (combat fatigues), whereas short sleeves (folded to ‘get the elbows dirty’, the abbreviated uniform of the blue collar) indicate the official attire. Through such a radical act of inversion, the number 4 sends out an unimpeachable message: the semiotic laws at work in the military are contrary to that in the civilian environment; the military operates according to its own internal logic.

As has been mentioned, uniform is the great stratifier, and it is in the folding of the sleeves that individuals can be sieved. The standard for the folded sleeve is somewhere at the mid-level of the biceps; anything below this watermark suggests a careless or incompetent disposition. It goes without saying that those with larger biceps possess a greater advantage than those with smaller ones–for the former the perimeter of the folded sleeve is held in place by the friction against muscular bulk. It is the sight of this cuff, aligned to the watermark, which immediately signals the physical superiority of its wearer, although those with smaller built have other means of attaining the standard. The latter can, for example, fold the sleeves of his number 4 while it is suspended from a coat-hanger (almost like a fossilised cast), pushing the folded sleeves as close to the armpit area as possible, and hoping that when he slips into uniform the artificially-sited cuffs would stay in place. Suffice to say that in such an instance, the number 4 stands as a reified symbol of military existence: it is the immediate environment into which a body is placed, and alienation is experienced as the hollow spaces that linger between the weakness of the flesh and the implacable cut of the fabric.

NS 3: beret

The beret is made of a felt-like fabric; in the army the goal is to remove traces of its softness, its fuzzy texture. And thus the beret is ‘seasoned’, which means to crease it in such a manner as to make it conform to a rigid, streamlined shape. The sides of the beret are folded inwards, and to force the beret to maintain this origamic form, a weight is placed over it (usually in the form of a mattress). The beret then develops two wings, one of which, asymmetrically positioned to jut over the right side of the head, assumes a cardboard stiffness.

This unnatural distortion of the material character of the beret exposes a desire, in the military, for transmutation. And thus the bedsheet is stretched to the point where it is an elastic skin, such that ‘a coin can bounce off it’. Boots have their matte leather surfaces polished to the point that their gleam resembles that of chrome–a sign that might appear gauche or vulgar on normal shoes, but which in the army attests to a certain showmanship and proficiency (interesting to note that this flamboyant hyper-competence is often referred to as ‘kilat’, which in Malay literally means ‘shining’).

In all these metamorphoses, the product bears the mark of some concentrated labour: matter is compressed, extended, scoured, generally placed under conditions of stress. The net effect is a denial, perhaps even a denunciation, of the original substance of the transformed object. The civilian is no more: in his place is the NSman, who grows into being through regimentation, a systematic deprivation of freedoms, disruptions in his waking and sleeping hours, and a disorientation of time-perception (best encapsulated by the resigned sigh: ‘Rush to wait, wait to rush’). The happy soldier is one whose pre-enlistment memories are unhappy.


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