Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Pillow Book: 21 and 22

21. After they return from field training

xxxAfter they return from field training, before they change out of their sweat-stiff uniforms or muddy boots, the servicemen clean their M16s. They snap their rifles apart. They pull a steel brush through the barrel several times and several times more a strip of flannel held in the eye of the cleaning rod. They dismantle the bolt carrier group, the guts of the gun, to wipe the carbon off the bolt carrier. When the soot comes off, the firing pin is pure silver. Then the firearm is reassembled, the parts clicking into place. The steel body is brushed with oil and the buttstock blackened with boot polish. The rifles are restored to their racks, a chain is run through their charging handles, the showers hiss.
xxxAll this done with a fatigued swiftness still easy to recall now, so many years later, and so far away, sitting at my desk, writing. The speed and the exhaustion stay in the body, bright as a firing pin.

22. The Pledge

xxxSchool began day after day, as it still does, with the National Anthem followed by the Pledge.

We, the citizens of Singapore,
Pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society,
based on justice and equality,
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity
and progress for our nation.

xxxIt is quite without charm, this iambic self-determination, except perhaps for the unintended link, through slant rhyme, of religion and nation. Or was the link intended from the start?
xxxLike a mantra, it is recited at every National Day Parade, when PAP MPs turn out in symbolic white, and the Opposition in motley colors. The Senior Minister, the Mentor Minister and then the Prime Minister also emerge in white, their faces impressive as icons.
xxxThe High Priest, the President of the Republic, is driven round the stadium to receive the praise offering of fifty thousand party clackers. After he ascends the altar, his batik shirt as colorful as garlands, he waves for silence, and the nation swells into the hymn “Majulah Singapura.”
xxxRight on cue, the heavenly sign appears, a giant Singapore flag, red and white, carrying a crescent moon and five stars. Suspended from a Chinook helicopter, the mantle flies slowly across the sky, its edges straight, its fabric fluttering in the strong winds.
xxxO, charming pageantry, that lends a body to abstract ideals. It moves me, this small nation’s effort to make something of itself, though it infuriates me at so many other times. Together with the Singaporeans around me, I stand up and cheer the marching contingents and then the mass displays.


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