This story was written by Pengpeng Zheng, a research Assistant at the University of Texas at Dallas, who served her National Service in Singapore from 2009 to 2010.
It was a haunting yet enriching experience.
I served my conscription back in Singapore from 2009 to 2010. We call it ‘National Service’.
In both cases of Korea and Singapore, it is mandatory that every male does his part in protecting the nation. Somewhat an enforcement of traditional gender roles in the society, except that I was assigned the wrong gender.
Transgenders are a minority, but it is a minority that challenges the rigid system of conscription. In order to avoid potential exploits of loopholes, the ministry of defense granted exemption only to those who have had sexual reassignment surgery. This is tricky as the legal age to receive such surgeries is that of the age most of us are enlisted. Most transgender women including me had to endure through these two years parading as males. However, we are granted a more lenient system by being classified under a lower health status called PES E.
I am told that in recent years transgender women who have transformed significantly from the effects of hormone replacement therapy may still be exempted from service. The medical board for transgenders has since transitioned into a beauty contest for transgender women…
It is also interesting to note that a lot of transgender men have been signing up for national service in order to prove to everyone that they are males.
Probably the transgender woman who had it worst was me, I entered service not even knowing the word ‘transgender’, much less with any knowledge of hormone replacement therapy. As if luck had it, I was placed in the toughest places for both my Basic Military Training Course as well as unit placement-Ninja company and The First Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR)
How was my service life like?
It did not take long for everyone to realize I was ‘wife material’-knowing what everyone’s favorite food was; taking extra long to clean myself during showers; massaging everyone’s back and extremely clumsy during battle.
One day, my superior could not stand my uselessness anymore and singled me out.
‘You want to be stronger to protect your girlfriend! Is that clear recruit?’
‘Understood, sergeant.’ Deep down inside I know I am the girl that you guys should be protecting.
So, I realized my role in the Singapore Armed Forces was to be a spy. To spy on the true nature of men for my fellow girls outside Palau Tekong on the main island. Those testosterone erupting beasts locked together in temptation island, it was never pleasant living among them as a woman. As the days go by, more and more of them got dumped by girlfriends whom they have not met for way too long, and they started crying to one another their plight. Going undercover, I saw the weak side of men, how they package themselves to be strong but so easily squashed on the inside. My femininity was the closest thing to a girl they could get in camp, some of them were really half-tempted to kiss me. CREEPY!
I was loved as much as I was hated. Loved for being dumb and girly, but hated for being a burden that slowed down everything. One night, another recruit developed the most unusual cough I have heard. He was however reluctant to seek treatment because men just have to package themselves on the outside, but my gut feelings told me that he did not have much time left. I carried his reluctant body to the medical center in the middle of the night. I turned out to be right-he was diagnosed with pneumonia. I saved him just half a day before it would have become incurable.
I am unsure if it was because of this incident that my sergeants finally saw what I am useful for. I was posted to Medical Corps Training Institute upon finishing my BMTC. I was quite happy with my posting as I had more of a calling to save lives than to kill enemies. Oh! Have I forgot to mention I was often bullied? Yes. My bullying continued at the training institute. Nobody could quite explain why this meat sac behaved like a girl, but everyone was ready to abuse me instead of giving me the protection a girl needed.
Transgender women committing suicide during service is not uncommon.
Not much to mention about my medical training over here other than that I was the second (Or third? Can’t remember) top student to graduate from my batch. The first was an Australian lawyer who was born with photographic memories, couldn’t beat that. Finally I was posted to 1 SIR, one of the most terrifying units in the SAF.
My gender dysphoria worsened by multiples because of how I was invalidated and mercilessly abused for not conforming to expectations of a military male. How 1 SIR operated was that we had two senior medics-One that I was directly answerable to, and another that was the overall head of medics for the camp.
Now this second senior medic is in fact a woman, an Indian lady in her fifties. She was not exactly well respected for her temperament, but as a fellow female our natural connection developed fast. She had the ill reputation of throwing the harshest punishments at the most forgivable mistakes, but she never threw these tantrums at me.
This created a problem as my senior medic interpreted this as an attempt to switch units by flattering the senior medic of another unit. Coupled with the fact that my medical skills were scaling to Gordon Ramsey standards, but my soldier skills lackluster. I became a serious topic of discussion between the two senior medics of whom I was loyal to.
I kept questioning why exactly was I here in the army when I am in fact a female. One night, my calling followed up…..
After a long day of medical duty I decided to turn in early. One hour in, I was made awake by my ambulance driver. A private from a nearby unit decided to jump off the forth floor. The tricky part was, he landed on a grass patch that is angled 45 degrees. Which was why he was still alive. Let me tell you that we medics rarely have to deal with anything more than fractures and fevers during our two years of service. I was nerve struck, fully questioning my abilities in the minutes I had to reach the casualty.
Having reached him, none of the protocols I learnt helped. Could not check his pulse because his hands were underneath his privates; consciousness scoring was impossible because he seemed more like asleep than unconscious; but, his backbones felt more like a piano-Every piece was clickable!
Knowing his spine was ruined, I made a quick decision of splinting him and wrapping my arms around his neck while bearing in mind that one mistake would cost his life. I got several men to carry him into the ambulance while I gripped onto his head firmly like an octopus. It was a long trip and I made sure I held his head in the same pose throughout.
The next day, I received a follow up from the hospital that he was in stable conditions. I SAVED HIS LIFE!!!
I cannot guarantee whether the other medics, especially those who did not perform well back in medical school, could have done the same thing. Maybe, the reason fate had this transgender girl serve in the toughest military unit was to save this man on that night.
Today, I am proud to have been a medic in the Singapore Armed Forces and a woman.