My First Time….Watching Ah Boys To Men
The first instalment of Singapore’s most famous (or should I say, infamous) movie franchise was released 10 years ago this November. Since then, it has spawned three sequels and a spinoff, all of which I’ve avoided due to the bad press and to the movies’ insular sense of humour.
But like it or not, Ah Boys to Men is a cultural juggernaut in Singapore. I wanted to understand how something so polarising could also be so popular, or how it continues to endure in spite of all the complaints. And this meant watching at least the first one, which is conveniently available on Netflix.
To help me understand all the army-related jokes and references, I recruited my colleague, Farhan, who has gone through National Service and who saw the movie when it first came out, as my guide.
Farhan: So, Diane - any first impressions?
Diane: Ummm I’d geared myself up for a slapstick comedy about a bunch of ah bengs entering the army, but scenes like the opening sequence and the near-death experiences at the end made it pretty clear that this movie’s purpose was twofold: to make people laugh, and to make them take NS seriously.
Farhan: I have to agree. I mean we all expect it to have some sort of pro-NS messaging. The fact that it can make us laugh along the way is an added bonus. To be honest, if I can look past how over the top it was, the opening sequence was my favourite part of the movie. At least it was entertaining and gave a plausible “what-if” scenario if Singapore were to go to war. It makes you reflect on the importance of NS and kinda made me want to see Jack Neo boldly explore this alternate reality in the plot. Then we can see how NS can be implemented for wartime.
From the jet-fighter pilots trying weaving through HDB skyscrapers to reservist units fighting enemies in flats, it was an action-packed intro that actually kept me engaged and rooting for the uncle weeping over his buddy that was killed.
Least favourite part? Finding out the opening sequence was just a video game in a LAN shop. Talk about a buzzkill LOL.
Diane: Speaking of buzzkills, it was hard to take the emotional scenes in this movie seriously when they were punctuated by product placement (the worst one being the scene where cyclists wearing KPMG jackets hand Joshua Tan’s character a raincoat after he attempts to jump off the Benjamin Sheares bridge).
But as much as I rolled my eyes at this scene and others like it, I couldn’t help but laugh at the complete lack of subtlety. I swear the KDK fan had more screen time than Noah Yap did.
Farhan: Man, if I need to promote my business, I better hit up Jack Neo. No need to spend your marketing budget on anything else. How blatant it was made it even funnier. But okay, was there anything in ABTM that you actually liked?
Diane: I really enjoyed the slice of life stuff, like the head shaving-related banter between the main leads, Irene Ang’s hammy portrayal of an entitled Singaporean, Wayang King being such a try-hard, and the 5AM fall in scene. Basically, the movie shone whenever it focused on the characters' everyday misadventures, and fell off the rails any time it tried to up the stakes for the sake of a "message".
Farhan: I personally love Lobang and IP Man. Their bromance is undeniable. And I legit have met somebody in BMT who was street-smart like Lobang, or as they say in the movie, “trained in Sim Lim square”. I used to remember asking him for spare power banks and he always had extra equipment if you needed them like boot garters or army socks. He was like a walking e-Mart. So he was definitely a character that was true to life. For IP Man, he’s the chill, slacker dude who was madly in love with his girlfriend. This was so accurate as I remember so many guys in bunk always calling their girls during their down time being all lovey-dovey.
But honestly, my least favourite character happens to be the main protagonist Ken Chow. He does experience growth in the movie eventually, but he’s a spoiled, entitled character who’s always looking to get out of training, blame the army for his immaturity and act like an abusive ass towards his girlfriend is such a turn-off. His selfishness even caused his father to get into an accident. Only then did he wake up his idea. Luckily, the rest of the cast was likeable.
Diane: Yeah, Ken was the worst. Despite her being the one who enabled his toxicity, I loved his mother, or should I say, I loved Irene Ang. That scene where every rank tekan but where the highest rank is MUMMY was almost as scary as the opening sequence.
Farhan: Was there anything about National Service that surprised you from watching the movie? In terms of the type of training perhaps or the level of regimentation.
Diane: All the gun fetishising! Guys referring to their rifle as their wife, reciting a pledge to take care of their gun, and having to run up the ladder while holding their weapon (do I dare imagine how this sequence was handled in Ah Girls Go Army?).
Farhan: How did you feel about the ending? Did it feel abrupt to you? The way they dramatised a soldier getting the heat stroke was pretty intense, I must say. But it’s true that Pulau Tekong has a helipad so that the medics can evacuate recruits back to the mainland hospitals via helicopter for serious injuries which require emergency treatments.
Diane: I get that the film is trying to discourage skipping out on army duties, but the ending felt a little half-baked. Not just because it was a cliffhanger, but because it took some pretty dramatic external consequences - heatstroke, hospitalisation, and his father’s car crash - for Ken Chow to realise how selfish he’d been. Of course these things happen in real life, but the way the film used them felt a little manipulative. What happened to self-reflection? People chao keng all the time, and learn to change, without needing a near-death experience as a catalyst for character growth.
How about you, Farhan? How did it feel revisiting the movie after all of these years, especially now that it’s been years since you served in NS?
Farhan: I have a personal connection to the first movie because it was filmed in Pulau Tekong around the same time I was doing my Basic Military Service (BMT). So I remember seeing film crew and cameras shooting in and around our camp blocks. Back in 2012, Ah Boys to Men was a really big deal as it gave a ton of exclusive excess into the army training area. So I guess a lot of Singaporeans were curious as to how National Service was for my generation.
But I must say watching the movie back, I can see a number of changes to how training was conducted as compared to now. As SAF continues to evolve their training approach and equipment, some things become absolute. The movie still showed the old way of doing the IPPT for example (Individual Physical Proficiency Test). Previously, there were 5 stations: pull-ups, sit-ups, Standing Broad Jump (SBJ), shuttle run and 2.4km. Since 2014, it’s been reduced to just 3 stations: push-ups, sit-ups and 2.4. I’ll let the readers decide which one is easier haha. And just this week, it was announced that NS Men no longer have to surrender their NRIC when enlisting.
I tell you what I didn’t miss though: not being able to bring smartphones into camp. The reason is so that recruits won’t take unauthorised photos during training. We can’t even bring chargers during our weekly stay in Tekong, only power banks at most. Perhaps it was easier to enforce this in 2012 but can you imagine only letting soldiers bring Nokia phones to camp in 2022? The Gen-Zs will cry I tell you LOL.
Overall, re-watching Ah Boys to Men felt like a fun trip down memory lane. Maybe it's the nostalgia speaking, but it did make me miss the camaraderie amongst my fellow recruits. Then again, I did remember suffering a lot also during that period so I guess it’s just nostalgia.
Diane: Nostalgia aside, is Ah Boys to Men better or worse than you remember it to be? How does the viewing experience now compare to what it was then?
Farhan: When the movie came out back in 2012, I would say I was more invested in it since I was going through National Service at the time. 7 reservist cycles in, it doesn't resonate as much with me anymore. I heard ABTM 4 revolves around the cast going through reservist? Perhaps I'll be able to relate to that more LOL. But upon second viewing, ABTM has not necessarily aged that well even with the added nostalgia of revisiting this movie after so long. The jokes remain cringe-worthy and stereotypical while the product placement was and is still unintentionally hilarious. Do you think you’ll watch the sequels? Ah Boys to Men II is on Netflix.
Diane: Look, I had a good time during the lighthearted scenes (especially since I'll never get to experience army life for myself), but I'm not sure if I'm ready for another 90 minutes of misogyny and histrionics. Call me again when Ah Girls Go Army becomes available - I can only imagine which brands sponsored that one.