Blackjack, PES status and my friend Paul
Hi guys, I have received some good news from Singapore this week and it is about my nephew: he has been classed as PES E - now for those of you unfamiliar with the system they use in Singapore to classify enlistees for national service, allow me to explain the PES (physical employment standard): it is a system that has been used for decades to decide just how fit you are as a soldier and that then determines the kind of role you will be assigned during your time in national service. It is a complex system that runs from PES A (the most fit) to PES F (totally unfit for any kind of service, resulting in total exemption from NS). However, there are many subcategories like B1, B2, B3, B4 and BP depending on the severity of your medical condition and thus to be graded PES E, it means you're considered to have such a severe medical condition that you're only going to be given non-combat duties and whilst you still have to serve your full two years of NS, you're likely to have a far easier time than those with a higher PES rating. My first reaction is that of relief of course, I clearly don't want to see my nephew suffer during national service and a PES E rating is possibly the best outcome that one could have hoped for. He isn't exempt (we never thought he would be), but I had originally thought that the SAF would simply ignore his autism altogether and classify him as PES B but no, I was wrong. In fact, the SAF totally erred on the side of caution and they classified him as PES E much to my surprise because there's nothing physically wrong with my nephew (apart from mild myopia, which requires him to wear glasses) - he is physically fit and strong but like me, he is autistic and has Asperger's syndrome. It is a mental health issue, not a physical condition.
There's one thing I need to make clear: my nephew's parents didn't do anything to try to get him a lower PES classification, they merely submitted all the medical reports pertaining to his condition (as required by law) and these were medical reports produced by the doctors and other medical experts who have treated my nephew over the years - there was ABSOLUTELY ZERO input from my sister and her husband in this process and it was entirely on the basis of the medical reports that the PES status was determined. I know of too many parents in Singapore who would go as far as to bribe doctors to try to exaggerate medical conditions just to increase the chances of their sons getting a lower PES status, in a desperate bid to spare them hardship in the army but this was definitely not the case this time with my family. We simply followed due process in a very Singaporean way, obeyed all the rules and this was the result the system had given us. But in any case, I think my family is way too Singaporean to even contemplate trying to bend the rules to influence the outcome in their favour - no, that's just not the way they are. But it is what it is, I am both happy and relieved at this outcome, so my nephew will have a few months of rest before he has to commence his NS in March 2022. He will still get the benefit of the experience of having to live and work as a soldier - that would definitely be the kind of environment whereby he would be forced to develop much better social skills quickly, that was exactly what I went through back in the day. But at the same time, I'm just relieved that he will be spared the worst of the physical hardship experienced by so many Singaporean men who have served NS.
This does actually fill me with some confidence in the system actually because I remember what it was like in the 1990s when I did NS; I knew of this guy (let's call him Yeo, not his real name) who wanted to get a lower PES status - he was obese and wore glasses but there was really nothing that wrong with him to warrant a PES downgrade. Thus Yeo had the audacity to 'act crazy' - he started doing all these things to get the attention of his officers, such as by standing on the ledge of the top floor of the building, crying hysterically and threatening to jump. He was immediately put into a mental institution and given PES E as a result of that episode; he was so pleased with his performance that he started boasting about it to people like me (whom he didn't even know that well) and soon, word got round that Yeo really wasn't that crazy after all and was even bragging about how he had fooled the doctors, psychologists and other experts in the SAF. So he was then dragged off to the detention barracks (the equivalent of military jail) for a few months for malingering, before being upgraded back up to PES B2. This really begs the question: why was Yeo downgraded in the first place? If Yeo had been a bit smarter, kept his mouth shut and his head down, would he have gotten away with it? If that's the case, then why didn't more people 'game' or 'cheat' the system back then, if there were so few checks and balances in the system? What is the system supposed to do with people like Yeo then and were his parents complicit in his bid to get a downgrade like that? How would the system treat Yeo in 2021 if he tried to pull off this 'act crazy' stunt today to get a downgrade?
Ironically, my nephew wasn't happy at all with the situation, much to my surprise! The main reason was that he hated the idea of people thinking that there was something so wrong with him it warranted a PES E status. Mind you, back in the day, I remember this guy in my unit (let's call him Weng, not his real name) with a severely deformed rib cage: it was just something he was born with but the first time Weng took off his shirt in front of us, he had to say, "guys I know you're going to be shocked, so I'm just going to get this over and done with, I know my rib cage looks really freaky so look away if you don't want to see it." I was lost for words when I saw the state of his rib cage and I recall someone else in the room asking Weng, "so does it affect the position of your internal organs if your rib cage is like that?" Weng was PES C2 for crying out aloud, in spite of his shockingly deformed rib cage - that was how strict the system was back then and you had to be seriously disabled before you were given a PES E rating. Therefore, I can appreciate that there might be some concerns on the part of my nephew that having a PES E rating might come with some stigma from his peers but I imagine that a lot of them are actually secretly jealous of him at this stage. I suppose if you see someone who is healthy, physically fit and has no obvious physical disability being given a PES E grading, you would then automatically start wondering why this person has that PES E status. My reaction is "that's between them and the SAF's doctors, his medical records are private." But I can appreciate my nephew's concerns that others may not take such a mature attitude towards a matter like that, especially given how many guys will be consumed by boredom during NS.
I remember I did meet one guy who was PES E back in the day, his name was Paul and I wasn't close to him but he was a nice enough person. He came from a rich family and had his own car so sometimes he would give me a lift (oh I was very grateful for that). Besides, Paul had spent part of his childhood in America and I found that thoroughly fascinating: I remember how I would ask him questions about what it was like going to school in America and he would gladly indulge me. Everything he had experienced in America was so different from what I was used to in Singapore from the education system to the kind of after school activities and of course there were the snowy winters. We had plenty of talk about and he had planned to return to the US immediately after he finished his NS. So even though we were quite close, I never found out why Paul was PES E - the closest I ever got to that was asking a colleague and the colleague said, "Different people have said different things about Paul but since I don't have access to his medical records, I don't want to speculate - I don't know." I wanted to know because Paul seemed quite healthy to me, okay he was a bit overweight but I guess I was just curious (like everyone else) about what kind of medical condition he had to warrant that PES E rating. But no, I was tactful enough not to ask him - I recognized that it was really none of my business and most of all, Paul was one of the few people in my unit I got along very well with thus I wasn't going to do or say anything stupid or tactless to ruin that friendship. Therefore I was quite happy to live with the fact that I will never ever find out why Paul had a PES E rating, that didn't affect our working relationship or our friendship.
In response to my nephew's concerns, I would simply respond by taking the 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth' attitude - that means you shouldn't find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favour. It is what it is and I wouldn't challenge the decisions made by a higher authority, certainly not in this context. When you're placed in any situation, the first thing to do is a cost-benefit analysis to weigh up if you should accept the status quo or if you should try to change things; hence the benefit of accepting the status quo is that my nephew would be spared a lot of the physical hardship that other soldiers of a high PES status would have to suffer but the cost of it would be any possible bullying and stigma he would have to suffer if people around him start talking about his PES status. The cost of challenging (and changing) his PES status would be that physical hardship that he would have to go through but by the same token, that would mean not having to face any stigma or possibly bullying relating to his PES status. However, as someone who has done NS (albeit a long time ago in the 1990s) I have to point out a blind spot in my nephew's logic: let's say we successfully challenge his PES status and he gets upgraded to PES B1 and let's assume he's happy to endure any hardship that may come his way during NS as a PES B1 soldier, would that guarantee that he would be spared any kind of bullying or social conflicts on the basis of his higher PES status? Of course not, humans are horrible - people will always find a way to hate each other and there will be always be some kind of conflict regardless of his PES status through his NS, thus his PES status is but a red herring. Thus the logical response to this situation would be to simply accept the status quo.
So allow me to make a comparison using the popular game Blackjack. The objective of the game is to get as close to the total of 21 as possible using a combination of a minimum of two cards. Say you have drawn the cards 8 and 9, given you a grand total of 17. It is not an ideal position to be in because it is quite possible for others in the game to have a number closer to 21, but drawing another card is a highly risky move as you need to draw a card with the number 4 or smaller in order to stay in the game and improve your chances of winning. The moment you draw a card that is 5 or bigger, you will exceed 21 and immediately crash out of the game. So out of a possibility of 13 cards you can draw from Ace to King, only four of them would improve your position in the game and nine of them would make you lose instantly - so given the poor odds of improving you position, you have little choice but to choose to hold your position at 17 and hope that others have worse luck than you. The key thing when you are in such a situation like this is not to focus on what your ideal outcome would have been and instead focus on what the most rational next step ought to be. Sometimes you just have to accept the cards you have drawn and then try to make the best of the situation rather than think about "what could have been". In a recent post, I talked about some of the problems I have been struggling with in my current job - I've also drawn a 17 in this game of Blackjack. Things aren't perfect, things aren't deal but the sensible next step is to hold on to what I have and try to make the best of the situation rather than chuck all the toys out of the pram by quitting just because things aren't perfect. For what it is worth, I think my nephew has drawn pretty good cards in this game of Blackjack - he probably has 17 in my opinion; sure it isn't a 21 but it's actually pretty darn good.
So that's it from me on this issue, what do you think? What kind of relationship do you have with the PES rating system? Do you think it is harsh or is it fair? Did my nephew's PES status surprise you? Have you ever met someone like Yeo? If you ever befriended someone like Paul whom you knew was PES E, would you be tempted to find out why he was PES E or could you quite happily live with not knowing that piece of information? And why is my nephew unhappy with his PES status - does he have good reason to believe that he might have to face some stigma associated with being PES E or is he just because a difficult teenager who is impossible to please at this stage? Do you know of anyone who was PES E and what were they like? Please leave a comment below and many thanks for reading.