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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Platoon of Characters

I remember my BMT platoon mates very well. They are etched in my mind because they were my first army buddies and hence hold a special place in my memory and affection.

But the people that really bonded with me most during NS training were the fellas from my OCS days. Nine arduous months is a long time to be stuck together.

First there was the three-month Junior Term. A handful of cadets did not survive this stage and were asked to leave. Most were sent to SAFINCOS to be trained as NCOs or non-commissioned officers (i.e. corporals and sergeants).

After Junior Term came the six-month long Senior Term. Folks who did well in SAFINCOS could join us. At the end of this term, you either graduate as an officer or not. If you didn't, it was very painful because it would seem that you had suffered the last six months for nothing. During my time, cadets who failed Senior Term were often given the default rank of sergeant.

My platoon mate Gulam was one such casualty. I didn't think he deserved it then. I believed it was a case my platoon commander being biased against Malay soldiers. He thought they were all kampung types and with a lazy attitude. (My PC was not unusual, most people thought the same then. It would take a while for the Malays here to be more educated and successful to change that stereotype. At least Singaporean Malays have become better perceived than their counterparts in Malaysia. The Malays there are still known for their "tidak apa" attitude, especially those working in the government services. Or at least that's what my Malaysian Chinese friends are telling me still.

Of course it did not help that Gulam was quiet and laid back as well. But he was intelligent and well-read. I wouldn't be surprised if he became an academic or something.

Gulam and I were trench-digging together one time on Marsiling Hill 265. He was super stealthy and somehow managed to cook instant noodles without anybody noticing, surprising even me. He had dug out a nook in the wall of the trench and put his cooker there. It was after four days of constant digging with combat rations so his noodles were a godsend.

On the day that OCS results were posted, we all came down from our bunks and milled around the chin-up bar area on the ground floor of our barracks. As results floated out of the OC's office, we were disappointed to learn that Gulam was not among those who passed. Instead, a cadet whom we had all despised did. (He failed his mission command badly and even took water from us.) Maybe PC Ang found Gulam wanting in command but that was not apparent to us his mates. I dunno, perhaps someday, when I bump into PC Ang, I will ask him for clarification. His decision bothered me a long time.

The default leader in our platoon was a stout and highly dependable guy named BC Chan. He was from Hwa Chong JC. Whenever he addressed us from the balcony, he booming voice would echo in the confines of our barracks. Although he was a no-nonsense take-charge type, he was still someone you could talk to; perhaps why I suppose he became everybody's favourite. He did go on to win the Sword of Honor that year. We often teased him for sweating profusely even when not doing strenuous exercise!

Helping Chan always were YM Lim and Bennett Tan. Lim was also an honest and earnest chap with an abundance of energy. His favourite phrase was "Come, let's go" once he set his mind on something. He was from St Andrews and friends with my BMT buddy Kum Fatt. He would play the role Kum Fatt did during BMT leading the platoon in song with me. Somehow, I found folks from St Andrews and CJC to be very outgoing and adventurous. Folks from Hwa Chong and National tended to be a bit more studious. They often preferred to read. I remember how Chan liked to read Chinese wuxia novels in his spare time.

Bennett was a tall skinny chap who walked with a stoop. Like Lim, he was not afraid to speak his mind. But he was non-confrontational and had a mediator-type personality. He also laughed easily and showed a lot of concern for his fellow mates. Bennett went on to join the Army and last I heard, he was of Colonel rank.

Quite a few fellas stood out in my platoon. There was Karam Singh with his unmistakable mustache. He was tall and Persian-looking. Quite fair. We used to call him Modern Singh (or rather PC Ang did) because he did not wear a turban. Karam was soft-spoken but exuded an air of quiet confidence. He did worry about his OCS  training and took his lessons quite seriously. But he was game for anything when it came to fun and games. He was quite pally with Gerard because both liked to play pranks. Karam could pull a prank on you and keep a straight face. But the thing I liked about these two were how super helpful they were. You could call on them in a pinch and they would help you no matter what. Karam did not like violence and failed miserably in boxing. Like me both of them were later retained as OCS Mentor instructors. I am very sure cadet trainees under them enjoyed their OCS terms with these two wonderful gentlemen.

Willie was a tall strapping chap who liked to talk but was a bit naive. I blame it on his pious Christian unbringing. He has a curl of a lip that was unabashed about singing hymns all the time. He was the "Howdy-Doodle-Dandy" of the platoon, often strutting cheerfully about. He was also very helpful and his height and physical strength was an asset especially during mission time (like when evacuating casualty. He would often just volunteer himself to fireman lift the 'injured'. The bad thing was because of his size, PC Ang would also pick him as casualty so that we would all have a tough time evacuating someone large (same with Karam, actually)) and rugby. I remember him well because he and I boxed against one another. He was rather an undisciplined bull in the ring and I did not have much trouble outboxing him. It was nice the way he danced about but he was actually quite clueless about boxing strategies. I guess he was naive (and honest) like that. Of all the cadets, he was the most 'Rambo' about military training in dress and manner. There was certainly a lot of  boyishness in that young man.

Gerard, I've introduced him before as our platoon's resident joker and GSO (girl supply officer). He's the most outspoken chap and also the shortest. He had a Cheshire Cat smugness about him. He didn't like anything negative and would counter it with a "Eh, (like 'Wait one darn second...')" You could call him an eternal optimist. He was effective in that manner not perturbed by any failure, why I guess he was also successful in nabbing the girls. But I think it had more to do with his personality and him treating them as friends and equals. He certainly was not shy about talking them up as he demonstrated ably with the lady cadets from G Company when we came together for a function. If he didn't become a lawyer, it would have been such a waste!

Eddy was a section mate of Gerard and they both got on well. The two of them were about the same height and often got buddied together. They liked to talk but Eddy came across as more colloquial. You can say he looked more like a farmer's son with his tanned complexion and buckteeth. In a way, Eddy was more conversational and less smug. I remember him as the guy to go to for snacks and such (like kiam sern tee). He was the cheerful sort that took things as fated. He and I spent a weekend together in the barracks when both of us got 'signed extra' by our PC. When he walked about in his flipflops, he ambled along casually like an old man (plus he was skinny and stooped). He did come across as an old soul now that I think about it. He was also one of the chaps who liked to cook during our defence exercises. For some reason, Chan liked to hang about him. I think it was because of the wuxia novels. Eddie was knowledgeable about them. The few of us did have a Lantern Night party in a bunker on a mountain in Taiwan. Yup, it was during a major defence exercise (a.k.a trench dig-in).

Perhaps an even older soul would be Tong, who with Eddy and Gerard made up the three most outstanding short persons in the platoon. Tong was our conscience because he always spoke out against any unfairness or injustice in the platoon. He had an old raspy voice which he would lose on occasion. He and Eddy liked to converse (and complain) in Hokkien. They were bunkmates.

A person that mirrored Tong in outlook and manner was Danny, who was in my section and bunk. Danny proved himself excellent in admin and when he graduated from OCS, he was retained as the TCO for Delta Company. Danny was a very pious Buddhist and would make time to read his scriptures. He was badly bitten by sandflies in Brunei once and was scarred all over for a long time (I am not sure if it has even completely healed today. The itch inducing pesticides in the bites usually linger for many years.) It seemed Danny was particularly allergic to the bites. I caught him on Channel NewsAsia recently as their in-house analyst and commentator.

Probably the last person I want to mention in this section is Ling, who was skinny but had a paunch. He and I came through the same BMT Mad Dog Wee platoon and hence was also very fit. Despite his physique, he could run very well. He graduated from OCS with the Top Physical prize. Ling was an observant chap with a shy manner about him. But he had a super loud voice very ideal for commanding parades. He's a good chap and very helpful.

Well, these are just some of the interesting characters in this Platoon 10 of mine in OCS Delta Company. I will write more about the rest in another chapter. Looking back, I think my platoon had quite a few members who liked to talk or chat. Often, these were the fellas who did well and got retained as instructors in OCS upon graduation. But their chattiness, and humour, made the difference during that nine months of strenuous Cadet training. It helped to talk cock and sing song a bit. I mean, isn't that what Army life is all about when not holding a rifle and charging up a hill?

Previous story: Jungle Survival Training; Next story: A Platoon of Characters II

Jungle Survival Training

One of the things we learned before going to the jungles of Brunei for infantry training was Jungle Survival. The course equipped us with the necessary skills to survive when lost in a place like that. There are pluses and minuses for being lost in a jungle as compared to, say, the desert: it is a much better deal. For one, there's usually water and fruit. But if creepy crawlies and close spaces terrify you, then the jungle can be a nightmare. In any case, you don't have to go to Brunei to get lost. Singaporeans have been to known to lose themselves in a small green patch such as Mandai.

Our Jungle Survival training course was conducted by one of the Tactics Team instructor teams (TT1, I think). My batch in OCS was the second last one to undergo such a system of instruction. My cohort and I would later graduate to form the new Mentor system. This is something you can read more here.

The Tactics Team officer in charge of the JS course was a skinny chap known to be quite skilled in tactics but was also a rather humorous chap. It's always nice to have an instructor with a sense of humour. They usually make training so much more enjoyable.

But on that day, for some reason, Lt Goh KC looked out of his depth. He seemed rather unprepared. Staff Sgt Karu had to step in after the intro. He's our platoon sergeant and Ranger-trained. A portly Indian with a handlebar moustache, he had been known to catch stray dogs in Marsiling and cook them in curry. When out in the field, he was seldom without his khukri knife - a standard issue made popular by the Ghurka guards in Singapore. It was something the SAF folks liked to buy back when in Brunei or Thailand. Today, you can buy one from the army supply shops in Beach Road or that professional dagger shop in Chinatown. But buy a lousy one and it'll rust faster than you can put it back in its sheath!!!

Weighted at the kink of its blade, the khukri knife is designed for swinging and chopping like an axe. It's very good for slicing snake, for instance. And that was the first thing on the menu at our JS course.

As snake blood is nutritious, we were encouraged to kill one and suck on its blood. A python is ideal as it is large and voluminous. It's also non-venomous, which makes it a safer reptile to corner and catch. Just avoid pythons thicker than your thigh as they will coil you up in a death embrace.

I grew up with a neighbour with a python so I'm not too scared of one. I've also drunk pigeon blood before as a kid (see here). When Staff Karu sliced our course Exhibit 1 and asked for a volunteer to drink it, a few hands shot up, including mine. Willie, a tall strapping chap, was picked to go first. He sucked on the beheaded snake, which was about two inches in diameter. Nothing came out. Apparently Staff Karu was fooling around with him, squeezing the snake tight so no blood came out. When he did let go, blood splurted out and Willie got a bit of it on his face and PT shirt.

After that, I hesitated. Who would want to suck on the same snake with saliva all over it???

The chicken was next. It would be killed WITHOUT a knife. How? A cadet suggested jokingly to stomp on it. Haha, everybody laughed. No one knew the answer. (Strangely, no one suggested shooting at it.)

If you do not have a knife with you in the jungle, there is a technique to beheading a chicken. You grab it by the head, twirl it around and give it a good jerk. The neck would snap and the head separate, informed Lt Goh, who seemed to have recovered from his hangover and found his groove again.

To demonstrate, Staff Karu picked Cadet Lee, a rather effeminate but talkative fella. I think he knew what was gonna to happen. Cadet Lee got squeamish and did not get a good firm grip on the chicken. When he tried the Twirl-Clean-and-Jerk technique, all he accomplished was give the chicken a sprained neck. He even dropped the critter when it struggled. We now all have to chase the animal and get it back on the GS table with the rest of the (albeit inert) jungle food.

When Cadet Lee tried it a second time, the chicken died but its head was still attached. Sgt Karu gave him a look of exasperation. It was to tell Cadet Lee that he was a "useless bugger" - Staff Karu's two favourite words.

Staff Karu then took the dead chicken in one hand and with a sudden jerk sent the dead chicken flying without its head. Blood flew and splattered all over those sitting in the front row. Fortunately, we were all sitting outdoors on a grass patch by a training shed.

Lt Tan took out another live chicken and showed us again how it is done. This time, the head and body came apart in one clean motion. The body landed feet first and started running! "That's what is supposed to happen," he said, and jokingly added that it would remain 'fast food' for a while. He was right. The headless chicken ran in circles for a bit, got tired and dropped dead.

Staff Karu then proceeded to teach us how to cook the chicken 'jungle style'. It was similar in preparation to what I would buy later from JB: Beggar's Chicken - something wrapped in clay and cooked in a large charcoal ash pit. In the jungle, you use mud and pile a wood fire on top. You keep the chicken intact with its feathers.

In a documentary I once saw, some Thai islanders would cook the chicken in a different manner. They would wrap it in mud and put on the ground. They then place a clean and empty kerosene tin over the mud pack and pile a wood fire around it. The chicken seemed to cook better and looked a lot more appetising using this rural method then the 'bury-in-the-ground' method.

The next thing the instructors taught us was how to tell if certain fruits are edible. One way is to taste it. Another is to watch if animals would eat the same thing too (e.g. monkeys, as they are our closest cousins). The third way is to rub a little of its juice on the inside of your elbow. If there's no reaction, it isn't poisonous. But really, in a tropical jungle, there are many types of figs and berries (which are both nutritious and delicious). One just have to learn to distinguish between what is inedible and that which is not.

There are also underground roots like ginger, yam and tapioca to dig up. With ginger, teh alia (ginger tea) comes to mind.

Then the instructors talked about mushrooms. I didn't pay much attention to that. To me, mushrooms are high risk. I rather just avoid them all together unless I get expert advice. Then again, even so-called 'experts' have been known to make fatal mistakes.

The other important thing to do when lost in a jungle is to find water. Surprisingly, after our actual trip to Brunei, we realised that water was the easiest thing to find. It's all in the overhanging vines, the brown ones, that is. Chop one and the ends would drip with much water. The other way is to collect dew using a plastic sheet.

In Taiwan, we never drank water from a stream, no matter how clean it looked. Back in the 70s, many growers used pesticide and this had poisoned the water underground; hence streams and lakes too. So when we were there in the early 80s, we avoided outside water like the plague. Even the water purification tablets were of no help. I'm not sure if the situation has improved since.

The Jungle Survival Course ended with some talk about eating bugs. I know people roast locusts and even grasshoppers. But one look at the creature's greenish abdomen and I find it tough to bite into one. There's always this expectation of green-yellow goo oozing out. It's not pretty and probably not very palatable (and probably non-existent after cooking). I knew of Malay boys in Marsiling who did that when I was a teenager, roasting the critters at the disused Ruthenia oiling jetty.

In any case, ants are a better option. But if I am lost in a jungle, I think I'll just stick to a 'Fruit and Snake' diet. No fire required. But the best thing is not to get lost at all.

Next story: A Platoon of Characters

Golf Company

One positive thing about being part of the Demolition Team in OCS is that our office was in the Golf Company Block. In OCS at the time, the cadet companies (three platoons make a company) were housed in A to G blocks. A-B-C on one side of the road, F-E-D on the other side. They formed a U-shape with C and D blocks the furthest in. For some reason, the first block before A was designated as G Company, which only housed female cadets when their Officer Cadet Course was in session.

If women find men attractive in uniform, I can say the same of men finding women irresistible in such attire too. That bearing, that tautness of the uniform, that swept-up hair bunned up to expose the slender nape of neck, etc. - It all combines to scream smartness and sensuality. It's no different from a comely office-lass togged in a power suit. The only difference would be the missing high-heels!

Can it be that I am a closet S&M person loving to be whipped and dominated by a power-hungry dominatrix?

Maybe!

But during my time in OCS, there were some very sweet Golf cadets and officers. (In army-speak, the letter G stands for the word golf.)

During my NS, SAF women held mostly non-combat positions: Admin Head or something; It's from what I observed in OCS and read from Pioneer Magazine during that time. I suppose I could have done better to find out more. But the population of female officers was low in SAFTI then. Many were also based away at the Infantry HQ near the entrance of the camp away from OCS. Away from the prying eyes of us hormone-raging boys.

The head of OCS G Company was a Capt Tan (I think), a mature woman probably in her late 30s or early 40s. She was pleasant and wore a countenance seasoned by years in command. If Harold from Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle movie saw her, he would label her as an MILF. In other words, a Hot Mama. Incidently, John Cho's character in that movie has been forever associated with the MILF term, which irritated the actor to no end. You want to be famous for something more decent, not dirty like that. What's worse is that the term hit on a sexual trend with the result being the creation of a new porn category catering to guys (or gals) who dig MILFs.

If Capt Tan was attractive, her platoon commander was even more so and together they were a double whammy to us female-starved officers in OCS.

It made our work at the Demo Team Office both a pleasure and a distraction. Our office was on the ground floor in a corner of their block. I remember we had to keep our distance and not enter their premises without valid reason. The staircases in their block were actually gated; the male cadet ones were not. OCS rules were strict like that. After all, we guys there outnumbered the girls like 25: 1.

As cadets, we were very curious about our female counterparts and would steal glances whenever we bumped into them in or outside the cookhouse. I am sure they all felt like diamonds being ogled at by pauper thieves.

I still remember the face of one cute girl we boys all talked about. She had straight hair, sparkly eyes and a cute button nose. She was in the mould of actress Felicia Chin but with some steel. We would eventually get to know her at our passing-out party. That's what the school tries to do every time, create opportunity for us boys and girls to meet and pair off.

A female friend who was in Nursing and who had hosteled at the Singapore General Hospital during her training days told me they were often smuggled out to RSAF officer commissioning parties. So if you happen to know a couple who is an Airforce pilot and nurse, you would know how they have met. It was sneaky the way the government tries to get people hitched. Start with the uniformed services as they are most obedient and available.

The lady cadets in Golf Company learned a different syllabus during their Officer Cadet Course. It included Basic Military Training. One of the courses during BMT was grenade throwing which my team would help conduct. This gave us reason to get up close and personal with the female cadets.

My bachelor Sgt Lee was particularly cheered by it, as was Sgt Charles who had a girlfriend. However, that kind of training isn't suited to socialising at all. One false move and people you like could be blown to kingdom come.

Not a few times, their grenades failed to go off. We would then have to descend down the sandy slopes of the firing range to get rid of the duds. It was all rather harrowing and after a while, we decided it was better to be stuck in the office playing computer games then go and help them with the lessons. But it was all wishful thinking as we were the only ones qualified to teach grenade lobbing and clear blinds.

In any case, the presence of the Golf Company Cadets added a soft touch to an otherwise all-male environment. In some sense, they reminded us of our duty to protect and serve. Our girlfriends, sisters and mothers - people who often hold the fort at home - are our responsibility to protect come war. I know it is male bravado chest-beating, but it is this that makes our training more sensible and a little more bearable. If we ogled at the Golf Cadets, it was our National Duty!

Besides, with the comely Golf Company Cadets in the cookhouse, Army Food always seemed to taste a whole lot better!

Related story: Lost Fingers
Next story: Jungle Survival Training

Army Guys and Porn

Today is Valentine's Day... which may not be such a good time to talk about pornography. I mean, today's the day to be all lovey-dovey and stout-of-heart and not about jerking off and finding release. But then again, when things get a bit too amorous, erotic feelings might just rise their head or throw opportunities wide open. *wink wink.

The prude in you might object. But really, I just want to talk about army guys and porn. If you had been an NSman, you would know what I am talking about. But my first encounter with porn was not during NS. It was during JC 1.

At the time there were a couple of well-off guys in my school badminton team. One of them was a Chinese-Indonesian from Commerce stream and he would share with us magazines like Hustler and Playboy. Actually, these two magazines weren't that terrible or "yellow". Very well-written articles about our social condition could be found in them (rather frank ones, I must add) - especially in Playboy. But I think my teammate cared less about reading and more about eye-candy. He also had porn mags that were rather triple X rated. But somehow, this teammate did not come across as a sleazebag. He seemed more worldly than the rest of us "kwai-kwai" Singaporean types. Still, like the rest of us, he couldn't escape the influence of raging hormones at that vulnerable age.

Come to think of it, that was not my first exposure to such magazines. The very first time was in Sec 3 when we students were out for technical workshop lessons at another school. A classmate showed us where to get some porn magazines. It was also a place where we kids could go gamble if we so wished. That story is over here.

My first real encounter with such salacious content was when I discovered my dad's stash of playing cards. Nothing very suspicious about them except they depicted 1950s naked women in various topless poses. Miss Ace of Spade was particularly fetching. And guess what? There was also a similar pack of cards for the ladies - all 52 cards featuring Brylcreem-haired lads in their birthday suits showing off their pecs and peckers.

For a young boy curious about the female anatomy and where his own manhood was heading, these playing cards were very educational. If anything, these pictures told me that our body forms have no standard template. And like that fruit banana, they too came in different shapes and sizes. Same with papayas and mangoes, I supposed (just to be gender fair in my choice of sexual innuendos!)

For me, it wasn't such a big deal. When I was a little kid in Sarawak, I had seen topless Iban woman bringing fruit to my mom. I am not kidding, the fruit brought to our home were indeed papayas. It all seemed very natural like those topless Bali women that our local artist, the late Liu Kang, liked to paint.

How did my family end up with such playing cards? Well, they were brought back by my dad from working in Vietnam in the 60s. He was there for two years with the Caterpillar Co providing plant-support work to the American war effort in Indochina. 'Plant' to mean heavy machinery like earth diggers and excavators.

My mom knew we siblings were aware of the cards. But she was not too strict about it. All she said was: "Put them back after you are done" and that was that. If we stole any more glances, I am sure we would have gotten whacked with the cane. That had more to do with disobeying her than handling the picture cards. In any case, there's nothing pornographic about a guy or gal posing in the nude by themselves. There was no sex act. It was all very modeling-like, even artistic and educational!

However, that sex act thing would come later. It first happened when I was ten years old and when my parents brought us children to the cinema to watch that unrestrained 1970s documentary called Sex and the Animals. It was meant to be an educational trip. My parents were both open and forward like that. After the movie, I could not forget two incredible scenes: One, an amorous male frog still clamping onto his female partner two weeks after the sex act; two, an elephant's penis dragging on the floor like a long piece of damp rope. For a 10-year-old, that scene was not only mind-blowing. It was absolutely eye popping!

The second time I witnessed such coitus was eight years later when I was enjoying some time-off during my OCS Senior Term.

It was a Saturday morning and we were all in our PT kit relaxing in the cadet mess (army-term for recreational room). We had just cleared our stores (i.e. training equipment) after a major exercise. Someone had brought along a videotape and word was that it was rather special. I think it was Gerard, our platoon resident joker and GSO (girl-supply officer) who, I think, was responsible.

The title of the movie was Lady Chatterly's Lover. My first thought was that it was all very Dickensian. Well, my guess wasn't that far off as the movie was indeed a British period piece of lords and manors. But the story was something else.

We were soon pretty glued to the TV as the story unfolded. There's the fetching Lady Chatterly who was obviously mismatched to her elderly, paralysed and impotent husband. She was obviously suited to the unmarried and studly gamekeeper with the manly mustache. You know what is going to happen soon enough after they bumped into each other in the garden and started exchanging glances. There isn't going to be a three-some in this semi-autobiographical tale by DH Lawrence.

Lady Chatterly's Lover has been hailed as a porn-flick success in the adult film industry. Its portrayal of sexual coitus and lust was gradual and sensual, not wham-bang typical of most porn flicks short on story but long on action (much too long in my opinion).

For once, somebody got the story direction and flow right, of how a lady of the house might fall for hired help and be viewed in a sympathetic light. She's not just some object to be undressed and get banged up without any foreplay.

I liked Lady Chatterly's Lover for two reasons: One, the tender way in which the gamekeeper made love to her (remember that scene where he laid flowers on her naked body?) and two, the proper story that carried all that "hei-sho hei-sho" action (terms as used by Ms Lulu of The Noose). It just didn't seem porno at all. Maybe a tad voyeuristic.

And how we young men and cadets got our eyes glued to the TV that day. We learned not a few lessons, chief of which was how we could all watch that X-rated material and not get caught! It was in broad daylight and near the OCS HQ!

Later, as an officer, I would encounter fellow officers watching porn after 11pm at the officer mess. At 11pm, we would have finished playing snooker and about to head back to our bunks at the E Block barrack. One of the guys was the brother of the girl I had dated. He was supposed to be a very religious young man but yet, there he was getting his porno fix.

Although I never joined those officers in their after-hours movie viewing, I must admit to watching a few when that Annabel Chong's Gang Bang saga exploded on our local news scene. It was more out of curiosity than anything else. But in the process, I discovered that it was very easy to find porno stuff on the World Wide Web. You don't even have to pay for it, why I think parents should be more diligent, especially if their kids get hooked on stuff like that.

The thing with porn vids is that they get boring after a while, why I look back on that Lady Chatterly's Lover flick with some fondness. You meet a girl, you like her and somehow end up sharing the most intimate moments together. Isn't that how it should be? Of course, there's the hapless husband who did actually close an eye to the whole affair so his wife could be sexually happy. True love or simply a naive, cuckolded husband?

Scholars have given Lawrence's story the thumbs up. They hailed it as "not one of sexual passage but that of the search for one's integrity and wholeness." The lady learns that sex is not shameful and disappointing (as often perceived in those corsetted times) and the interloper learns of the spiritual challenges that follow physical love.

An older colleague of mine liked watching porn. I was twenty-something then and it was something I couldn't quite understand. After the initial thrill, porn gets very boring and pointless. It does turn women (mostly) into one-dimensional beings. The sexual act is only great if it is done as mutual sharing. An exploratory act even or worship. But this older colleague had something to say. His reason was: "When you get older and when younger women no longer bat you an eyelid, you'll understand."

I think I understood when I got older. It was during that infamous NYP Tammy video scandal which provided the insight. For some reason, I found her alluring. I guess which guy wouldn't when pandered to by a young thing? So my older colleague was just having a fantasy-substitution ride. "Look," he had said defensively then. "It's just harmless viewing. I don't harass women, call on prostitutes, do kiddy porn...I just watch the professional stuff."  Professional stuff? Ok, maybe he has a point. But the thing with porn is that all that consumer demand has been feeding a rather dubious industry. Were these women exploited? Is it all harmless? Remember, in Japan the porn industry is closely tied to gangsterism (aka the Yakuza) and other underworld activities. It is the same in other countries, except perhaps the United States. In the US, there are strong unions and industry groups for porn (or adult film industry, as they call it).

I like one quote from Gail Dines, the anti-porn campaigner and author of the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. She says: "I am not saying that a man reads porn and goes out to rape. But what I do know is that porn gives permission to its consumers to treat women as they are treated in porn."

More sobering are the stats in her book. For example, it has been found that guys who did kiddy porn will rape a child six months into the habit. This even if they were repulsed by that kind of porn initially.

A compelling insider's story of the porn industry is linked here: Shelley Lubben's story. It's informative on so many levels.

In any case, do behave yourselves this Valentine's Day. Do not get carried away. Love is best expressed as love for that person. Period. Everything else is secondary and time will come when intimacy is called for.

As I've read in Cosmopolitan once of a woman who finally found her true love after several affairs, the feeling of coitus at the time for her was one of sea waves smashing against the cliff rocks; of riding high among rolling clouds in the sky; of thunder and lightning cracking in her joints and loins leaving her weak and scared. Love, she finally realised, required total surrender. It left her pink in the cheeks and chilled to the lips. But she wouldn't have any other way. A guy would be so lucky to be loved (and made love to) like that.

Here's another solid talk about why we should not watch porn. Some keywords: genitalia hierarchy and sexual subordination....etc.
A good talk about porn and all its guises and insidiousness. About genitalia hierarchy and sexual subordination, etc.... TEDx Talk: Why I Stopped Watching Porn

Related story: R&R in Taiwan; Next story: Golf Company

Tough Cadet Training

Whenever OCS is brought up, the conversation invariably veer to how tough the training is.

It is a question that is not easy to answer. I believe any training is tough if you are not prepared for it - SAFINCOS, OCS, Ranger, Pathfinder, Commandos, Snipers, etc. - you name it.

My first instance of tough training was during BMT. It shouldn't have been but my mad dog of a PC got it in his mind to make us super fit so we would all qualify for OCS. What he did not foresee was scaring half the platoon into thinking OCS was worse than his BMT (which included leopard crawling in PT shorts across a field full of mimosa plants), and so withdrew from the selection process. The consolation for the few of us who did make it was that we were indeed super fit. So much  so that our first three months in OCS (Junior Term) was like a walk in the park. For the rest, the physical exertions were quite strenuous. The only thing we all had in common then was that we didn't get a whole lot of sleep.

OCS at the time was tough like that, and for a variety of reasons. We were being trained to lead, so as leaders-to-be, we were expected to be tougher than the men we would eventually lead. Physical fitness was paramount for an Infantry Soldier. You cannot be charging up a hill and collapsing from exhaustion before the first bullet is fired. Or be hyperventilating so much that you cannot give a proper command. For example: "I...I...We...We...flank...flank...damn it! Let me sit down for a bit!"

So, a lot of my OCS Junior Term time was spent building up on physical fitness. We did Runs, Road Marches, PT (physical training), IPPTs, Push Ups, SOC (std obstacle course), etc. The push-ups were quite a lot, no thanks to the zealousness of the often cruel Tactics Team Instructors. We dropped 20, 30, 50, 100, 200 "like nobody's business". In the Army, each generation of trainers would give back 20% more what cruel punishment they themselves had endured as trainees. It's like a father to son thing but in a perverse manner.

The other tough part of the training came from high expectations. If these were not met, we all got "turned out" at odd hours of the night to go running. Sometimes with fullpacks (not before falling in to pack and repack the darn thing). My platoon was quite fortunate in that we had a rather unusual PC. After some initial turnouts, he pretty much left us alone. His demand was simple: If we did not lose face for him, we could manage ourselves in whichever way we saw fit. And so we tried our darnest to do well for him to, 1) Avoid punishment; 2) Manage ourselves so as to have more free time.

If we lost face for him (like falling asleep while digging a trench) we would be swiftly punished. His punishment was simple: 'Take Extra', meaning there would be duties during the weekend. In other words, a weekend burnt spent in camp. No one liked his weekend burned, so we would do our darnest to avoid it. In the end, our Platoon 10 did well in all manner of tests, even outdoing the so-called Scholar Platoons in our Delta Company. Our PC's hands-off man-management method proved to be more effective than the old regimented Army Way.

Of course, even though our PC was hands-off, the instructors in OCS were not. They took us for lessons and training and so, we as cadets had to obey their every beck and call including all kinds of punishment dished out. Sometimes, even the Duty Officer was cocky and would turn out a platoon at will, if, let say, the Armskote was not done up properly for 'clearing' or some minor infringement.

So in OCS, we lived a life of temerity and worry, not sure when the next punishment or harassment might come. In between we fought to stay awake during lessons and try not to lose our way topo-ing (which would result in more extras being signed).

Planned physical exertions often came in the form of PT lessons. There was Log Training, exercises with the Medicine Balls, Rugby, Boxing, and Taekwondo. (I'd learnt Karate-Do but that did not excuse me from having to learn TKD)

Unplanned exertions were the overnight Topo Exercises, Missions, and Field Exercises. In the day we would practice our moves; at night we would go out for Missions. For tactical reasons, ambushes were often triggered near dawn. So by the time we finished, it would be eight in the morning. Often, we were allowed to sleep and than wake and attend lessons at around 10 A.M.; hardly enough time for 40 winks! (Back then in OCS, we had a saying: If a soldier can sleep anywhere, an officer cadet can sleep anywhere plus do it standing up with his eyes open!)

So an endless cycle of this and that left us cadets all stressed out and tired. When we got home, our mothers would make us ginseng and other herbal soups to keep us strong and healthy. There was Bird's Nest or Brand's Essence of Chicken too. Yes, we all drank quite a bit of that brown Essence of Chicken liquid, even smuggling some along for overseas training like Ex Lancer in Brunei. For Taiwan, I brought chocolates. Taiwan's weather is kinder and not so heaty!

In OCS during my time, some combat roles were extra tough. It involved carrying heavy weapons that were part of the Infantry Platoon's "estab" or organisation, that is. One such weapon was the 60mm Mortar. It took three men to form a team. One person to carry the base plate and tripod, two others to carry the ammo, sights and main tube. The ammo were usually simulated with sand in the canister tubes. Boy, was this weapon heavy to lug around. I think each man-pack weighed something like two and a half sacks of rice each. Ok for a short stretch, but after a while, it would start to weigh down terribly. Plus, the man-packs were made of tough aluminium with lousy padding. It dug into the flesh.

I recall that each time the platoon called for a halt, the Mortar folks would find a slope and rest against it. Trying to remove and put on the man-pack was just too heavy and cumbersome. And if you sat down on your bum, you would need someone to help and haul you up again. So heavy it was.

The 60mm Mortar was later replaced by the M203 Grenade Launcher.

Besides the 60mm Mortar, the Old Infantry Platoon had also the 84mm Recoiless Rifle as part of its firepower. It's unlike any rifle you have seen. It looks more like a rocket launcher because it is fired from the shoulder. But the 84mm RR loads and ejects like a rifle where a chamber has to be loaded and emptied. Maybe that's why it is called a "recoiless rifle" then. The 84mm RR was a two-men team: One to carry the rifle, the other to carry the ammo, which again was packed with sand for Training Purposes.

There was a  trying time with these weapons during Taiwan training. We were retreating from a Combat Situation and the poor chaps who were carrying the Mortar equipment had it the worst. They were lagging behind and straggling. In the end, all of us ran back and pitched in, taking turns to carry the equipment and pulling our guys back to the front of the retreating line. It did not help that we had big-sized pretend-casualties to carry as well.

It is tough training in an open and scenic location such as Taiwan. Brunei was all infested tropical jungle terrain mostly unpleasant. But still, the training in Taiwan was invaluable. It opened our small island minds to a bigger expanse of a country. Flanking a hill took on new dimensions in time and space.

During my time, OCS was still in SAFTI at Pasir Laba. It was right at the end of the road in. My company, Delta, was in the last building. Years later, this building would be demolished to make way for an intruding highway. By then, OCS had shifted to the new and modern SAFTI Military Institute.

Back then, the old SAFTI was surrounded by Army Training Areas. We often did evening runs to these places. One place has more significance: Pengkang Hill. It's a dreaded place in SAFTI Lore. In the past, cadets were brought up there to sprint up its steep, slippery gravel slopes and be punished if they didn't make it. Cadets would end up with bad cuts, bruised knees and sprained ankles. Some were even made to "leopard crawl" up.

However, during my time, any activity on Pengkang Hill was banned, and it is ironic that my BMT PC actually made us run up there rather than my OCS PC. Now you know why we named him Mad Dog Wee. (The link to that story is below.)

Although we skipped Pengkang Hill, one place close to it made OCS training tough: Trench Fighting Hill.

It's just a low hill with a maze of reinforced trenches built in it. There we learned essential Trench Fighting Drills like how to organise ourselves in such a maze to flush out an enemy, and what to do if someone lobbed a grenade in. We developed Code Words to tackle that kind of situation. "Apple" for hostile grenades, "Orange" was for our own. We learnt how to clear fortified positions and fight off tears if caught in a Trench Bunker full of smoke.

The tough part of Trench Training was all that and more. Mostly it had to do with moving about constantly in a trench all crouched up and bent. We moved this way to keep our heads low and out of target. Soldiers who didn't during war time usually got their heads blown off. When that happens, even a steel helmet is of little use.

After a short time Trench Training, we all developed "thunder thighs". Even Badminton Champion Liem Swee King didn't have thighs as impressive as ours! And it was no fun aching like that for weeks on, walking like cowboys in the mean time. That's physical toughness for you.

So, is OCS tough? Yes, but if you are fit and can do things quickly and efficiently, then there is no problem. Also, learn to command (forget the Hollywood stereotypes) and command well when asked. I've found it useful to read more war stories, especially those involving jungle warfare. The ones from the Vietnam War are all very practical and instructional. But I think the simple rule for Infantry Commanders is: "Adapt and trained your men well and bring everyone home alive."

Most of all, no matter how tough the training is, keep your dignity, integrity and sense of humour. In the end, no one likes a lousy mate... in OCS or after becoming an officer. Or even as an NCO for that matter.

Afternote: You can read my BMT story here: Mad Dog Wee.  Related story: Mr Sign Extra Next story: Army Guys and Porn 

Cadet Taiwan 2 - R and R (Noodles, Books and Tiger Shows)

We cadets, of course, looked forward to our R&R at the end of our long period of Taiwan training. At the time, we weren't sure if our R&R destination was going to be Kaoshiung or Taipei. For some reason, we were told to expect the decision later. It turned out to be the industrial city of Kaoshiung. We were disappointed but not by much.

Before we left, we were given condoms to bring along. SAF soldiers were then known to be quite notorious in the red light districts of both cities.

I still remember that time we were given those lifesavers. We were all in our all-white PT kit sitting on those shared large wooden bunk beds cleaning our weapons for the very last time. In came our appointment-holder sergeant, a fellow cadet named Lim. He plonked down a plastic bag of condoms on the bed and ordered them to be passed around. "Each one take two, whether you are going to use it or not. I don't want any of them back," he said laughingly. Lim was efficient but also quite the joker. What he said was perfectly understandable. The Army had to be seen doing its job of offering sexual health aids to its 'blur', 'sotong' soldiers. And what would shy Cadet Lim do with all that prophylactics if we refused? Play stud?

I was amused at the time as I wondered which amongst us educated officer-to-be cadets would do the dumb thing of visiting a prostitute. I could understand if a Hokkien Peng soldier did that.. Not us so-called educated blokes who should know better. Of course, I was rather naive then. Visiting a prostitute has nothing to do with a person's education level. Just look at the scandal now enveloping the Civil Service in Singapore. Top civil servants involved in an online vice ring? And one of them an ex-principal of a well-known school some more. Who would expect that?

Of course, boys will always be boys. We opened the condom packs and started fooling around. Some made balloons while others showed how the condom could waterproof an M16 rifle, our wife. The Army was right: these sex aids were indeed very useful!

Kaohsiung City didn't turn out to be that bad at all. Even then it was already a proper city with wide thoroughfares and multistorey glass and concrete buildings (albeit just one or two though). Me and my buddies went to one (that looked like Takashimaya) and slurped up beef noodles at a foodcourt at the top level. The food court was an open-concept one right next to an amusement centre for kids. The noodles they served were fine (like our mee kia) and tasted handmade. It was famously from Taichung - a city we;;-known for its noodles. But the portions were small. I ended up eating three sets which drew wide-eyed looks of wonderment from that sweet girl serving us.

After the meal, we decided to look for a bookshop. At the time, Kaoshiung was the pirate book capital of Asia and I was under orders to buy certain texts for my brother's Marine Engineering course. He also advised me to pick up a title or two for my later Engineering studies at the local university. At the bookshop, we noted that a thick economic textbook was very popular with would-be students from Singapore. Another one was Grey's Anatomy, a popular but very expensive text (in original form) with the medical students.

I bought my school books (which were heavy) and also an extra lovely one on architectural rendering techniques. I still make reference to it even today. At the time I intended to make the switch from Engineering to Architecture if the administrative folks allowed.

Many of the pirated books were printed on cheap jotter paper and the illustrations in grey scale. Only the covers were of thick and embossed quality not unlike those offered by the photocopy shops in Queensway Shopping Centre. All the pirated books were priced at a fraction of the cost of the originals.

After the bookshop, we returned to our hotels to drop off the heavy items. We then went and explored Kaohsiung a bit more. At various trinket stalls, vendors were always trying to sell us "ma lao" or red jadite, which is still a major export product for Taiwan. That was not the first time we heard about such jade though.

Back at Base Camp, vendors were allowed to sell us cadet outside things in the canteen. Most sold ma lao and Cat's Eye - a dark grey or brown gemstone with a shiny slit band in the middle that made it look like the iris shape of a cat's eye, hence its name. They also tried to sell us all sorts of "kiam sern tee" or preserved tidbits. There were also local fruits.

Walking around the streets of Kaohsiung, we could not help but notice many Taiwanese girls riding scooters on their own. With a scooter, one could still wear a long swishy dress, still very feminine. Also, back then, helmet wearing wasn't compulsory yet and a few female riders could be seen wearing a sun hat or headscarf instead. It was all very charming and feminine. It was quite the sight when 10 or more scooters stopped at a traffic light.

At our hotel, a rumour was going around that someone had arranged for a Tiger Show. For the blur sotong, a Tiger Show is not a Siegfried and Roy-type of animal circus. It is a cabaret show that featured a woman doing unimaginable but incredible things with her privates. She could swallow up a beer bottle; spit out ping-pong balls like a machine gun (like that scene in the movie Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), or snap a sugarcane in two. That last bit is worth the admission ticket alone, I was told. If she could snap a sugarcane in two, what about your less than iron-clad dick?

I heard a Tiger Show performer could even swallow razor blades with her incredible vagina - a fact that would make anyone go "ewww", cross their legs, and hope not to die!

Of course, I was both disgusted and fascinated by such talk. In the end, I decided not to beladen my mind with such memories and so did not add my name to the list of patrons. I was sure the performer could do with the extra money, but I just couldn't bring myself to watch something quite like that. Such Tiger Shows would become staple for subsequent SAF soldiers who went to Taiwan and remained talked about for a long time. (A female editor friend of mine at a magazine once arranged a Tiger Show for a girlfriend's shower here in Singapore. I believe it took place at The Mandarin. Needless to say, they were all traumatised by the event and one even threw up. But that did not stop my editor friend from writing about her experience in the subsequent magazine issue.)

Before we left for R&R, our Staff Sergeant Karu did warn us to be wary of midnight knocks on our hotel doors. My buddies and I were allocated  a room on the fourth floor and worried about it. At around 1 am, sure enough, a lady knocked on my door and asked if I wanted "a xiao jie" (lady). I said no and went back to sleep.

The next morning, me and my buddy talked about it over breakfast. He was fast asleep and did not wake. We also saw a couple of xiao jies leaving the hotel. They weren't at all the skimpily-clad startlet sort with bad make-up. Most were plumpish and dressed like your average "da jie". She could have been my neighbour with a kid in kindergarten. I don't know, maybe I was too sold on 70's Hollywood image of a hooker back then.

The whole experience was rather startling. But if movies were to be believed, then the way the prostitutes behaved in a recent top-grossing Korean movie is even more unusual. In that film (titled The Chaser), prostitutes would even drive and pick up their clients and bring them to wherever they wanted the 'deed' done. This appear to make the whole economic transaction a 'buyer's market' in Korea. Is it really like that? Apparently the story was based on a real-life incident about a prostitute serial killer. (Now you can understand why it was so easy for the killer to nab his victims. They served themselves up literally!)

Another thing Staff Sgt Karu told us was to be wary when inside a barber shop. He said they provided more than just hair trimming services. It beggars the imagination of how big the sex industry was in Kaohsiung then. It would appear that every mother, daughter, aunt, hairstylist was involved in it somehow, maybe even the lady who served you beef noodles might throw in something 'extra'. The heresay and rumours became rather ridiculous (to me at least) after a while. But then again, without uniform servicemen, places like Bangkok and Subic Bay (in the Phillipines) might not have become so notorious and infamous. And we Singaporean soldiers training in Taiwan did do our part in helping create such a nefarious industry there. This aside, I remember coming across an adult cinema during one of my strolls through the backlanes of the city. It was small and seemed to be part of a dilapidated warehouse complex.

In any case, my overall R&R in Kaohsiung wasn't too bad. I really enjoyed the street food. The one thing I took away from that place wasn't the Tiger Show nor was it the brazen ladies-of-the-night calling. Nor was it the pushy salesgirls trying to sell me ma lao jade all the time. It was that traffic there could be a killer. Whether it was bike or taxi, the folks there drove with impunity, crisscrossing lanes and weaving in and out of traffic with no regard for rules or their own lives even. It was very similar to the traffic lawlessness in India or Batam today.

After a narrow miss waiting to cross a side street, I remember thinking how silly it would be for me to survive mountainous Taiwan army training to be killed like a stray dog on the street. That was something the good folks in the Army did not warn us about. No amount of condoms is going to help me with that one if I didn't open my own eyes to what's zooming about me. 

Afternote: It would be 12 years later that I revisited Taiwan for army training. This time the R&R was in Taipei. Traffic might have improved but the same sexual activities still beckoned, including that infamous Tiger Show. 

Related story: Army Guys & Porn Next story: Tough Cadet Training

Cadet Taiwan 1 - Training

I think as a cadet, we all looked upon our impending training in Taiwan as some sort of expansive military training that included travel. It's not the same as Brunei. Brunei was more jungle and back to basics. Taiwan, we romanticised as a place of natural beauty with scenic and spiritual mountains and valleys and rice fields.

We also understood that in Taiwan, Point A to Point B would be wholly further than the same two points in Singapore! But that's ok. The cool weather in Taiwan made walking that distance a pleasure (or so we imagined).

We went to Taiwan during our Senior Term in OCS when we were already "lao chiau" (old bird) cadets; it was just another exercise for us (named Ex Starlight). But to those who were vying for the Sword of Honor award, Taiwan training was proofing ground for appointment holders. I had no such aspirations, so I pretty much looked forward to our "holiday" trip.

To Brunei, we flew on C130 cargo planes; to Taiwan, we took SIA planes. That itself said something very different about our training focus.

From the airport, we took a long bus ride to Hengchun - a dusty outpost right at the southern tip of the Taiwan island.

We stayed in old single and double-storeyed brick/plaster buildings with peeling paint, and slept on communal wooden bunkbeds (long, wide ones). We did everything communal then. When we bathed, we scooped cold water from a waist-high cement trough in the centre of the bathroom. When we pooped it was a squat over a long drain that ran through all the cubicles. God bless if the person in the cubicle before you was having diarrhea; everything would just run by you if someone flushed. As you can expect in such a situation, toilet ceremonies were accomplished with a minimum of fuss. Who could loiter and read in such conditions? (The rush to the toilet was usually to "secure" the use of the first toilet in the row, to avoid all the other "shit", so to speak!)

Although training was tough, I enjoyed my Taiwan topo the most. We crisscrossed mountains and many farmlands. The scenery was unlike anything most of us have seen, not even in Malaysia, except perhaps Cameron Highlands. There were a couple of memorable incidents: One time, my topo group bumped into another and we decided to join force. The six or so of us were hungry and thirsty. Not long after, we chanced upon an orchard and walked by a pomelo tree with some 12-14 ripe fruits hanging invitingly in the air. The tree was average sized but narrow, no taller than the usual rambutan tree in Singapore. We knew the fruits were ripe because a few had already dropped to the ground.

Having eaten all the fruits we could pick up (and checking to see that no one was around) we used the last pomelo as a tossing cannonball to knock the others off their high perches. Down they came with hardly a dent (there was ample of us to catch the falling ones). Incredibly we sat there and ate them all up, cradling our rifles all the time in case we needed to scoot. That was one satisfying fruit "robbing" trip, better than drinking those instant lemonade drink the SAF provided in our combat rations. The pomelo juice was all natural!

However, as good soldiers, we felt guilty looking at the bare tree afterwards and so decided to leave some money behind as recompense. We jammed the notes into the latch-lock of a small shed by the tree. We hoped the amount would be enough for what we took! Oddly enough, that was the only pomelo tree there. Perhaps we were destined to run into this "giving" tree*, haha. (*A Shel Silverstein book reference.)

Another time, after sampling some soft and juicy pear-sized guava fruit (walking through an orchard no less), we came upon a stretch of light forested area that was filled with large grey spiders. Usually chatty and talking cock during open topo trips like this, we for once shut up and held out our rifles in front of us. That way, we could break any web that might happen to lay across our path. The way we were supposed to go was a footpath through a light secondary forest; we had little choice but to continue. With so many spiders to the left and right of us, the whole passage was quite unnerving. Besides, the situation was made worse with daylight failing. Fortunately, we managed to tiptoe our way out of there without incident. No spider attacked us nor anyone turned hysterical!

At the end of the path, we turned each other round to make sure no eight-legged furball hitched a ride on our SBOs and full-packs. And guess what? We later learned that Taiwan was home to giant brown tarantulas as well. I guess it was good that we did not know that fact earlier or else we would have high-tailed out of there like schoolgirls seeing a ghost. That would have caused some post traumatic stress disorder or PSTD, eh? Man, that would be most embarrassing!

I enjoyed topo-ing through the south of Taiwan very much. It was all very scenic and nostalgic. Often we would come across some charming hamlet with an old Chinese house dating back to the early century, set in some valley painted rush yellow by rice fields waiting to be harvested. There would be streams trickling by stone embanked roads or into rock pools.

The households were often friendly, and the hamlet store owners happy to make us tired soldiers a nice bowl of cup noodles. The kids loved our SAF-issued hardtack biscuits because the taste was actually milky. I liked them biscuits too and would off-load any we could spare to the hamlet kids running up to us chanting "ah ping ge" (Big Brother soldier). One time I even saw the hardtack biscuits being sold from a tin in a hamlet shop still packed in their dark green army packaging.

Another thing about the kids was that they were always very tanned, looking very much like Malay or Thai children. I think it had to do with the fact that high up in the mountains, UV rays were stronger. The village men and women folk were also no less spared. No wonder they all wore long-sleeved shirts and covered their heads with a scarf or straw hat when out in the fields!

Up in the mountains, it would get very cold suddenly too. We then had no choice but to put on those smelly and scratchy SAF woolen pullovers. Taiwan was perhaps the only time we used them as coming from tropical Singapore we didn't need them usually. I wonder if such pullovers are standard issue still.

Food back in base camp was ok. The bonus was to be given the unusual produce from Taiwan's huge fruit industry. I had my first taste (or no taste, depending on one's reaction) of dragon fruit; as well as a green apple-ish fruit that had flesh the fibrous texture of celery stalk. I've not eaten or seen that fruit since.

Probably the toughest training we had during Taiwan was the one that involved digging defensive positions or a.k.a "trench digging".

The hill we Platoon 10 was assigned to defend was part of a mountainous range. As usual the place had been dug before by  a previous batch of trainees and finding a new spot there to dig became a challenge. That was not the only problem. The area had ready-made bunkers that we were all grateful to discover. Yay! No more digging or so we thought. We actually put the suggestion to our platoon commander, Capt Ang. Weren't we suppose to use existing structures whenever possible to save time and energy? Wasn't that what we were taught?

No, came the reply. Don't get smart-alecky with me, Capt Ang said. You dig.

And so, we "kuai kuai" returned to our positions and marked out our future trenches. We knew it was a long shot getting Capt Ang to agree as we were on a training exercise. But dang, staying in those mad-made bunkers would have been such a sweet deal! And so, not really disappointed, we dug and dug and dug. And dug some  more.

What was supposed to be a two-night affair turned out to be a four-night one with the trenches going no further than knee-deep. The trenches were supposed to be chest-deep by then. The earth was not hard but the rocks were, as were the roots of those tough, sinuous mountain trees.

We broke so many changkuls that Capt Ang finally gave the order to stop. We couldn't afford to sign any more 1206s (army doc for lost or damaged goods). We cadets also couldn't afford any more fingers for blistering either.

In the end, we went back to the original idea of using the existing structures. I was fortunate to be next to one and so organised noodle parties on the quiet for my cadet buddies who were on the same ridge line. That simple bunker shielded us from our imaginary enemies and our not-so-imaginary instructors. It kept the wind out marvelously for our stove-fires to keep going for churning up warm and comforting noodle soup. Man, what comfort!

Afternote: After some experience, my advice is not to have instant noodles. The chemicals play havoc with your bowel system (same with 3-in-1 teas and coffees). It's better to just have fruit. In any case, there's so much option in the supermart these days - from cup soups to cup noodles to packet cereal. Milo was fine but Horlicks we avoided because it made us heaty. And, instant beehoon was at the time a novelty.

Related story: Lantern Night and Brunei TrainingNext: R&R in Kaohsiung

Brunei Training

Many who have gone through NS would point to their overseas stints as some of the toughest. For Infantry fellas, that would be Brunei and Taiwan (or ROC as it was commonly known then, i.e the Republic of China). At the time, NS fellas also went to Thailand where guardsmen trained with helicopters and tanks. Their chief complaint? That the place and weather were devilishly hot and parched.

Taiwan was tough because its mountains were real, not the exaggerated mole hills like those found in Singapore. A flanking movement around a typical mountain there took 35 mins, not ten. And when we marched to a fighting locale, it was at a fast pace for at least 5 km non-stop, often over rocky terrain beside stream beds. At the end, your soles would be blistered and your backs bent.

But the training in Taiwan was not without its compensations. The scenery was good and the occasional nutrition (aka forbidden farm fruit) delicious. Guava fruit was typically soft-fleshed and big as a Chinese pear.

There were plenty of padi fields too from which we 'ah peng-gor' (Hokkien) were banned from cutting through. Taiwanese farmers enjoyed complaining about our transgressions, whether real or imagined, and would then ask for compensation from our Ministry of Defence. A boot print found on a bund became a whole platoon trampling all over - that kind of exaggerated story. Since we were guest soldiers in another country, it was understandable for the Army to get all sensitive and antsy over this matter. They said a footprint cost the government some $20,000 each time.

The icing on the cake for every Taiwan trip was the R&R, which stood for "rest and relax", more so relax, I think. In Brunei, I don't remember being offered any R&R. It was training and back we came. In any case, there wasn't much to do in that country except pray and swat flies. The main town itself was as dull as the colour of its main river, which was many times wider, larger and browner than our own.

In Brunei, their hills and mountains were also many times higher and larger. - They were a hell lot steeper too. And the slopes there always seemed to go on and on (like in that song, Stairway To Heaven). A climb would invariably lead to a higher one and a new horizon. The slopes will tease you, mock you. So when folks say Brunei training is tough, believe it. People don't come back with "thunder thighs" for no reason. The steep hill-climbing may be "sibeh siong'" (very tough, as they say in Hokkien) but hey, not insurmountable. Folks have done it and so have I! You can too!

To Brunei, I went as a cadet. To Taiwan, I went twice; once as a cadet and then as a reservist.

My cadet Brunei trip was memorable because I was the admin appointment holder (platoon sergeant role) both before and during the trip. Usually it is one or the other but I had excelled bringing the whole platoon over, so Sgt Karu and Capt Ang (my platoon sergeant and commander respectively) decided to keep me on to make sure that our time in Brunei was smooth and trouble-free. I didn't mind it at all because I was doing a good job. It would only be terrible if they had kept me on because I was faltering and needed "further assessment".

But I was terribly tired because I had not slept for four days. Capt Ang actually had me do guard duty the weekend before our trip (see "Mr Sign Extra" blog) which I thought was rather lousy timing. But once Capt Ang said "Take extra!", that was that. Any further bargaining was futile.

I remember arriving in Brunei and then settling my boys into a wooden bunkhouse. The place was rather cramped and we had to sleep on bunkbeds that were part of the structure. After dumping our duffel bags inside we then assembled outside for further briefing. There were admin matters to inform everyone. Matters such as where the ROs (routine orders) would be pinned up, armskote procedures, etc. Usually the first exercises were the topo ones and so maps and such had to be drawn out from the stores and folded up to their respective area of ops and "talced" (covered in clear plastic and waterproofed).

There was the weaponry to dispense as well. We all hoped to get a weapon (the M16 rifle) that is not too dirty from the previous batch of soldiers. But even if they had been cleaned and oiled these weapons would always be dirty. "Elephants" could still be found in the barrels. We often wondered how the previous batch passed inspection in the first place!

Losing and damaging stuff overseas was a major concern. If we had misplaced something in Singapore during training we could go always double back to look for it. But not so when overseas. It would be too much of a hassle what with the distance and big training area.

When something was damaged or lost, we all signed that familiar 1206 document and pay $$$ for it. "1206" thus became army buzzword for things lost or damaged. No matter who lost what, we all signed 1206 for the item as a group. The money came out of our own collective pockets.

But some things were just too precious to lose. Restricted stuff like maps, compasses, and of course, the M16 rifle. A soldier could get charged with misdemeanor or be court-marshalled for losing important and pricey items. No one in my platoon ever got charged, but we did lose a couple of dummy claymore mines.

To get over my lack of sleep and keep my energy up, I took to eating chocolate bars. In particular, there was this delicious one with coconut filling. I remember it was not a Cadbury but a Bounty - bought from that Chinese Emporium at Woodlands Central near the Causeway Police Customs just outside my home.

In any case, I finally managed to lay my head down that first night in Brunei. It wasn't the best sleep but it was enough. As admin sergeant, I was the first to wake up the next day and be ready earlier than the rest. My internal alarm works best when I have a task ahead of me.

The next few days in Brunei flew by real quick.

We started off with topo exercises to get a feel of the land. And then it was section exercises followed by platoon ones.

Whenever outside in the jungle, we were always wary of leeches. A damp patch on the ground was indication enough. In Brunei, leeches did not just crawl on the ground but dropped from the above tree canopy as well. The first time we were back from an exercise, some of us were already bitten. One cadet had a couple of small leeches on his crotch. That made us boys respect the little critters a little more. It took real talent to wriggle all the way up there!

To get rid of these creatures, we were told to use either fire or vinegar. I had both on me: a lighter and a small eyedrop bottle filled with household vinegar. The bottle was a recycled Eye-Mo one handy enough to be rubberbanded onto the helmet like how the GIs in Vietnam did theirs.

I was never bitten. The only leeches I saw were the ones my platoon mates brought back to the bunk. (The same in Taiwan, actually)

A preparation we were told to make to deter the leeches and mosquitoes had us soaking our army fatigues in red tobacco water (red tobacco as those rolled by amahs of old. If you think pre-packed cigarettes are expensive today, just go to a Chinese medical hall shop and buy these roll ones. They are cheaper but deadlier as they do not have any filters). We all carried out that uniform soaking thing. I am not sure if it worked but there was no harm otherwise.

Besides the leeches, mud and weather also conspired to make life difficult in Brunei. Mud could be everywhere and anywhere.... and a few of us had a taste of it when we unwittingly walked onto what we thought was hard, dried mud. We were in a clearing on the edge of a jungle. What happened then was that we sank crotch-deep into one innocently looking caked-up surface. It was quite demoralising as we still had a better part of the day to get through. Imagine your boots and pants all caked in clayish mud not long after setting off from camp! As usual, we learned to clean up and disregard such annoyances and pressed on.

(The deep mud reminded me of quick sand, something I was very wary of because I watched TV Tarzan a lot when I was a kid. Fortunately, the mud holes we encountered were not dangerous at all. And the rivers were usually dry and had no crocodiles for us to wrestle in!)

Brunei's weather was predictable but bad for trips into the jungle. It would be searingly hot in the mornings and by four in the afternoon, a thunderstorm. We would often get drenched come sundown. Although the rain cooled us down, it also got our uniforms wet. It was better to be dry going into the night for it would be a few hours more before we settled down and harboured. The rain also made us use up an extra set of uniforms, something we could ill afford. (Especially when there's a river crossing too.)

Moving about in the Bruneian jungle at night was challenging. It was always pitch black and cold. Condensation was very bad in the mornings and if one was not careful, exposed stuff could get very very wet (like your uniform and M16). Then there's deadfall, or what happens when dying branches drop from trees and hit the ground (if they didn't hit you first!).

At one time while rushing to get to an RV (rendezvous) point, we half-skipped, half-ran through the jungle in the night. It was a miracle no one sprained an ankle or twisted a knee. Our eyes actually got accustomed to the darkness without ever needing any torchlight. When we harboured that night, Sgt Karu and PC Ang brought us to a particular place. It had very little canopy cover and for once we welcomed the stars. We found out why later that night when we heard 'thumps' nearby. Deadfall had missed us by not much, but we were all safe and sound.

Another thing that impacted our Brunei training were the fire ants. They were so huge that whenever they marched over dead leaves at night, we could hear them crunching along. To avoid them, we were taught to sleep in trees. The same with ground snakes. We also used yellow sulphur powder to repel them, sprinkling them along the edges of our ground sheet. That worked quite well actually. Sulphur powder was not provided by the army then. We had to buy them outside, from army surplus shops like those along Beach Road.

Some say you are not really a soldier until you have been to Brunei. In a sense, that's true. The terrain, weather, creatures... all conspire to test your endurance. In the end, it is You vs Nature. I took it as one big adventure camp and got through it. I was also into badminton and was grateful for the thunder thighs the training gave me. We often sprinted up and down slopes as part of endurance training. Thunder thighs are needed to help you do a jump-smash.

One challenge proved more difficult: the whining and complaining of platoon mates. Out in the field, that could be irritating. Mostly it had to do with poor physical and mental condition. Some mates needed a little cajoling to feel better. In cases such as these, I've always found stuff like mints and "kiam sern tee" (Hokkien) to work best. As always, go to a place prepared, especially Brunei!

Some topo sessions became our best time for 'talking cock' and telling each other knock-knock jokes. Off-colour ones even, why army time with friends is always special for many.

At the end of day, the jungle can either be your friend or enemy. A friend with spikes, actually.

The Bruneian jungle is quite similar to Singapore's Mandai and have many of those "wait-a-while" Nipal palm shrubs that have stems covered in thorns. They hook onto your uniform or make it tough for you to clear a path. So it is not good at all to slip on a slope and accidentally grab one. I almost did one time but saw it just in the nick of time. You can imagine the pain that would have ensued!

When in Brunei, one really needs to keep an eye out at all times even if it is pitch black at night. For me, Brunei was a challenging but memorable trip. End of day, almost every NS fella has to go through it. Now I can say I have been baptised.

Afternote: To prepare for Brunei, we were told to jog with a fullpack with a 5-kg pack of rice in it. Yes, I did do that, especially on weekends at home. Running and 'duck-walking' up slopes also helped to develop muscular thighs. These days, NS men can easily go to a gym at one of the SAFRA centres or neighbourhood stadium. Back in my day, that was rather unusual; only certain community centres had such hobby clubs and equipment (and basic ones at that).

Related stories: Field Camp and Taiwan Training