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Monday, May 5, 2014

An Instructor's Life

When the peer results came out and we found out who passed or failed, we also soon got our posting orders. I was not surprised to discover that I was among those selected to remain in OCS as instructors. 

The funny thing was that my PC had asked me if I had any intention of signing on. He seemed to think i was well suited. But since I still had a university degree to attend to after NS, I declined. I figured any career decision could wait till after that. Also, a career in camouflage wasn't my kind of thing. And one had to be ambitious to succeed. I was more a people-oriented person interested in design and the wider world.

I would likely end up in an engineering lab or design studio. At the time, I did have aspirations to being a psychiatrist or architect. None of the local training awards (LTA) offered by the SAF supported these choices.


However, if my answer to my PC then had been a yes, I don't think i would have been retained in OCS as an instructor. I would be sent to a combat unit to begin my acclimatization to actual army life.

Having spent my entire NS life in OCS, I at times wonder how my own mates fared in the active units. I think most report a stronger camaderie. That was certainly the case when Reservist began. They all seemed to know one another very well. From the S1 to the S4; from the company commanders to the platoon commanders and men, they all shared time together during NS and afterwards went into Reservist together. 

(A crass but jokey way of greeting back then amongt Reservist men was: "Eh peng yu, jing ku bo toot tiok ler!" (Hokkien, Eh friend, long time no 'poke' you. Often accompanied by a vulgar 'finger through hole' hand signal.) 

Ex-school officers/instructors were like orphaned children, posted willy nilly to any Reservist unit after their tenure. My own posting came six years after I RODed! By then I had become very civilian not to mention my army knowledge being rustier than that old derelict WWII iron pier in Marsiling.

Only my uniform remained fitting of times past.

And the craziest thing was: instead of being send to some new unit, I was posted to a very old battalion... One that was about to finish their 13-year cycle. What? A new bird officer sent to command some "lau jiao" soldiers? Great. Suddenly all those Hokkien Peng reservations came flooding back.

Having been in OCS all my NS life, I thus understood little about unit life. If I had known, I would probably have opted to go to one to serve out my NS time rather than be retained in OCS to teach, just so there's actual credential to burnish that two-bar lieutenant rank with. After all, I was trained to be an Infantry platoon commander, not a School-lecturing PC. I could do that even without proper training. I've always been very good at teaching/training, that sort of thing.

Truth be told, we in Demolition Team in OCS were so distracted by our new computer hobby palying with the Apple IIes, Sinclair Spectrums, etc., to be bothered with anything else.

But folks at the time did tell me how great School life was compared to unit life. That I didn't have to face those dreaded Hokkien Pengs (dialect-speaking soldiers) who were rumoured to be gangsters, geng-kings and deserters or all three combined. You know, trouble-makers all round.

A part of me wasn't really too concerned as I've turned around ruffians in school before. The troublemakers would become my friends. Anyway, at the time, I saw my NS as a two-and-a-half year stint rather than a 13-year-plus Reservist cycle. Thinking back now, perhaps I should have given my NS career a little bit more thought. I tell you, that 13-year cycle (now reduced to 10) was pretty long in retrospect.

Also, around sometime in Senior Term, I did harbour joining the Commandos once, with a buddy. But the prospect of keeping fit for a long time didn't quite make sense. I was fit but skinny and so had to do a double think!

As for Hokkien Pengs, aren't they soldiers too? It could be just a dialect/language label. Don't you find them in Fujian province in China also? Or in Taiwan ROC? Haha. 

But seriously, during my NS time, there were already prevailing winds of change. I was not alone in seeing the Army get better. (See 'A Time of Changes' story)

After a tiring (and confrontational) three-month conversion course at Gillman Camp, I "balik kampung" back to OCS to begin my NS career as an instructor. But now my vocation had an added 'Pioneer' status to it. Formerly, my title was Infantry Pioneer Officer or IPO, skilled in infantry as well as in Combat Engineering. Someone who could be very useful in the support company of a battalion (taking care of obstacles and minefields) and as a Tiger Force commander (taking care of ambush duties or a weapons detail).

With this new IPO vocation, I was qualified to teach demolition and handle explosives in OCS. By the time the Infantry Pioneer Conversion Course was over, I had only slightly over 12 months left on my NS term. I wondered how much of an impact I could still make as an instructor in OCS. (Apparently a lot, judging from the positive comments we received from the graduating cadets!)

Sadly, that 12 months turned out to be quite eventful in OCS. Some cadets were blown up to bits in a platoon-ran exercise. One cadet went missing for days and eventually found drowned in mysterious circumstances. My own Demo Team wasn't responsible for any of those incidents but we helped in the subsequent search and rescue and BOI. We also all felt very sad. Young men in their prime shouldn't be cut down by accidents in such a way. Changes to training methods were then enforced, changes that we were only too glad to initiate and support it all the way.

However, other than these incidents, life in OCS was rather predictable.

Besides Demolition, my men also had to teach Weapons as well, which was rather sweet. It meant being involved in live firings where we could fire weapons to our heart's content with whatever ammunition that was left. Plus, there was no need for us to clean any weapons afterwards like we did during cadet time. How sweet was that? The same with the extra C4 explosive sticks that we could form into a ball and ignite with a fuse and then throw like in some Loony Tunes cartoon.

Loud times, fun times.

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My Demo team setup was simple: Two officers and two or three assisting NCOs. Two of my NCOs were weapon specialists and very good with the GPMG (machine gun) and 84-mm recoiless rifle. They did not need any supervision at all.

Sgt Lee (the GPMG expert) loved fishing and would often cajole us to join him at Pulau Aur (off the Malaysian Johor east coast). Or Pulau Tinggi for some sport of spear-fishing.

Staff Sgt Subra (the 84-mm RR gun expert) was an unhurried fellow who loved to run. Although he smoked, he could pretty much outrun any of us younger chaps. I had many pleasant evenings with him running from our office at Golf cadet company to the Pump House outside ASFTI, just before the main hilly training areas.

Sgt Charles (an all-rounder) was an easy-going fella and joker. He was young and loved a good chat and joke. But he was a very good instructor with all the right values. Engaging, fun, serious when it mattered. And he loved to tell a tale. He would later join the first SAF unit involved in flying drones.

I had a colleague who was involved in this unit as well. In its early days, the drones were nothing but propeller-driven, large-scale models of remote-controlled planes. Old school ones made of wood.

Sgt Charles told me years later that the wooden propellers of these R/C planes would break very easily upon landing as the planes would generally tip forward. Made of polished tree wood and imported from overseas, these broken propellers were expensive to replace. Every landing hence became very stressful and harrowing for the operator! Just the thought of having to sign that 1206 sent up a cold sweat, said Sgt Charles.

You could also lose a plane by flying it out of range. That's like $1 million a pop! I recall my colleague having to travel to Israel to train and learn how to manouvre these so-called 'drones'. Compared to today's sleek and autonomous flying machines, those propeller R/C models were positively old-fashioned, kind of like comparing WWI bi-planes with jets. So ancient they looked in comparison!

Ah, my colleague was also acting like some Pathfinder ranger each time he was out recce-ing with those spy R/C planes at some forward line. One could imagine him packing extra propellers in his fullpack and the batteries required to fuel each flight!

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As an instructor in OCS, SAFTI was our home. Our bunk house was the E-block - a high-storey disused block of bunk rooms and toilets that was once an active barrack. It was not a place for the faint of heart nor those afraid of deserted and broken up places. So empty (and dilapidated) it looked.

Back then, SATFI was pretty much what it was when it was first built. Only OCS was the new institution with barracks lining both sides of a newly paved avenue called Foxhound Ave. It led to the back of the camp where a sewerage plant stood. I don't remember the plant smelling much. Much of the waste was already treated.

On one side of the Avenue were the cadet companies of Golf, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Behind them butted a training hill covered with CB-leaf trees (aka fig trees). Facing these cadet companies on the opposite side of the Avenue were the companion Delta, Echo and Foxtrot. A field ran behind these buildings, where cadets practised laying out large demolition circuits to simulate aerial bombardment during mock Infantry exercises. As OCS was at the end of the main road leading into SAFTI camp, each time we booked in or out, it required a long walk. The guys at SAFINCOS did not have this problem; their institute was just next to the camp's main gate.

OCS intakes at the time came in this combination: Alpha-Charlie (poly batch), Bravo-Echo (A-levels batch), Delta-Foxtrot (another A-levels batch).

On the left of the SAFTI main gate coming in was the motor pool and Infantry HQ. The HQ looked the proper and landscaped miltary building with the requisite twin flag poles at the front. One pole for the nation's flag, the other for the Armed Forces. The HQ building wasn't very high, maybe six stories. 

After this HQ were a couple of low olive green buildings that housed the NCO Mess. Next to this, a rugby field where we cadets were taught to tough men. This field later incorporated a repelling tower at its front edge. There was also a basketball court where the PTIs taught us their physical training, a place we cadets dreaded mostly for its arduous log-beam and medicine ball exercises. After this sweaty spot, the Golf cadet company barack and then the rest of the OCS buildings. The OCS HQ was opposite the cookhouse and next to the lecture theatres.

On the right side of SAFTI camp entrance was  SAFINCOS, a place where non-commissioned officers were trained. After this, a small field known to us as the SIW Field. SIW stood for School of Infantry Weapons. I remember marching past SIW on my way to the SAFINCOS parade square for my OCS graduation. 

After the SIW field were the squash and tennis courts. OCS and SAFINCOS staff must remember these courts well. It was a common pastime to play squash or tennis in the evenings at SAFTI from around 4.30pm onwards.

Beyond these sporting facilities were the OCS HQ and lecture theatres. Opposite the OCS HQ was the cookhouse where I (as the School Duty Officer) had a number of special meals prepared for me by the cooks there. It was a sort of tradition the cooks perpetuated for the on-duty folks, no doubt started by some kind Encik in charge. A special dish often served  up was xinzhou fried rice - a real treat considering the usual overcooked fare during lunch and dinner. Because OCS training often ended late, this specially prepared midnight snack was truly heartwarming... Not to mention tummy-rubbing comforting!

At night, an OCS lecture theatre became a movie theatre of sorts. One of my Demo team officers (William) was a frequent user. (I think it was he who started rigging the place up in the first place.) 

He and his kakis would rent episodes of his favourite HK TVB series, Legend of the Condor Heroes (Shen Tiao Xia Nu), and watch them there. Most times, his batch-mate instructors would join him and marvel at that pretty and petite lead actress Babara Yung. They must have been heartbroken when she committed suicide at the tender age of 26 some years later. What a pity for a popular actress! Although I didn't watch too many TV serials at the time, I must admit she brought something definitive to the role of that Xiao Long Nu, or Little Dragon Girl. 

Ah, the squash and tennis courts. They sure bring back a lot of fond memories. If you have served in SAFTI at the time, you would have visited the squash courts as a player if not spectator. Squash was very popular back then and folks would look out for competitive matches between the good players. I remember Capt Ang, head of the Demo and Weapon teams being very good.

At the time, Jahangir Khan was the undisputed king of squash. (This is no exaggeration. He was unbeaten in 555 matches stretching over 5 years and 8 months! He was finally beaten by Ross Norman but strung up another unbeaten run for another nine months! Jahangir was so good he won the SPA Championship without losing a single point! What a hero!)

Later on he and Jansher Khan dominated the world matches. For me, I picked up interest in the sport from a sister. We used to share a racquet till I bought a special one made of bamboo ply. It was both light and strong. It now reminds me of the bamboo bicycles folks are trying to build!

Unfortunately my bamboo racquet cracked years later during play. Among the officers, I wasn't a bad player. I did manage to beat a Grade E player easily. But because badminton was more my game, I found the squash court rather small and stiffling. There was also less leaping about and smashing.

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My partner in crime at the Demo team in OCS was this guy called Fong. We were both easy-going fellas but serious in our work. We got on well with our NCOs as well as the Mentors from the other companies. Fong wasn't the admin sort and so I became the de facto head. There wasn't really much to do besides drawing up training schedules and lesson assignments and the writing up of one or two training handbooks. There was hardly any personnel issue to attend to even.

On low-key days, we would leave our Demo team office at about 4.30pm and go for a run. At times we played squash or tennis.

One time, with the introduction of the keyboard computers to our shores (eg. the Apple IIes, Sinclair Spectrums, Commodore Amigas, etc), we (the officers) forgot about squash and spent our free hours learning to program and play games. Fong even signed up for a course in Cobol (a business oriented programming language). I ended up buying an Apple IIe clone from one from the mentors whose family ran an electronics parts shop. Thus began my life-long acquaintance with computer and electronics.

(Here's the story: An Apple in OCS)

At Demo Team, our so-called "area of ops" consisted of 1) the training sheds behind the barracks; 2) the Demo Live Firing Range; and 3) the ranges for hand grenade throwing. The last one was for the lady Golf Company cadets whose OCS training included Basic Military Training or BMT.

None of us liked being on duty during handgrenade training even if it meant being with the fairer sex. A live grenade not going off is bad news. And the sandy slope of the live firing range did not help matters when we had to go down there to clear a dud (what we professionally refer to as a 'blind').

A blind is a bomb that does not go off, which means it could go off anytime afterwards! 

A handgrenade is a simple device and hence the more dangerous. It's firing pin could well be just stuck because of poor manufacture, bad storage or simply rust from dampness, etc.

Even trying to put a block of explosive next to it can be unnerving - so sensitive those buggers can be. Imagine doing that on a steep, slippery, sandy slope!

But we at Demo Team always made sure we lived to blow things up another day, haha. ;-D

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