Thursday, November 17, 2011

Corporal Raja

One month had passed and we were now bona-fide recruits. We had become comfortable with our 'durian' hair, ill-fitting shorts and also mastered the art of going to the toilet and sleeping anywhere.

More importantly we had begun to look forward to weekends when life and the food wasn't as tough to swallow.

But booking out for the weekend was still not that straightforward. We often had to mill around until everything is given the all clear before we can even attempt to march to the gate. One time, it was a false alarm, and we had to "ke blakang pusing" back to the barracks, all because someone had forgotten to return a blank attachment to the armskote. Some "blur sotong" had left it in his cupboard. A blank attachment is what you attach to an M16 rifle barrel in order to fire blanks with. It's basically a screw-knob with a pin hole. Very insignificant in the grand scheme of things... but not on this occasion.

You really only know you have left camp when your backside finally kisses the Main Gate goodbye.

In this one month, my section had gotten to know our commando corporal pretty well. ('Well' is relative because corporals don't get very close to their recruits in BMT. It's normal that masters typically don't hang out with the slaves unless it is to beat them up or sell them to the next highest bidder. I know because I had watched Kunta Kinte in each episode of Roots.) But Cpl Raja was rather different.

The other two corporals were Chinese. One was particularly mean (let's call him Wong). Wong had a very "kwai lan" face... someone who would be tops on everybody's 'Blanket Party' list. The other fella (Tan) was ok, just a follower. In time, my section became glad to have Cpl Raja over the other two. That saying about commandos being a bit "siao" in the head is true. Cpl Raja couldn't care less about "Going by the book". He often scratched his head about our training syllabus and liked to teach us off-the-cuff. And he would spice things up with his jokes. Cpl Raja provided us with much relief against all that tough training demanded by our Mad Dog PC. Although fun to be with, Cpl Raja also knew how to 'play along' whenever ranking staff was around. He didn't want to spoil things for us.

At first we thought he, being a Commando, would be "siao on". But he has been more like a retired soldier. I think it had something to do with his knees - why he couldn't be an active Commando anymore. Maybe that has given him a new perspective on Life.

Many of his stories were shared while leading us out on Field Craft, which after the main lecture, each platoon section would normally fan out to practice on their own. That's when we would have private time with him.

During a session on Camouflage, I remember him telling us about those deadly concealed Panji traps that wounded a lot of US servicemen during Vietnam War. Another culprit were the Claymore mines. He said in Jungle Warfare, you have to be alert at all times or else nasty things would happen to you. We started to take his word seriously and would walk with great care. Being novices, we walked more like we were doing Tai Chi, which was quite hilarious!

On another occasion, he taught us or rather related to us, how the Special Forces survived in the jungle.

Cpl Raja liked to carry a small buck knife with him on his SBO (I think it's a habit with all commandos) which he would use to whittle twigs, etc., whilst waiting for us to complete our tasks. He would also wear a camouflage netted scarf, something the other corporals copied. Besides being cosmetic, that scarf was actually rather useful for dipping into streams or being used as a mosquito net (for the face). Or just to look Ranger gung-ho!

A major part of Field Craft lesson was 'The Art of Camouflage', i.e. how to blend into jungle or forest surroundings with readily available means. It is a very simple concept but the Army liked to spend a lot of time on it. I don't know why. We destroyed many a jungle fern patch in the process. It's probably good that Mandai jungle is full of them, but not so in Marsiling. There, we sometimes had to recycle our camouflage.

One time, it was quite hilarious. I think it happened to Blur King (his last name was actually Keng). Instead of using fern (an 'everywhere' plant) he went and decorated his helmet with large CB leaves. CB leaves are actually fig tree leaves. They are large, very suitable if Adam and Eve were underwear shopping. But for camouflage, no. In any case CB stood for the Hokkien expletive "chee bye", which was slang for a woman's privates. Cpl Raja asked Blur King why he was wearing CB leaves. Did he have a "chee bye"? It was funny because Cpl Raja spoke in Hokkien. And he 'crotched' him for good measure. We all had a good laugh that day, even Keng! I think he was so blur that even shame eluded him. But Keng was Keng. More likely he just wanted to survive BMT.

We were enjoying our time with Cpl Raja because he always spoke with sense. He did not insist on strict adherence to one idea because he knew that in combat, there is not just one way to defeat an enemy - a lot depended on the situation at hand. In that aspect, we then better understood why we were learning the stuff taught to us. We also learnt other ways not covered by our BMT syllabus then.

On another occasion, Cpl Raja taught us how to scavenge from our dead enemies. He asked us a very pertinent question: If you run out of bullets, and your dead enemy has a rifle, would you still know how to use one? Up till that point the M16 had been our lifeline in combat. What other weapon was out there? His comment gave us pause. We knew next to nothing except that most of our enemies preferred to use the Russian-made AK-47. As for enemy grenades, our knowledge was zero. My knowledge then was still the stick grenades the Germans had used in WWII - knowledge gleaned from the popular Combat! TV series.  It made us realise, at that point in time, how pathetic our military knowledge was. I made it a point to think more about army stuff when in OCS.

Cpl Raja didn't stay with us throughout our BMT stint. Somehow we knew his place was at some other higher calling, one that did not bore him easily. Maybe one better suited to his talents. But we were real glad for that period he was able to be with us.

Related story: Jungle Survival Training
Next story: Field Camp

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Story of Winnie

[I am going to divert here and tell the story of a girl I met and fell in love with during NS. It has something to do with the recent news about the demolition of Rochor Centre to make way for a highway.]

I feel a sense of regret to hear that Rochor Centre is going to be demolished to make way for the new North-South highway. I used to own a flat in nearby Short Street and RC was the place where my girlfriend and I visited often for meals, grocery shopping and picking up that odd sundry good. It was a special time of our lives. The distribution shops upstairs also reminded me of my family's business, which was in the engineering services. The work involved tools, meters, ball-bearings, bolts and nuts and other mechanical things like that.

I met my girlfriend Winnie during NS, at an end-of-OCS party. She was brought along by her best pal whose boyfriend eventually became a career army officer. Me, I went on to study Engineering.

Winnie began her working life early, right after her O-levels. She started at an advertising firm and then became an executive at a temp placement agency. She was a mature, conscientious worker with a sweet personality - all her bosses doted on her. In person, she was a leggy beauty in the mould of Goldie Hawn: big eyes, sassy hair, warm persona. You could immediately tell that this person was innately kind and gentle. I was most attracted to her sexy lips and eyes that were shy, cheeky and sparkly all at once.

Like most girls her age, she enjoyed shopping and was skillful with make-up; but she was frugal. I credit her for teaching me how to shop and look for a bargain. She also liked fashion and I learnt a thing or two about matching clothes from her. If I hadn't met her, I think my engineer wardrobe would have remained cerebral and taken longer to evolve. Maybe never.

Despite her secure day job, Winnie would take up a second one waitressing at hotel banquets. A close friend of hers thought the same, so it was a case of positive buddy influence. Maybe she was working hard to save money.

I found out why one day when she asked if we should apply for a flat. 

As I was still studying, I wondered if we should wait. She was quite adamant that we go ahead.

Winnie wanted to live in town so we bought one of  those old red bricked flats along Short Street. It was all we could afford. It had one bedroom, a hall and a small kitchenette. Although old (the flats were built in the 50s), it came alive after we stripped and repainted the walls. I also did a bit of masonry work on the toilet to bring it up to date. Winnie had a thing about toilets so I was glad to oblige.

Our flat was just beside Sim Lim Square which itself was diagonally opposite Rochor Centre. We would go to RC often to eat and get supplies. Winnie liked a factory outlet there that sold branded garments. With their branded labels cut-off, the clothes sold for $5-$10, sometimes $2. Because they were such good deals, Winnie bought me a few sweaters for school. Aircon there was a killer and so the sweaters were a lifesaver. My schoolmates soon noticed my change in wardrobe and complimented me on my new look. They thought the sweaters were bought from overseas because they were of good quality. They also knew my GF to be an air stewardess. My female classmates would often ask if she was back. They liked her.

Yes, Winnie by then had become an air stewardess. It happened quite by chance after meeting some SIA directors at a hotel function she was waitressing at. They were impressed by her skill and manners. When the  next round of recruitment came up, she was hired. She later wanted me to join her but I thought better of becoming an air steward. The IT industry was booming then and I wanted to be part of it. Air stewarding didn't seem so mentally challenging at the time, nor had it long-term prospects.

Even though Winnie had become an international air stewardess, her frugal ways remained. She seldom ate out. For meals, she would cook rice or instant noodles with a small travel Philips cooker in her room. In all that time that I knew her, she only pampered herself once with a LV luggage bag which was a common purchase amongst air crews then. I would later learn that she manged to save up quite a bit after just a few years working at SIA. She was on the international flights that paid more.

When Winnie wasn't scheduled to fly, we would spend weekend mornings strolling around the area where we lived. Many small coffeeshops existed then, serving HK-style wanton noodles, Chinese nasi lemak (which was a fave with the late-night taxi uncles), bak chor mee (old-style with that bit of fried fish), and Hokkien mee (which was cooked by a teenage couple) - well, just to name a few. 

Rochor, before the river was cleaned up, used to be home to a shanty town and a slew of auto-repair shops - why a large commercial complex now exists in the same area to house back many of the displaced auto businesses. It even has a small Shell petrol station at its atrium.

The area was quite diverse and charming back then. 

For some reason the place gave off an old vibe. Maybe it was the flats. Or it could be the many uncles and aunties who lived and thrived there. Those 'Tiong Bahru' flats behind our flat also gave the place an undeniably nostalgic feel. 

At RC, Winnie and I liked having breakfast in that coffeeshop opposite the NTUC supermart. We often patronised that stall with the assortment of kuehs. The coffeeshop lady was also chatty and friendly. Further along inside the Centre, there were a couple of well-stocked sundry shops that always attracted a flock of curious browsers. An old-style watch shop also reminded me of those from South Bridge Road that I used to visit as a kid living in Geylang. We bought our first clock there for the flat.

As time passed, I wondered if getting the flat was such a good idea. Winnie and I had started to drift apart. She was flying more frequently and my studies were getting intense. We only met up when she was "back in town". We got along essentially like an old couple, but there was nothing intellectually common between the two of us. Also, the one-year grace period was up and we had to put pen to paper to seal the deal for the flat with HDB. That meant getting married. I realised I wasn't ready for such a leap in commitment.

Most likely, it was youth speaking. I brought the issue up with her. Winnie got very upset and called my eldest sister, who hurried down to comfort her. After a while, Winnie accepted that maybe we were indeed too hasty.

I understood better why: Winnie was brought up by her grandma. When she moved back in with her parents, she was desperate to get her own place. Her mom wasn't a good caregiver nor housekeeper (her kitchen floor was sticky like malt candy) and her dad liked walking around in his underwear even when I was around. Her only sibling - a younger brother, was also coming of age and needed his own room.

Though Winnie eventually agreed to split, she made an unusual request: Would I stay on with her till she found someone else? Winnie was a nice girl and I did not want to see her hurt or left alone, so I said yes. Maybe it was her way of dealing with the loss. But marriage is a big step and I realised I was the sort who needed a soul mate who could chat with me all sorts of topics under the sun. Marriage would lead to children and for me, that mattered. I wanted us both to be happy in the long-term.

In time, Winnie hooked up with an old guy friend of hers who had an earlier interest in her. But I didn't like him much. You probably wouldn't too bcoz he was unresponsive and liked to keep his sunglasses on all the time, even at first-meeting. Winnie told me that that Jeffrey was an ex-SAF pilot chopped for dangerous flying. At the time that he and Winnie hooked up again, Jeffrey was helping a relative run a restaurant in Florida in the US. I don't know how Winnie did it but she eventually got him employed by SIA as a pilot. Not a bad turn of events for someone once considered a dangerous flyer.

However, this did not have a happy ending. Jeffrey cheated on Winnie with some air stewardesses on several occasions when he started flying. It was Winnie's ex-colleagues in SIA who found out and told her about it. But by then they were already married and had two young kids. Winnie was so depressed about it that her friends, worried for her health, checked her into Tan Tock Seng hospital for observation. But the hospital didn't watch her too well. The day she was admitted, Winnie sneaked out to a nearby HDB point-block and jumped to her death.

I found out about her death one year later from a newspaper obituary. It had been 7-8 years since we last broke up. I was stunned.

What stunned me further was to learn from Winnie's close friends that her mother-in-law, afraid that Winnie might return to haunt the family, actually took scissors to her nice clothes and snipped off all the buttons and pockets. She and Jeffrey then packed all her clothes in black garbage bags and threw them out. That was a grave act not unlike a curse. You mutilate someone's clothes like that only if you do not wish that person's spirit to return - or be reincarnated. I was speechless and aghast at their cruel actions. I thought this kind of thing was only done to enemies???

Here was a decent girl, loved by most and yet have a mother-in-law behaving like that. Did the MIL not know that the chief scoundrel was her son?

On the final day of her wake, her close friend Helen told me that Winnie was sent off by over a hundred of her friends. That seemed right. To me, she remains that hardworking, sweet girl who is fiercely loyal to her friends. She was very generous in spirit and though frugal, was fond of buying thoughtful gifts for friends from her many travels. I should know; I still have a number of them in my Treasure Box of Memories, including several Hallmark cards.

With me, she was extra generous and so she must have been with Jeffrey - why the more it pains me to learn of what he has done to reward Winnie in such a manner. She even bought a house in Sophia Gardens (next to Cathay cinema) so as to start a family. That was where all her savings went. 

I did meet Winnie once after we broke up. It was maybe a year before her death. We bumped into each other at Cold Storage in Holland V. She must have been visiting her close friend Helen who lived nearby. Her young sons, probably aged one and three, were there with her. We had a perfunctory but friendly chat - the sort that acknowledged that we both have moved on. We wished each other well and then parted ways. She looked good and did not seem troubled.

Back when it became clear that our relationship was over, I stood along Rochor Road looking up towards the flat we shared that one year. I was hoping to see Winnie one last time. I knew it was best for the long term, but no matter what, there's always a tinge of regret when separation becomes amicable. Yes, I was sad that the relationship had to end. I just wished I didn't have to think we were incompatible. But that tiny nugget of truth inside me refused to let my heart rule. I left that night without seeing Winnie again. It would take another nine years before I could start another relationship.

But oh, if only we had kept in touch! At the end of the day, she was a decent and beautiful person. And she always said I made her laugh. Perhaps she could have called me in that dark moment of hers and be cheered out of it. Winnie's death changed the way I would handle my ex-gf relationships. There's no need for awkwardness or keeping a distance. We should value a person for whom they are, maybe more, for the qualities that attracted us to them in the first place. 

RIP, Winnie. Thank you for those Rochor/Short Street memories. More importantly, thank you for loving me. I still remember that cabin smell you'd bring home from your long-haul flights, stepping through the doorway dressed in that SIA sarong kebaya that fitted you so well. I missed you then and I still miss you now. Please be in a better place. The angels will count you as one of them.

Note: The red brick flats beside Sim Lim have all been demolished some 4-5 years ago to make way for that iconic Lasalle College of Arts which now stand on the site. Rochor Centre will follow suit from 2013 onwards. By which time, destruction of physical memory of my time there will nearly be complete. Next story: Corporal Raja

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pool of Courage

During my BMT, recruits were supposed to do as they were told; no buts about it, even if it was dangerous. It did not matter if you were ready or not. You either do it or get punished. One such instance happened during Pool Training.

When we trained at the pool, we swam laps, practiced water treading and learned simple survival skills such as turning pants into air-holding floats. The pool in ITD belonged to the Navy's midshipmen school then. It had an old-fashioned three-level diving platform that seemed to reach the sky. I think the top-most level was some 4 to 5 storeys tall.

To train our courage, we all had to leap from the highest level and jack-knife (feet-first) into the pool. I tell you, there is nothing scarier than standing on a narrow platform that high up in the sky! The pool suddenly shrinks into a thimble of water. Your knees become involuntarily weak, you buckle over. I think that platform did not even have a railing for one to hold on to. So you can imagine the sheer terror on everyone's faces. Mine included.

At least for me, I had some boyhood experience jumping off an old jetty into an open sea. This was right next to the Johor-Singapore causeway, right where the Shell refinery is (the old Ruthenia Oiling Jetty). For many of my platoon mates, flinging themselves off that diving platform was their first time. That high height simply compounded their fear many times over.

As I've mentioned earlier, you had to do whatever your NCOs told you or else there would be consequences if their orders were not obeyed. And so we jumped.

There were a couple of guys who were particularly terrified. But they were coerced into jumping as well. I remember holding my breath, hoping that nothing untoward would happen. In swimming I've learnt that the surface tension of unbroken water can be as hard as concrete. It can be fatal if you happened to land smack squarely on it. Sport divers in the past have become paralysed because they had miscalculated their entry. This is the reason why at platform diving events today, pool water directly below is sprinkled with jets of water. They break the surface tension and help prevent serious injury.

Looking at my platoon mate up on that diving platform, I am praying that he will keep his composure. Paralysing someone's son during NS is something you do not want on your conscience. But I think our corporals and sergeant took that as just NS training collateral. If you did not jump, you were "chicken" and would be taunted the rest of your BMT days. In the end, we did what we would do at any jetty - we volunteered to jump together. That's how some of us got through that scary phase. And you had to jump in order to pass the Watermanship Test.

I think this particular high-dive exercise was made obsolete when ITD moved to Pulau Tekong. It was just too dangerous and risky a thing to do. In any event, it is better to jump into the sea than into a pool of static water.

Another dangerous exercise was grenade training. Each infantry soldier then was expected to carry four grenades on his SBO, so learning to throw one was essential, and in war time, life-saving.

Throwing a grenade looks simple. You see it all the time in those Longest Day-type war movies. For me, my tuition came from watching Vic Morrow in that '70s Combat! TV series. Vic could often be seen pulling the grenade ring tab with his teeth and thereafter artfully lob the grenade over to his enemies. Usually it is aimed at an enemy's sandbagged position after his men had done a flanking movement. Vic hit the target every time. I sometimes wonder why he didn't throw it like in "hentum bola", a boyhood game.

In reality, throwing a grenade is not that simple. Sure, it is like throwing a rock. But this rock has a spring lever attached to it. The lever would give a kick in your palm as the grenade springs away. If you do not adjust for that, your grenade will veer off target. It's even worse throwing it like in hentum bola. The grenade will probably land just a few feet in front.

This was precisely what happened at a Live Firing session when one of my platoon mates, Keng - a rather blur fella - was chosen to throw his maiden grenade. Instead of it flying forward and outward, it went straight up, knocked itself on the edge of the protective barrier and fell (thankfully) on the other side. Mad Dog Wee (our platoon commander) was quick to grab Keng and throw him on the ground. The rest of us braced ourselves. The grenade exploded louder than usual but none of the shrapnel came our way.

Mad Dog Wee was so furious he rapped Meng a few times on his helmet. "You bloody idiot!" he shouted. You could see veins in his neck popping. It's a demeaning act to knock someone on the helmet; not unlike scolding a child. But back then, it was accepted practice. It's also the reason why the corporals and sergeant always carried a stick around. Never mind if that stick was an unpolished twig picked up from the ground.

As an officer, I would later revisit the grenade throwing range. - Not just to teach cadets about the art of throwing a lobbed bomb but to defuse any that might have been duds. It was one of the more dangerous tasks of a Demolition man. The reason was simple: Each grenade had been timed to a 4.5 sec fuse. If it did not explode, it could be due to a couple of reasons: (1) The firing pin inside got stuck; (2) The fuse itself was faulty due to poor manufacture (or storage). In many cases, it was better best not to handle a misfired grenade. The better option would be to blow it up with another block of explosive from where it laid. Besides, a grenade-throwing range would often be steep-sloped and sandy, making any defusing action dangerous and altogether rather risky.

Oh, another thing about grenade throwing: That pin which held the lever in place and that which prevented the grenade from firing is not that easy to pull out. In the movies, heroes would always pull them out with their teeth (the latest instance could be found in Inception). Try that in real life and the heroes would probably be using dentures for the rest of their lives! If these pins were that easy to pull out, you wouldn't want so many grenades hanging off your SBO. One false move (like crawling on the ground) and the safety pins would come off easily. Certainly not the kind of situation to find yourself in. Therefore, for the sake of smiling with a set of nice pearlies for the rest of your life, don't try pulling the grenade pin out with your teeth. Ask your buddy to do it. That's what friends are for.

Next story: The Story of Winnie
Related story: Golf Company

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mad Dog Wee

When training soldiers, there is a fine line between training them for toughness and training them for fitness. If you want them to be tough, there are the Ranger or Pathfinder courses. A ranger or pathfinder can survive any combat situation, especially if left stranded in enemy territory or that area between two hostile forces called the No Man's Land (aka DMZ or demilitarized zone). Rambo in that First Blood movie was a Ranger.

If you want to train a soldier to be fit, send him to PTI school where  physical training instructors are educated and trained.

Our dear Mad Dog platoon commander seemed to have the two confused, or mixed up more likely, why we of Platoon 17 were needlessly pushed beyond our limits. We found out his intention later, when he told us his objective was to prepare ALL OF US for OCS (Officer Cadet School). The thing is, not everyone was of officer material.

Mad Dog and his corporals and sergeant conspired to tweak our BMT training in such a manner that we were both mentally and physically stretched. We knew because recruits in various companies tended to compare notes, especially between ex-JC mates. The other companies/platoons did the bare minimum. The reason was that the SAF was trying to change. They wanted to be a kinder, gentler NS provider, more attuned to the needs of its men. Perhaps complaints from parents of my brother's tough-going cohort had finally gotten through to the authorities. Or perhaps the incidence of in-camp suicides was starting to mount. In any case, my batch of recruits was to be treated with kid gloves. But apparently our Mad Dog PC did not get the memo.

He made us run farther, did more calisthenics and had prolonged sessions of combat training. We had less time than the rest for lunch in the cookhouse even. We endured old-style military harassment that by right, should have been outlawed. One of these involved carting a metal cupboard from our barracks to the centre of the parade square all because there was some imaginary dirt inside.

Physical abuse was inflicted upon us through making us leopard crawl (crawling on our bellies) in our PT attire across an entire field. He didn't care that the field was filled with mimosa or were bare in patches. We ended up with bleeding at the knees and elbows.

He made us fireman-lift our buddies (i.e. across the shoulders) round that long and circuitous camp road. Many collapsed before they could reach the final stretch - a 30-degree slope - that made finishing the course even more improbable. A fellow recruit's back problem was aggravated because of this. But Mad Dog did not care. He simply assumed the worst of him, that he was "keng-ing", i.e. pretending to be sick.

We checked with our friends in the other companies. NONE of them did what we did.

On other occasions, we were harassed whilst doing the standard obstacle course or SOC. We had to repeat and repeat the whole thing if someone failed to do one obstacle satisfactorily - from the low wall all the way to the barbed wire jump. On many occasions, we returned to the SOC in slacks and tee. Maybe Mad Dog's intention was to have all of us ace the course. But were we really that slow?

At other times, when we were at one of the firing ranges at Pasir Lebar SAFTI camp, he would take us on a run to Peng Kang Hill, which was famous as a locale for making grown men cry. It's a steep hill with a bald patch strewn with gravel. Already slippery and difficult to run up in PT attire, the slope was doubly, if not tripley difficult when in full battle order. Because many soldiers slipped and injured themselves (and sadistic platoon commanders liked to punish their men on it), Peng Kang Hill was actually banned for such exercises. But Mad Dog did not care. I can understand the tourism and nostalgic value of the Hill, but to make us do it more than once was just being mean.

I am all for tough training, but there has to be a reason for it. And it is no substitute for building up fitness. When you train a soldier to be tough, it is more a psychological thing. And not all of us got into BMT on the same level of fitness; the same can be said for psychological toughness.

On other occasions, Mad Dog's actions were retributive. When something was not up to par, he would prolong the exercise. It came often during combat training (see previous blog). It also often happened just before lunch time. Mad Dog, in his tantrum, would forbid us to spend more than 10 minutes in the cookhouse.  With just 10 minutes to collect your tray, queue up, get food, eat, wash your tray, return it to the rack, we often had to gobble it all down. And he would station his corporals along the way to make sure none of us skipped the meal.

I think denying an NS man his meal is one of the worst thing an officer can do. If you ask your men to give their all during training, at least have the courtesy to let them enjoy a meal and fill their stomachs. ITD was not a concentration camp.

Yet on other occasions, our platoon sergeant would order us to descend from our barracks in the middle of the night (while we were sleeping) to lay out items from our fullpacks in the parade square. If it was unsatisfactory, we would have to pack up, unpack the items on our beds, repack on command again and run down to the parade square again.

Up to this point, you might think I am a complaining soldier. But the thing is, none of the other platoons in ITD at the time had to go through such harassment. 

The reason Mad Dog gave us was that he wanted us all to be fit for OCS. If BMT was this bad, think how bad OCS must be. That's how some of my fellow recruits thought. 

When OCS officers finally came round to conduct their assessment exercises to determine who was suitable for officer training, many of my mates opted out, even those I thought would make stellar officers. For them, NS was just a two-year thing, why push so hard or subject yourself to such cruel and unusual punishment?

My own drive was to become a better officer than Mad Dog and those who had no respect for their fellow men. NS training was essential. It's officers like Mad Dog who give it a bad name. There was another officer in Echo company (a short fella) who also gave SAF officers a bad name. He was worst than Mad Dog because he came across as amoral. At least Mad Dog was driven by his OCS goal. This other officer took perverse pleasure in "tekkaning" some of the recruits.

If such a person could be an officer, I thought I could definitely be a better one. So I set my sights on being an officer and tried my best during the assessment trials.

In the end, what Mad Dog set out to do, it all backfired on him. One by one, my recruit mates told the OCS recruiters, "No, we do not want to take part in these trials." Mad Dog was left flummoxed. In fact, he held a meeting to find out why and to persuade some of them to change their minds. None of them did. It would reflect badly on his record.

Basically, Mad Dog forgot the most rudimentary principle of military leadership: Men must want to follow you to their death. With Mad Dog, we wouldn't mind "blanket partying" him instead. He could go and be "saio on" all he wanted on his own. I think we could have trained ourselves better. My personal motto has always been: Be a good soldier, but be an even better comrade.

There was one occasion when Mad Dog Wee showed his good side. The final IPPT (the standard army fitness test) was on the next day. I could ace all my other stations that involved shutter run, chin-ups, sit-ups and standing broad jump. But when it came to running, I was always just short of the gold standard (which few could do). The next morning, when he saw me in those China-man black shoes issued by the Army, he asked if I had not a better pair of running shoes. I said no. Actually the reason was that I was into badminton all my life and did all my running/training in badminton shoes. Mad Dog then asked me for my shoe size and told me to wait. He mumbled something about me not being able to do well in those shoes and off he went. Five, ten minutes later, he was back holding a pair of jogging shoes. Use these, he said. I tried them on. They fitted.

That day, I ran a different test race. My strides were longer and my feet did not feel as hot. The China-man shoes were notorious for their lack of cushioning and arch support. We often joked it was a shoe for amahs than foot soldiers. And they made a "plop-plop" sound each time we ran.

Mad Dog was naturally there with his stopwatch at the finish line. He was beaming with satisfaction. I had achieved gold in just the nick of time. I took off the shoes and handed them back to him. I said my grateful thanks.

Mad Dog just pulled his mouth into that wicked grin of his. I could not tell if he was happy for me or with himself. With Mad Dog, one never knew. His eyes were single-lidded, half-closed giving him a poker-faced look. They never really opened up even when he laughed, which always sounded like a sneer. It would seem that everything was a private joke with him.

Mad Dog's methods might have been extreme, but when we arrived at OCS, those of us from his platoon found the training a breeze. We could "switch off" even. And it did not come as a surprise that one of us emerged as the best cadet for Physical Fitness. It was not me, but Ling, a skinny guy with a congenital little beer belly. Till this day, he wonders why I gave up my BCPF contest slot to him. I have had enough of exercise machismo... no thanks to Mad Dog Wee.

Related stories: Tough Cadet Training and A Platoon of Characters
Next story: Pool of Courage

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The First Two Weeks

It was standard practice back then to have a compulsory two-week stay-in-camp at the start of BMT. But if you were enlisted in December, that rule can appear rather farcical. Four days after enlistment, I found myself at home for Christmas. A few more days later, it was New Year's. A month later, it was Chinese New Year. So, for those who are a Mama's Boy being enlisted in December is not such a bad thing!

BMT was supposed to teach army newbies basic infantry craft. For us recent school leavers, the first two weeks were mostly spent being exercised and regimented. Exercise began early in the morning at 5.30 am. It was called 5BX. It was called that because it consisted precisely of five basic exercises: the Star Jump, Running on the Spot, Sit-ups, Push-ups, and a Jog. We would assemble at the parade square and under the dim spotlights that hung from the barracks, loosened up and stretched. We then did our 5BX followed by a run. The runs were usually interspersed with more calisthenics like side running (crab) and more push-ups.

The other formal exercises during BMT involved swimming and combat training - which had less to do with combat than have your muscles stretched to the limit. One move in particular involved the M16 rifle aka Your Wife. We soon found out that a person can do all sorts of exercises with The Wife - all requiring exertion, grunting and mostly regret. Hey, all that sounds rather bedroom familiar!

One exercise involved holding The Wife at arm's length and remaining steady for like 10 mins. An empty M16 rifle weighs 3.3 kg. That's roughly 1.5 times the weight of a two-litre bottle of Coke. Heavy? You bet. After a while, it will feel like lead.

And what if you have to do that after jogging 5 km and completing numerous sit-ups and leopard crawls. Or after a long session of treading water in the pool?

Yes, our platoon commander, sergeant and corporals were sadistic like that. After a while, they made us dread combat training. The only real combat training we did was learn to fight close quarters hand-to-hand with our rifles and bayonets (i.e. knives attached to rifles). Sometimes we would put our bayonets on and charge at stuffed-up dummies that pretend to be our enemy soldiers. The first time we did that, I recalled reading about Singaporean women and children being bayoneted in such fashion by Japanese troops during WWII. I realised you don't really have to do very much to spill someone guts out.

Of course, all that slinging and slanging about with butt-hard rifles and pointed bayonets resulted in injuries. Quite a few of us ended up with badly bruised knuckles and fingers and cut arms. At times we got knocked on the head.

Quite a number of chaps actually cried or collapsed because of such tough training - especially when holding The Wife out at arm's length. When that happened, the whole exercise would be repeated again for another 10 minutes. Our sergeant and corporals turned it into a blame game. It became Psychological War.

About dropping The Wife: It's a cardinal sin in the army. Do not drop your rifle anywhere, not during training, not in the field, not in the bunk. If a corporal sees you do that, it is an automatic Drop 50 (fifty push-ups on the spot).

I was skinny, so this particular Hold-The-Wife-At-Arms-Length exercise was tough on my limbs. But I had been through tough badminton training before so I could try my best to bear and grin with it. That's how I got through my tough training days. By sheer will-power (and no small amount of self-hypnosis!)

We all hated that combat training. The good outcome was that it served to bond us together against our corporals, sergeant and that mad-dog platoon commander of ours.

His name was Ernest Wee. Physically, he was lean and tall and walked with a slight hunch. He had a mop of straight hair that swept from left to right. His eyes were beady. His most distinctive feature of all was his squarish jaw  that jutted out in a "sibeh how lian" manner. It also made him look as if he was unhappy always in a jeering mood. Added to that ensemble was a small moustache that flashed above a pair of thin lips, making him look more like a real "mean son-of-a-bitch". He looked much older than his 20-something NS years.

At first I had much respect for him. He spoke well and was very confident for his age. I thought he was a career officer, but no. He was doing NS like the rest of us. When he became unreasonable with his exercise demands that's when I thought perhaps he was overdoing it a bit. I was very fit then so I could bear with whatever he threw my way. But not everyone in my platoon was like that. One even had a doc-certified back problem. Mad Dog simply ignored it. More about him later.

In that first two weeks, we learnt more about routine life in camp. After breakfast every morning we performed area cleaning. Each section took turns to sweep the bunks, wash the toilets, clean the glass window louvers or pick leaves and sweep the staircases in the general areas around the barracks. We learnt to eat at the cookhouse, where to pick up the stainless steel trays, get our food, sit down and eat, dispose of unfinished food, clean/dry and replace those stainless steel trays for the next round of hungry recruits.

In the evenings, depending on the time we finished with training, we would get a bread bun (with red bean or coconut filling) or red/green bean soup. For the latter we would have to use our own green plastic mugs, forks and spoons. Those drinking mugs also doubled as our brush-teeth mugs as well.

Then there were the armskote procedures that governed how we took out and returned our firearms (i.e. M16 rifles). Our rifles were taken out every morning to be cleaned and prepped ready for use during the day. When training ended, we would have to clean the rifles (outside and inside), polish that leatherised butt with kiwi and have it for inspection before getting it accepted and returned to the armskote. If you didn't do a good job, your rifle would be rejected and you would have to clean it again. This might hold up the whole platoon - something no one wanted to be accused of, especially during book-out time. The person most mad about this was the camp duty officer or DO, who would rather have an early night than wait for a bunch of blur recruits forgetting how to clean a rifle properly. You see, before we retired for the night, the DO had to "clear" the armskote, meaning he would have to certify that all the rifles had been returned and chained properly to their resting stocks. There would be major trouble if one went missing during a surprise inspection from HQ.

Of all things an officer want is to avoid losing a weapon on his watch. That's like throwing one's military career out the window, no matter how NS or career-signed-on brief that might be. Or that career could simply come to a "henta-kaki" (which is Malay for marching on the spot, i.e. going nowhere). A DO, of course, had other things to do such as making sure that things at the cookhouse was in order or that the meals for late-returning soldiers were prepared or delivered. Cooks would often treat DOs well and cook up nice supper dishes for them, dishes such as fried rice or mee goreng which were not your standard army menu items. Such special DO treatment became a kind of a tradition in camps all over the SAF.

I think the two biggest adjustments anybody has to make going into BMT are the waking up/sleeping and bowel habits.

When I was born, I slept through most of the morning and day; it became my habit. I am what people might call a "night person". I didn't like waking up early and would only go to sleep pretty late. For better or worse, that's my natural circadian cycle. But life routines, as we know, can be changed and adapted. So the early rise/late night sleeping in camp was not much of a problem for me. It helped that as a student, I often had to wake up at 5.30 am to make my way to my junior college near Toa Payoh - just so to get there on time. That's the price I had to pay for my family suddenly moving all the way up to Singapore's ulu North.

As for bowel movements, that took a big adjustment. Up till that moment, I had been trained by my parents to do my business early in the morning and be done with it. It became clockwork. But BMT with its extra early morning wake-up calls, 5BX and breakfast afterwards, gave a shock to my system. Besides, everybody had to do their business before the toilets were cleaned, which meant extra pressure to perform. It took a while before some of us started to adjust and go to the toilets at night, which was the better bowel removal time table (unless you were on night topography or some other night training). Yes, I was tight-assed for a while but eventually was very relieved to be able to get over that kind of strict bowel regime. The Life Lesson is: Give and take. Or was it eat and let go anytime? Haha....

When the two weeks of compulsory confinement came to an end, my family came to visit me. I was particularly touched when my eldest sister presented me with a transistor radio (see pix above) that could also receive TV channels (some of us still hankered for the HK dramas over Ch 8). Till today, it still works. TV was not allowed in the bunks and it was only through radio that we were connected to the outside world. The Sony Walkman was new then and not everyone could afford one. The best was to have a small radio and a ear plug to listen to music and the news whilst relaxing on a bunk bed.

If you had wanted to watch TV, you could do that at the commercial canteen. Each camp had one such makan place. That canteen was a refuge for guys who could not "tahan" army food. There were coin phones too in the canteen for guys to call home or chat-up their girlfriends. At ITD Sembawang, I recall each barrack having a public phone at each end of the block. Queues would form there, esp before booking out!

I seldom went to the canteen. It's a sinkhole for your money as well as morale. Not being able to stomach army food was not a good thing. Yes, the beehoon felt like 'barb wire'; the veggie was yellow and tasted like diesel rags... but there were bright moments too. And as a recruit you have to eat to survive the tough exercise regime. Being picky about food is not very smart. Besides, at each table in the cookhouse was a jar of sweet-sour plum sauce that looked like yellow marmalade. Put that on your rice and meats and you can imagine yourself eating at some fancy Teochew restaurant! Well, if only Mad Dog gave us enough time for that even. At times, we were given just 10 minutes to enter and exit the cookhouse altogether. If the queue was long, that got cut to a meaningless 5 mins.

So, as the two weeks passed, we slowly began to sample Mad Dog's sadistic intent. He had a reason and a method to it all. But it would later backfire on him.

Next story: Mad Dog Wee

Saturday, November 12, 2011

ITD Camp

The place where I spent my first three months of NS training is not Pulau Tekong. It was ITD or the Infantry Training Depot in Sembawang. Me and my classmates had heard of it moving to Tekong Island but I was secretly hoping to attend the one at Sembawang still. Partly out of nostalgia (it was an institution!) and partly because my brother did his BMT there. When ITD was finally moved to Tekong Island, the camp was turned over to the Navy (where, before, my brother had done his Midshipman training). It is now home to the SAF Yacht Club amongst other things. But the road that circumscribed the camp was chopped off near the entrance due to public road expansion. The old Admiralty Road West was a single two-lane road, not the dual carriage way it is today. You can see the truncated road in the picture on the left. It is closed off by a peach-colored gate. The guardhouse was much smaller then (in a colonial building) and situated nearer to the road on the right. An old, giant metal swing-gate used to stand between Recruit camp life and Civilian life outside.

I think my batch was the second last to have their BMT training in ITD Sembawang. It turned out great for me because I lived in Marsiling then. The camp was just 12 minutes by bus to my home. I used to joke that by the time my soldier uniform was washed, starched and dried, my fellow recruits were still making their way home to some ulu part of Singapore. It felt good to be so near home even though I spent most of my weekends resting and savouring home-cooked food.

Oh yes, we had to starch our uniforms back then, especially the No. 3, which was for formal or lecture-room occasions. The No. 4 was the one we wore out to the field to rub shoulders with the trees and mud. At the time, we still wore the all-green cotton uniform that later became a favourite with construction workers after the Army went camouflage with their fatigues.

At first we hand-starched our uniforms. But later, we started using spray-on ones; it was so much more convenient! And to iron the hardened uniforms properly, we used the heavier China-made irons. These were  the simpler ones with the single arrow-knob, black bakelite handle, and shiny stainless steel body. It's still being sold. It was so popular, each bunk had one such iron. This iron was pretty hot and reliable. At times, we would use candle wax to 'smoothen' the iron face if it got all sticky from careless use.

The candle also came in handy when polishing our boots. We would use a heated upturned spoon to apply melted kiwi to the toe caps. It was easier to polish with a felt cloth afterwards. These were our "tools of the trade" so to speak. I was in NPCC so I was already familiar with the art of polishing leather-capped boots to a mirror finish. Back in school, my classmate Bay Swee Lak was the best at this. He made it look so effortless. Now, looking at my hapless fellow recruits who were never in the uniform groups, it became my turn (and those who had been in NCC too) to teach them. Knowing how to polish your boots quickly and well took a lot of stress off your BMT. The corporals and sergeants often used that as an excuse to exact punishment. The toe cap of the boots, they'd tell you, had to reflect their pearly whites when they smiled. If it didn't, you would have to suffer the wrath of their frowns instead.

Still, when these 'slave owners' wanted to punish someone, they always found ample reasons. This was especially so during Area Cleaning inspection. An overlooked window ledge, a cupboard shelf or window louvre, a crinkle on a bed sheet, some spilled foot powder, etc, etc. And if your face was the sort they didn't like (for some reason), they would punish you even more. My section had its fair share of unlucky faces. The guy whose eyes forever looked sleepy; the fella with the 'blur sotong' look; and the one with the "kwai-lan" face (Hokkien for obnoxious) The last was probably the worst off. No matter what you do, the corporal or sergeant would think you were being rebellious or had an attitude. It did not matter if it was implied or not.

We had a guy like that who was picked on by our section heads and platoon sergeant. It didn't help that he also came from a rich family. He was often asked to drop extra or do additional cleaning jobs. That's how some folks got more "tekkan" than the rest of us. Another fella suffered at company level (three platoons make a company in military organisation), meaning he was picked on by the Company Commander himself. He was rather slow and blur and was treated like the village idiot. Sometimes meeting officers like that make my blood boil.

So, in some sense, it helped to be born with a face that blended in. (For me, my army pals would later tell me that I  looked serious or fierce on first encounter, like some gangster. Maybe my corporals or sergeant thought better than to fool around with me. In any case, I was very fit and a fast worker so they usually couldn't find fault with me at all.)

Our first few days at BMT was spent trying to get all our army stuff drawn from the Quarter Master (QM, army term for Head of Stores) and learning how to put them on. The first was the SBO or the "soldier bra organiser". They were leftovers from WWII and their straps were not not easy to adjust. As they were held tightly by brass clips. We had to use our bayonets to pry them loose and then hammer them tight again. The pouches where we put our magazines (not the girly Playboy/Hustler mags but the springloaded metal cases that held a rifle's bullets) and grenades were stiff and hard to close, not like the velcroed ones soldiers have today. The helmets (with their inner liners and straps) were also ex-WWII - not as secure and fitting as the present day ones either. They tended to rock about on our smaller Asian heads when we moved about in them. That funny scene of Frodo and Sam emerging from Cirith Ungol in The Return of the King movie dressed as orcs best describes how we felt (as 18 year olds)  in those old army field wear. They were oversized, clunky and ancient.

I do not know the history of ITD camp very well. As a camp, it was huge. As mentioned above, the parade square was large and surrounded by colonial style low-rises. They reminded me of those on Sentosa Island. My Echo Company Block was not too far from the cookhouse, which was nice when it came time for night snack. We didn't have to walk very far. We could also could get back to our bunks faster after lunch for a quick siesta.

Elsewhere, the camp had a field, an obstacle course, and a section with a pool occupied by the Navy. It belonged to their Midshipmen School. The camp also had its vehicular pool (garage, basically) of three tonners and WWII Landrover jeeps. I learnt to drive one of these later as an officer. It was quite the experience steering such a relic.

Anybody who has been to ITD Sembawang can tell you two things: the Gift Shop and the ITD Circuit.

I laughed when I first heard of the Gift Shop. We weren't tourists and certainly had no money to buy gifts!

As a recruit, that gift shop was the lifeline to many things - stuff you needed for the Army (e.g. black tape, black marker, green mug, featherlite (a cloth for cleaning rifles), cleaning brushes, epaulettes (rank insignia), buttons, socks, shoelaces, disposal underwear, soap, etc, etc) - things that the army did not give you enough of or that you had lost (i.e. signed 1206 for); things that civi-life offered: sweets, snacks, magazines, etc; things that connected you to civi-life: e.g. that All-Important public telephone.

The ITD Circuit was that road that ran round the camp. Everybody used it for evening jogs and exercise. The 2.4km run. Platoons and sections would come and go on it, same with vehicular traffic. With my platoon, it had added significance. That circuitous road was meant as a tortuous road to build up our endurance. I am not sure if this circuitous road had a name, but to us in Platoon 17, that road might as well have been known as the Thai-Burma Railway. Our Mad Dog platoon commander made us Fireman Lift our buddies round it all the time, almost breaking our backs.

By right, such overly physically punishing stuff should have been outlawed, but we were the only ones doing it. You can read more about this in the blog 'Mad Dog Wee'.

Next story: The First Two Weeks

Friday, November 11, 2011

Becoming a Nobody

The day finally arrived for me to report to CMPB (central manpower base at Dempsey Road) for pick up to start my National Service. The night before was spent deciding what to pack. My brother - who went through it before - had advice to offer. "Just bring the essentials. You won't have time for anything else," said he. That was rather spartan but true. In the end, I actually did just bring the bare essentials: a cup, toothbrush, towel, bath soap and washing powder (with brush). My brother also said there was no need for shampoo. "You are going to be botak for a while." My mom she was more concerned and made me bring along medicine for diarrhea (as well as Axe brand oil for headaches. She also threw in Anthisan cream (for mosquito bites) for good measure. A week ago, she had also asked her medium friend to give me a "fu" or protection amulet - a piece of yellow paper printed with Taoist symbols and blessed with a red-ink chop. It was then folded into a small triangular shape. She also gave me a token bit of a duck's bill (flat and dark brown) that was supposed to be a symbol of tenacity. I took both the fu and bill and kept them pressed in my wallet. I was never the superstitious sort but did not wish to be disrespectful for her blessings. And I've always humored my mom like that over the years.

For clothes, a pair of sportive shorts and tee; a set of formal clothes for booking out; and of course, plenty of used underwear (faded but still good for the family jewels. But as I found out later, it is difficult to fight a war in loose underwear!) My brother said good underwear was often stolen from the clothes lines, so it was better to leave them at home. He also advised me to bring along lots of rags (to clean out dust and dirt from the bunks and cabinets and for de-oiling rifles). It turned out to be the best advice of all.

I also brought along a favourite white sports jacket (with blue trim and woolen cuffs) in case the weather turned cold. It was bought from Katong Shopping Centre while I was dating a girl from that area. This garment would accompany me throughout my NS journey including my maiden training trip to Henchun (Taiwan) later.

My mom is not a person given to histrionics on farewell occasions. She looks upon farewells as temporary - a chance to say hello again, so my going to NS, though notable, was essentially a non-event. Her attitude has always been: If something needs doing, just get it done. She is efficient and practical like that. And as I was often the family's errand boy who always somehow manages to get things done and return home in one piece, that gave her confidence. I think my mom worried more for my brother during his NS time. He was after all the elder son.

In any case she did assure me that "leong lin pun wui ho fai chow kor" (two and a half years will pass very quickly). Deep down, I knew she worried like the rest of the moms there that morning, but I was also trying to put on a brave face so as not let her worry. I ended up looking nonchalant. My mom's final parting advice was to stay away from those who smoked or took drugs. That's her standard riff during that time. After all, the 70s and early 80s eras encouraged those habits! So I gave her the standard "Hai ler, chi toh ler" (Yeah, I know already), took my bag, climbed onto the back of a three-tonner, waved goodbye and was soon part of a convoy out of CMPB on my way to somewhere. No tears, no wayang. It was 7+am in the morning. The sun was shining and the weather seemed to be in a good mood for the rest of the day.

The army trucks took us to a supply depot in Choa Chu Kang where we got our hair cut and later given our NS wardrobe of uniforms, caps, PT shorts, green socks and shoes - all still in their clear plastic bags. The PT (physical training) shoes were the China-man type: black and green soled - more popular with Boat Quay coolies and trishaw riders than say, top performing soldiers! It would take the SAF some 10-12 years later to switch to Dunlop joggers (or some house brand). We would later get our SBO (skeletal battle order or what the army fellas call a "soldier bra organiser"), backpacks, water bottle, mess tins, toggle rope, etc. from our respective BMT camps.

Our hair was cut in an empty room that had a barber, his wall mirror and stool. We queued, got sheared by an electric shaver and out we went the other way. No one (at least in my queue) made a big fuss. We actually found it quite amusing. Most of us simply rubbed our new "durian heads" and snickered. Actually "durian head" is quite an apt term because a freshly crew-cut head is somewhat green in colour. Somebody I recognised remarked how much I looked like a monk. I know. Fortune tellers have been telling my mom that since I was young.

When we arrived at our BMT camp, we spilled out from the trucks and found ourselves in a huge parade square. All around were three-storey high colonial buildings. Our names were called and we moved to the company and platoon that we had been administrated to. I was secretly hoping to see more of my pre-U classmates in my platoon but the persons I watched were heading somewhere else. I myself was assigned to Platoon 17, Echo Company. 'Echo' I would later learn, was the letter E in military code-speak. Altogether, there were seven companies in my cohort, Company H (Hotel, which turned out to be quite apt) being the last. No one knew what to expect: if their platoon commander or NCOs (i.e. the corporals and sergeants) were nice or the unreasonable sorts. I would later find out that Echo Company was the toughest of them all, with my platoon commander being the chief "siao kow" or Mad Dog.

When we next turned out in our PT kit (blue shorts, green mesh-like tee, woolen socks and black shoes) we knew "civi life" as we knew it then was now in the past. Instead of being nicely spoken to, we would be shouted at; instead of being asked for cooperation, we would be made to run and jump at will or do inexplicable things like cart your metal cupboard three stories down to the parade square in double quick time. We essentially became nobodies and, that was precisely what our platoon sergeant told us in no uncertain terms that very first day. "Recruits, do you know why you are called recruits?" he'd asked in his Chinese-accented English. He was a fit, shortish fella with straight hair and who was surprisingly fair and smooth complexioned. In that aspect, he was quite the "gu niang". But as he was a sergeant (going by that Combat! TV character stereotype) he should be quite the troop leader and also gung-ho! Sergeants are supposed to be tough like that.

"Recruits, do you know why you are called recruits?" he asked again.

We looked at one another, uncertain if to answer or not. In my head I knew we weren't recruited but sent there by law. The first rule of BMT training - my brother had warned me - is not to be "garang"  and stand out too much. And more than that no one likes a smart-aleck, so I kept quiet.

The sergeant continued, immaculate and smart in his crisp No. 3 uniform and looking very much the parade commander with his pace stick tucked under an arm. "You are called recruits because you have no rank. You are nobodies. Even a private is higher ranked than you!" That I found to be disconcertingly true. Imagine being ordered around by a neanderthal low-life of a private soldier.

"From today onwards, when we ask you to jump, you jump. When we ask you to Drop 20, you Drop 20. Is that clear!" A nervous lone somebody shouted "Yes, sir!" and afterwards looked sheepish. A few guys found that funny and snickered.

"And one more thing. You will not call me sir, I am not an officer. I am Sgt Wong. IS THAT CLEAR!"

"YES, SIR! SGT WONG SIR." Clearly, we needed time to get that right.

A corporal standing by the side drawled, "Sgt Wong, lah. Not sir...."

"I SAY AGAIN, IS THAT CLEAR!" Sgt Wong bellowed one more time, face showing red. We did our best to shout back "Yes, Sgt Wong!".  But Sgt Wong would have none of it. He teased us in a low voice instead. "I can't heeear you...."  It took another three YES, SGT WONG! before he was satisfied. So, life as a recruit was going to be like that.

I looked to my right and found a kindred soul; he seemed to be thinking the same thing. We later spoke. His name was Kwong and he, like me, was a troop commander of a uniform group during junior college time (we both were from CJC). But he was in the NCC uniform group though.

Before we were dismissed, Sgt Wong introduced us to our respective section corporals. Present were two of them. Apparently a third would join us later. He turned out to be Cpl Raja: a square-jawish Indian with a head too big for his small, sinewy frame. He wore a red beret which sent out alarm signals. Uh-oh, don't commandos wear red berets? My life as a fresh recruit at that instant took another ominous turn. First, we became nobodies; then we got a commando as a section head. My life in BMT seemed to have gotten off on the hard track! Am I going to have as tough a time in NS as my brother did? Maybe worse! I wasn't far wrong.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Call Up

I got my notice for National Service via the mail. It was typical of the many sort of envelopes I would receive for the next 20 years. Letters from the army were always cyclo-styled on jotter paper that turned yellow with age.

I looked at my letter but didn't think too much of it then as I was in the midst of a hectic two-year junior college program. All of us boys knew we were going in for BMT (basic military training) once we finish with our GCE A-level exams. To us, what mattered more was whether we would have a break or not. As we were A-level students, our BMT start-date was either in December or March. (The polytechnic graduates would start in June or September due to their different academic year.) Many of us, of course, would rather have a break than start NS straightaway, especially after such a trying time studying for those all-important finals. For those of us involved in sports and ECA activities, life in JC was basically a blur; We had to shuttle from tutorials to lectures to tournament venues and uniform group trainings, etc. Leaving classes early for tournaments was especially tough: you had to catch up on school work later on your own. In retrospect, I wished I had spent more time with my JC mates. But even then, I was their Class Rep and we had great times bonding in various Inter-Class games. We were an active bunch and we took part in every possible contest - from basketball to football to volleyball and Captain's Ball as well. We event took part in Inter-Class Air Rifle.

The GCE A-level exams were all-important; they determined whether you were eligible for university or not. In any case, the results would only be out in March the next year. I was hoping to be called up for NS later so I could work in those three months of hiatus in order to save some money. But I was called up soon after my last exam paper, which was quite the bummer. Everybody knew how little salary NS men earned in those days! I think it was in the region of $90 - give or take a few cents!

My date of enlistment was 21st December. I know because I kept checking that enlistment slip wondering if it was real or not. Four days before Christmas? Who can forget!

Was I worried about NS? The tough BMT training and torturous punishments? The rumoured suicides?

Well, we tended to hear more of the bad side than good. It didn't help that my brother's NS (he was four years my senior) was exceedingly tough. He was in Armour, the tank corps. His cohort often had little sleep and was always punished harshly. They seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping their tanks clean and free of mud. (What, were they a showroom platoon?) A common punishment was sleep deprivation. The instructors were also not shy of physical abuse (punches). Listening to my brother's tales, I thought how misguided NS was. Shouldn't we treat our trainees better? After all, we are only citizen soldiers. Besides, patriotism cannot be pummelled into someone with violence and rough tactics; it has to be cultivated through reason and passion.

Perhaps I had read one too many GP paper in JC and had become more philosophical. What I didn't know at the time was that the Singapore Armed Forces employed Israeli advisors who had some very tough ideas on military training. (Israel and Singapore, being small nations surrounded by bigger and often hostile neighbours (similarly Islamic), was thought to share some common threats and concerns, not least also a Citizen Army). But I've always felt that they were they, and we were we. Singapore didn't fight an all-out war with its indigenous people to stake a claim on a piece of land. Ours was more a political victory over those ideological left-wing Communists.

In any case, I was very interested in things Psychological and Psychiatric at the time (e.g. Lang, Berne, Jung, Freud, etc.). So I was more inclined to bettering the human condition through counsel than threats. I also believed strongly in being efficient and economical as a fighting unit after having taken karate-do for four years. We could be good soldiers without needless drills and inordinate punishments. Wars were basically task-oriented objectives, no? You do whatever to win, get results, be safe.

Growing up, I had always been been a very skinny kid and my dad encouraged me to take up Martial Arts (Karate-Do). It gave me much self confidence. I also studied Judo and Akido on my own and could do pratfalls without hurting myself. In Judo (and Akido) you gain confidence in tackling someone bigger. I came away from those lessons knowing no one could bully me. I also learned how lethal some of these martial arts moves can be. It isn't at all like the way they were portrayed in the movies (and certainly not at all like the Indian ones!) It is very easy to hurt someone if you only know how. It's also the reason why martial arts opponents prefer to walk away from trouble than fight. Unless they get cornered into a life-threatening situation.

Besides Martial Arts, I was also a National Police Cadet Corp Cadet Inspector during JC. We went through a tough two weeks of training at the Whitley Road Police Academy to earn our rank. After that, we were sent to take charge of secondary school NPCC units. I was given the double assignment of taking care of St Theresa High and St Theresa Convent schools affiliated to the St Theresa Church in Kampong Bahru. The schools were either All-Girl or All-Boy. I remember spending a lot of time trying to overcome their shyness with one another, and the girls - with me.

During my time with them, I taught them camp craft, survival skills and foot drill. Yes, I was trying to give my charges more than just the perfunctory NPCC lessons, which, by tradition, concerned itself mostly with marching, foot drills and the polishing of boots. At the end of the day, even if we weren't as mud-dirty as our friends the Scouts, we did our fair share of outdoor hiking and camping. If Sarimbun was the Scouts' playground, Pulau Ubin was ours. We climbed obstacles, swam at sea (plenty of sea-stars), and cooked Maggie noodles with well water.

However, despite all these, my main task as Cadet Inspector was to prepare and train my kids for the annual Inter-Unit Foot Drill Competition held at the Police Academy. We didn't do too badly in the end.

So, since secondary school up till pre-NS, my drill commands and footwork had been top-notch. (In my final secondary school year, I was commander for a Founder's Day parade.) Given my NPCC background, I half expected to be called up for Police NS rather than Army. Either way, I felt ready.

So, despite my brother's travails, I was not put off by my impending two-year NS stint. I was also rather gung-ho about new ventures and this rite of passage was no different. If NS was going to be silly, well, it was not going to happen to me. I would change it. I would do NS my way.

Next story: Becoming a Nobody