Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mr Sign Extra

If my BMT platoon commander was narcissistic, presumptuous and hard-assed, then my platoon commander in OCS was the exact opposite. 

Mr Sign Extra was more a guardian than PC. The differences extended to the way they spoke, their body shape and size. Mad Dog Wee spoke with a slight American accent while Mr Sign Extra had a Mandarin twang; he at times liked to quote Chinese proverbs. MDW was lean, tall and somewhat tanned; MSE was short, stout and fair with a bit of chubby cheeks. His size made him ideal as a tank commander and he was. He joined OCS from the Armour corps. OCS at the time was a popular way-station for up-and-coming officers. Most moved on to Higher Appointments later on.

MSE's real name was Capt TH Ang. The reason I call him Mr Sign Extra is because that was his popular call-out. Every time we did something wrong, it was "sign extra for this, sign extra for that". Of course, he didn't say it quite like that. It was simply "Take 1!" or "Take 2!" Over time, we regarded OCS as our weekend home so prolific was he. But he was also our favourite PC because he left us alone to our own devices. His only condition was: Don't make me lose face.


His Man-management Style was certainly a 180-degree turn from MDW. In fact, it was rather unique in OCS at the time. 

When I was there, we were the last batch to be coached under the old Tactics Team System where military instruction for Officer Education was taught by specialist teams. There was a team each for Doctrine, Topography, Watermanship, etc, - a total of 11 teams (TT1 - TT11, presumably). I think the idea behind the Tactics Teams was to conserve teaching resources for both Junior and Senior Terms. Only the Weapons and Demolition Team stood on their own (more of this later in another blog entry).

At Delta Company, MSE stood out. The other platoon commanders were in the mould of MDW. I think they all came from the same cookie-cutter: Able men can only come from harsh and demanding training.

Of the three platoons, two were known as Scholar; only ours, Platoon 10, wasn't. This meant guys in the other platoons were either scholarship holders or so-called "white knights", i.e. the sons of government ministers and their ilk. Quite a few of them looked studious but we couldn't be bothered. They were having a much tougher time than us under their PCs, so we were rather glad not to be in their shoes. The 9-month OCS course was already like my two-year Pre-U stint: highly compressed and hyper. There was no time to belly-button gaze, let alone time to be envious of anybody or anything.

MSE kept to his word: he left us pretty much alone. Even his platoon sergeant, Sgt Karu, did the same. As PS, he more or less bunked in with us. Sgt Karu was a plus-sized Indian with curly hair and moustache. To me, he always looked quizzical, as if he got a question to ask. As a matter of fact, he often started his sentences with an "Eh". 

Although brutish, in his off hours, Sgt Karu wore an easy smile. But don't be fooled by his size - he was a Ranger. The thing that bothered us was that he liked to trap wild dogs to cook curry with (I am not kidding). During field camps, he would bring along a blood-stained gunny sack - something he would throw in with the rest of the stores in our 3-tonner truck. There was also his trusty Ghurka Knife - a tool that is shaped perfectly in weight to easily lop off someone's head. Or an animal's.

As a platoon of cadets, we were organised into four Sections. We would have Appointment Holders each week to lead the platoon and sections. Appointment holders wore arm epaulettes that denoted rank such as Platoon Sergeant or Section Corporal. The job of the appointment holders was to take care of Platoon Admin like reading of the daily ROs; getting cadets on time to the LTs (lecture theatres) for lessons; the drawing out stores; be answerable to whomever in lieu of our PC and PS when they are not around. The appointments were also a chance for our PC and PS to assess our Leadership and Organisational Abilities. Later in Senior Term came Company-level appointments. Candidates for this were mostly in the running for the Sword-of-Honour Award. I was not that ambitious. 

But I did get along fine with Capt Ang and Sgt Karu. However, that did not mean I was immune to their "sign extra" edict. 

One time, while we were on Marsiling Hill 265 digging a foxhole, I fell asleep unknowingly hand still gripping my changkul. To me, it was just a split second. But when I came to, MSE was there looking straight at me and wagging a finger. "Young man concerned, how can be so easily tired. Take two." 

'Young man concerned...' was his other favourite catch-phrase  He thought all young men should have certain qualities. Another fave word of his was "bastard", which given his Mandarin accent sounded more like "bustard". Coming from him, the word was not intended to insult or be rude; it was just gruff. A substitute for a more common four-letter word.

The 'two extras' I took were quickly served out as Guard Duty over the weekend, consuming both my Saturday AND Sunday. Ouch!


Back in that Marsiling trench, I opened my mouth to protest but no words came out. I threw a look at Gulam, my trench mate. He simply shrugged and mouthed something hapless like: "I didn't see him coming!"

In any case, it would have been useless because Capt Ang rarely changed his mind. When we didn't hold up our end of the bargain, we got punished. In some weird way, he was rather fair.

At another time, he made me sign extra even when I was holding the Platoon Sergeant appointment. I ended up doing Guard Duty again over the weekend. But that was not an ordinary weekend. It was the one before we set off for Brunei, meaning there would be lots of stores and administrative stuff to attend to. Brunei was our first overseas training trip; the other was Taiwan. I took it all in my stride and did not sleep for four days preparing the platoon, as well as myself, for the trip. I was quite proud that we reached Brunei without any hiccups; nor did we have any issues with the stores and such. Sgt Karu was so impressed he decided to keep me on as Platoon Sergeant for the entire duration. That experience made me realise that I was quite the natural Project Manager and it was proved right when I worked one time as a professional Conference Manager. I ran the region's first ISDN conference in Singapore that featured some of the top experts from China and Europe. The Chinese ones were notoriously difficult to locate as their phone system was rather backward and unreliable. Very often, calls would just drop in mid-conversation.

Another thing I excelled at in OCS was being an efficient Armskote Man. This was just another duty that we all took turns to do - opening and closing up of our platoon's Armoury each day. Folks did not like the job because it entailed waking up earlier than the rest and finishing off later packing up. But I was extra quick about it and would wrap things up even before the last guy who returned arms had changed and gotten comfortable. At the time, I was trying to show my guys that it needn't be such a laborious affair. A trick is to engage the School's Duty Officer early and get him to "clear" your armskote before the rest. Else it is going to be a long queue!

Capt Ang in his own way was a simple man with quite a few firm principles. Near the end of Senior Term, he asked me if I wanted to sign on, i.e. become a professional soldier. At the time, my ambitions was focused elsewhere and so I politely turned him down. I liked him but something he did bothered me. He failed my friend Gulam in his Senior Term denying him of a chance to become an officer. To have gone through nine tough months of OCS and failing at the last hurdle is devastating enough, more so if it is undeserved. That's how I felt about it. There were others who should not have passed out at all. And it was not just my opinion but the Platoon's as well. We all went through a Peer-reviewed assessment exercise. Unfortunately, the final decision rested in the hands of our PC.

I think what happened was a result of Gulam's own laid-back demeanour and Capt Ang's bias against his race. Capt Ang thought (like many of his generation) that Malays were all lazy bums with their inherent kampong "tidak apa" attitude. Gulam did himself no favours by being somewhat quiet.

But he was a decent chap whom I regarded as a Modern Malay. He didn't speak much but I knew he read widely and spoke good English. In that trench together, he even cooked and shared his noodles with me (I didn't know he brought noodles - it was not allowed). He was quite the gourmand actually. More importantly he had principles unlike a couple of guys in our platoon. After six months in OCS, you could (pretty much) tell who got integrity and who did not - especially when the going got real tough during the six-month Senior Term. Also, a couple of fellas had failed miserably in their Platoon Sergeant appointments - either caving in to self-gratification or self-preservation. Some just lacked Leadership skills. I felt Gulam did not.

With Gulam, I strongly believed that Capt Ang made an error in judgement. My only regret was not standing up for him. Fighting for his reinstatement would mean getting someone else tossed off. I didn't know who or how to handle that situation then and so just seethed inside. All my mates were quite surprised at Gulam's exclusion from the passing out cohort.

But if you were my other platoon mates, you would remember Capt 'Sign Extra' Ang fondly, if not gratefully. Perhaps Eddy Sim and Samuel (Oh) more so. Both of them got more than their fair share of "extras". I think none of us from Platoon 10 was immune to Ang's instant way of punishment. Sam was a good friend who went on to join the Commandos. I was supposed to join him but I backed out at the last minute. I didn't want to be a "muscle-head" all my Reservist life. A fervent Catholic, Sam would later serve with the Salvation Army (not a true army, you understand).

We might not all agree with the extras Capt Ang dished out, but we certainly agreed with his Man-management style. The result of letting us run ourselves was that we could better decide for ourselves what was important. We also ran on a more democratic and peer-pressured platform. We did things together on consensus rather than on the orders of one imperious leader. 

We also weren't  "turned out" needlessly, i.e. having to undergo extra drills as punishment (like what Mad Dog Wee did to my platoon during BMT). That freed us to concentrate on what we needed to Learn, Prepare and Do. More importantly, we got adequate rest. It was no wonder then that at the end of our OCS stay, when awards were handed out, all the accolades went to us in Platoon 10. The Sword of Honor, the Knowledge Prize, The Fitness Prize, etc. Now, isn't that some achievement for a non-Scholar platoon!

We also beat fellow Foxtrot Company to a pulp in the sport of Boxing!

The cadets in the Scholar platoons must have been kicking themselves. I know one of them in Platoon 12 was very confident of winning the SOH award. But besides the officers, there was also Peer Review, so it came as no surprise that the guy in my platoon won. Cadet BK Chan was more down-to-earth. But more than Individual Accomplishment, our good-showing validated Capt Ang's approach: It was novel at the time and it worked!

Later, when I was asked to remain as an instructor in OCS and undergo the Instructor Course, I could only shake my head at a Senior Term platoon in the opposite building housing Charlie Company. The platoon's commander, a certain Capt Martin (actually my former classmate's brother), was turning out his cadets ever so often - many times in the middle of the night. Having gone through Capt Ang's motivational approach, I could only conclude that Martin's approach was rather inefficient and old fashioned. I think OCS could do better with new instructors who taught differently but still produced good soldiers. I was not alone in thinking like that.

Unbeknownst to me, the Army was also thinking along the same lines and was going to change the OCS training system. My fellow instructors and I graduated from our short Instructor Course not as Team Instructors but the school's first 'Mentors'. We did not know exactly what that meant but certainly, it had to be better than the Tactics Team System. Some of the instructors in these teams were certifiably mad, and abusive. We began that year with renewed hope and stepped out in style as new instructors. It was 1983.

Next story: Gillman Camp Incident

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