Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Brunei Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next few days in Brunei flew by real quick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related stories: Field Camp and Taiwan Training