My army days

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The writer (left) with recruits from the civil service, including the PSA and HDB, at the School of Manpower Management in 1971. A few of them went through OCT to become regular officers.
The writer (left) with recruits from the civil service, including the PSA and HDB, at the School of Manpower Management in 1971. A few of them went through OCT to become regular officers.

By P Francis

Army days National Service early years
The writer (left) with recruits from the civil service, including the PSA and HDB, at the School of Manpower Management in 1971. A few of them went through OCT to become regular officers.

Neil Armstong, who died last year, made world headlines when he landed on the moon and became the first person to walk on its surface circa 21 July 1969 – depending on your time zone. That was the time I landed in SAFTI (Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute) without any headline or fanfare. Not unexpected. The news was shown on black-and-white TV in the army camp canteen.

In Armstrong’s case, his call-up to the Navy arrived on January 26, 1949. The year 1949 also became significant in Singapore in that it was the start of National Service (NS) for Singaporean males born in that year and after. Public employees born earlier were also affected by the call- up, which was to fill the void left behind by the 1971 withdrawal of the British forces based in the Lion City.

Even though modern-day compulsory NS was new to Singapore, it had been around for a while. Israel enforced it on men and women – unless married or pregnant – while the US and Australia were among many countries with non-mandatory NS.

In those days, in Singapore, it was two years full time in the army and an extra year for those who attended OCT (Officer Cadet Training) and graduated as 2nd Lieutenants.  There was also part-time NS in the Special Constabulary and the Vigilante Corps. The scheme was later extended to include the fire department and the construction industry, where NS personnel were taught fire-fighting skills, a building trade or were just labourers.

The first year of NS recruits were under the expert tutelage of Israeli instructors – renowned for their tough training regimen and tactics after the successful Six-Day War in the West Bank from 5-10 June, 1967 against neighbours Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

NS 1969-1971

My NS stint was from 1969 to 1971 after being deferred from the initial batch because of studies. The army pay then was $90 a month when a STC (Singapore Traction Company) bus ticket was capped at 25 cents. Being a civil servant, the army pay was deducted from my monthly salary – a princely sum of $220. My platoon comprised two non-Chinese – a Malay and myself. Some of the Chinese, probably, had never been so close to a non-Chinese before; eating, sleeping, training together – a new experience.

My company included those earmarked for admin duties, pay clerks, drivers, cooks, storemen and medics. The training sergeant, Sgt Tan, claimed he was a gangster from Chinatown, who had joined the PDF (People’s Defence Force), which also had women in admin and store positions with the quartermaster. Sgt Tan said he had undergone training with the Israelis. His bellowed commands – Semulah (do it again) or Belakang pusing (about turn) – were all in Malay and were punctuated by colourful expletives. The Malay language was a problem for the Chinese-educated recruits.

Punishments were meted out by Sgt Tan and his contemporaries mercilessly – one of their favourites was for the recruit to ‘frog jump’ around the parade square, sometimes with rifle held up. Other penalties were running a stipulated distance in full battle order with rifle held high over the head or “give me 50 push ups!”

Starched Temasek green khaki uniforms and polished boots were the order of the day. Hard, heavy helmets, inherited from the British, covered a lighter inner helmet.  Rubber-soled combat boots were for daily wear, while the leather-soled boots (had to be highly shined – Kiwi polish sales went up!) were reserved for parades, where the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) ruled the square and even told officers off for not marching across it – “you are not walking with your girlfriend at the pasar malam (night market)!” would be the reprimand.

Stand-by bed was a discipline to ensure recruits kept their cupboards and beds clean and orderly. Then there were the ’jee siau’ (naughty) fellows who carried a sleeping colleague out onto the parade square at night with a ‘toothpaste treatment’ on his body. The poor guy awoke at 5 am to find the sergeant screaming down at him because that was the time to assemble for 5BX (5 am exercise routine) at reveille (wake-up call).

Basic training

Although training was not as intense as for combat troops, we still had to run up and down Pengkang Hill in full battle order; we had to complete a route march, also in full battle order and camp overnight in Choa Chu Kang cemetery among graves and tombstones.

At basic training, we were taught to treat our heavy, wooden British SLR (Self-Loading Rifle) rifle as our wife – it had to follow you everywhere. Later, the lightweight, semi-automatic American AR-15 was introduced.  Grenade-throwing exercises involved the use of dummies – with some calling out ‘nenek’ instead of grenade – until the test when each recruit had one live grenade to throw. Officers were on alert to prevent mishaps by some ‘clowns’ as grenades were sometimes thrown skywards only to land back behind the sandbags!

During the three-month basic training, we were confined to base. However, I was able to obtain a 24-hour leave pass after Saturday training to attend Sunday mass at my parish church and return to camp before dusk. Thank God for that – it was great to be home and sleep even for one night in your own old bed! Recruits had to wear their uniforms home and I saw my neighbours pointing and whispering as I walked down the street. Funny thing about the uniform – you felt fearless when you walked down the street at whatever time of night and you were not even armed!

A very close mate of mine, Lim Ko Koh, who has retired from the public service, was in the artillery during his NS days. He recalled fondly: “I remember my first day in the School of Artillery – we were told that once in artillery we would die in artillery. There was this slogan on the wall of the dining hall: Man of steel you must be, anything less will have no place in the School of Artillery.”

But there were those who were against NS and claimed exemption on varied grounds. The most curious was that of being a Seventh Day Adventist and he could not carry a gun. “How about driving a ‘three-tonner’ (truck) or cooking meals, which did not need a gun?” a smart-aleck mate asked.

Then there were rumours of suicide – hanging from the shower – by those who could not stomach the first few weeks of army life. They did not know that things would improve after basic training. Like them, I was from a ‘protected’ lifestyle: school, home, study, dinner, reading and bed. Roaming the streets and sports activities were frowned on by my parents as the focus was on academic goals. But, I did not want to be different from the rest, so I welcomed NS as a way to ‘escape’ and develop and become a real macho man like everyone else. Alas, I was a little disappointed that there were no martial arts classes or any bulging muscles after the three-month course!

As in life, not everything was palatable in the army. Meals, in those days, were mediocre although the officers and cooks had better fare. If you wanted something better, you paid the price at the canteen. But this was not always possible just like when I discovered a small cockroach in my cabbage at lunch in between training sessions. There was no time to throw out the food and queue up again or to run to the canteen and buy food before training resumed. So I removed the offending insect, ate the food and survived.

CO I want to go home!

Make no mistake — army life was not as exciting as Private Benjamin (1980) starring Goldie Hawn or The General’s Daughter (1999) with John Travolta and Madeline Stowe of TV series Revenge fame. Apart from occasional movie nights, we did entertain ourselves with sing-a-long sessions, especially when there was someone handy with a guitar – whether there was a campfire or not. One of the favourite songs was:

They say in the army, the food is mighty fine

You ask for curry ayam, they give you putu mayam!

Oh, I don’t like the army life

CO I want to go, OC won’t let me go

CO I want to go home!

 

They say in the army, the girls are pretty fine

You ask for Brigitte Bardot, they give you Frankenstein!

Oh, I don’t like the army life

CO I want to go, OC won’t let me go

CO I want to go home!

 

They say in the army, the pay is mighty fine

They give you hundred dollars, and take back ninety-nine!

Oh, I don’t like the army life

CO I want to go, OC won’t let me go

CO I want to go home!

 

Twice I was called for OCT tests at the CMPB (Central Manpower Base) and failed them intentionally as I did not want more runs up Pengkang Hill unless I was prepared to sign on as ‘tan chia’ (regular). When the colonel interviewed me and asked why I failed deliberately, I told him I was already serving Singapore as a civil servant and he accepted my explanation. However, a disgruntled Nanyang University graduate, who had failed with an obvious very low score, simply walked out of the interview rather rudely when his turn came. No, he was not charged under Section 42 (or any other section) of the Singapore Army Act (SAA) as far as I was aware.

 Simon Camp

Being in the service sector, I was assigned to Simon Camp – the transport base in Upper Serangoon just 10 minutes ‘march’ from home. No more staying in barracks. The posting was as a clerk in the RSM’s office. Wow! I was almost untouchable. First there was WO1 Encik John Chai, who was succeeded by WO1 Encik Shafie. These army ‘terrors’ were really very nice to me since their written education was low and they depended on me to run their office. I was in charge of the daily Company Routine Orders and compiling the guard duty rosters. Even when a sergeant complained that he was on duty on Sunday and again on Friday, the RSM defended me, saying “What do you expect when there are only five sergeants available? Do you prefer Saturday?” No more complaints from sergeants after that day.

Life was easier, more 8 to 5, and I lived at home. I even walked home for lunch! The Commanding Officer Major Zee often gave me a lift in the morning as his driver took a short cut along my walking route to camp. Again, my educated background helped as I chatted with the CO on the short drive to camp and the bewildered RP (Regimental Police) on sentry duty saluted. It was one of the RPs who instigated a charge against me for jokingly knocking his cap off his head while travelling in an army Land Rover. In my defence, I told the presiding Captain Chooi that the RP had joked at my expense previously. The wise captain said: “It takes two to clap – case dismissed!”

Quest guitarist Admin Officer

After full-time NS came the Reservist training until age 40 or 50 for officers. As company clerk, I reported to the Admin Officer Lieutenant Henry Chua. Does the name ring a bell? He was a bass guitarist and founding member of top Singapore band The Quests, who left the band to study and become an engineer. Yes, Chua was laid-back and trusted me to do the job. Leave passes were no problem, lah! It was during such training – some called it holiday camp – when I met and made fast friends with Richard Chan and Jugjeet Singh and their respective families.

One down side to NS, however, was that boys who went overseas with their families had to return and do their NS. A Melbourne dad told me: “My son was willing to go back and do his NS after completing his degree here, but he was arrested at Changi airport when he returned voluntarily, charged and sent to detention before being allowed to do his NS.” Perhaps some tweaking could iron out the problem.

‘From Boys To Men’ was an article I wrote for the SAF’s Pioneer magazine in the 1970s with the pseudonym Citizen Soldier – before becoming a journalist. When I google those words today, I notice how the title has been used in variation over the decades – even a blockbuster Singapore production of army days!

In retrospect, I still hold the view that NS makes men out of boys and exposes them to the real world with a difference – they are under the governance of the SAA, which does not tolerate any indiscipline. They learn teamwork, responsibility, loyalty and how to live with other races. That strict grounding makes them better citizens when released into the civilian world and some smart employers know it.

P. Francis is an English tutor in Melbourne, who has more than 20 years’ journalism experience with newspapers, books and magazines in Singapore and Australia.