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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Mar 17, 2013

Memories of National Service in Singapore

First batch of National Servicemen register for enlistment at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) at Kallang, Singapore in 1967.

A few days ago, I received a letter from DAC Tan Chong Hee, Director, Police National Service Department, Singapore Police Force regarding NS45 HomeTeamNS Benefits.

Enclosed were $60 HomeTeamNS voucher and a covering letter:

1.  Congratulations, you are eligible for $80 worth of HomeTeamNS vouchers.

2.  As you have opted for the HomeTeamNS vouchers and signed up for the two-year HomeTeamNS-PAssion membership, enclosed is your $60 worth of HomeTeamNS vouchers.

Isn't it nice to be remembered and appreciated by HomeTeam for "NS45 - CELEBRATING 45 YEARS OF NATIONAL SERVICE FROM FATHERS TO SONS".

As a broad-based and inclusive initiative, all who have served NS or are serving NS will benefit.

HomeTeamNS salutes all Police & Civil Defence NSmen.

Just last week, I met my former collegue Michael Tan Eng Sun who received the $60 HomeTeamNS vouchers and bought himself a new fan.  He happily told me, "At least the Police National Service Dept. did not  forget us after 45 years".

Michael and I had completed over 10 years from the "Special Constabulary National Service" (SCNS). We were team-mates at the Queenstown Police Station and perform our weekly part-time duties in the evening.

The receipt of the NS45 HomeTeamNS vouchers trigger my memories of national service in Singapore which is my pleasure to post this intuitive personal nostalgia blog on this topic.

Many of my friends would not ask me about national service if they know that I was born in 1948.  They said that I was lucky to "escape" from NS because I was over-aged by one year.  The first batch for NS conscription of Singaporean males were born in 1949.

I did not know then that when I reported for my first civil job at the Outpatient Service Dept (OPD), Ministry of Health, I was given a letter to register for national service at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) the next day.

A former colleague told me with a sardonic smile, "It is not for us to question why.  It is for us to do and die".

I am not an "escapist" or "defeatist" by nature and not necessary to question about everything in life.  For instance, how to ask myself whether it is possible for a person to escape from birth or escape from death because birth is suffering (the Buddhist term for "dukkha").

When I grew older; I learn the lessons of war and the suffering of my parents during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.  By an accident of history, I was born after the war and the circumstances of baby-boomers in Singapore was something very different.

In a speech in 1984, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee acknowledged the commitment and sacrifice of our citizen servicemen, and I quote "National Service imposes not only a great sacrifice of time and money on the young men called up. It is also unpleasant as military training in the combat arms aims to push the soldier to the limits of human endurance. The average Singapore citizen may not be a towering intellect versed in the latest doctrine on military deterrence. But deep in his heart, he knows the dangers that he faces are real and not hypothetical. A kind of folk wisdom has grown on the need to defend ourselves."

I then understand that we were required to serve national service for the protection and self-defence for our country, not to be trained as mercenaries.

For nearly a million Singaporean men, donning a uniform to serve in the military, civil defence or police force was a rite of passage they knew was necessary, for the country's peace and stability.

Indeed, national service has become a defining part of the Singapore identity.  As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed, he called on younger generations to do their part to defend their country and understand the strategic realities it faces.

On this nostalgic blog to recollect my memories of national service, it was a difficult phase of my adult life.

My mother had passed away on 30 March, 1970 and I was very depressed.  I thought that it was the end of the world and life had lost its meaning.  There were few friends to comfort or console me during the darkest hours of my life.

Fortunately, I survived with the help of concerned friends and colleagues with mature, experienced advices and guidance with wisdom to learn the meaning of life.

A few months after my mother's death,  I attended the registration procedures, medical examinations at CMPB at Kallang, Singapore.

With the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore with archived photos as "memory-aids" on this blog to share with everyone.

Mr Albel Singh's feature in The Straits Times published on 9 April, 2012

After the completion of the medical checkup and physical test, I was given an enlistment notice to report to the CMPB about a week later for in-camp training.


We were then fetched by military 3-tonner vehicle to Maju Camp, off Clementi Road, Singapore.

One of the first experience that the recruits go through with fond nostalgic memories of national service is to visit the camp barber shop free of charge for a fast and clean standard-fashioned haircut.  No worries about the best hairstyle to suit a person's face or head.  We were all look-alike and difficult to recognise our appearance in civilian life.

After collection of our new suits of army uniform, training shorts, singlets, blankets, towels, aluminium lunch tiffin, a mug and standard issued items to each recruit, we marched smartly to our barrack.  We were wearing the green uniform with the People Defence Force (PDF) insignia.

The barracks at Maju Camp were single storey, basic wooden buildings. There were about 4 platoons in my batch of new recruits. 

The archived photos shown here (above and below) are taken in 1960 for training army cadets at Maju Camp.

The toilets were located beside the barracks.  There were no modern sanitary system with cisterns to flush away the human faeces.  No complaints!  The condition in the camp was simulated to be as realistic as possible to be like at time of war.  To expect the unexpected in all situations in a war zone...not for holiday on tour.

In each toilet, a deep hole was dug into the ground and the diameter was big enough for a person to squat to clear our bowels.  We have to be very careful not to fall into the hole.  You can imagine the smell and the stench when we have to stay in the double-decked beds in the barracks to sleep at night. The well-fed maggots from the "shit-holes" would crawl into the barracks....yucks!!!

Unlike full-time national service for 2 years, the part-timers for civil servants for a short stint of 2 weeks and then return back to my regular job.  After completion of our 2-week in-camp, I had to report to Maju Camp weekly in the evening from 6.00pm to 10.00pm for our part-time national service.

There are too many stories and memories to blog about over 10 years of my national service.  Nothing spectacular, uneventful to mention on the blog though.   After about a year at Maju Camp, I was deployed to the Haig Road camp of the  People's Defence Force (PDF).

Sometime in 1974,  I was transferred to the Singapore Police Force for national service as a "Special Constabulary National Service" (SCNS) at the Queenstown Police Station for 10 years until I served my national service and honourably discharged to return to civil life.

The Queenstown Police Station c 1963
In the between years, I have learnt many useful and helpful things during my national service days.

As shared by my blogger friend Yeo Eng Hong here : "At the blink of an eye, I realized all these had happened forty years ago".

Younger friends Lam Chan See and Peter Chan of "Good Morning Yesterday" blog who were full-time, commissioned officers during their national service days experiences.

I had previously posted a blog "Tradition of the NS Passing-Out-Parade (POP)" to share and contribute to the Singapore Memory Portal.

It is a lifetime experience for everyone to learn as national servicemen in Singapore then and now.

There were lessons to learn about camaraderie, a spirit of friendly good fellowship and teamwork, mutual respect among fellow Singaporeans regardless of ethnic groups, language or religion, educational or social  status with everyone; there were times to be serious and times to enjoy together for fun.

I had my first lesson on military discipline on my first day at Maju Camp.

At dinner-time to march smartly through the administrative office building to the canteen for my meals,  I noticed a person in officer uniform and cap on his head.  I then turned my head towards him and raised my arm and saluted at him.

At the next moment, he shouted and waved at me "Soldier, come here"!

Oh dear...what have I done wrong?  I must have a blur, blur expression on my face with surprise.

He ordered me to do 20 push-ups at the corridor in front of the office.

As instructed, I did my push-up and stood in attention.  I knew that I must take an order to do first and complain later.

Sternly, he asked me:  "Do you know why you have to be punished?"

"Sir, I didn't know", I replied.

He explained to me, "Firstly, you did not know the ranks of the officers from the uniform they wear.  Secondly,  you cannot salute everyone in uniform.  I am a Warrant Officer and to salute only the commissioned officer and above his rank.  Ok, go for your dinner".

I marched away quickly and still looking blur, blur.  I thought the Warrant Officer was wearing an officer's cap and uniform ...

There's a Chinese joke:  "不是每个有胡子的男人是你爸,不是每个女人胸房是你" (Translated: "Not every man with mustache is your father, not every woman with breasts are your mother").

Now I know.  A lesson to learn from my national service experience at Maju Camp.  I should actually thank him for teaching me to recognise the positions and ranks of officers in the army.

Another observation I had discovered during the in-camp at Maju Camp.  A moral of the story to share here.

There was this young, handsome guy from my platoon whom I noticed him when I first met him.  We were all recruits during our NS training and there was no need to pull ranks and files in our prevalent roles.

I do not judge "a book by its cover"  and treat them with mutual respect.  In fact, I found that the higher the social status of people, the humbler they are.  They did not have to boast or to show that they are "sadikit atas" with wealth, position or educational status.

This guy (I had forgotten his name and never seen him again after our national service) appeared "yah yah" and walked with air, to be known to us that he is somebody.  I later found out that he is a soil engineer who just returned from the university in the States to do his NS.

He spoke with an American slang and did not want to mingle and mixed with us during mealtime or when we had break from training.  He was aloof and somewhat arrogant by looking at his behaviour.  My team-mate Ah Huat, a farmer's son who lived in Yio Chu Kang told me but I avoided to criticise about a person's character by his behaviour.  He rarely speak to me but it doesn't matter.  I prefer friends like Ah Huat.

During briefing one evening by Sergeant Ong, who was in charge of our platoon, he mentioned that the guy had complained to the Commander at Maju Camp that the language used in the camp was vulgar language, flowered with four-letter words.

Sergeant Ong smiled and told the guy that the type of language used sometimes in our conversation in the camp may be common but not to use them in civil life.  The guy did not complain further as we knew.

One day on the second week of our in-camp at Maju Camp, our platoons had to start very early at about 5.00am to leave camp in military lorries to go to Hong Kah in Jurong for "topo march".

Sergeant Ong and another two corporals lead us with maps and compasses as guides to teach us how to look for direction to return back to Maju Camp by foot. 

With most of us city folks, it was a new experience in Singapore.  Hong Kah was then a rustic kampong with farmland and the villagers were mostly vegetable farmers and those who rear pigs and chicken.  We had to walk through cemeteries and wooden and attap houses.  The villagers were friendly and there was a provision shop selling drinks, some kueh kueh and titbits which we had a stopover during our topo route at Hong Kah Village.

Towards later in the afternoon,  we were trooping somewhat slowed down and we were visibly tired with perspiration under the hot sun and humidity.

Our friend, the soil engineer, was heaving with difficulty and appeared to faint and his face was pale.  Ah Huat, the rugged and tough farm-boy noticed him and quickly helped to carry his helmet, rifle, backpack, brought him drinks from the water bottle and unbottoned his shirt.  Ah Huat gave him a Panadol and held him along the way to walk.

Our platoon managed to succeed our topo march mission and returned to camp at about 10.00 pm in darkness and had to use torch-lights.  Everywhere we walked pass the houses in Hong Kah village, the dogs were barking so loudly but we just ignored and walked on our journey.  Luckily the dogs were chained by the villagers.

At breakfast at the canteen the next morning, our soil-engineer friend chatted with us and very friendly.  I overheard he thanked Ah Huat for helping him during the topo march and spoke in halted Hokkien.  The humble, friendly Ah Huat was modest and they became closer friends, fellow national servicemen.

People who needs people are the best people in the world.  Strangers became friends during our National Service in Singapore to bring our fellow Singaporeans to train together , study together, work together, live together as friends, neighbors as a community together in Singapore as a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural society.  Enjoy your national service and Singapore memories to share with us, friends.

And the nostalgia rush that comes from the archived photos of  the early batches of  National Servicemen (full-time or part-time) will instantly recognise and rekindle deep-rooted collective memories of our fellow Singaporeans.



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