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The SAFVC – An Ang Moh in the Singapore Armed Forces (Part 1 - Recruitment)

In 2014 I decided to re-join the military, this time in a foreign country where I was not even a citizen.

Singapore had the day before announced they were looking at creating a volunteer army unit to allow Singapore Permeant Residents (PR) and New Citizens the chance to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in a limited capacity. Having previously been a soldier in the New Zealand Army and having had to leave the forces when I moved to Singapore I was, after a then 10-year hiatus of wearing berets, fatigues and boots, itching to get back “in the green machine”

The question was at 125+kg and 43yrs of age in a tropical environment was I really that keen to get back in the green?

The short answer was yes, the long answer was hell yes. You hear all kinds of stories of NS men and their time in service, some loved it, some hated it, some were indifferent but the one underlying theme was regardless of how good or bad it was they all had shared experiences to bind them and friends for life. Having worked in Singapore at that time for over 10years I had a chance to see the NS network do its thing…and it impressed me time and again.

Singaporean strangers start conversations as to when they served, what unit, what camp and invariably they end up knowing someone in common, or been at the same camp, been trained by the same hard arsed instructors or simply had very similar experiences along the way.

So, I picked up the phone and called the Ministry of Defence and after a few transfers and failed attempts I registered my interest, was told to wait until notices came out in the future, which had yet to be scheduled…and that was that. I was in all honesty disappointed I couldn’t physically sign up my interest

About 3 months later a call came out of the blue and I was again asked if I would be interested in joining. I said yes but also queried that I had not seen any notices. Seems they were looking for some keen types to kick off the SAFVC media campaign and amazingly someone in MoD had written my name down from that phone call and passed it along the chain to the newly formed SAFVC Headquarters.

So, started my SAFVC journey as one of the initial faces of the Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corps. Media Interviews, photo’s, Army magazine article and me giving the reasons for wanting to join a foreign army.

My motivation to join had at that time just grown stronger, we were about to have our first child in March 2015 and we knew he was going to be a boy and as a little Singaporean he would have to eventually serve as part of his National Service (NS). I had an even stronger hunger to check out first-hand the armed forces institution my son will eventually serve in.

The original commander of the SAFVC, a hard-nosed and very very impressive Colonel from the Singapore Commando Regiment called Mike Tan often referred to me as one of his original volunteers, apparently, I was one of the first to register my interest when the news came out, the first to volunteer for the media campaign and the first Ang Moh to show interest in serving in this new unit. This man and his charismatic personality, amazing memory and attention to detail would be one of the reason I worked hard to join his unit. Add to that he served as a young officer in an exchange program with 1RNZIR in New Zealand and had a self-proclaimed soft spot the New Zealand Army, New Zealand and its soldiers.

Well the day finally came with much fanfare in the news of the new SAF unit of Volunteers being raised. I was in the paper, on the news and keen and raring to go.

I called the hotline and registered my interest officially and out of interest asked how many others had called and was told I was number 127…..and the hotline had only been open 4hrs. Whoa… there was definitely some interest in this new unit. I then had to go on line and submit a range of information and provide the necessary information for processing.

One of the key questions was what did I want to do as a SAFVC vocation. The 3 roles that piqued my interest and which I was qualified and allowed to apply for were Auxiliary Security Trooper (Army), Bridge Watchkeeper (Navy), Airfield Engineer (Airforce). Navy was definitely out, little interest in serving on an LST (and squeezing into a navy bunk built for Singaporean aged 18-22yrs), the Airforce role was too close to my civilian employment and trade as a Civil Engineer and, being in the green was why I wanted to join and it was the only role that uses weapons after recruit training. Sold to the man in green uniform.

What came next is typical army, there are lots of phrases for it, “hurry up and wait”, “rush to wait, wait to rush” and “packs on, packs off”. A month or so after information release the army swung into action with the invariable Interviews board, medical, multiple blood tests, urine test, balls cupped – say ahhhh, chest X-rays, forms to sign, security checks, more forms blah blah blah in triplicate until I hit a road bump…..an apparent anomaly with my heart. WTF!!! I had just finished a yearly screening at work with full ECG and was fit as a fat fiddle. Well the army does not change its processes and routines for no man so what followed was a series of frustrating follow up medical appointment each needing 2 months for be scheduled and doctors reviews which took another month to be scheduled. Apart from the extra ECG’s and x-rays it was the treadmill running test which was the most amusing in hindsight, me with my shirt off which must have absolutely terrifying for the poor nurse in charge of the test as I huffed and puffed my way over 2km on the treadmill at varying inclinations whilst trying to hold my gut in and puff my chest out. I was glad when the running test was over but I am sure that nurse was happier than me when it was over and I think she may have even ended the test earlier than required just to get me clothed. Bless her and I hope she has gotten past her nightmares.

The net result after 6 months was there was no anomaly and I was given the green light but had as a result of the recruitment interest and scheduling missed the first 2 Full time* intakes for 2015 and therefore had to wait for the first full time intake for 2016 (* they trialled a modular intake where you just spent 10 consecutive weekends in camp but I wanted full time immersion in the system so I opted not to do this modular training)

The interview board also was an experience, I think I flew through the motivational reasons and with my previous military experience there was no questioning my understanding of the military and how they worked and my role as a tiny cog in the big machine with respect to following orders and military protocol. There was some pushing of me to consider the Airfield Engineer role in the Airforce which I successfully deflected with my desire to wear green but again it was the medical that they seemed to focus a lot on with my age (43) and weight (125+kg) and asked if I thought I could handle the physical training. They asked me if I was still active and I said yes I still played Rugby on Saturday afternoons…….Boooooom there it was, a scurry of pens, a murmur of approval and nods and smiles. I knew I had passed as they felt if I could trot around a rugby field in the stinking heat and take a tackle and get tackled and still come back the next week I was in their opinion worth taking a punt on. I did feel it was only right to tell them I played Vets & social rugby, my version of trotting around the field was infact akin to a brisk walk to others and I seldom tackled or was given the ball to be tackled. They laughed and obviously though I was just being modest……I was not!

The rest of the Interview was very enjoyable, chatting about my time in the NZ Army, where I met my wife, my rational as to why my son would be a Singapore Citizen and not a NZ Citizen and invariable my favourite Singapore Food. I think my answer impressed “how can I have a favourite when it is all damn Shiok man”

Having passed my medical, I now had 8 months to prepare myself for re-entering the Army as a bloke turning 44-year with a new baby at home.

8 months you say, should be able to drop a few kgs and improve the fitness right, get myself ship shape and ready to enter camp. In theory yes, in theory fully motivated, in theory the body and mind were willing, in reality I was just plain lazy, intending to start “next week” after the next long weekend or boys beer session or work trip. This carried on until about 2 months before enlistment day and I decided I would go for a jog and see if I could do the required 2.4KM.

Much to my ignorant surprise turns out I couldn’t. I couldn’t even run 1.2km without stopping. Shit shit shit I was in a very bad fitness place and only had 2 short months to sort my collective shit out.

I thought I would be OK on the strength as well but turns out I struggled to do 10 push ups in a row and 20 sit ups and zero pull ups. Devastated. As I walked home from the NUS running track I started formulating my plan of attack. It primarily involved walking 2km to the track and incrementally increasing my duration from 3 circuits (1.2km) to 6 circuits (2.4km) and once that was done look to increase the speed, then when finished do press ups and sit ups then walk the 2km home. Again, good in theory but with travel and work and other commitments I could only really do this 3-4 nights a week. Fear was my biggest motivator, the fear of turning up and being laughed at by the trainers and my Commanding officer…. The fear of being mocked - who is this Big kiwi ex-soldier who wants to join our army and can’t even run 2.4km…there’s the door Ang Moh, close it on your way out.

So, I persevered and after 4 weeks I was running the required 2.4km and feeling better for it but still very slow. So, I started working on increasing my speed. Well when you have been a plodder for many years it is not an easy thing to suddenly “pick up the pace” and start running faster. Trust me your mind thinks it is but, you go back to being completely knackered at 1.2km at the new pace and do the second 1.2KM slower so the nett result is the same. The good news was my ability to do multiple sets of 20 press-ups and multiple sets of 25 sit ups was all good but I had about 3 weeks to go so I chatted to a few runners I knew and decided to go for the interval running approach which was jogging normally for 100m then up the pace for 100m, then jogging normally for 100m then up the pace for 100m until I had completed 2.4km……not great results but improvements none the less. In hindsight I could have done a lot more to improve things like got a running partner, got more rest, eaten healthier, done more aerobic exercise, gone to the gym, but that’s why hindsight is 20:20.

5 days before enlistment day I wouldn’t say I am happy with my fitness but I knew I could do the IPPT for my age group (except the full complement of pull ups) It wouldn’t be pretty but on the day, I would be giving it 110%, I knew that for sure.

In my next Baboon article (Part 2 – Recruit training) I will go through what I encountered and what I did to pass, how much weight I lost and the feeling of becoming a serving member of the SAFVC.

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