Further to my previous article An Ang Moh in the Singapore Armed Forces (Part 1 - Recruitment) this write up is a my take on the Volunteers training I underwent in week 1 on my way to graduate as a patched member of the SAFVC.
The key theme of Military preparedness in my opinion and experience serving in both the NZ Army
and the SAF is Packing lists and being able to read them. These are your essential must have items…..anything not on the list is deemed by the military to be not essential or they will provide.
The reading and understanding simple instructions is somewhat expected but as with all groups there are a small percentage of individuals who haven’t read, haven’t double checked, had read but forgot to pack or simply felt as complete novices to the military environment that they would not require aforementioned essentials. The large percentage follow these instructions diligently, a small percentage (there is always at least 1) are blur like Sotong and a smaller group throw in extra kit as a way of being over prepared. I luckily always seem to fall into the later group and laid out all my gear and double checked and then check again as I packed into by bag.
Weeks prior the army had sent me a sizing chart and we had to pop down to an e-mart to try the various pieces of trial clothing. I was immediately happy that I was not having to select the largest items of clothing and shorts and that the combat trousers went up 2 sizes larger than my current
size. Combat Shirts went 1 size bigger and PT kit I was 1 size short of the largest offered, whew safe!
Once this was all sized up and signed off on the form it was sent off for processing and we would be issued with everything en-mass on march in.
The evening before my training I was a bundle of nerves with the unknown. I had spent the week
prior each night on the on-line training portal trying to glean as much info and pre-preparedness as
possible. Some things I was squared away on, weapon familiarisation was not a problem as the SAF
used the SAR21, a very reliable weapons platform that was a locally produced variant on the IW
Styre I had used in the NZ Army. Basic military protocol was a given, I knew my way around the rank
structure of commonwealth armies and who did what, who to salute and who to call sir. What
scared me the most were the parade ground commands, all given in Malay and the various drills we
were expected to execute with said Malay commands. I was also starting to get worried about my
fitness or lack of and how it would affect my ability to keep training. After a restless evening I finally
popped off to sleep at around 11pm and was awake at am to be at the camp gate 0630hrs for in
processing by 0700hrs.
Dropped off by the wife with a “stay safe and enjoy yourself” I boldly marched into Maju Camp, the home of the SAFVC and into a new Army experience.
Compared to my NZ Army experience 24 years earlier I was pleasantly surprised. No yelling, no shouting, no running and jostling to get away from the instructors venom. We were told to walk up to the registration desk, leave bags outside, sign in and wait in a small aircon room for 20+ people to assemble then we were moved off again at a very leisurely pace to a larger Auditorium.
This process took a good hrs.+ before all had assembled and we took the pledge. Now this was a sobering moment for me, sobering because I had not even really though about it that much during the whole process. In general I take oaths and pledges quite seriously and here I was pledging my life to defend a country I was not even a citizen of. I had hadn’t really thought this through but when faced with the fact I was actually going to stand up right hand raised and make the pledge I am not ashamed to say I did second guess myself. Luckily our commander asked us all to think about this for a minute and to think about why we are here and more importantly to think about the people we love outside of camp. The pledge to protect Singapore and do our duties is not so much for ourselves but infact for our loved ones and friends and family members.
There is a great quote by the Prince of Paradox GK Chesterton “The True Soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him but because he loves what is behind him”
After this moment of reflection where we did the pledge the commander informed us we were now in the army and the real fun would begin. We were called out into our section formation and told which barracks and sections we were assigned to and told to take our bags from home up to the rooms “quickly”. There was a definite change of pace & urgency already. My assigned room happened to be on the 2 nd floor, not too bad so we were first back down and lined up and we were marched, or a semblance of marching, over to the Big Quartermasters shed to get issued our Army
Here the tempo stepped up a little bit more, a few more raised voices, urging us to move faster. On the bench in front of each Volunteer was a Army Pack and a Big Black hold all bag, 3 shoe boxes and a plastic bucket with entrenching tool, ground sheet, tent pegs, raincoat and bullet catcher.
Pack contained all our Army issue field equipment and individual Load Bearing vest and accessories.
The holdall contained all our Army issue clothing we would need to be soldiers.
The boxes held 2 pairs of boots and a pair of running shoes….eeeek!
The plastic bucket was Army issue items “loaned” to us for the duration of our training and to be returned in a very clean state at the end of training. Important note here is returned in a very clean state, not lost or forgotten in some far-away training ground covered in mud. More of that later.
I got into the groove quickly, instructors yelling out the piece of equipment, we hold it up, check the
size and put in bag and onto the next one. If it’s the wrong size it is left out for exchange. The shed
was hot, big fans and open roller doors did little to push the hot air around and we were all soon
sweating and drenched in our civilian attire. Looking around there were more than a few shell
shocked faces at the pace of instruction, the heat the nerves, the unfamiliarity of it all. Me well I was
funnily enough hitting my stride and enjoying being back in the army…..so far no commands in
Malay so I was safe for now.
Next we were ordered to pile our checked and signed off gear into their bags to march (read waddle)back to our barracks to meet our Training Staff who would help us become volunteer soldier.Our Sergeant Tan was young, infact so young he wasn’t even born when I joined the NZ Army, A fact he found incredibly hilarious and then realised an ex serviceman could assist in his role so he proceeded to make me the default room IC and the go-to person for help when he was not around. Again not a bad role, get the commands first hand and not second or third hand would allow me to
stay ahead of the curve, help my fellow section mates with the transition and ensure our Basic Training was as efficient as possible.
At this stage we were also introduced to our bunk mates and buddies. We were told not to ask questions of what we do in the real world until after we finished our training, and surprisingly none of us did. We started from scratch and got to know each other only as soldiers can, by working
together under the barrage of instruction Sergeant Tan rattled off.
First was the clothes, off with the civi kit and into the military kit to make sure it fits well. Boots on and garters on to blouse the trouser properly, next how to store all your equipment, uniformity the key so everyone in the section had their gear squared away the same way. For those unfamiliar with
the Military there is method to this madness, imagine you are on duty and there is a callout and your Buddy needs to assemble your gear in your absence. If your gear is arranged the same as his he knows exactly where to get everything you need. Same with packing your field pack, in the field each
section or unit should pack their kit the same way, as the fog of war roles in you may have to live off another mans pack so you need to know where the ammo and food and entrenching tool are stored as you may need to access these at night. The same with your personal webbing. Imagine if you are
shot or injured and your buddy needs to access your field dressing, your ammunition, your grenades, your rifle cleaning kit. He knows instinctively where to look as it is the same set up as he has. Add to this the age old basic training trick of removing individuality and building up a team is best achieved when everyone is the same.
Some people struggle not so much with that uniformity logic but I guess the loss of individuality and freedom of choice. Not me, I love the fact that for the next two weeks I didn’t have to worry about what to wear, when to sleep, what to do and when and what to eat, that was already planned by
someone else, all I had to do was turn up, execute well, stay positive and help my section along.
Here is where I hit my first clothing snag, my iLBV (individual Load Bearing Vest) was only a XXL and
that was not big enough. My Raincoat was only a XXL and not big enough. Off to the Q store losing a
valuable 30 minutes for equipment change. Shock Horror, nothing in my size at hand so I would have
to get issued these “later”. Race back to the bunks to play catch up. What did I miss, well the boys
were putting together their iLBV’s so all I could do was assist and try and familiarise myself do mine
some time later when it arrived and hope I don’t get punished for it! Luckily I struck an amazing
rapport with my assigned buddy Corey who was Malaysian but a Singapore Citizen so therefore as a
1 st generation Singaporean exempt from Military service and his son was doing NS at the same time.
We hit it off immediately and I every day of training I thanked the Army for putting me with this
wonderful mild mannered humorous guy. He told me then not to worry about my iLBV, when it
comes we would both assemble it even if it was under torch light after lights out which is exactly
what happened that night.
Army buddies during basic training – what are these guys and what is the purpose? It is very simple, you don’t do anything without your buddy, you are expected to help each other along and as a team help others, you look after each others health and mental welfare and when in the field you go
everywhere together, I mean everywhere, you have a $hit in the bush your buddy is standing 3ft away keeping guard, you doing section assault drills your buddy and you work as a team within that section. You need to go anywhere in camp you tell your buddy so he is aware and can tell the
training staff when they do role call. In short you become joined at the hip and the rapport you have is directly proportional to how efficient you become and how much easier training can be. Like I said every day of training I thanked the Army for putting me with this wonderful guy who to this day is a very very dear friend whom I catch up with monthly when our schedules allow (I only found out
when we finished training he is an Airbus A380 Pilot with SIA which explains why he was so calm under pressure)
The rest of our Section, well we were “the geriatrics”, 4 of us hitting our early to mid 40’s, one at 46yrs, 2 in their late 30’s and a young bloke in his late 20’s who ironically was the guy in our group that needed the most help during the course. A wide range of ethnicities, me the only Ang Moh, 2 Malaysian Chinese, 2 indian, 3 Mainland Chinese. But an army section is like family, you can’t choose them, you don’t have to like them but you have to live with them. Luckily we all seemed to like each other and we got on really well and maybe it was because of our age but we worked very well as a team, followed instruction very well, were motivated and keen and eager and helped each other every chance we got.
As the default Room IC I took the opportunity to give the boys in the section my take on how we
would survive the training and make it a little easier for ourselves. Teamwork, Timings, Tenacity & Bearing
Teamwork – the army way is built on teamwork so don’t fight it. Enhance it and be better as a section than all the other sections. Help each other at all times.
Timings – The clock is always ticking and there is always a timing to adhere to be it long or short. The key is to finish the tasking or arrive at a destination on time as directed by someone in authority. Do not be late and certainly do not be late and last. As a rule the First section in always rests first, eats first, showers first and has more time to get prepared for the next tasking (or sleep, yes sleep in the army during training is an essential tasking!).
Tenacity – everything we do we do well and give 110% even if we are tired, sore or suffering from the last activity. Effort & Attitude is everything. Training staff applaud & reward Effort & Attitude.
Bearing – we are training to be soldiers, we are dressed as soldiers, lets act as soldiers. Always check your bearing and turn out and check your Buddy’s and then check your section mates. There will always be a sad sack in another section betting a bollocking for not being turned out correctly. Not in
The boys in our section got it right from day 1 and whilst there were the occasional terse word and grumble and moan (it’s a soldiers right to complain after all) we were for a bunch of old geriatrics always on the ball and always trying to stay one step ahead of the curve.
You can have anything you want as long as it is chicken – this was told to me by all my Singaporean friends before I entered camp. All I can say is it is true and the food at Maju camp was overall of an excellent quality, quantity and flavour. We were well fed and well watered literally. Every hour we did water parades where we drank anything from 250ml to 500ml depending on the activity. And boy did we drink a lot of water, all the time and it worked, no-one dropped out that first week from heat exhaustion or dehydration. The safety of it’s soldiers is a SAF core value and they meant it
which was very comforting. Every morning and before every training activity we would take stock of bumps bruises, how we were feeling and have to report in. All the time we were drinking water and staying hydrated.
The pace of training was very very fast and our days started at 0500 or 0530 depending on lights out and ended at strictly at 1000hrs or 1030hrs with soldiers invariably having to finish of work or sorting kit by torchlight. That way the army could say 7hrs rest was provided for it’s soldiers. For me I seldom got to bed before 11:30, shining boots in the dark, arranging my kit, reading my notes for the morning lecture or tests we would have to undertake.
The first week was hectic and way too much to go into detail, weapons drills, Parade Drill (Marching), Military etiquette lessons, Morning PT, IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test), more weapons, more drill, camp orientation and I am very happy to say I was not the slowest or weakest link physically, I was more middle of the pack and within my age requirement on most activities!!!
The most memorable part of week 1 was on day 2 and our trip to Kranji Commonwealth War Memorial to receive our weapons at dusk surrounded by the fallen soldiers of WWII including a large number of our forbearers of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Corp (SSVC) who died in the defence
of Singapore in early 1942. It is no coincidence that Singapore’s total defence day is 15 th Feb every
year, this is the day of the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the new Singapore Government upon independence pledged that never will this country rely on a foreign power to defend them and lead them into captivity as happened in the tragic fall of Singapore.
I was well aware of these facts but when the Sargent major called us out one by one to wrench our rifles from his grasp it became very very clear and personal. Being presented my rifle at dusk at the cenotaph surrounded by the fallen is a feeling I can not even begin to explain; admiration, fear,
pride, sorrow all rolled into one large emotional bundle. Well played SAF well played. I know it sounds a bit BS Gung Ho now to write it but when I march up to the SM that evening and he presented me with my rifle and I wrenched it away from him as we had been taught to do with the
pledge to defend Singapore “with my life” I meant it and there was clarity in my actions and thoughts. As I marched back to my place in parade with my weapon at the high port position all I could think of were my wife and son and what I would have to do to protect them if need be. I hope
and pray to god that situation never occurs in our lifetime but at that point in time I would have charged the gates of hell to defend them. The presentation of my rifle at Kranji to this day remains a significant event for me personally in my Singapore story and I think it will be something deeply
personal to me for the rest of my life.
Week one went as a blur and finally ended and we booked out late Friday night with instructions to report back to camp no later than 8pm Sunday Night.
My parents were in town and they and my wife came to pick me up and we went home where I slipped in to see my son sleeping and literally stared at him sleeping for ages, got into shorts & t-shirt and had an ice cold beer with my dad and put my feet up in an aircon room. Ahh bliss. Gets even better, I jumped on the scales and had lost over 6kg in 5 days. Winner winner chicken dinner…..well not tonight there wasn’t.
I would love to say I slept well that night, strange to say I did not, it seemed weird to not have a timing for the morning, it seemed weird to not have to prepare anything so the inevitable happened when the body which is juiced up on adrenalin and stress for 5 days and night and suddenly has that removed, you get sick. Booooooom there it was, my weekend off down with the sniffles.
In my next Baboon article (Part 3 – Volunteer Training Week 2) I will go through what did in week 2, range shoot, field camp and how much more weight I lost and the feeling of becoming a serving member of the SAFVC and having my son put my patch on my shoulder.