Monday, April 10, 2006

Post No. 61: ORD Loh!!!

To be completely honest with you all, I initially considered giving this post the title of: “Memoirs of A Singaporean Male Who Just Finished His 2 Years & 4 Months of National Service”. But I thought the better of it. It was too long-winded and did not have the same direct impact as the title I finally decided on. Wouldn’t you all agree that this is indeed the case?

Well, I suppose my purpose of writing this, besides to share with you all the news that I have finally regained my civilian status, is to put down in words some of the memories that I accumulated during my NS term lest I forget about them, several years down the road. Of course, I must clarify that it is the more pleasant memories that I want to be reminded of, not the unpleasant ones (those I rather forget). Hmm… it’s not going to be an easy task writing this. This is considering that I have to tread a fine line between revealing too much details (and risk having MINDEF emailing me or sending letters to me about “inappropriate contents” on my blog) and being too brief in my narrative. Also, I must not forget about the confidentiality agreement (something like that) that I signed before getting back my pink I.C. earlier this afternoon. Well, looks like I just have to abide by the “Bikini Rule” (i.e. a woman’s bikini should not cover too much but not cover too little either) and share with you all only the major highlights (at least those I care to remember & mention) of my NS life.

Similar to the other many males of my batch, my first 3 to 4 months of NS was spent on Pulau Tekong for my BMT (Basic Military Training). I was assigned to BMTC School 2, Ninja Company (Platoon 4, Section 3). Thus begun my days as a recruit (otherwise known as “the lowest lifeform in the whole of SAF”), in which I no longer just address my self as “Mr. So-and-so” but as “Recruit So-and-so”. Thus begun also the days in which I was taught basic military skills such as weapon handling, fieldcraft, field tactics and marksmanship. We also had to go through stuff like SOC (Standard Obstacle Course), route marches, visits to the live firing range and the IMT (Individual Marksmanship Training) range (otherwise known as the “arcade”). Soon, this initial phase on my NS life came to an end as I completed the standard 24km route march and participated in the POP (Passing Out Parade) parade.

After my “graduation” from BMTC and about one week of bloc leave in April, I was then posted to 46SAR (46th Singapore Armoured Regiment), located in Sungei Gedong Camp, to be trained as an AI (Armour Infantry) Trooper. For those who are not aware, Sungei Gedong Camp is so “ulu” that its nearest neighbours are other SAF (and government) installations, cemeteries (lots of them), foreign workers’ hostels, farms (what’s left of them in Singapore) and a local university (no prizes for guessing correctly which local university this; it’s too easy to guess). To make matters worse, I live on the other end of the island from my camp which means I have to spend at least 1 hour and a half (by public transport) to reach my camp from my home! Arghh…

Anyway, for those who are wondering, we AI troopers (as I was to find out) basically operate like infantry troopers, except that we have armoured vehicles to “taxi” us around (no, it’s not as comfortable as it seems but, hey, it beats having to route march from point to point all the time always). And, oh yeah, here’s a trivia fact for you all: personnel from the Armour formation, together with the Commandos & Guards, are the only ones who can keep on their black berets (red for the Commandos and khaki for the Guards) and need not change to a peaked cap when donning the No.1 ceremonial uniform/attire (those worn by the Guard of Honour during NDPs).

Following an initial phase of training, my unit was assigned to participate in the National Day Parade’2004. The main bulk of us were tasked to be the tarpaulin party (please refer to my Post No.11 for details) while the rest was either involved in the marching contingent or gate-keepers. During that period, we were involved in countless number of labourious and time-consuming preparations and rehearsals (some of which stretched throughout the night). Also, it was during that period that we got acquainted with the 2 cafes (actually, they were more like air-conditioned mini kopitiams) at the National Stadium and Leisure Park (which was the only place nearby that somewhat resembled a shopping mall) during breaks. Oh yeah, I must not forget to mention that, approaching the actual day of the performance, those of us in the tarpaulin party were roped in to help in the bringing in of inflatable giant flowers into the stadium and releasing them into the sky during Act 1 and the final segment of the performance.

After NDP 2004, it was back to routine training for my unit. In addition, my unit also began preparations for our first overseas exercise in Australia: Exercise Wallaby. When all preparations were completed, my unit then flew over to Australia in a specially chartered SIA plane (just imagine, a plane full of NS guys). I must, to be completely honest, say that this trip was quite an eye-opener for “suaku” me (I only been to places like West Malaysia and Batam before this). My unit was in Australia to have our Battalion Proficiency Test and despite it being our first actual Full-Troop Exercise and being in a different climate & setting, my unit was able to achieve a commendable Redcon 2B. Also, operating in an exercise area much larger than even Singapore itself, this was also the first time my friends and I really enjoyed the “comfort” of being able to sleep for extended lengths of time in our armoured vehicles (don’t believe everything you see in the commercials; by right, we’re supposed to stay awake at all times inside our AFVs but “by left”, when you’re so tired, you can sleep anywhere anytime, even in a noisy AFV). Furthermore, this was also the first time in which we experienced showering by pulling a bucket with a showerhead at the bottom over our heads, doing our “big business” with a non-flushable toilet bowl (this was outfield, of course, and though we couldn’t flush, we had to throw sawdust into the “pit”) and practiced our aiming when doing our “small business” (we had to aim for the top of hollow CVC pipes stuck into the ground). And, oh yeah, we also managed to get up close & personal with some kangaroos when outfield (okay, we were only a few metres away from them). Pity we didn’t see any koalas outfield. After the whole exercise, there was then a 2 day R&R (Rest & Relax) in which we visited some tourist sites, shopping mall and resided in Capricorn Resort, a local resort, for one night. Then, it was back to Singapore.

Back in Singapore, my unit then embarked on a series of special operations training. I’m afraid that I can’t really say much about what this training involved but let’s just say that this training involves things that we AI troopers don’t usually do. Period. Then, even as we were still reminiscing about Wallaby, we were told that we might be sent to India (yes, don’t rub your eyes, you all didn’t read it wrongly, I did write “India”) for another overseas exercise. Well, as we later found out, the Singapore government had then just signed an agreement with India for us to train together with their own armed forces and my unit had the luck (good? bad? I’m not really sure even now) to be the 1st SAF unit (not to mention the 1st foreign army unit) to train in India since their independence. Thus began a whole lot of training in preparation for this and to toughen us up (“face” was at stake here). Oh yeah, I must not forget to tell you all that as my unit was to go to India in 3 main batches, my company had the honour to be the first to be sent to India on the second (for the non-Chinese & key personnel) day and third day (the rest of us) of Chinese New Year’2005.

Over in India, it was another eye-opener for all of us (despite our previous experience in Wallaby). Even on the night we landed in India, we were amazed and amused to find out that when their drivers use their honks, they are not trying to hurry the vehicle in front of them but to signal to them that they will be overtaking them. What was even more amusing was that instead of the standard honk, some of the vehicles have musical melodies as their honks. So it was akin to a symphony right outside our bus that night, a noisy one at that. After a very very long bus ride, we finally arrived at the camp compound the Indian army specially built for us. There were proper bunks for us to live in (“mai hiam a sai”) and shower facilities with warm water (though you have to time it accurately to get warm water for your shower). My company did a few minor field exercises to get ourselves familarised with the climate and surroundings (instead of kangaroos, we saw a lot of cows and their “manure” this time). Approaching the end, my company did a bilateral live firing exercise together with the Indian army. Then, it was R&R time, which was quite short (due to the freaky long bus ride out from the training area) and restricted (as we were the first batch over there, there were still some minor issues to be settled so our R&R couldn’t be as free and easy as in Australia). The only real highlight of the R&R was the visit to the majestic Taj Mahal. To summarise, the 3 most memorable experiences I had in India included: One, the freaky cold weather (just imagine, it can be 12 noon and the sun is shining but as the wind is blowing, we are all still in our thick parka jackets; even Australia was not that cold when we were there). Two, the countless number of “naan” (just picture “kosong” roti prata but smaller and tasteless) we consumed (some of us stayed away from roti prata after we came back). Three, the “run” after our visit to Taj Mahal (with relentless street vendors and urchins selling souvenirs in hot pursuit).

After India, my unit then began preparations for our ATEC (Army Training Evaluation Centre) evaluation, Stage 1 and Stage 2 (for the uninitiated, ATEC evaluation is sort of like an end-of-the-year exam for SAF units, with Stage 1 being the theory part and Stage 2 being the practical). Soon, May 2005 came around and my unit had our ATEC evaluation. To keep a long story short, my unit managed to achieve a most impressive high Redcon 2A (almost Redcon 1, according to my CO) for our overall ATEC evaluation, which happens to be the highest in the work year 04/05!

Although ATEC was my unit’s “end-of-the-year exam”, there was no rest for the able (or is it no rest for the unfortunate?), my unit was then involved in NDP’2005. A small portion of us was involved in the Mobile Column while the rest was tasked to be road marshals. For me I was involved in the mobile column as one of the troopers on board a M113 in the mobile column. Believe me when I tell you all that there were a lot of rehearsals for the mobile column. Fortunately, there was also quite a few canteen breaks and being “lao jiao” soldiers by then, my fellow vehicle mates and I were smart enough to make the inside of our M113 as comfortable as possible. And I must say, it was a most unique experience going through the civic district with all eyes on you and people taking photos (okay, they weren’t taking photos of me but more of the vehicle I was on). Oh yeah, I must not forget about the toilet breaks at CityLink Mall and Suntec with us in our army fatigues and with our green & black “make-up” (camouflage cream) on our faces. Those were unforgettable. On the actual day, after the drive past at The Padang, my convoy then moved on to Yishun where we had a short performance demonstrating our firepower (I doubt that, if any of you all were present that night, you all could have recognised me with my thick “make-up”). So, again, while others were enjoying their National Day public holiday, I had my one “burned”, not that I’m complaining; this was an unique experience which not many can have.

Soon after National Day, my unit was tasked for POI (Protection of Installations) duties with my company assigned to Jurong Island. I’m not going to talk much about this period but only say that, in a nutshell, my experience of POI duties was a combination of lack of sleep, the sun, the sea & a lot of “sian-ness”. Full stop.

Fortunately, after POI, there was an extensive period of “downtime”. Nights off, canteen breaks (we didn’t even bother waking up early to eat breakfast at the cookhouse but bought nasi lemak from the mess), late night viewing of soccer matches, playing Risk, bridge & Big2, “chionging” Naruto DVDs (and other shows) on a portable DVD player (with screen) became our routine. Of course, there was still the inescapable regimental guard duties and “sai kang” such as area cleaning. And for me, I have the additional “sai kang” of taking over as one of my company’s armskotemen. Arrghh… I still remember the days when we work late into the night to prepare for stocktake and LRI (Logistics Readiness Inspection).

Well, tough times don’t last but tough people do. Soon, even that arduous phase was over and I started my Civilian Conversion Course (i.e. I started to clear off & leave one-shot). Then, today, I went back to collect back my pink I.C. (yes, I’m looking at it as I’m writing this) and thereby completed my NS term.

As clichéd as it may sound, Time really flies. One day, I was boarding the fastcraft together with my parents to go to Tekong and now, I have already ORDed. Where did the past 2 years & 4 months disappear to? Along my NS journey, I have “evolved” from a “chiao” recruit to a corporal and now, a NSman. In between, I went through a whole set of unique experiences, some pleasant and some not, and met all sorts of different personalities, some good and some not so good. Well, I would not say my NS journey was “good” or “bad” but that it was an interesting combination of both (of course, I would have preferred for the “good” to be much more than the “bad”). For good or bad, I survived my NS. In one piece. Alive.

In conclusion, I just have one last thing to say… ORD Loh!!!

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