by Dylan Yap, Su Zhen, Wei Jun and Wilson Chan
‘For some reason, our boys loved to join the uniformed groups. In those days, homes were over-crowded and there were plenty of remote and uninhabited places in Singapore to stay out and pitch camps. It was in these groups that the strongest and the most everlasting ties were forged.’
– Lim Poh Hock, ‘The Chicken Stealers’, Under The Banyan Tree: Collected Memories of Some Inspiring Rafflesians (1961-1964)
In an earlier day and age, without the technology that today allows us to socialise online or while our time away, the outdoors became for many Rafflesians a second home and the uniformed groups their brotherhood. These groups were in no way ‘extra’-curricular, but very much an integral part of their identity and soul.
The history of RI’s uniformed groups (UGs) goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century; their pre-eminence in the life of the school is hinted at in the school annuals – in earlier decades, their reports would open the section on co-curricular activities. Some of the UGs have become defunct – from 1971 to 1982, for instance, the school had a Rangers troop, an all-girls counterpart to the Scouts; and while the RI Military Band was considered a uniformed group for the better part of the 20th century, this changed in the early 1990s when they ceased to perform outdoor routines.
What all the UGs, both extant and defunct, share is a history of storied accomplishment. Stories such as the Scouts’ ascent of Gunong Tahan have become part of the tapestry of school legend, and define the memories of particular Rafflesian cohorts. This article pays tribute to the enduring and well-established legacies of the UGs, and celebrates the experiences and memories formed in those communities.
EXISTING UNIFORMED GROUPS
National Cadet Corps (NCC)
‘Why did you join the NCC? Perhaps it was the guns! All boys liked to play Cowboys and Indians and the closest I could get to a real gun were those World War One vintage Lee Enfield Mk. II rifles that I saw the senior cadets carrying around.’
– Herbert Teo, ‘The Boys In Khaki: A Reflection of Time Spent in the Raffles Institution Cadet Corps (RICC)’, Under The Banyan Tree
In 1901, the first uniformed group to be established at Raffles Institution was the Cadet Corps, which acted as a feeder and early training ground for the Singapore Volunteer Corps (SVC) after approval was given by the former principal Mr C. M. Phillips (an Old Boy of the school and a Queen’s Scholar). More importantly, this was also the first Cadet Corps unit to be initiated in Singapore. By 1905, it had formed its own Cadet Band and armoury.
Although only a fledgling organisation at the time, the corps soon proved to be a useful asset in providing national security and defence. While Singapore was not a participant in the conflicts of World War 1, members of the SVC were called upon to quell the mutiny of the 5th Madras Light infantry in Singapore in February 1915. For reasons unknown, however, shortly after, the Raffles Institution Cadet Corps (RICC) was thought of as obsolescent; interest in the group took a dip and membership diminished. It was disbanded at the end of 1916.
In 1917, the Education Authorities decided to revive the Cadet Corps in six schools, including Raffles Institution, by renewing its purpose; the movement based its aims on trying to improve the physicality and strength of the boys and instil in them the ideals of esprit-de-corps and patriotism. Commanded by their own Cadet Officers, and aided by even Warders from the Prison, the boys were trained in squad drill, musketry and even some military games known as ‘Sham Fights’ in those days.
A dearth of support and waning enthusiasm once again threatened the existence of the corps, and the whole movement had to be restarted in 1926. The RICC organised its first ever Rifle Meet in 1930 at the SVC Drill Hall in Beach Road, where platoons battled for the Scott Cup which had been inaugurated in honour of Captain C. A. Scott, Officer-Commanding of the RICC.
Some of the most heartening moments and tales of bravery were recorded in the days of World War 2. With the inevitable outbreak of war with the Japanese, the older members of the RICC promptly and readily answered the call for battle, even though it was almost certain that Singapore would crumble and fall. One platoon of cadets from schools, including RI and St. Joseph’s Institution, was transferred to the volunteer forces to partake in mortar work and build up defences.
Unfortunately, this platoon came under enemy fire in the Paya Lebar area and had to fend for themselves, reluctantly disbanding after the Fall of Singapore. In fact, since many of the cadets serving the nation were actively engaged in the conflict, a majority of them went missing, probably as a tragic consequence of the Sook Ching purges carried out by the Japanese in 1941. Their courage and fearlessness in the face of certain defeat was commended, and a war memorial was unveiled in the school hall at Bras Basah in 1950.
If the cadets fought hard, then it must be said that the officers dedicated their entire effort and strength into pushing back the Japanese. Instead of abandoning their posts, many officers chose to fight till the bitter end. For instance, Officer Lt. Chua Yew Cheng,who was in charge of a machine-gun post on the beach at East Coast, but never left despite enduring and escaping two intense aerial attacks. Sadly, he was taken away by Japanese military officers after the battle ended.
Once the school had resumed full operations, the principal, Mr. F. L. Shaw, approached some of the veterans who had returned to teaching if they were still keen on reinstituting the corps. It was thus revived in 1947 by Mr. Yapp Thean Chye and Mr. Thong Sing Ching. It continued to be popular as many boys lined up to join its ranks. In the meantime, the Sea Cadet Corps and Air Cadet Training Corps (see below) were introduced in Singapore in 1948 and 1949 who recruited students from various schools including RI. Eventually, the three Cadet Corps combined to form one National Cadet Corps.
Training for RINCC took place on Pulau Blakang Mati (now Sentosa) from 1949, in collaboration with the Royal Artillery until it was disbanded in later years. There was a wide range of activities and informative courses such as military games, squad drills, section trainings, and even introduction to warfare. At that time, in the early years after the war, the cadets would wear the Australian “Slouch” hats until they were eventually issued with standardised cadet uniforms and green berets.
The early 1960s proved to be an advantageous era for the cadets, as the British affiliated unit would organise camps for them because there were only twenty Army Cadet Units in Singapore. The senior cadets would usually accompany the soldiers from the Far East Training Centre in Johore, and obviously for the cadets, it was an exhilarating experience. Mr Herbert Teo, an alumnus from RINCC, notes, “The most exciting period for all of us young cadets was the annual camp. The RICC was lucky to be attached to the training wing of the British Army.”
While the cadets could marvel at the professionalism and discipline of the troops or acquaint oneself with the multifaceted processes of the army, they also were exposed to the harsh realities of army life. For some of them, understanding what the golden opportunity of attachment with the army entailed did not sufficiently prepare them for the discrimination they would witness first-hand.
Mr. Teo elaborated, “I remember that for two successive years, 1961-1962, our in-camp training sessions were at the Nee Soon Garrison. Here we were, no higher than the shoulders of the professionals, taking over the barracks and using the parade square. It was an imposing garrison with all the trappings of the British Army. But even at this tender age, we could not help but notice segregation – even at toilet level. There were signs indicating BOR toilet and MOR toilet. BOR was British Ordinary Ranks and MOR was Malayan Ordinary Ranks.”
Notwithstanding the cultural differences at play, the schedule planned for the camp was remarkably exciting and stress-free for the cadets (even allowing for sports in the afternoon), compared to the rigidity and dullness of academic work, leading Mr. Teo to humorously point out, “Nee Soon Garrison was like staying in the Shangri-La Hotel!”
The journey was nonetheless rife with many dangers, both physically and mentally. In the camp at Pulau Tekong, staying in the disused garrisons abandoned after the Japanese Occupation was a real test of will and resolve; rumours, and unnerving tales of ‘folk from the next world’ compounded the cadets’ fears. Nothing was as bone-chilling as the following experience though, because the danger that the surroundings posed was very real and tangible. Mr. Teo recalled, “The Boys of RICC headed into the jungles of Mawai in Johore (Malaysia), just after eight soldiers of the Singapore Infantry Regiment had been ambushed and killed near a stream in Kota Tinggi. Our annual in-camp was just about 20 kilometres east of the ambush zone. This was during Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia in 1963 and the Indonesian commandos had carried out that deadly ambush.” These ever-present hostilities added a new dimension of uncertainty into the training of the cadets.
Even then, cadets were introduced to Jungle Warfare training well before National Service (NS) was introduced, and the regimen was fairly rigorous, testing the sturdiness of the boys. At the tender age of 16, this pushed them to their limits. They were training with the regulars in the jungle, firing 7.65mm SLRs (self-loading rifles) and hurling hand grenades. Moreover, they ended up wading through a torrent that was chest-high during their trek that was chest-high after overnight thunderstorms.
It was not just all training and no play in the group as there were also times of laughter and jocularity, especially for those who were the unsuspecting victims of the ‘Stripping Commandos’. Mr. Teo explains, ‘They prowled from bed to bed, taking the pyjamas off the [cadets] and then with the aid of good, creamy, jet-black kiwi boot polish, the victims’ private parts were ‘polished’ from creamy skin tones to a solid black!” In such a bonded troop of members, these pranks were the norm, and formed the stuff of solid memories.
Over the decades, the RINCC proved itself to be the crucible that would produce many of the top officers in the Singapore Armed Forces – Ng Jui Peng and Bey Soo Khiang, the SAF’s second and third Chief of Defence Force respectively, are among alumni who have donned the RINCC fatigues. From its earlier days, it served as an avenue in which students were trained and prepared before entering NS. It has also won the Best Unit award on numerous occasions.
Reflecting on those past activities, Herbert Teo quipped, ‘We had cadet training every Monday and Thursday afternoon, come rain or shine…We would be gathered along the benches polishing our boots – literally with spit and polish – because the instruction was that if your reflection was not visible on your toe cap, you would be dead meat!…Little did we know that what we were doing was learning the art of doing things and not giving up easily. Call it perseverance. Call it discipline. Whatever it was, it gave us a firm grounding for the future trials of adulthood.’
Today, the NCC syllabus consists of adventure training and many overseas trips and training stints. Cadets participate enthusiastically in the International Cadet Exchange Programme, which provide opportunities to visit places like the UK, US, Australia and Hong Kong. Outdoor camps and hikes, along with shooting simulation games, are also conducted to further train its cadets. Without a shadow of doubt, it continues to be one of the best units in Singapore by aiming to develop resourceful, responsible and loyal leaders, while forging resilient team players.
The Ponggol Camp Style Chicken Recipe goes like this:
1. Churi Ayam (steal chickens)
2. Five people to kill ayam – 1 each to hold the legs and wings. 1 to cut the wing, chicken leg and assorted hands of the other 4
3. Cook the chicken feathers & all including the inside
4. Pew!!! Throw the bloody mess away and hike to the nearest sarabat stall and eat curry puff
“And students would heckle [the scouts] with the phrase, ‘scout churi ayam’
– Lim Poh Hock, ‘The Chicken Stealers’
Scouting officially started in Singapore in 1910 with the establishment of the First Singapore Troop Boys Scouts (Singapore Lads’ Club) by Frank Cooper Sands. The Troop accepted members openly and was based at the YMCA.
The following year, the first school-based Scout Troop was set up in St Joseph’s Institution. In March 1919, school-based troops were established at the Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School), and in 1921 at Anglo-Chinese School. On 8 February 1922, Karthigasu Sabapathy, a Ceylonese teacher who had been a Victoria Institution Scout in Malaya before he came to Singapore, formed the first Raffles Scout Troop, known then as the Second Singapore Troop. He was assisted by another teacher, Low Kong Lin.
The appointment of Max Menahem as District Scoutmaster changed everything. Menahem, who had been a student and Student Teacher at RI, was fanatical about Scouting, and his energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on the boys. By the end of 1934, two new troops, the 16th and 32nd Troops, were established. One of the new members of the 32nd Troop was a young Harry Lee, later known as Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Each of the three troops had an average of 32 boys. In 1936, a Rover Cew, the Second Singapore (RI) Crew, was set up with Eze Nathan as Rover Scout Leader, and Menahem as Assistant Rover Scout Leader. Between 1937 and 1938, two more troops were added: the 38th and 4th Troops. Each of the five Scout Troops was linked to the School Houses.
All these troops were disbanded during the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), even though a few die-hards continued meeting secretly. After the War, old stalwarts from the various Raffles Troops re-established Scouting in Raffles, naming their unit the 2nd Troop. As the troop grew, it split into the 3rd, and then the 30th troops. Today, two troops remain, and they are simply referred to as 01 Raffles and 02 Raffles.
Among the many scouting achievements of the last 4 decades, the one that continues to be talked about by Old Boys till this day is the summiting of Gunong Tahan, the highest peak in Malaysia, by 18 scouts led by Natahar Bava on 30 April 1971. They scaled this in the record time of 4 days and 12 hours, breaking a record previously held by the Malaysian Armed Forces.
A former scout, Mr Siu Kang Fook (RI 1968), has helped publish a book on the History of Scouting in RI. Read more about it in To SIR with Love.
National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC)
The seeds that would eventually grow to become the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC) were first planted when in 1959 the Police Cadet Corps (PCC) was initiated in Singapore on an experimental basis. Although the Legislative Assembly enacted the Police Cadet Corps Ordinance in 1961, which enabled secondary schools to establish PCC units to train boys for future police work, it was not until 1965 when a PCC unit was established in Raffles Institution.
The moving force behind that was Henry Kwok, who was unique in that he held two positions which made him the ideal commanding officer for the newly initiated corps – he was both part of the Special Constabulary (statutory police forces), as well as a member of staff in Raffles Institution. Fervent enthusiasm from the students about this new group meant that the number of applicants ran into the hundreds, and thus they had go through a stringent selection process and be thoroughly interviewed; getting in would not be that simple. Eventually, the first RIPCC squad, which enrolled only 30 students, was founded in 1966 with assistance from the Beach Road Police Station.
However, it would be an arduous journey for the unit in that very first year. As Mr. Kwok had to deal with many responsibilities being a member of the Special Constabulary, the duty of instructing rested on the officers of the unit. As such, they had to do all the training, which consisted of foot-drill, law, first aid and unarmed combat. There was no training involving weapons, possibly due to the constraints of time and manpower.
As the RIPCC expanded and recruited more members, the training became more rigorous and intensive under the drill-sergeants, who were from the Police Training School. Consequently, in 1967, rifle drills were introduced to the cadets; in 1968, they were able to engage in revolver shooting for the first time. With the guidance of these officers, the unit started to participate more actively in parades and functions of the then-Police Training School.
It would not be long before RINPCC hit its stride, and was able to clinch a series of victories for the school. The year 1970 marked RINPCC’s rise to glory, as it emerged as champions in the Annual Deputy Commissioner Drill Competition and thus won its first challenge shield for the best unit at Drill. These achievements did not go unnoticed by the school, because in 1971, for the first time since the establishment of Raffles Institution, the NPCC was bestowed the great opportunity of mounting the Guard of Honour for RI’s 148th Founder’s Day. The cadets seized this opportunity and put up an amazing performance. Their continuous ambition and competitive zeal maintained their streak of excellence, as they won three out of the four available trophies in 1972, which led many cadets to regard that as their golden year. It was also around this juncture that the uniform change occurred, from the khaki shorts to the now-familiar navy blue outfit.
Despite the relative young age of the NPCC in RI as opposed to those of other schools, it has developed into one of the best NPCCs with a steady stream of new and retained members as well as having taken part in many marching parades.
After the Second World War, the Singapore Red Cross was established in the year 1949 as a branch of the British Red Cross Society. Its director, Mrs. W. L. Blythe, set up links in local schools in 1951. And in 1954, Raffles Institution Red Cross was incepted as the fifth unit in Singapore. In the early days of the unit, it not only focused on and competed with other units in basic skills in First Aid, disaster management and service learning, but also held aesthetic competitions such as the Inter-Unit Album and Inter-Unit Handicraft competitions. Outdoor activities like long treks and camps were also included in the unit curriculum soon after.
Many alumni have agreed that the Red Cross has moulded their identity. Through the Red Cross, many alumni have learnt great values and lessons from it that helped to develop them as a person. Some of them even go on to join the Singapore Red Cross Society to continue serving as a member of the Red Cross, such as Abdul Hadi, who joined the CCA in 2002. He reflected, ‘Red Cross taught me the meaning of being human: to strive for a cause, to believe in something, to experience fear, love, loss, joy, envy, and only when I learn these can I develop my leadership and teamwork skills.’ He also commented on how much the CCA has changed. ‘In the past, we did not question anything our seniors did and we treated them with utmost respect, addressing them as sirs all the time. These rules helped students to develop a systematic way of thinking. Now, everything requires an explanation, but the seniors and juniors are closer.’
Subsequently, with the creation of a robust leadership and mentorship system spearheaded by alumni and Year 4s, the membership of cadets increased and the CCA entered a long period of sustained success. The unit excelled in national foot drill, first aid and drama competitions, most notably capturing the Current Affairs Competition (CAC) Shield, Dance and Drama, which is the most prestigious competition in Red Cross. This has led the unit to achieve Excellence Unit Award (Gold) for 14 consecutive years and counting, a record that remains unmatched and unbeaten by any other uniformed group.
Boys’ Brigade (BB)
The Boys’ Brigade is by far the youngest uniformed group in the school, established as the 60th unit in Singapore only in 1991, with sponsorship from the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
Despite having a short history, the brigade has developed a reputation of having high standards of excellence for its cadets, in terms of marching, discipline and general conduct. Besides conducting regular camps and trainings over the years to pass on the spirit of discipline that is essential in the brigade, the most unique part about BB is that it incorporates a musical aspect by allowing cadets to learn to play instruments such as the bagpipes.
RI Military Band
The RI Military Band was formed in April 1938 by George Langdon Bayliss, Senior master at RI, and Cadet Officer in charge of its small band, the Cadet Chord. The idea of establishing a military-style brass band comprising only students was considered sufficiently novel for the event to be featured prominently in the local newspapers. The average age of its 25 members was 16, and its youngest member was 15 year-old trumpeteer Kartar Singh, who was also a scout.
The school put up $800 to buy instruments for the band, and obtained the guidance of T.C. Hinch, Bandmaster of the Straits Settlements Police Band. In June 1938, just two months after its formation, it gave its first public performance before Governor Shenton Thomas at RI’s annual Speech Day. The band dissolved with the onset of the Japanese Occupation, and reappeared only in 1965 during the Principalship of the music-loving and musically gifted E. W. Jesudason.
The quality and standarad of the RI Brass band varied greatly over the years, but rose dramatically from 1968 onwards. The Singapore Youth Festival was launched in 1967, and in its second year, a band competition, known simply as Central Judging, was inaugurated. RI did not fare too well in the first few competitions, and schools with strong musical traditions like Crescent Girls and Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School dominated. Initially the RI Band wore all-white military-style uniforms, but in 1973, it adopted a radical and striking all-black uniform designed by Principal Philip Liau. It was in its new uniform that the RI Military Band won its first Mace of Honour award at the 1974 Singapore Youth festival, and Drum Major Sim Mong Kee won the Best Drum Major Award.
DEFUNCT UNIFORMED GROUPS
The Rangers, 15th Senior Branch
The Rangers form the senior branch of the Girl Guide Association, and the idea of forming a Ranger Company in RI originated with the 01 Scouts. Towards the end of 1970, a Pro-tem Committee of the then Pre-U One girls was formed. The school annual of 1970-1 records how ‘the initial stages of setting up a company required much work in organisation and in recruiting interested girls. In addition, certain unforeseen difficulties arose in registering the Company at the Girl Guide Headquarters. However these were overcome… and an all-girl uniform group came into being.’ The 15th Senior Branch was disbanded in 1982, at the point of RJC’s formation.
National Cadet Corps (Air)
When the Air Cadet Training Corps became defunct, the Raffles Institution National Cadet Corps (Air) was formed in 1968, and subsequently was incorporated with the Sea Cadet Corps and Army Cadet Corps into one National Cadet Corps in 1969. Besides being chosen to participate in the Youth Festival and National Day parades by featuring the .22 Air Rifle in their programme, another way in which honour was bestowed upon the squadron is manifested by allowing senior cadets to represent Singapore as ambassadors in the International Air Cadets Programme, which covered countries such as the United States of America, Australia and Britain. However, the more independent nature of the group meant that the Air Cadets themselves had to conduct training and recruit new members; in 1972, the cadets boldly explored Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong on topographical hikes for the first time without much external guidance.
National Cadet Corps (Sea)
Similarly, the Sea Cadet Corps had existed in Singapore since 1948 (with cadets from various schools and backgrounds), although for some of the cadets, there was favouritism within the corps. Mr. Wan Meng Cheng, a cadet in the 1960s, explains, “None in my squad had a chance to go ‘whaling’, the term used for rowing the whale boat…Certain schools had the chance to go whaling because the officers (who were all teachers) came from those schools.” Thankfully, the restructuring of the corps meant that the squad that consisted of RI boys would also be subsumed under the National Cadet Corps in Raffles Institution, and the cadets there could lay the foundation without having to rely on officers from the other schools.
When integration took place, these sea cadets who transferred to the newly established corps already were well-versed in naval knowledge and were seasoned sea-explorers. The team was not bereft of setbacks though, as the same could not be said for the first batch of students to join the corps; most of them could hardly handle a boat, much less compete for the prestigious awards and scholarships. Indefatigable defenders of the corps, the students refused to throw in the towel, and were versatile enough to adapt to the new lifestyle by seizing each and every opportunity to navigate the seas and acquire the right techniques of boat handling. Their relentless persistence even led the Rafflesian Library to lend a helping hand by buying books which detailed naval skills, and this struggling ultimately proved worthwhile when a Rafflesian was appointed as the Senior Cadet of the Sea Training Centre (One).
St. John’s Ambulance Brigade
Predecessor to the Raffles Institution Red Cross, the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade was established in 1935 by Dr John Sutton Webster, with then-RI principal D. A. Bishop as secretary. In RI, the first brigade was formed in October 1938 with 33 members in two divisions. Interestingly, membership for the brigade was open to both former and current pupils. Known as Cadet Division I, it was placed under Max Menahem as Divisional Superintendent. Within a year, it had already ballooned to four divisions. Unfortunately, after the outbreak of war in 1942, the group did not survive and it ceased to exist in RI.