by Dominic Chua
To some people, the two years of National Service can often seem like a like a period of wilderness, weeks and months of one’s life in a state of limbo. We spoke with Mr Kuak Nam Jin, Head of the Raffles Leadership Institute, about his experiences as a an officer with 1st Commando Battalion, and Samuel Swee, a young alum currently at the University College of London, who was a Force Protection Trooper at Tengah Air Base.
As different as their paths were, and even though they served their national service almost two decades apart, what struck us was how their attitude was key in shaping what they took away from their National Service. The decisions they made – to get involved, to contribute, to stay open, to listen, to reflect – enabled them to learn lessons that they found valuable and meaningful for themselves.
THE RELUCTANT COMMANDO – MR KUAK NAM JIN
Just prior to enlisting in 1994, I was called up for a pre-enlistment interview, at which I was asked what I wanted to be, and I told the interviewer, ‘I want to be a driver.’
‘What’s your second choice?’ he asked.
‘Oh really? Thank you for coming.’
And then when the enlistment letter came, to my horror, it told me to report to the 1st Commando Battalion.
I was terrified. I really didn’t want to be in the Commandos – everyone around me was saying how incredibly tough it would be. I was running and swimming a lot at that time, so it wasn’t so much the physical element that worried me. It was a fear of the unknown, of being tested mentally and emotionally beyond my limits.
But there wasn’t much of a choice about it, so I told myself that I would go through this as positively as I could, and we would see what came out of it.
As it turns out, the first big struggle was to hold on to my own sense of self and stay positive and focused. You see, although my fellow enlistees were from a whole range of different schools, social backgrounds and ethnic groups, the one thing that linked everyone was a great reluctance and unwillingness to be in Commandos. There was an implicit pact to do as little as possible, to ‘keng’ (skive) – it was a group attitude that took hold really quickly. No one wanted any responsibility, and there was a constant pull towards the path of least effort. It was really hard to stay positive in such an atmosphere.
Two more interviews followed – one for the section leader’s course, and then officer cadet school. ‘Nah, this can’t be true,’ I thought. Everything was going the way I didn’t want it to go! Still, I told myself, let’s take a chance on this and see where it leads. Let’s see what responsibility is all about.
OCS zoomed past, and I returned to the Commandos as a commissioned officer. And that was when my real learning began – as an officer, I found myself having to be at the forefront – in terms of discipline and the setting of expectations. Very often I was confronted with an internal choice: I could take it easy and be one of the guys, and be popular, or I could insist on getting things done, and being less popular as a result. The leadership role came with its own demands. It made me think about things from the perspective of the organisation and its mission. If people are going to have a meaningful time and make sense of their NS experience, letting them slack off wasn’t going to accomplish that. You can probably tell which path I opted for.
I learnt that persuasion doesn’t always work. People responded to me more when I set the example and walked the talk, so to speak. In difficult times, people are looking for a leader that can inspire them, even if they may not say as much. They don’t want to hear someone spout pretty-sounding words – they want to see a live demonstration of good example.
One incident I vividly remember occurred when a soldier under my charge was accidentally injured by shrapnel during a demolition exercise. When I met his sister at the hospital, I said ‘Don’t worry. The doctor’s going to take care of things.’ She nearly slapped me at that point. ‘It’s easy for you to say that because you’re not his family member.’
That day, I learnt that words have to be used with care and sensitivity. Too often we mouth meaningless platitudes that don’t help people who are worried or in pain. Down the line, when I was speaking to my men, I found myself being more attentive to their inner states and to their level of morale.
If I noticed that they were worried about whether they had sufficient stamina for an upcoming exercise, I would focus on building their mental resilience and motivation for the task at hand. And this had to be done at some personal cost – staying with them throughout, even when it was physically, mentally and emotionally very demanding for me – because it came back to that need to role model the possibility of overcoming, the possibility of getting through this obstacle.
I devoted a lot more time to listening to their stories, and came to take a keen interest in their lives. Quite a number of them came from troubled family backgrounds, and were weighed down with emotional baggage. While you’re going through the training, these issues don’t miraculously disappear! Some soldiers had no strong desire to go home over the weekends, and would rather stay in camp.
So I tried to make things work for them – like giving them time off when we’re not in training, to meet friends or deal with personal issues, so that they could come back and be able to set their minds on the demands of training. There were others with physical injuries who needed to rest – and again as an officer you need to understand this, and be able to make a case for them.
But you won’t always get it right – I didn’t, at any rate. I was in this exercise where we were parachuting down toward a landing site. And there was a guy who had a reputation for skiving. When I landed on the ground and packed my parachute, I saw him approaching the ground and then botching his landing – he landed and fell backwards, and seemed to be in a state of shock and pain. I went over to him, and he was telling me ‘It hurts, it hurts’, and I feared that he could have had a back injury. He was brought to the hospital immediately.
Two days later, during a short break in the exercise, we saw him and he was looking absolutely fine – his normal, perky self. And when he asked him how he was, he told us that he had been given light duties for a week. It was hard to imagine how he could have bounced back so quickly, and I couldn’t help but ask myself if I had misjudged the situation. But there was no way I could know that for sure one way or the other. What I did learn was that even if you make a wrong decision, you can’t languish in that, but have to see how you can improve and become more discerning.
Ultimately, when I look back on my NS days, I feel that it wasn’t about having massive amounts of power and authority. It was about making good judgments and decisions about people and their well-being, and these were not easy decisions to figure out. The military exercises were the easy part – you need to arrive at Point A, you need to attack this place, you need to swim or take this boat or jump off this plane – but being a leader you’re obliged to deal with people, to put their needs above your own, and that’s never an easy thing to do.
GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY FOR SINGAPORE – SAMUEL SWEE
I recall the sense of dread I felt on 31 Jan 2012, as I travelled to Pulau Tekong where I was assigned to Whiskey company Platoon 4 Section 2. My fears were to prove unfounded for the most part. My time in Basic Military Training turned out to be my most enjoyable time in the army, as my section bonded closely over the 9 weeks of training.
I learnt that unity and camaraderie make tough times less terrible. Even in the most terrible conditions, such as lying prone on wet mud, we could even joke about it, and feel less miserable. This was especially so during the field camp in BMT, when we had to dig shell scrapes, which was pretty tough and exhausting.
One of my section mates was able to complete it earlier than the rest of us. Instead of taking his well-deserved break, he offered his help to us, so that we could all rest earlier. It was a particularly inspiring moment, considering that we were all fatigued, but he chose to be selfless in offering his assistance. Because of that incident, I was inspired to become more selfless, even though the selfish option often seems easier.
I was subsequently posted to the 8th Singapore Infantry Regiment (8 SIR) as a regimental police. It was there where I underwent 6 weeks of theory and practical training on the protection of key installations.
I was excited about being posted to 605 SQN in Tengah Air Base as a Force Protection Trooper, as I felt that I would gain a more holistic understanding of the armed forces operations. The work I was involved in included guarding the gates and conducting patrols around the air base. I was subsequently assigned the responsibilities of manpower and base clearance issues. I was also required to facilitate the maintenance of all security equipment in the base. This range included CCTVs, X-ray machines and hand held metal detectors.
Before NS, I lived in a bubble. I had heard stories about other parts of society, such as people who go to Thailand to find girlfriends or prostitutes, and even drug smugglers. I certainly never expected to interact with some of them, to hear their stories and reasons for their actions.
There was someone in my unit who used to peddle drugs in Geylang. It was interesting to hear his stories of escaping police raids and hiding the stash in strategic locations. But it was even more heart-breaking to hear how money was tight in his family, and he was not able to get a high-paying job due to his inadequate education. He shared of how meals were budgeted for, and items bought were based on needs instead of wants. It almost sounded like a Channel 8 drama.
It was my first personal encounter with someone from a disadvantaged background. Listening to him share his experiences made me reflect on how privileged I have been, without having to worry constantly about having enough money to buy a 1 meat and 1 veg rice with dishes. It made me appreciate the things that I had even more, and especially my parents who provided for me.
My most outstanding moment in the 22 months of service when I was recognised by the Chief of Air Force (CAF) as the Best Unit Suggestions Management Scheme (USMS) Individual Contributor (Combat) in the air force. It was momentous for me as I never expected to meet the CAF up-close. During my time in the unit, I was constantly on the lookout for areas of improvement in administrative efficiency and safety, and used the USMS to submit ideas.
I am glad that it is over, and I can continue with my university studies. When I look back, retrospectively, there were definitely some high notes from my 22 months of service. It certainly expanded my social circle, as I got to know more people with each posting, of which I have kept in touch with some. On that point, it also serves as a great bonding topic between Singaporean males. Put any two Singaporean males together, and one of the initial questions would surely be about their NS vocation and journey. Now that I am in London, when I meet another Singaporean male, the topic that inevitably comes up is NS.
Secondly, I would liken it to a gap year. It was a nice break from leading a school life filled with lectures and tutorials. It gave me the chance to think about other things in life, and also pursue some online learning courses at a comfortable pace. My school mates at university now are usually amazed when I share with them the fact that I have shot with a rifle and thrown a grenade!
If there was something I could change, I would have wished that my skill set be taken into consideration when being posted to my vocation. Especially since when registering for NS, we had to enter in our skills and involvements in school. It would definitely kill two birds with one stone if I could further develop my niche areas while serving the nation at the same time. As a geographer and with a background in IT, I really wanted to do cartography and work with maps, but it wasn’t to be.
I wish I could have gone outfield more often (you will doubtless hear gasps of disbelief from every other NSF that has gone outfield). My outfield experience was limited to the field camps in BMT and in 8SIR. While many have told me about the tough times and sometimes long waiting times out in the field, I think that it is an unforgettable experience, and a great opportunity to bond with other soldiers. Also, I believe that tough moments help to mould a person. Certainly, no one wants to get down and dirty, but I believe it would be more useful when I defend my country.