SAF Day

The last major training exercise I was part of was held in Shoalwater Bay, Queensland. On the night before the end of the exercise, (which was also an assessment known as ATEC that determines whether a combat unit is fit for operations) the communications radio in my armoured fighting vehicle crackled with a higher than usual urgency. Our vehicle commander pleaded with us to keep quiet so he could listen better.

When someone yells or screams into a radio comms, whatever message that person is trying to send is usually distorted and garbled, and because you don’t know what it is that is making the person so frantic, it tends to scare you a little.

All we could hear was frantic yelling on the radio communications – something about “No Duff”, which was code for “Not Simulated”.

We worked out that one of our tanks had overturned. And when that happens, chances of injury to the crew are likely to be high. There is a vehicle overturn drill which we practice before every exercise, but we had been on the move for over 36 hours and this had been our battalion’s final mission in the assessment. We were exhausted and car (tank) sick and more likely to slip up.

We panicked a little in our vehicle, not knowing if the crew of the tank was ok. There was a bunch of us that night who were from my original NSF unit, and who must have had flashbacks of an exercise in 1989 where one of our unit mates was killed when his vehicle overturned.

That exercise was halted, for about 12 hours, before our commanding officer explained that as operational soldiers, we had to carry on. We stayed on and trained in Thailand for the next 2 weeks.

You never forget something like that – and I remember being unable to control my trembling even when it was finally announced that the tank crew was safe because they’d just managed to duck into the compartments as it flipped over.

The other memorable moment of the exercise was when my company commander calmed everyone’s jangled nerves that night by calling over the comms: “Two-Niner to all sta­tions Two-Niner, if your Zulu (Armoured Fight­ing Vehi­cle) dri­vers or com­man­ders are tired, I will stop and let you rest! I promise you! We will fin­ish this mis­sion safely! …Two-Niner, out!”

To my brothers in the 46th Battalion, Singapore Armour Regiment (1989-91) and 433rd Battalion, Singapore Armour Regiment (1999-2008), I’m proud to have served alongside you. And, even as eras pass and doctrines change, here’s to every soldier, sailor and airman of the Singapore Armed Forces.

Happy SAF Day.

Ex Wallaby 2005 - Somewhere in Queensland
Ex Wallaby 2005 – Somewhere in Queensland
Ex Crescendo 1989 - Somewhere in Thailand
Ex Crescendo 1989 – Somewhere in Thailand

Your Grandfather’s Mother Tongue Is it?

I had great fun at the last minute pop-up Talkingcock In Parliament 3 organised by Colin, Yen Yen and others on Saturday evening. There was a great variety of speakers anyhowly hum-tumming what Mother Tongue means to us because it’s been anyhowly hum-tummed into our lives.

This is what I said:

My Hokkien mother spoke no Mandarin, was educated in ACS in Malaya, and my father taught himself English, but spoke Hainanese mostly. Although most days you couldn’t tell which he was speaking. Older Hainanese men have accents as thick as the slab of butter in your kaya toasts.

But my father spoke just enough rubbish for people in Australia to lump him together with other East Asians and he scored a job as a translator with the Japanese Olympic team in the 1956 Melbourne Games.

That did not end well. He was fired before the closing ceremony because a Japanese boxer was taken to hospital for an emergency appendectomy he didn’t need to have. He had simply tried to tell my father that he needed to lose some weight to get down to the weight class he was supposed to compete in. That’s my father. Accidental pioneer of weight loss surgery.

My mother, a slightly better English speaker, joined my father in Australia and together they lived there between 1957 and 1965. That’s a lot of time for them to pick up enough Aussie slang to scold my siblings and I with.

So my early childhood years were marked by my parents’ Aussie nicknames for me, which were all prefixed by the word “bloody”. They called me bloody fool, bloody idiot, bloody nong, once in a while, bloody bastard, before they realised the implication of what they were calling me, and retracted it and instead called me a bloody chink.

I have a five year old son and sometimes when he whines or whinges about something, my wife would tell him, “Use your words, Kai”. And he would compose himself, and make his request known in a full sentence.

My mother was slightly different with me when I was a kid. If I whined or whinged, she said, “Bloody Chinese boy cannot speak english properly issit?”

I understand now that they were scarred by their experiences Down Under, and passed on that anxiety to their kids.

So that’s my heritage. Outcastes of empire, speaking in the tongues of the former convicts of our former colonial masters. It’s a rich heritage, full of stolen riches.

So you can imagine I wasn’t surprised when I discovered just last week, that our National Heritage Board is the governing body of the Speak Good English Movement. I’m actually working on this year’s Speak Good English launch. Director of Speak Good English? Is Eck Kheng here? Movement nochet launch this year, so this event not counted hor?

Let me say that I strongly support the speak good english movement. I have one every morning. Usually after breakfast. And my family doesn’t let me bring the newspapers in with me.

Eh… It could have been worse. I could’ve demonstrated what a Speak Good English Movement sounds like.

Last week, I read about our Air Force and how they outfoxed American counterparts in war games, although I don’t believe they used the word outfoxed.

We all know that our Armed Forces have had this advantage over the years. I mean, come on lah, which other military can boast having marching commands in Malay, instructions in English, and at one time really had a platoon that spoke only Hokkien?

And they say the US got drones, we also have! How many did you see in the Young PAP video? That video? It was supposed to be a secret weapon, to be used when our enemies are making their way to invade us. We will jam their networks and the video would be transmitted to all their smartphones and tablets, so when they watch it, they’ll U-turn and go back because, wah lao, really? This is the prize? Dowan lor.

There were three bids for this defence weapon. This was one of them. The other two were of course the STB ad and the Singtel nipple ad.

“Honey, look! You know the expensive seafood dinner we had last night? We really got screwed, I’m even pregnant!”

Ten years ago, I was in a reservist In camp training – see that’s another word that’s been ingrained. 20 years after changing the term to NSman, we’re still calling it reservist. You call up some business to look for someone, and they’ll say, “oh, got reservist, won’t be back until next week”.

I think we love the word reservist because we really don’t want to be on the front line. We’re reserved. Of course, my ten year cycle has long since been completed, so I’m an even more reserved reservist.

So anyway, this was in 2004 and we were still transitioning from the old conventional ways of warfare to a post 9-11 Al Qaeda-JI doctrine. We had training to tell us that it was no longer ok to clear a room with grenades and put our weapons to full auto to finish the job. We had to look out for civilians and enemy combatants.

So part of the training package consisted of being shot at from a simulated HDB block, and being shot at from a simulated market. The second round got worse. We got grenades thrown at us by a simulated pregnant woman played by one of our own reservists on Attend B excuse heavy lifting.

We didn’t know how to react. We were tired, hungry and getting frustrated.

As we ran up one last HDB stairwell we encountered a simulated couple in close embrace, just as you would in real life, only this time it turned out to be a terrorist-hostage situation. Our training kicked in. We trained our weapons on the party and opened negotiations:

Our section commander shouted: “Terrorist har? What the fuck you want, you ninabeh cheebye motherfucker?”

The simulated terrorist replied, “er…. I want an airline ticket”

Because we are a considerate 3G army, our section commander asked him, “airline ticket? Cheebye what airline?”

The terrorist considered this quickly and shouted his preference, “Emirates!”

Something snapped in my section commander. He flicked the safety catch on his SAR-21 to full auto and opened fire, emptying his magazine of 30 rounds of blanks as he screamed. “Emirates hah? SQ not good enough for you is it? Nabeh! Limpehshootjiliaphorlisee!”

Purple Light

I do not remember rape being part of the song called Purple Light. (I never even knew the song was called Purple Light – it was always “My rifle, my buddy and me”).

Several of my peers think the words in question were added in the last 10 years or so. Shame on the commanders who thought it fit to add that in. And shame on those who think there’s nothing wrong with the lyrics.

As proud members of the Singapore Armed Forces, it is your duty and honour to defend everything this country stands for. We may be trying to figure out what it is that this country stands for, but condoning and belittling the use of rape as something you do out of spite is definitely not in our book of values. Can?

From the White Horse’s mouth

Losers of the "Make My Head Look Most Like A Watermelon" Contest pose for a picture in Shoalwater Bay, Queensland, October 2005

I was enlisted in December 1988, just as the Army was changing their combat helmets from heavy steel to high tech Dupont Kevlar, and apart from my dog tags that said I was allergic to penicillin and triple antigen vaccines, my medical docket had this mysterious ink stamp that simply said, “W.H.”

Read more at yousayisaywhoconfirm.sg

My National Day Parade

I remember National Day Parade 1990 the most because it’s the NDP I was involved in.

It was held at the Padang, and it featured the most impressive mobile column display since independence, involving all the military hardware and soldiers (like us) of the day.

At the beginning of that year, my battalion mates and I were in our second year of National Service – and for some reason, there was a what was called a “lull period” in our training program. By May, it became clear why that was so, as plans for the Padang parade were passed down through the combat and support companies. Our battalion was to supply one company sized mobile column/marching contingent and three companies of construction labour to build the spectator stands for the parade.

I’m not sure how it works these days, but in our time, the method of divvying up the work was this: the worst performing combat company got the marching duties. It might seem strange that the worst get rewarded by being in the limelight. But look further and you’ll realise that the mobile column/marching contingent has copped the rawest deal – hours and days of rehearsals, starching of uniforms, polishing of boots and armoured vehicles.

We moved in to the Padang in June, helping to unload the metal tubes that made up the grandstands, and then building the grandstands. It was like a giant Ikea assembly project as our sergeants and officers argued over the engineers’ manuals and instructed us to build the several storey tall structure by trial and error.

When night fell, guards were mounted from our ranks and we patrolled the Padang to ensure no one stole or sabotaged the grandstand. It was great fun.

Across the road from the Padang, where the Esplanade now stands was a hawker centre known as the Satay Club. We’d stray from our route and buy food and drink (with the blessing of the guard commander ensconced in a command tent on the grounds of the St Andrew’s Cathedral) and eat till our hearts’ content.

With the wee hours came some unusual encounters for the patrols. A group of transvestites used to frequent the Satay Club nightly, and it wasn’t because they liked to eat satay a lot. When day broke on one of the first few days we were at the Padang, our Regimental Sergeant Major had inspected the construction site and discovered condom wrappers, used condoms and other associated debris strewn around the grandstand area – people had been using the nooks and crannies made by our stacks of building material to explore their own nooks and crannies.

The order was put out unequivocally – we were not to allow any such monkey business to happen, and we were to apprehend (nicely) any civilian who were caught doing so, and ask them to leave the area and get a room. If they were to resist, we were to call our guard commander via our walky talkies, who would then call the cops via telephone at the cathedral.

So we patrolled a lot more diligently, shining torchlights into dark places and asking couples in various degrees of undress to leave the area for their safety. Thankfully, on my patrols, most did without resisting. But there was the incident of a patrol who encountered a group of belligerent transvestites who threatened them with bodily harm. By the time the police arrived, the guard commander was cowering under his table while the ladyboys sat on top and ransacked the things that were there.

I also celebrated my 21st birthday while serving a weekend guard duty at the Padang. That night, my buddies left the compound to buy a cake, some satay and lots of beer. We passed out drunk somewhere on the field and only got woken up when some transvestites wanted to trespass again.

More good times were had after the grandstand was built and when the other participants in the parade arrived for dress rehearsals. After being asked to test the grandstand by jumping up and down on them (and not causing a collapse and killing ourselves) we hung out near the Singapore Airlines contingent and asked the Singapore Girls how they had been selected to march – whether they had been rated the worst among their peers or something. They mostly ignored us.

On National Day itself, I was tasked to take my recce motorcycle and station myself at a car park somewhere in Raffles Place and guide VIP vehicles in and out of the area.

So, apart from seeing the aircraft of the RSAF perform their flypast, I missed the entire parade.

Troopers from 46SAR celebrating the completion of the spectator stands, July 1990 (I'm 3rd from left)

Water displacement formula, 40th attempt

Back when I was in full time NS, the cleaning of weapons was a mundane, time-consuming, daily chore. Between the 7 troopers in a combat section, we’d have around seven small arms (M16S1), couple of grenade launchers (M203), couple of light automatics (Ultimax100), two GPMGs, and a heavy machine gun (Browning .5 HMG).

Carbon residue would get stuck in the crevices and barrels of the weapons, which is the real reason why we were really really reluctant to fire our weapons during training. Of course, this was marketed as ‘ammunition conservation discipline’.

Every day when we were in camp, we’d be cleaning our weapons. When we were in the field, we’d clean our weapons. Nothing to do? Clean weapons. If there were to be a war, it’d have to have been put on hold because we were cleaning our weapons.

One of the hardest, and somehow most satisfying part of cleaning a weapon was the barrel pull through. This entailed putting a folded piece of flannelette (variously mispronounced as flannel-lite, fannelite and fantalite) in the eye of the pull through rod, and pulling the rod through the barrel of the weapon.

The thicker the flannelette, the more carbon residue it extracted. But the thicker the folded piece of flannelette, the harder it was to pull the entire thing through. Sometimes, you had to recruit your buddy to help hold your weapon while you pulled the rod through.

Four or five pulls, then another one with a new piece of flannelette usually did the trick, but not without a considerable amount of elbow grease.

Then one day, a platoon mate came to camp with a can of WD-40. He said it would work wonders with the weapons cleaning. Of course, we tried it. It worked. It cut down cleaning time by about 10 million years. We were free.

Queues at the canteen and payphones became longer. We spent more time and money on snacks, cigarettes and contact with the outside world. It was obvious that the fragile fabric of soldierly cohesion and solidarity was being threatened.

They banned the use of WD-40 in weapons cleaning. They then spread such disinformation as “WD-40 will cause barrel explosions and blow your pretty face off when you fire the weapon. Your buddy standing nearby will get it too”. Of course, that didn’t work, because one or two foolhardy troopers went ahead to try it, risking life, limb and the pretty face of their buddy standing nearby, firing their weapons uninhibitedly, knowing that they’d either die or have a lot of free time on their hands because they never had to spend so much time cleaning any more.

I had my car radio tuned to the BBC World Service yesterday morning, and listened to the most interesting story about WD-40, and how it evolved from a rocket scientist’s solution against missile corrosion, into one of the world’s most ubiquitous brands, but at the same time remaining unchanged as a product that always delivered beyond expectations.

I did not know that 20 years ago. Now I do.

When once the flag flew me

Flags for sale

Once, during NS, me and two other guys were made the battalion’s flag raising party for one of many early morning parades.

This task entailed picking up the flags from the Regimental Sergeant Major’s office, checking the cords to make sure nothing was frayed, and rehearsing our marching to the flag poles at the top of the parade square, and then doing it for real during the actual parade, complete with raising the national flag and the Army flag.

We were told several times to check and make sure that the loops for the flags were attached properly before raising the flag during the national anthem, and told in no uncertain terms, on pain of pain, that we should never, ever, raise the flag upside down.

To our horror, as the anthem played, the white portion of the national flag appeared to creep up the pole as we hoped against hope that the flag was merely impossibly crumpled and would unfurl itself soon enough.

It didn’t, and it was the longest Majulah Singapura I had ever heard. Our lives flashed before our eyes as we contemplated a long stint in detention, and we felt the ridicule and then the pity heaped on our backs from our battalion mates standing in parade behind us, as we raised the upside down flag the best we knew, and only took it down once the parade was over.

Got hope lah

If just some of the ill-mannered kids grow up to become selfless heroes, like 2LT Kok Khew Fai, who is just 20, and has done something you think you only read about in books or see it in the movies.

If you haven’t already heard, the instructor-officer was accompanying his recruits at a live grenade throwing exercise when one of his recruits drops his grenade on the backswing instead of lobbing it forward, landing it about 4m behind where they’re standing.

There is about 5 seconds before the grenade detonates, and I’d like to think that both 2LT Kok and the recruit took this time to mutter a hellalotta expletives, as the young officer dived on top of the recruit to shield him from the detonation.

Dived on top of the recruit to shield him.

That’s selfless, even though the design of the grenade bay makes it quite hard to get hurt, apparently, unless you were to bang your head repeatedly against the blast-proof wall.

Mothers, quickly, instill this kind of behaviour in your kids – go make them clean up after themselves at the hawker centre.

NSFW

It’s the weekend, so if it’s Not Safe For Work, it’s ok. Isn’t it?

It’s also ok during reservist in-camp training, but because they’re so strict with camera phones, we were spared looking at stills of Edison Chen’s conquests, because, I mean, who would bother transfering porn from their 3G camera phones to low tech non-camera ones?

All we had to make do with were detailed descriptions from the more passionate troopers. One of us was particularly devastated to discover that Cecilia Cheung did many, many such and such things, because he always thought that she was the pristine, innocent type of Hong Kong starlet. Then he added that if she was going to be photographed by her lover, she should at least “trim her down there”.

Speaking of ‘down there’, I know it’s a bit old, but I have to admit that I really enjoyed this clip of Jim Jeffries and his stand-up act:

(Warning: very strong language and scata scato scatta shit jokes)


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Mindef Reserve

433SAR MR Parade
with LTC (NS) Ong Kien Soo, CO, 433 SAR

“Should I set alarm clock for tomorrow?” asked Dave to no-one in particular before answering, “forgot, we got human alarm clock in the bunk”.

The human alarm clock was Jonah “Marsh” Lim, who earned his nickname because during every in-camp training, he’s the first to wake up and wake everyone else up to go for breakfast. He’s earned a few other snipes for being so concerned about us missing the most important meal of the day. He takes it all in his stride.

He doesn’t have to any more, though, because we’ve just completed the last of our armoured battalion’s training camps, which was capped off with what to some was an over elaborate parade featuring soldiers, armoured vehicles and family members who were game enough to come to camp with us early on a Saturday morning.

Having deferred from national service for eight years, I hadn’t had the chance to serve out my NS days with my original unit, but I’ve been fortunate to have been posted to this unit comprising the best fellas anyone could hope to be buddies with. Joining them in December 2001 as a rusty trooper who hadn’t had any training for a decade, my new platoon mates helped me out, and once, even dragged me by my uniform through the jungle when I couldn’t even stand up from sheer exhaustion.

There’ll be more to reflect on, once I get clearance to talk in greater detail. But in the meantime, well done men and commanders of 433 SAR for completing 10 years of service.

Authorised photographs: Ex Wallaby 2005, ICT 2004

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