It is now 15 years since they gave me five sets of number four (the tops I still wear, the pants I had to buy new ones). I am still at it, and proud of it, some say, for perverse reasons.
But seriously folks, I wouldn’t have traded this for anything in the world. My Army gave me some of the mental and physical shape I’m currently in. My Army showed me life, death, despair, hope, perseverance, friendship, loyalty, strength and compassion.
I remember turning 20 while I was cleaning an Armoured Fighting Vehicle with my section mates, and our sergeant (Sgt S Nathan) stopped work for my mates to sing happy birthday to me, and Sgt S Nathan (Sarge, what does the S stand for? S stands for Sergeant, you mother cheebye fucker, don’t ask me again) lit me a cigarette and told me to faster wake up my idea because I wasn’t a teenager anymore. (I last saw Sgt S Nathan at the airport a few years ago as I was leaving on a business trip. He had quit the Army and was working as an airport policeman, one of those who stand outside the immigration counters checking passengers’ passports and tickets. The other passengers were a little shocked to hear our exchange of greetings that went something to the effect of ‘Cheebye, Sar’n Nathan, it’s you! Cheebye what cheebye, kepala boootoh Buddha (my nickname), where you going, mother cheebye fucker?’ And he still wouldn’t tell me what the S stood for.)
I remember doing guard duty at the Padang on my 21st birthday even if it was a Saturday because I signed three extra duties for fucking up on a mission – my buddies snuck out and bought me a cake and satay from the satay club across the road.
I remember doodling the names of my girlfriends while we listened to long lectures on weapons and tactics. I remember falling asleep during lectures and being made to run and hug a tree because the lecturer said I looked like a sleeping koala. (Not as bad as the other trooper who was made to writhe like an upturned cockroach poisoned by Mortein).
I don’t pretend to be anywhere near a proficient professional soldier, and I could never be one. I’m still nervous around live ammunition and flinch at a gunshot or tank round explosion. I remember shitting bricks when my unit was mobilized as a stand-by perimeter security force for Changi Airport when SQ117 was hijacked, loading into my weapons and vehicles what I remembered was damned a lot of live ammo, enough to blow up several aircraft. We never left our camp compound thanks to the swift resolution of the crisis, but it was enough to let us know the stuff they trained us for, they expected us to be able to carry out.
I lost a battalion mate to a training accident that I was involved in, and lost two more to suicide. And these things stay with you the rest of your life. I nearly copped it too, but was saved on several occasions by my buddies, and I, in turn, was given a chance to save their skins also.
When I went abroad, I made it a point to try to put these things behind me, and purposefully avoided keeping in touch with the Army and my buddies. But my subconscious did not let me. When I returned to Singapore and was recalled into another unit (because my original unit had almost completed its 13 year cycle), I was mortified.
I called up my buddies again. When we met up, we embarrassed ourselves crying at a Delifrance outlet. My buddies shared with me how they coped with the trauma, and how different reservist training is these days to when we were full time soldiers. They told me not to worry a bit because even after a 10 year hiatus, I’d remember everything I was trained to do. They also told me not to worry too much about anything else, because ‘if you survived what we survived, you can do anything’.
One-Niner & One-Eight crew and personnel, ‘Attila’ Combat Team, 46th Reconnaissance Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand, 1989: top row L-R: OC’s runner/MG gunner Pte S.C. Foong, APC commander Cpl Mak, reconnaissance motorcyclist Pte B.S.Y. Lee, Signaller Pte K.H. Tan, APC driver Pte H.Y. Teo; front: APC driver Pte Selvam, 2IC’s runner/MG gunner Pte L. Sng.
My buddy and me, Singapore, 1990: Reconnaissance motorcyclists Cpl T.K. Hoe (One Eight Charlie) & Cpl B.S.Y. Lee (One Niner Charlie). Till today, we call each other by our radio callsigns.