WHEN he first landed in detention in May 1996 for running away from military service, the first thing he was made to do was strip from head to toe in 30 seconds.

For every button or boot lace he left done, he had to do 20 push-ups.

Later, the daily physical regime was so tough it killed his appetite for food. But the rigorous discipline did not break him.

‘I used to be a devil here,’ confessed Jarrod (not his real name), 26, a full-time national serviceman.

‘I wouldn’t greet the sergeants. When they told me to sit, I would say, go fly kite. I was arrogant, very hot-tempered.’

He would get thrown into solitary confinement in a 3m by 1.5m cell with no windows for three days at a stretch to cool down.

It took Jarrod a long time to cool his hot head. He has spent seven terms in detention over seven years.

His current sentence is for 18 months, which can be reduced to 12 for good behaviour.

He could have got out after a year during his sixth term, but got three extra months for possessing a razor blade.

He said: ‘I signed the extra sentence smiling.’

Jarrod is a repeat offender, one of more than 230 servicemen in detention today who experience the sharp end of the military justice system.

Every year, about 8,000 minor offences, such as poor conduct, are tried in summary trials by officers in the individual military units, who have the authority to send offenders to detention for up to 40 days.

Not every case ends in detention.

Offenders can be fined and given extra duty, among other punishments.

Reports of summary trials are sent within 24 hours to the Singapore Armed Forces’ Legal Services Department to make sure they are in order, although it is rare that sentences are overturned.

The more serious offences, such as repeated absence without official leave (AWOL) and drug abuse, go up to the more powerful court martial.

The heaviest punishment the court has given in more than three decades is three years’ imprisonment in a civilian jail for desertion and repeated drug use, although it has the power to sentence a man to die, for treason.

But checks are in place to make sure that due process is done in the court, which hears about 500 cases a year.

It is helmed by NSmen who are magistrates, district judges or registrars in the civil courts.

Two other court members are selected from regular or NSmen officers, and decisions are arrived at by consensus.

The accused can hire civilian lawyers, but most opt for a military officer who knows them because most cases like AWOL and drug use are so clear-cut that the best a lawyer can do is to mitigate the sentence.

The court will help defending officers who are unfamiliar with the process.

Not surprisingly, offenders pleaded guilty in 443 out of 461 cases last year, rather than claim trial.

Appeals can also be made, either before a reviewing committee of the Armed Forces Council – headed by a permanent secretary for defence – for a lighter sentence on compassionate grounds, or the five-men Military Court of Appeal, now helmed by former Supreme Court judge Goh Joon Seng, to dispute the sentence on legal grounds.

Nine cases went up to the Armed Forces Council committee last year, but only one was successful.

A full-time serviceman had his 12 months’ detention for using a military jeep without proper authority and licence reduced to five months when the committee found the sentence too severe.

One case went up to the court of appeal last year, involving a full-time national serviceman who had been sentenced to four months’ detention for AWOL a third time in about five months.

The military prosecutor argued that this was not severe enough based on sentences handed out in other court-martial cases. The court of appeal increased the sentence to 10 months.

Sometimes, cases are heard in civilian court instead, even though a court martial has the power to try those who come under SAF law for both military and civilian offences, and mete out prison sentences.

What counts is whether civilians are involved and ‘whether the public will perceive it fairer to try the case in a civilian court’, said Mr Han Neng Hsiu, a manager with the Defence Ministry handling military justice matters.

For example, drug trafficking and rape cases involving SAF personnel would go to the civilian courts, but not drug use and molestation within the SAF.

The military court is open to the public and the media.

Usually, relatives and superiors of the accused will turn up at the three-year-old court martial centre on Choa Chu Kang Way, a few minutes’ walk from Yew Tee MRT station.

Once the accused is sentenced to detention, a military policeman escorts him out by a back door.

It is just a five-minute drive down the road to very long nights in the detention barracks.

Ah Seng (not his real name), 19, had trouble sleeping when he was first put in detention in January for getting high on a cough mixture he had obtained illegally.

‘I’d think about the life outside, how my family and my girlfriend are doing,’ he said.

‘I’d lose my temper and get into arguments with my cellmates, when they kept turning about while I was trying to sleep.

‘I just hope the time can pass quickly, so I can get out in January next year.’

JARROD is finally determined not to return to detention ever again.

His turnaround has come about partly because of a rehabilitation programme introduced three years ago to deal with repeat offenders.

Detainees carry out lighter physical exercises twice a week instead of a daily march with an 18kg load on their backs, a form of deterrence now reserved for first-timers.

They are allowed to study and take the N, O and A levels while behind bars. Six did so in 2001, 24 last year and 42 this year.

Girlfriends can now also visit, once a week.

Backing these changes is Lieutenant-Colonel Sim Teck Siong, 45, commandant of the SAF Detention Barracks.

He makes it a point to walk among the cells every Thursday to hear complaints. He has made allowances for detainees to go out under escort to get married, file for divorce and visit a dying grandparent in hospital.

This is compassion for a purpose; carrots sometimes work better than sticks.

‘When we care for them and are prepared to go to this extent, it will touch their hearts,’ said Lt-Col Sim, who has been with the barracks for three years.

‘They find that they can’t say no to authority.’

But there is no let-up in discipline, he said, and those who disobey the rules would still be punished.

Privileges, such as visits from girlfriends, can be easily revoked, which sends a very clear signal on where the real power lies.

‘That’s powerful. They will see that it’s of great priority and would then cooperate with the regime,’ said Ms Ellen Heng, the in-house counsellor. Ms Heng, who has counselled drug abusers in the SAF since the 1970s, tries to get detainees to work through the personal problems which sent them to detention in the first place, either individually or in groups.

The majority are there because they ran away from national service.

Some do it to work, so they can earn money for pressing reasons, such as paying a relative’s medical bills. She gives them advice on where they can get financial help.

While in detention, many feel guilty for not being able to provide for the family, or worry about debts, or relationships with girlfriends.

Ms Heng teaches the detainees techniques to de-stress and control their thoughts, and has plans to introduce more sessions, from managing anger to dealing with gambling habits.

Some will see reason and focus on getting out through good behaviour.

But others remain in denial, and keep trying to get out of national service by telling all kinds of stories.

They tend to come from broken homes, and are continuing a pattern of running away from home or school, she said.

Jarrod too was a school dropout and a former secret society member who was brought up by his aunt after his father died.

He rarely saw his mother.

He was a recruit in the army for barely a few weeks when he decided not to return to camp one weekend, but to work to pay off his debts instead.

He juggled two jobs, as delivery boy by day and hotel cleaner by night, and stayed with friends until he was caught two months later. He was sentenced to 40 days in detention by a summary trial in his unit.

A few weeks after his release, he ran away from camp again for the same reason.

This time, a military court sentenced him to four months’ detention. Still, he would run away four more times.

When he stepped out of the barracks for the sixth time in June last year, he met a girl who turned his life around.

They were to get married, but he had a run-in with his army unit over submitting a wrong residential address.

Fearful that he would be charged and have to postpone his marriage, he ran away again.

He surrendered himself 10 days after registering his marriage, and was sentenced to 18 months’ detention.

He gets letters from his wife and in-laws, who also visit him every week.

His wife, 23, has just found a security job, and is trying to save money to buy a home.

‘I see my wife’s black eye bags. She doesn’t get enough sleep and has lost a lot of weight,’ he said.

He will be released in February if he behaves well, and then have another 11 months of national service.

Said Jarrod: ‘There’s not one minute a day that I don’t think of my wife.

‘I’ve wasted seven years here and now I just want to finish NS.’

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