I served my full time National Service (NS) as an Air Warfare Officer in Ground Based Air Defence under the Air Force. I had developed my own thoughts about the recent saga regarding certain individuals posting insensitive remarks. My decision to write and share this was inspired by the writing of Yongcong Choy (https://www.facebook.com/notes/yongcong-choy/in-polite-and-vehement-objection-to-singaporeans-too-weak-lol-for-all-our-nsfsns/387069094648913). The contents in this post do not represent those of any organization and are wholly my observations and opinions.
I start off to clarify that I do not harbour any malice against any individuals who post insensitive remarks about NS or its servicemen (I hereby qualify the term ‘servicemen’ to mean members from either genders, effective for the rest of this discourse). I am inclined to give these people the benefit of the doubt that they did so in a moment of folly, callousness and ignorance. Let us forgive, but not forget, and learn from this.
What troubles me is if there is a presence of a larger, prevalent view in Singaporean society that we are truly physically and mentally weak to defend our country and ultimately lack the will to defend what we call Home. This post will also address what our servicemen undergo, the reasons for the 2 years of service and what servicemen think and feel towards NS. I reckon that the outpouring of emotions from certain insensitive comments stems from the lack of understanding of these by those who have not or do not need to serve.
Part of military training includes building up physical fitness – a key basic soldiering trait. I am convinced that SAF has in place rigorous and progressive physical training to mould our troops into combat fit soldiers. I believe that by and large, all the pull up regimes, interval trainings, unit runs and fitness training programmes work. I had a subordinate, B, who had obesity issues and was given PES BP in BMT. However, B took trainings seriously and was committed to work on his fitness. It was a pleasant surprise then, when he told me he attained a Silver award for his Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) in Unit where he was posted to after BMT. On hindsight that very afternoon, it hit me that this was not particularly shocking as he thoroughly deserved this for his efforts. Even for some of my men who still had problems passing their IPPT despite undergoing the training programmes, I took heart seeing them voluntarily pushing themselves at the fitness stations even after office hours.
In the larger picture, more importantly, NS more often than not instills the need and provides the tools for servicemen to be physically strong. After all, give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. I am certain this desire to keep fit and healthy will stay with my men for life, even after they leave active service.
To me, it is comparatively harder to build up mental toughness and to bring out the sense of purpose in what we do, because it is such a personal thing compared to building up physical fitness. I can have the fittest soldiers who can perform battle procedures way below the set timings. However, this will effectively amount to nothing if my troops do not see the purpose in what they are doing or do not have the will to fight. Aptitude must be married with Attitude. Regardless of rank we all need to constantly review what we are fighting for.
The correct attitude is considerably harder to achieve because we are a conscript army. Young men are plucked from the limelight of our youth to don a uniform and take up arms, when we could have pursued our studies or made more money in the outside world. Yes, we do at times complain of our duties, going outfield, of regimentation or the lack of freedom. We are only human. Deeply seeded in our hearts however, is that common purpose of our sacrifice – the desire to protect our loved ones. As a recruit during Basic Military Training, I admittedly teared from reading the letters that my family and friends had written to me, spurring me on during the tough field camp. It really dawned upon me then that above anything, I was doing this for them. I am pretty sure this is the same revelation of those who had the same watery eyes on Tekong soil. It was quite sad then, that some of the very people we protect are blind to this, much less appreciate our efforts.
We will do what we have to do. As air defenders, my colleagues and I protect the skies 24/7, all year round. We stay vigilant even as the rest of Singapore sleeps soundly. Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. We simply cannot afford a repeat of 9/11 on our soil. The truth is we need to, and we will, discharge our duties diligently without fail, weekend/public holiday or not, regardless of any support of our family members/loved ones and members of the public.
Really, we do not desire people to be writing in to the Straits Times forum every week thanking us. But, it does help refresh that purpose in which we serve at times when our loved ones give us their moral support now and then. On the flip side, it does hurt to see people downplaying what we sacrifice for, essentially, their freedom. Either way, I can assure that we will still go about doing our duties and work because we know we have to. I believe this feeling is not exclusive to air defenders but shared by all in uniform who have sacrificed something personal for the greater good.
Skeptics may compare the Singaporean soldier with those from foreign militaries. They say, “Look, those soldiers from country ____, they’ve been through so many wars and combat tours. Look at ours…So weak. What have we done? Can we really be ready for a real war?” Yes, we are a peacetime armed forces. This is something that is painstakingly borne out of diplomacy and deterrence. Yet this does not mean we are less than capable to defend ourselves against potential aggressors. I do not doubt the quality of our weapons and people. Our operational readiness has manifested itself and been proven in other avenues, such as the Humanitarian Assistance and Relief Missions SAF participates in. We are not a toy army. I pose the question back – “Would we want to be in perpetual wars, just to prove our strength?”
The recent cases only show that it can really happen to anyone. I am in no position to offer my opinions on the specifics of the recent deaths as I do not have the luxury of full details of the cases. What I can share here are my experiences in-service regarding Safety. Having conducted physical trainings in-camp and outfield exercises, I understand that Safety is really emphasized throughout the planning, execution and recovery stages of any event. To be frank, it seemed at times a hassle at times to ensure that all safety measures are put in place properly (receiving guidance from higher up, filling up safety matrixes, ensuring that the medic/safety vehicle/MO/water point/etc are present, ensuring the men themselves realise the importance of safety… …) Until I realized that there just cannot be compromise on this. As a commander, I have to keep in mind that the lives of fellow humans are literally under my purview, something that really struck me during my first exercise as a fresh 2nd Lieutenant. Until evidence proves otherwise, I by default am highly inclined to believe that Safety had been emphasized and ensured in the recent exercise where the unfortunate event took place.
Yet things sometimes go wrong even with the most adequate of preparations. The sad reality is that another brother-in-arms has fallen. It would be even sadder, and most disrespectful, to shrug it off as “another death”, much less post insensitive remarks, and move on without reflecting what this means to us. We need to realise that PTE Lee passed on doing something meaningful and his commitment is something we need to reflect on. You need to question your heart to ask if you are ready to fight for what you love and believe in, like he did. Quoting Yongcong, PTE Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron was “the kind of solider who would fight on regardless of how he felt. Dom was the kind of man who would give his life for his loved ones.” He will not pass on in vain.
On a lighter note, it is heartening that this saga revealed waves of support and appreciation of the services of those who have contributed to NS by many a serviceman, servicewoman and members of the general public. I am certain that our compatriots in the Police and SCDF feel the same way too. If anything, this strong show of unity clearly illustrates that we take pride in what we do.
I did not know PTE Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron personally, but I would like to express my pride and gratefulness for your service to your nation. Your passing on will not be in vain. My thoughts are with your family. Rest In Peace.
Freedom is not Free.