I remember: Training to be a youth leader

Ex-commando wanted a job to 'help the country'

An archive photo of Mr Chan Seck Sung undergoing a leadership course. The ex-commando trainer and PA youth leader was in the pioneer batch of trainees at the former National Youth Leadership Training Institute (now National Community Leadership Insti
An archive photo of Mr Chan Seck Sung undergoing a leadership course. The ex-commando trainer and PA youth leader was in the pioneer batch of trainees at the former National Youth Leadership Training Institute (now National Community Leadership Institute) in the 1960s.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Mr Chan keeps in touch with other trainees from the youth institute. They celebrated their 50th anniversary last year.
Mr Chan keeps in touch with other trainees from the youth institute. They celebrated their 50th anniversary last year. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

As the person in charge at Tanjong Pagar Community Club (CC) about 50 years ago, Mr Chan Seck Sung had to teach singing and folk dancing, watch out for gangsters and possible terrorists, and also clean the toilet.

He had joined the People's Association (PA) as an organising secretary in 1964 and was in the first batch of nearly 100 trainees at the then National Youth Leadership Training Institute, now the National Community Leadership Institute. It had been set up in 1964 as the Buona Vista Youth Leadership Training Centre, and was renamed in October 1965, after Singapore's separation from Malaysia.

In its early years, the institute trained community leaders and youth workers for the CCs, the Singapore Work Brigade, the Vigilante Corps and other grassroots groups.

Singapore was very unsettled in the 1960s, Mr Chan, now 71, told The Sunday Times. "Anything can happen at a CC. You have to be very alert," he said, citing bomb threats from Indonesia during the Confrontation, a period of hostilities.

Racial relations were uneasy then too. He recalled how a man, so badly hurt that the bone on his leg was showing, had sought help at the PA headquarters in Kallang in July 1964, when riots broke out between the Malays and Chinese.

In its early years, the institute trained community leaders and youth workers for the CCs, the Singapore Work Brigade, the Vigilante Corps and other grassroots groups.

Secret societies were active and student unrest was common. Fewer than one in 10 young people aged 12 to 18 took part in organised leisure activities, with most of the rest exposed to negative social influences, a PA Bulletin noted in 1964.

"The first task of the youth movement is to penetrate the social layers in which the anti-democratic and anti-Malaysian elements have influence," said then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee, when the centre was opened in 1964.

An Israeli youth adviser, Mr Arieh Levy, was appointed as the centre's first principal.

Mr Chan, who can still sing the Israeli songs he learnt during the youth training, had joined the PA after his A levels, as he liked outdoor activities and wanted a job that "could help the country".

Trainees spent 31/2 months at the institute, and the rest of the year applying what they had learnt back at the CCs. They would stay at the institute at Buona Vista for the week, book out on Saturday and book in on Sunday.

The training was "paramilitary", said Mr Chan. Participants did things like footdrills and shooting.

A sense of camaraderie was forged through "suffering together", said Mr Chan. They went on hikes of 20km to 50km and carried out team-building activities like log carrying, where 10 people worked together to lift and move a log.

The trainees also learnt skills like public speaking and accounting, as well as social and political theories.

A diploma in community and youth work was awarded after the three-year course. Mr Chan, however, left to join the Singapore Armed Forces in 1966 to be in its first batch of officer trainees and, later, led the Commando Battalion.

The grandfather of three, who retired from the army in 1994 and is now a manager at a property maintenance firm, said what he learnt about fostering commitment and bonds at the youth institute also helped him in his military career.

The pioneer trainees from the youth institute still keep in touch and celebrated their 50th anniversary last year. Mr Chan said: "The very important thing to me is the commitment and the bond that has lasted half a century to today."

Ho Ai Li

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Ex-commando wanted a job to 'help the country' I remember: Training to be a youth leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe