Singapore's naval divers special: Tested, Brandon Choo is among best of the best

TO BENCHMARK themselves against their foreign counterparts, the Naval Diving Unit's career divers undertake specialised training in Singapore and overseas, and are among the most decorated sailors in the service.

Adorning their crisp white shirts are Thai army parachutist, Indonesian navy combat swimmer, Ranger, sniper, and freefall badges.

As testament to the extremely competitive standards divers are held to before they can represent the navy abroad, Singapore participants regularly ace their overseas courses.

Captain Linkesh Balasubramanyam, 31, and Third Warrant Officer Loh Chin Wee, 37, for example, topped their international cohorts in the United States Special Forces Officer and Engineer Sergeant courses respectively in 2012.

Major Brandon Choo, 33, who graduated as a joint-top student in his Royal Navy Mine Clearance Officers' Course in Britain last year, did so well that he received a rare written commendation from the school's commanding officer.

One of the most prized insignia in the fraternity, however, is the US Navy Special Warfare Operator badge. This is a massive gold "trident" donned by those who complete the Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal (BUD/S) course - and its brutal Hell Week - in the frigid waters off the Naval Special Warfare Centre in Coronado, on the west coast of the United States.

Considered one of the most physically demanding courses in the American military because of the intensity and duration of the training, it often claims a dropout rate of over 60 per cent.

"Out of over 100 candidates in my batch, only 38 made it," recalls Maj Choo. The former Special Warfare Group officer earned his "trident" along with two other Singaporeans after enduring eight months of gruelling instruction.

Just getting a spot on the Navy Seal course is a challenge in itself, as the Singapore Armed Forces sends only its fittest regulars from the Commandos and Naval Diving Unit, with just a handful making it to the BUD/S course every year since the 1980s.

"I had to attend a physical selection which consisted of the diver fitness test, an obstacle course, and a 2km sea swim," recounts Maj Choo, a muscled sailor who has since completed tours of duty in Iraq and the Gulf of Aden.

"Only the candidate with the best timings could go."

Maj Choo made it into BUD/S Class 257, and endured cold like he had never experienced before.

"It was ridiculous," he says. "Even though our seniors prepared us for it mentally, the initial stage was really tough.

"The 'cold treatment' consisted of lying in the ocean, taking off pieces of clothing down to our trunks, at six o'clock in the morning."

But the three Singaporeans persevered.

"We wanted that trident very badly to prove that we were on par with the US Navy Seals," he says. "And when we came back, we wanted to make sure our teams were just as good."

ALPHONSUS CHERN