From culture shock to cultural exchange in national service

Despite the "severe culture shock" he experienced, Max West thrived at Basic Military Training (BMT), going on to attend Officer Cadet School.
Despite the "severe culture shock" he experienced, Max West thrived at Basic Military Training (BMT), going on to attend Officer Cadet School.PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/MAXWESTOFFICIAL

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Even though Mr Max West has lived in Singapore all his life, he stuck out when he enlisted in the army in March 2013.

The half-American, half-Singaporean Chinese was one of just two "ang mohs" in his batch at the Naval Diving Unit.

To make things worse, he knew little Singlish or Hokkien slang, having attended only international schools here.

Mr West, 23, told The New Paper: "I experienced severe culture shock, which was even more striking because it was taking place in my home country, and I am a Singaporean."

But he thrived at Basic Military Training (BMT), going on to attend Officer Cadet School.

He served as platoon commander at the Naval Diving Unit and said he extended his service by six months to be a training coordination officer.

He ended his full-time service as a full lieutenant.


Max West at his book signing event at Kinokuniya for his debut book How To Forge A Frogman: A Recruit’s Account of Basic Training in Singapore’s Naval Diving Unit, on July 15, 2017. PHOTO: KINOKUNIYA

In June, he published a book, How To Forge A Frogman: A Recruit's Account of Basic Training in Singapore's Naval Diving Unit, under Marshall Cavendish, consisting of his journal entries during his BMT days.

Mr West always knew he had to serve national service (NS).

But he dreaded it for much of his teenage years, fearing he would lag behind his foreign peers at Singapore American School, who could head to college right after graduation.

Even after Mr West decided to enlist with a positive mindset, he discovered that NS presented challenges beyond the rigorous training.

He said: "I had been isolated from authentic Singaporean culture without realising it, and I was suddenly thrust into it for the first time. I found myself overwhelmed."

When leading his batch as class in-charge during their first week of BMT, Mr West's pronunciation of the Malay drill commands was so poor that everyone burst out into laughter.

He recalled worrying he was not being an effective leader.

BREAKING OUT OF BUBBLE

But Mr West's fellow recruits were curious about his background, which helped him get to know people.

He said NS eventually helped him break out of his "international school bubble".

Prior to that, the most "authentically Singaporean" experience he had was occasionally eating at hawker centres.

But NS allowed him to learn about his fellow recruits' educational experiences and social circles, and he now considers some of them his closest friends.

Mr West said: "Having seen a lot more of Singapore physically and culturally, I feel comfortable now calling myself a Singaporean, while before enlisting I did not necessarily have the exposure or knowledge.

"They tell us all the time in training that one of the most important qualities in the Singapore Armed Forces is loyalty to country, and that is something that is drilled into us."

Now a junior at Princeton University in the United States, Mr West often gets asked if he would return to serve should war break out in Singapore.

His answer is an unequivocal yes.

"Singapore is my home, and the Singapore military is the one that gave me the most meaningful experience of my life. To defend my country is an honour, and I will defend it without hesitation," he said.

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean cited NS as one of the "important institutions, laws and regulations" that have helped "prevent conflict and keep all communities together".

Mr Teo said: "Singaporeans of all races and faiths now live together in HDB precincts and blocks, not because this was a natural thing to do, but because we arranged for this to happen.

"We study together in national schools, eat together in food centres, serve national service together and work together in your companies."


Overseas Singaporeans take pride in country through national service


Third Sergeant Timothy Stott Weisheng with his family at his graduation parade in August. PHOTO: TIMOTHY STOTT WEISHENG

Singaporeans who lived abroad for a big part of their childhood often face adjustment pains when they return to serve national service (NS).

When Third Sergeant Timothy Stott Weisheng, 18, enlisted in January, the self-professed "country boy" was unused to the city life in Singapore.

Mr Stott, whose father is from the United Kingdom and mum is Singaporean-Chinese, had lived in Australia since he was five, and so found it hard to connect with many of his section mates.

Even those who had more exposure to life here also said they were apprehensive about NS.

Midshipman Ananth Shanmugam, 20, who returned to Singapore from India to complete a diploma from Temasek Polytechnic before enlisting in July, said he sometimes still has trouble trying to understand the accents and commands.

But for Lieutenant Elisha Tateno Yu, 20, who completed NS this year with the air force, his cultural differences became a way to bond with his NS mates.

Mr Yu, who is half-Japanese and half-Singaporean Chinese and had lived in Japan since he was three, said: "My fellow servicemen understood my cultural differences and background, which allowed me to learn and adjust.

"They were also patient in explaining, accommodating and understanding of any differences we might have had."

He frequently discussed Japan's culture with his fellow recruits.

In turn, they taught him Singlish and introduced him to local food and places he had never been to.

Likewise, Mr Stott's NS mates taught him Singlish and other traits he said he would not have learnt otherwise.

Mr Shanmugam, now at Officer Cadet School, said the tough training also served as a bonding experience.

He said: "I have undergone the same rite of passage that all Singaporean sons have experienced for the past 50 years. This makes me Singaporean not only in name, but also in my service for my country."

Mr Stott, now a Bionix vehicle commander in the 40th Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment, said his initial reluctance to return to Singapore has melted away.

"NS has helped me develop a sense of pride to serve my country and given a whole new meaning to my journey here.

"I now realise that it is not about me and being able to survive hardship. Rather, it is about being willing to take on the hardship, to protect my relatives and all the citizens in Singapore," he said.

Mr Lee Chung Wei, director of manpower at the Ministry of Defence, said: "More than a million past and present national servicemen from all walks of life have served since 1967, and their invaluable contributions have kept Singapore safe and secure.

"NS has also evolved to become a rite of passage for every Singaporean son, and the many generations of Singaporean men remember the defining moments, experiences and friendships forged during NS.

"Such common experiences are vital to a strong and united nation."