Memories of sweat, camaraderie and 'hantus': Life lessons from Outward Bound Singapore

Participants tackling the inverse tower at the Outward Bound School (OBS) in Pulau Ubin.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

SINGAPORE - From who paddled faster to who snored loudest, the Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) in Pulau Ubin has been the source of many cherished memories and fond anecdotes for Singaporean youth over the years.

OBS in Singapore was set up in 1967 to prepare young men for National Service. It has since grown to include females in its mission to develop character, leadership skills and team spirit.

The duration that the average youngster spends at OBS through ad-hoc camps or co-curricular activities is minuscule compared to classroom time.

Yet, at school reunion dinners, many still fondly recall who was better at kayaking or who scaled the three-storey rope tower quicker. And, of course, reminiscing about the insect bites, sunburn and blisters that were all part of the experience.


I attended OBS in 1999 as part of mandatory secondary school orientation.

I still remember feeling nervous to the point of nearly throwing up as the boat took me and my 30 classmates - all males turning 13 that year - to Ubin.

It wasn't seasickness but the dreaded prospect of spending even a few nights away from the comfort of a cool pillow and warm shower.

But being in a group helped.

It dawned on me quickly that I wasn't the only one feeling like I was on the way to an offshore prison - not helped by some teachers cheekily warning us to stay clear of wild boars and "hantus" (Malay for ghosts).

Looking back, the only ghosts we saw were our pale faces waking up before sunrise to tackle rope obstacles, paddle canoes and to crawl through tunnels.

The campsite was made up of nondescript buildings. We slept in tents outside, our pillow time determined by how long we actually took to erect our temporary shelters. Food and drink breaks were scattered throughout the day.

A group of instructors oversaw us. They rigged up the obstacle courses, checked weather conditions and looked out for our safety. Some were full-time staff, others were volunteers. All were tanned, lean and fit.

Our teachers told us that participation in the exercises was not compulsory but "strongly encouraged". In other words, compulsory.

Participants tackling the inverse tower at the Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) in Pulau Ubin. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Over those few days, we were tired, yes, but never exhausted. Put it down to youthful exuberance.

"Street cred" was also at stake - you did not want to look foolish or weak in front of peers who were going to be your daily companions for years to come.

Nothing destroys your OBS reputation more than your tent collapsing from a breeze.

Before I went to OBS, I harboured a fear of the open sea. The first time I sat in a kayak on the first day remains one of my most terrifying memories.

Will the kayak capsize? Surely that will be worse than a tent that collapses on me, I thought.

But, again, I looked at my classmates' faces and realised that others were literally in the same boat as me when it came to being afraid of the sea.

We pushed ahead, hands sore from gripping the paddles as if our lives depended on them.

Kayaking past Ubin's untainted scenery amid the pleasing sounds of birds helped rein in our fears. We survived the kayaking exercise.

OBS participants on a water raft they constructed at the Pulau Ubin campus. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

One of the things we had to do on land was to transport someone on a stretcher across an obstacle course. It seemed straightforward enough, but proved the opposite. Scaling the tower, on the other hand, looked like a tall ask - and it was.

I recall the instructors telling us that every activity was meant to prepare us for national service. But for a bunch of 13-year-olds, worrying about acne and our voices breaking were more pertinent than NS years away.

Running the courses built up not just sweat but character and unity as well.

It was inspiring to see trainees help each other clear obstacles using all sorts of encouragement, from the prospect of ice Milo breaks to a brief respite in an air-conditioned room.

Friendships were formed, lasting a lifetime for some. New character traits were unearthed and, perhaps, flaws were fixed too.

And the instructors were right: The obstacle course was a good warm-up for basic rescue training during my NS days in the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

At-risk youth have also benefited from the exposure to physical challenges to develop their self-esteem and help them start afresh. OBS also piloted a seven-day programme for prison inmates in 2007.

The legacy of inclusiveness under the umbrella of Mother Nature is one that the bigger and better OBS school on Coney Island should aim to continue.

Announcing details of the Coney Island OBS on Wednesday (March 30), Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu spoke of scouring the globe for ideas for programmes that will challenge participants either individually or as part of a team.

Ultimately, she added, every youth will have an opportunity to go through an OBS camp at least once in their schooling years.

It is a wonderful prospect, but the basic principles laid down by its older brother in Ubin should not be forgotten.

The $250-million OBS @ Coney will boast "advanced facilities" and programmes, Ms Fu said. (Cool pillows and warm showers?)

Call me nostalgic, but shaking in sweat during that boat ride to Ubin was as much part of the experience as the high-fives exchanged on the return trip.

Let's hope the youngsters of tomorrow will put down their mobile phones and pick up some valuable life lessons on OBS @ Coney.

Oh, just a tip, keep your eye out for wild boars and "hantus".