SINGAPORE - Colonel Teo Chin Leong has played a pivotal role in building up Singapore's submarine force to safeguard its waters.
Yet this was not a route the commander of the Seventh Flotilla could have envisioned back in the 1990s when he was a 20-year-old full-time national serviceman, driven by family circumstances to join the armed forces to help further his studies.
After coming up short in the air force's pilot selection process, he applied to both the army and the navy - and joined the latter simply because it was quicker to respond.
"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," he admitted.
Asked if he ever regretted his decision, Col Teo replied: "To say no is being dishonest."
"What kept me going is knowing the (Republic of Singapore Navy's) purpose… the defining moment for me was being made commanding officer of a submarine. From that point, I really saw the role that submarines play in the entire defence ecosystem."
On Friday (April 16), Col Teo, 48, was among 770 Ministry of Defence and Singapore Armed Forces personnel recognised for their outstanding performance and dedication to duty and service at the National Day Awards Investiture.
Postponed since last year because of the pandemic, the small-scale event was officiated by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who handed out 33 of the awards.
Col Teo was one of 518 to receive the Long Service Medal. A total of 121 Commendation Medals and 152 Efficiency Medals were awarded, while 21 received both awards.
Col Teo's journey as a submariner kicked off 21 years ago with a training stint in Sweden, as part of the pioneer crew on the RSS Centurion - one of four vessels from the navy's first Challenger-class line of submarines.
Two years later, his first of two children was born in the Nordic nation. Spending long stretches away from them in submarines with no means of external communication was tough, especially for his wife, said Col Teo. "She really had to bear the brunt of taking care of the family… I must say I appreciate my wife's support in the work that I do."
Col Teo would go on to take command of the Challenger-class RSS Conqueror in 2007, and also serve as squadron operations officer for the succeeding Archer-class duo of submarines. Most recently, he was directly involved in customising the capabilities of the navy's latest submarine phase: Four Invincible-class vessels jointly developed with a German defence contractor, with the first due for delivery to Singapore in mid-2022.
At the launch of the new submarines in 2019, Dr Ng had hailed their acquisition as testament to the navy's continuous growth. He said the move was timely, as maritime security challenges evolve and countries beef up their fleets.
The same reasons keep Col Teo motivated after nearly three decades in uniform.
"I think the navy is dynamic and forward-looking; always anticipating issues that arise and proactively solving them," he said. "I'm fortunate to be in an organisation that strives to stay ahead of the curve."