Pioneer RSN sailor shares memories as last two patrol vessels are decommissioned

Military Expert 3 Chua Buan Hee has had an exciting and rewarding career spanning 26 years. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - From confrontations with sea robbers to responding to mayday calls, Military Expert (ME) 3 Chua Buan Hee has had an exciting and rewarding career spanning 26 years.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) sailor started his naval adventure on the first-of-class RSS Fearless in 1995 and did three stints on Fearless-class patrol vessels (PVs).

On Friday (Dec 11), the now 44-year-old coxswain of RSS Gallant was filled with emotion as he watched the ship's commissioning pennant being lowered from its sail for the first time.

The lowering of the pennant during a decommissioning ceremony marks the official end of a ship's military service in the RSN.

RSS Gallant and RSS Freedom are the last of 11 operational PVs to be decommissioned. The PVs have been replaced by eight of the faster and more capable littoral mission vessels, which are all fully operational since January this year.

Speaking with reporters on board RSS Gallant on Thursday, ME3 Chua said: "You can say I'm fated to be part of the pioneer crew for the PVs, and fated to see the last of them decommission."

"Of course I'll be sad, but we still need to move on. With the littoral mission vessels (LMVs) online to replace the PVs, we have got to be happy because we need to evolve to meet future threats," he added.

The ceremony was held at the Tuas Naval Base ceremony on Friday. At sunset, Chief of Navy Rear-Admiral (RADM) Aaron Beng ordered the decommissioning of RSS Gallant and RSS Freedom as the officiating officer. RSS Freedom was commissioned in 1998 and RSS Gallant a year earlier.

Delivering the citations for the two ships, commander of the Maritime Security Task Force, RADM Yong Wei Hsiung, said they each sailed 314,000 nautical miles - enough to circumnavigate the earth 12 times - to defend Singapore's waters and support its defence relations.

"The magnitude of their contributions is outstanding. This would not have been possible without the unwavering dedication, professionalism, tenacity and sacrifices of many generations of officers and crew who served onboard," he told the past and present crew of the ships at the ceremony, as well as senior RSN officers.

The PVs were the first warships to be designed and built in Singapore. Over the years, they have safeguarded the country's maritime security through numerous operations at sea.

But they will not fully retire just yet, with four of them earmarked for refurbishment as part of efforts to beef up capabilities to better protect Singapore's territorial waters and respond to maritime security threats.

ME3 Chua was part of the pioneer crew for the RSN's first PV, RSS Fearless, which was launched in 1995. He learnt his ropes as a junior gunner with the vessel from 1995 to 1997 - his first posting after he signed on.

He was then involved in developing the standard operating procedures still in use decades later, such as for refuelling at sea and anchoring.

ME3 Chua believes that passion for the job, being able to sail around the world and the family spirit in the navy has kept him going. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In his second PV stint at RSS Brave from 2004 to 2007 as Chief Ordnance System, he experienced some of the most exciting days of his career, responding to mayday or emergency calls, including one involving sea robbers.

After reporting the incident to headquarters, the ship went to where the incident occurred and the robbers started to flee, he said.

In another incident that took place at night, RSS Brave spotted a boat with two outboard motors and more than 10 people, who they suspected were illegal immigrants.

"When we shone our search light at them, they started their motors and fled. We chased but we could only do so until the territorial boundary."

The commissioning pennant of RSS Freedom being lowered. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

While at RSS Brave, he was also involved in patrol operations around Pedra Branca - before the island located about 40km off eastern Singapore was awarded to Singapore in an International Court of Justice ruling in 2008.

"We had to be there to show our presence. We needed to deter and protect our sovereignty," he said, adding that they had to be on heightened alert.

Asked if he felt a sense of purpose while on these patrol operations, ME3 Chua recalled the words of his previous commander.

"I still remember, he said: 'If it's not us, then who else, and if it's not now, then when?' We were out there to do an operation, and we had to be on guard."

The crew of The Republic of Singapore Navy Patrol Vessel, RSS Gallant, lining the ship during the sunset decommissioning ceremony at Tuas Naval Base on Dec 11, 2020. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

ME3 Chua believes that passion for the job, being able to sail around the world and the family spirit in the navy has kept him going.

While he is not sure where he will be posted to next, he said: "Wherever the navy needs me, I will go."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.