My Life My Way

Frank Singam, founding member of RSAF's Black Knights, makes return

Founding member of RSAF acrobatics team is doing battle against drugs - as a counsellor

Colonel (Rtd) Frank Singam, 66, was a pioneer fighter pilot in the Republic Of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and a founding member and leader of the Black Knights, the RSAF's official acrobatics team. Since leaving the military in 2001, he has beavered
Colonel (Rtd) Frank Singam, 66, was a pioneer fighter pilot in the Republic Of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and a founding member and leader of the Black Knights, the RSAF's official acrobatics team. Since leaving the military in 2001, he has beavered away to make his life, post RSAF, as meaningful as possible. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

The civilian world can be a bewildering place for folks who have spent a large part of their lives in the military.

Among other things, they may find that it lacks order and discipline, is competitive instead of collaborative and just too complicated and confusing.

Transitioning often leaves some of them feeling isolated, losing purpose or confidence.

Not Frank Singam though.

The 66-year-old was a pioneer fighter pilot in the Republic Of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and a founding member and leader of the Black Knights, the RSAF's official acrobatics team.

Over a military career spanning more than three decades, he also held other senior appointments, including Base Commander of the Paya Lebar Airbase as well as Chief Of Staff of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) headquarters in Butterworth, Malaysia. The FPDA is a regional security institution formed in 1971 between Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.

"It's a job I would love to do all over again. You have the best office in the world, 30,000 feet up in the air," says the trim and amiable man who left the RSAF as a colonel in 2001.

Col Singam (second from left) with members of The Black Knights, during the 1978 SAF Day at Changi Air Base. PHOTO: COURTESY OF FRANK SINGAM

Not one to waste time wallowing in reminiscences about his glory days, he has beavered away to make his life, post RSAF, as meaningful as possible.

He spent nearly a decade in the corporate world, successfully managing a ferry company.

Next, he devoted his time to counselling, even going back to school to graduate with a Masters in Professional Counselling when he was 63.

Today, the former colonel works as the Head of Counselling at charity outfit Brahm Centre where he helps people deal with, among other problems, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions.

Radiating calm, Col (Rtd) Singam comes across as a man whose nerves are not easily rattled.

The fourth of six children, he spent his early years in Pasir Ris.

His late father was a hospital attendant and a grassroots leader; his mother was a housewife.

A self starter, Col Singam did well at Batu Belayar Primary and Pasir Ris Secondary, where he was head prefect. He aced his O levels and was the only student from his school to get into Raffles Institution (RI).

His life changed during his first year at RI when he spotted a recruitment ad for fighter pilots in the newspapers.

"A fighter pilot out to rescue his country and the world from disaster. The idea just appealed to me" he says with a laugh.

Then just 16 years old, he was called up for an interview and put through several tests, including psychomotor skills and aerial dynamics. He cleared them only to find out that the qualifying age was 17.

"They said they would call me in a year's time, and they did, exactly a year later. I remember being told I was accepted on a Friday or Saturday and to report on Monday."

After a one-month crash course in flying, he was dispatched to the United Kingdom in 1969, where he spent the next 2 1/2 years training with the country's Royal Air Force (RAF) in different bases.

"I couldn't even drive a car then, so to be suddenly piloting an aeroplane was just out of this world. You can't imagine what it was like," he says

Besides learning how to fly aircraft like the Hawker Hunter and Jet Provost, he had to study subjects including aviation, law and military training. He returned to Singapore in 1971, a full-fledged, but not operational, pilot.

"We had to be put to the test for another six months to a year to determine if we were made of the right stuff," he says.

Together with 20 others, he became one of RSAF's pioneer fighter pilots.

Those were heady but tough days, he says.

"In the early days, when we were trying to build an air force, there were so many things we needed to understand. No one taught us how to be an air force, we had to learn to be strong and push the limits. We didn't know what our enemies were capable of so we had to try as many scenarios as we could. We had to set the mood, the standards and the values, going forward," he says, adding that he lost colleagues to accidents.

"But today, our air force is one of the best in the world," says Col Singam who helped to start the F5 squadron, ushering in the supersonic era for the air force in 1979.

In 2001, he left the military which had made him "an officer and a gentleman". By then, he had settled down happily with an Indian classical dancer with whom he has two sons, now aged 41 and 36.

"It was an arranged marriage. But she was a knockout lah, with brownish green eyes. And I came with the swagger of a pilot. Of course, she said: 'I don't want anyone else.'," he says with a cackle.

Although Col Singam could have gone on to become a commercial pilot after leaving the RSAF, he opted instead for a two-year stint doing scenario planning at the Defence Science And Technology Agency.

A former general who was overseeing business development for Bintan Resort International then asked him to become general manager of Bintan Resort Ferries.

"I spent six years there, it was exhilarating," he says.

He grew the company, acquiring new catamaran ferries and installing a new reservation system, among other things.

The next chapter in his life, he decided, would be to put the nurturing qualities he developed as a leader in the air force to good use.

He first obtained a diploma in counselling. At 63, he graduated with a Masters in Professional Counselling offered by Executive Training Academy in Singapore and the Swineburne University of Technology in Australia.

By then, he had started volunteering at a couple of family service centres. A former lecturer got him into addiction counselling, and soon, other agencies were asking for his help, says Col Singam who also volunteered his services at halfway houses and the prison.

Ironically, his second son grappled with a drug addiction problem not long after Col Singam started to work with addicts.

"As soon as we knew, we told the whole world about it. He did too," says the former pilot, adding that his son, who has been in a drug rehabilitation centre twice, is now working as a restaurant manager. "My wife and I are working with his employer and counsellor, and forming a team to keep an eye on him and to keep him safe. It takes a lot of effort."

Earlier this year, the grandfather of two started work at Brahm Centre as a counsellor. He and his wife had gone there to attend a course on mindfulness. When the centre's executive director, Ms Angie Chew, found out he was a professional counsellor, she asked him to come on board.

"I'm here every day for half a day," says Col Singam, who still volunteers at halfway houses and family service centres.

Because he is also caregiver to his 89-year-old mother who has dementia, his plate is full.

"I guess it's the sense of responsibility I've developed over the years," says Col Singam who also looked after a younger sister, who had cerebral palsy, for more than two decades until she died a few years ago.

The load can be trying at times but he says he has broad shoulders.

"You will have your bad moments but you look at them as opportunities to do good. If you get a bit angry and frustrated, just ask yourself how you can do things better.

"If you keep asking yourself that, you will move forward."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 05, 2017, with the headline Frank Singam, founding member of RSAF's Black Knights, makes return. Subscribe