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What a bleeding stomach taught me about national service

Many Singaporeans give their all in national service. We have to make sure future generations also support NS the way we do.

The end was near. After six months of gruelling training in the Singapore Armed Forces Officer Cadet School (OCS), there was just one more overseas exercise to overcome before I could pass out as a commissioned officer in January 2012.

But one afternoon at home, I found myself vomiting suddenly and had to be hospitalised. Doctors said my stomach was bleeding and they had to carry out surgery to patch it up.

The cause was traced back to possibly the food or water I had consumed during an exercise in Brunei. I was later posted to another unit to serve out my full-time national service stint as a clerk.

But I wanted to return to OCS to complete unfinished business. In my three months as a clerk, I kept myself fit though my medical status had changed from A to E.

My request to return to OCS was granted. What should have been a nine-month course took me 14 months to complete. I was later commissioned as an infantry officer and posted to the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) as an instructor.

Having to retake the OCS course meant that I had to extend my full-time national service stint by four months and that my NSman obligation as an officer would be longer than that of other servicemen.

(All male citizens and permanent residents in Singapore need to do full-time national service at the age of 18 for two years. While in full-time service, soldiers are called NSFs or full-time national servicemen. After their full-time NS duty, they are liable to be called back for reservist duty of up to 40 days a year, serving as operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen), until age 40. For officers and senior military experts, the liability is until age 50.)

Besides the desire to complete unfinished business, I was also fuelled by a belief that I had the ability to lead men as an officer and could better contribute in that role in my NS stint alongside other servicemen.


As a journalist covering the defence beat for the past six months in a year that Singapore is celebrating 50 years of national service, I have met many who exemplified this spirit of maximising one's potential and contribution to the country.

There was a communications specialist who extended his service by a month so that he could sail with his ship-mates for a five-week overseas exercise. He did this because of the bonds he had forged with his crew-mates on the RSS Steadfast, and the pride he took in their collective work. The warship won the Best Fleet Unit award at the annual SAF Best Unit competition this year.

The shared spirit of sacrifice and excellence explains the strong camaraderie among the pioneer guardsmen and commandos, now in their 60s, who at their reunion this year sang songs and shouted cheers from the good old days, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the hardship they endured together.

National service has played an important and varied role in keeping Singapore safe for the past 50 years and, thankfully, it is clear that support for NS is not just theoretical today.

A 2013 Institute of Policy Studies study showed nearly unanimous support for NS, with 98 per cent of 1,251 respondents saying they supported it.

Strong support for NS could also be seen at grassroots events across the island this year where NS50 Recognition Packages were given out. Or during the National Day Parade when servicemen past and present were invited to stand up in recognition of their contributions after the screening of an NS50 video.

This is manifest too in the spontaneous chiming of support online for NSFs after a netizen grumbled about traffic congestion in Pasir Ris on Friday evenings. Many family members of NSFs drive out to the ferry terminal in Pasir Ris to pick up their loved ones when they book out of camp on Friday for the weekend. The netizen railed at the congestion caused and mocked the military recruits for being spoilt and not taking public transport home. Many Singaporeans spoke up in support of the recruits.


To help ensure that the backing for NS remains strong, two things can be done.

First, it is important to better publicise and understand some of the important roles that NSFs play, which show that they are not mere cogs in a machine.

NSFs are already being tapped more to serve in crucial roles: from assisting as analysts in the National Maritime Sense-making Group, the intelligence arm of the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre; to being trained to face potential cyber attacks at the Cyber Defence Test and Evaluation Centre, a cyber "live-firing range" where such attacks are simulated.

Parents might be glad, too, to hear that their sons are involved in bilateral exercises such as the annual Safkar Indopura with the Indonesian Army that not only increase their soldiering proficiency, but are also important in contributing to close bilateral ties.

Or they might be involved in search-and-rescue missions, such as the one stretching over several days to look for the missing sailors of US warship USS John S. McCain in August this year.

Or they could have a chance to become more qualified to conduct patrols and take part in exercises to protect key installations on the homeland, such as Changi Airport, with the setting up of the Island Defence Training Institute in July.

All these will add a more visible component to more conventional warfare, be it artillery or infantry training in the jungle, that many NSFs are trained in.

Highlighting the myriad ways NSFs contribute to the nation can engender more pride in service among NSFs and their loved ones, and help explain to the larger community just how these young men's sacrifice of two years in military service contribute to national well-being.


The second way to prop up support for NS is to work harder to get the best out of servicemen by making better use of their talents. This can also alleviate the impending manpower crunch due to the declining birth rate in Singapore.

Efforts like listing the Workforce Skills Qualifications credits gained during NSFs' full-time service on the Certificate of Service given to all servicemen upon completion of NS is thus praiseworthy as it means skills picked up by NSFs can be recognised by employers.

The new SAF Centre of Excellence for Soldier Performance, launched this month, should also increase support among parents and young men with its aims of maximising soldier performance through areas like customised fitness regimes and sports science.

Another way to ensure the continued support of NS is bykeeping service fair and equitable, with harsh penalties for NS defaulters who violate this promise. This is only fair to the rest of Singapore citizen and permanent resident males who abide by compulsory conscription at 18.

In this regard, the recent sentencing framework laid out by the High Court, along with the stiffer punishment meted out to three defaulters, has arguably helped preserve these principles.

But perhaps the most crucial area is in fostering and sustaining the spirit of sacrifice and excellence among NSFs.

As an instructor at BMTC, some of my recruits told me they wanted to play down some of their injuries, so they could go to command school and take on heavier responsibilities.

A good friend of mine from OCS learnt to fix his shoulder every time it got dislocated, as he would be taken out of the course if he had to see the medical officer multiple times for the same condition.

There are many similar untold stories today of young men who extend their service, or go the extra mile to serve. But we cannot take for granted that future cohorts of young men will feel or do likewise.

As Singapore ends its celebration of NS50, it is my hope that more servicemen will step up to the call of duty when called upon, and that there will be many more stories of sacrifice and toil to come from those entering service in years to come.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'What a bleeding stomach taught me about national service'. Print Edition | Subscribe