Mother of a Soldier

If having my youngest child enter secondary school did not make me feel old, witnessing my son get enlisted into National Service(NS) certainly seals it. As we waited at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange for the ride to Changi Ferry Terminal, I watched the other parents hovering around their sons. Gosh, do I look as old as them? I turned to Mike. Does he look as old as those fathers there as well? A friend once commented to me the same thought as we attended a parenting teenager talk and I had rebuked her for still thinking herself as haven’t aged. She shook her head. It wasn’t about her. She’s quite sure her husband does not look like the Ah Peks around us.

My aunt had called the night before to warn me not to be ‘too emo’ about it. Her sisters had cried and she probably did as well when her only son got enlisted. I assured her I wouldn’t. I had been eagerly anticipating this day, and the only regret is what I thought was a three-month absence became nine weeks and then Ivan told me, ‘I’ll be back on 17 Feb.’ Huh? Why so soon?

As soon as we arrived at Tekong, a man in uniform told Ivan, ‘Tuck your shirt in.” I expected Andreas to be told the same thing but he was spared. The square yellow sticker on Ivan’s shirt had distinguished him from Andreas’ yellow round sticker. The new recruits were separated immediately and the families were ushered into a tour bus with a complimentary goodie bag each, comprising a bottle of water, an oreo pack and a tissue packet.

We toured around the facility. The beach and sea surrounding the buildings gave the island a resort feel. Despite the noon sun, there were many recruits jogging and playing ball. They were the early entrants because of the lack of fitness. They waved to the parents cheekily as we drove by.

The dorms we toured were clean and the thick 8-inch mattress could be even more comfortable for some recruits than what’s at home. Mike was particularly impressed with the steel cabinets. His had been wooden and they had to stick papers to the wooden planks. ‘Look!’ He exclaimed, “A compartment for the rifle!’ I think if given the chance, he would want to enlist again. The mothers were more concern about the domestic stuff. We were told they have to wash the laundry by hand in the one bucket provided each and dry the wet clothes on the strings just outside the window. The bed sheets are collected by professional laundry and changed weekly.

We were led to a lecture theatres and shown the light weight uniforms, the Acsics shoes, cool sandals, the state of the art water bag, the waterproof boots and even the strong insect repellent provided. The field packs had lotus roots with peanuts, glutinous rice or pastas.

Next, we were driven to the auditorium where the recruits were already seated and watching a video. We searched excitedly for Ivan. Not one recruit turn to meet our eyes or wave. They stared stoically on the screen ahead. None of us could locate him in the sea of similar faces.

The commanding officer gave us a briefing as to what was to come for these young men. He assured us that safety is the paramount concern and all recruits would be taken care of. There are many channels for these men to voice out. A short video was shown on how generations of men have gone through NS, something all parents should be proud of.

After the video, the recruits stood to take the oath. As they ended the speech about protecting Singapore with “My Life”, I felt a lump in my throat. (In case like my brother you didn’t read properly, it’s not a ‘tear to my eye’ but a ‘lump in my throat’.) As a mother, I gave him this life and to hear him swears his allegiance to his country somehow makes me feel as I had also contributed.

It’s often said doing NS transform a boy to a man, that alone is reason enough for me to support NS. Thus I am astonished that some parents are rather apprehensive about NS. A friend told me she knows of a German who actually chose to serve NS in Singapore. Yesterday, there was an angmoh in Ivan’s company as well.

We enjoyed ourselves yesterday and was assured and comforted by the arrangement done for the family of new recruits. My eldest son, Andreas, would be enlisting in the next few months and he is certainly looking forward to it.


About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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22 Responses to Mother of a Soldier

  1. yk says:

    “It’s often said doing NS transform a boy to a man, that alone is reason enough for me to support NS.” Do you mean that guys who did not have to go through conscription in other countries are not “transform into” men, or that they are somehow inferior to Singaporean guys who have gone through conscription? I think you may have an overly romantic view of our conscription system.

    • vickychong says:

      Sigh…are things that are not black always white? But you are right about one thing, I am a romantic!

      • yk says:

        If one can be transformed into man without doing NS, then that defeats your main reason for supporting NS doesn’t it?

        But I think the bigger point I was trying to make, and probably also the commentator by the name of icekachang below, is that your view of NS seems to be too rosy and unrealistic. Many people I know, including myself, who have gone through NS would take an opposing view. You seem to know many guys who liked NS. Let me assure you that there are equal, if not more, guys who hate NS.

        But, end of the day, it is really a difference in viewpoint and i’ll leave it at that. Perhaps someday, i can be convinced to be less cynical in my thinking. 🙂

  2. Icekachang says:

    Not trying to burst your patriotic bubble or curse the boys in your family, but some of the guys whom I know never made it out of NS alive. One succumbed to soil disease. Another died of heat exhaustion. Another died during a live firing accident. There are also those who got run over by heavy military vehicles during an outfield exercise.

    Another thing: the situation in Pulau Tekong had been deliberately spruced up to appeal to visiting parents and outsiders. Once your son finishes basic training and gets sent to his unit, it’s a tossup whether his remaining full-time NS life is relatively peaceful or a living hell. It all depends on the unit he is sent to.

    So, NS is not all rosy and sunshine, and please, I beseech you, do not get your impression of the military from glossy Mindef brochures and glamorous SAF recruitment ads.

    I was enlisted in 1999, and yes, the SAF had improved much through the years. Unfortunately, there are still some things that will never, ever improve. Your son will find out for himself.

    • vickychong says:

      Thanks! Your comments are certainly not helpful to many parents reading this blog. Fortunately there are many males around me who had gone through NS and have enjoyed their time there and are supportive.

    • Rhinoman says:

      Hmmmmm, I’ve just gotta write this and say to all supportive parents like Vicky. Thank you for this short but interesting share. I was there too that day when your son was enlisted. Icekachang probably went through his whole NS program with lots of ups and down and with the wrong attitude of why he must sacrifice his time being enlisted. I do not know which vocation he was in but I can also be an authority in this. I was enlisted in 1978! Yes, am just past my 50’s now but I valued NS (and still do) and mind you, icekachang, we went through more “hell” than you did or those latter batches. I saw how well you guys are taken care of. Let me be more candid to this write……IF YOU CANNOT SACRIFICE TWO YEARS FOR YOUR COUNTRY, YOU’RE A WIMP!!! I served two and a half years in the elite brigade (and that’s about the toughest any of you can dream of) and I must say that Vicky was right in saying that it turned the boy in me into a real man. Without NS, most of you in this generation will be a BRAT bunch. NS has had instilled the discipline needed in order to make Singapore what it is today!
      *Side question to Icekachang – Do you think you and your love ones can sleep peacefully every night without the SAF?? Go do some soul searching, boy!!!

  3. TC Lai says:

    Hi Vicky, thanks for this. I hope more mothers blog about their sons stint in NS. You could query him from time to time and maybe blog some more. I’ve distilled some of my experiences here in my blog. Some lessons might be apt. (More stories to come.)

    My time was in the early 80s, a period of transition in the army. Got good, got bad, like they say. If there’s a regret, it is not charting my NS course a little more properly (school or unit life, that sort of thing; army life can be a career!). And yes, friends you make in the army are special. If my own son is going into NS, my own advice to him is: Don’t give up on yr comrades; bring them up and along. A Chinese phrase is very apt, which distills to: Got good fortune all share, got misfortune all bear. My own mom’s advice was: Just get it done. Simple but to the point. The best part was the Parent’s Visit after the two-week internment (which with Xmas, was quite a sham). The fave thing they brought me was a radio (one that could receive TV even) I still have it. 🙂

    • vickychong says:

      Thank you so much for writing this.

      • connie says:

        wow i have read the comments and i feel that nowadays the male population is so call decrease and so mother tense to very worry about their son in NS.i was a female and enlist in 1995.i told my mum that do not need to send me off.As i left the house i look at my mum her eyes are i left to Tekong.I also feel abit lost as i do not know whther i able to cope with the life in Tekong.But i have went thru it with the guys and Pop and post to somewhere got tough that a school of ………………The life there is tough but i really enjoy it and a group of nsf was under my care.

        What i want to comment is that,abit of tough will let your boys to train and become a real men,that is should be the way,i really respect my guys alot and sometime i feel that mother concern about their son should be good but not over do it.

        To me when a new guys post in,i will tell them that if you want me to treat you like a adult please beheave like one if not i will treat you like a little boy.

        So far all my Nsf is very good,with really good bring up and i also think that this part the mother play a very important role.Guys keep up your good work and i always very proud of you.

  4. Keith Ho says:

    Well written with great details.
    I was there too, with my 2 sisters, brother in-law and niece, to send my nephew Gabriel. If we had more tickets, a few more would love to come.
    Witnessing his enlistment and wanting to see what BMT had changed over the years were secondary ; returning to my hometown was primary. Yes I (my siblings too) were born in Tekong, Pulau Tekong Besar (the bigger island) to be exact. This was a golden opportunity.
    Wow, so much reclamation of land – the gov had merged Pulau Tekong Kecil (smaller island) with Besar, and around Tuangkong-shi island (that tiny island midway). I bet these would be converted to some sort of resorts or estate someday. As soon as I stepped on home soil, I could really feel “home”. Almost everything had changed yet so so familiar. The old unused jetty was one of the two key jetties then that is still standing now. When the tour guide sergeant told us that they would be taking us for a “tour” around”, I really thought he meant the whole island. Later I knew it was just a fat hope as we were only restricted within the training school.
    The lunch was fabulous – chicken drumsticks, Hainanese chicken rice with chicken-rice chilli (!!!) and minced meat toufu soup were luxury during my days. What more, they topped up with CNY mandarin oranges, so well thought of. The cook whom I approached told me such menu was quite common nowadays. Wow.
    It’ll take a couple more years for my eldest son’s turn but through this visit, I was reassured of his safety and that he’ll be in good hands by the CO’s keynotes like sufficient rest, reasonable punishment and treatment with respect. The BMT had changed so much from my time and I would say it’s for the good, though I could not help but wonder if it’s gotten too comfortable that they may not “survive” mentally to defend the country in time of war.

    [ Age is but the state of mind. Think and feel youth will keep you young 😉 ]

  5. Dominic says:

    Hi Vicky, I have been on both sides. I was a recruit in Tekong. Got my ankle injured during training. Pushed myself to qualify for Officer Cadet School. Went through 9 months of hell to become an officer. Then I was sent back to tekong to train recruits.
    Reality will dictate that there will be accidents and injuries. But these happen throughout our lives. At home, work, walking, driving, etc. I think what matters most is that the sons of Singapore go through NS with a positive attitude, takes care of themselves, and have strong family support. With these 3 pillars in place, NS will be tolerable and even fun (once you ord).

  6. Pingback: Mother of a Soldier – by Vicky Chong « SG Hard Truth

  7. Tony says:

    I did NS in 1993. I had returned from education from abroad. I got posted to DSTA, (yes, Tony Tan’s youngest son) was in Tower B along with many other white horses. I should be happy with my posting, and should have no complaints about it.

    Unfortunately life still felt miserable. You see life go on in Singapore, while yours is put on hold. I spent the evenings roaming the city. The women in DSTA/G fawned at your feet. FTs were already swarming Singapore in 1993. Mostly white ones and well paid.

    NS had significantly retarded alot of bright young men around me and although most of these bright young bucks could outgun their bosses, most were smart to “laylow” throughout NS. It just wasn’t worth their while to create any issues during NS (unlike LHL son – a bad publicity stunt).

    Recently ,the minister of education complains that CEO’s think that young Singaporean men have no drive. This is where it starts.

    NS sucks the drive out. The hierarchical structure of the Singapore authoritarian regime has every part to play in this. NS castrates the will of the Singaporean male. (This was its intention and still is) It indoctrinates them to do nothing until requested to. For most of the white horses, they is no need to instigate change. The status quo is perfect. Of course there are a few who managed to retain some drive. These are usually guys from larger families with strong family support. They are able to put their lives on hold for the duration of NS because they have sizable interests in Singapore, and consider it worthwhile for their families.

    However, if the NS boy is from the marginalized common 1.2-child Singaporean family, I doubt that family support is strong these days. Maybe the NS boy is hopefully inspired by his future within Singapore or the Singapore identity. Sadly, I strongly doubt there is a good future for the common Singaporean. The dilution of the Singapore identity makes it hard to focus the purpose of NS.

    For the current day NS boy. I think they should enjoy it. The isolation of NS will help shield them from the real battle on the streets of Singapore. That battle is for their livelihoods and future when they get their first jobs, consider marriage, attempt to purchase their homes, and fully comprehend the system that they are in. Consider NS as bliss. Their lives are put on hold for its duration.

    The issue I have with NS today is that a modern country does not need a conscript army. It needs a professional army. I believe its time to free the Singaporean male, to empower them to restore leadership and vision that is direly needed in Singapore.

    The other issue I have with NS boys posted to units is that the dangers in bootcamp as well as in units is real. Many deaths do not make the news. The dangers are not predictable, frequently coming from the most unexpected situations. I no longer believe that the risk we place on any of these young lives is justified. Singapore no longer needs a conscript army.

    It’s time to free our boys to fight the real battles. These are battles that restore balanced political rights, their homes, and their livelihoods.

    Now if your boy ends up in a comfy unit like mine, then its all peachy. The worst thing that could happen is if the prataman in the canteen broke the egg yolk on his sunny-sideup prata, or if the crazy drink stall aunty hurls vulgarity which he can’t understand. Growing fat and mind-numbingly lazy was the only danger. Its only 2 years and a bit. Enjoy it while he can. The real battles start later. NS doesn’t prepare him for that. You, the parent need to do that.

    • vickychong says:

      Dear Tony, thanks for writing in. I may not agree with you. I had shared this poem with Ivan about life and it may just be appropriate for NS as well, and now I’m sharing this poem with you.

      [ IF ] [ 若 ]
      If you can keep your head when all about you
      Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

      If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
      But make allowance for their doubting too,
      若有人不信任你, 而你能在谅解他们的质疑时坚信自己;

      If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
      若你需要忍耐, 却不因此厌烦;

      Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
      若你被蒙骗, 却不因此去蒙骗他人;

      Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

      And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
      若你能不过于注重外表,也不自以为是- – – –

      If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
      若你持有梦想, 而不被梦幻主宰;

      If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

      If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
      And treat those two imposters just the same;

      If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
      Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

      Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
      And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
      若你用毕生心血去看护的东西被破坏,你能弯腰捡起工具把它再修好- – – –

      If you can make one heap of all your winnings
      And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

      And lose, and start again at your beginnings
      And never breath a word about your loss;

      If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
      To serve your turn long after they are gone,
      And so hold on when there is nothing in you
      Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

      If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

      Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,

      If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

      If all men count with you, but none too much,

      If you can fill the unforgiving minute
      With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

      Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

      And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
      更重要的是:孩子, 你就是一个男子汉。

  8. angela says:

    i was there yesterday too as my older boy enlisted..and I felt the same lump in the throat at exactly the same point when the boys declared they will guard our country with their lives – but no tears..I am happy that he is going through NS. There he will learn things that we as parents can never teach him. Of course some boys will get injured and some really unfortunate ones may not make it..but I believe that NS is a good thing for sons of Singapore. I wish you and your Ivan all the best. Perhaps we shall meet when the boys pass out from BMT.

    • vickychong says:

      Hi Angela,
      Thank you for writing in. We share the same thoughts as mothers. I am told by my friends that the NS journey are not only good for the boys, but for us parents as well. According to them, When the boys returned home, they were more appreciative to their parents and did more around the house. All the best to you and your son too.

  9. Law KL says:

    Enlisted a Boy…ORDed a Man.

    I RODed in Dec 1986, completed my 13 years reservist cycle in 2002.

    Now, in my late 40’s, still considered my best life learning experiences were those 2.5 years spent during NS period. I learnt skills in planning, organizing, interacting with people in all walks of life and many other skills that made me a better person.

    Nothing is easy in life, have the correct attitude and enjoy this once in a life time experience. Many years later one will always have fond memories of those NS times.

  10. Jonathan Toh says:

    For the NS haters and doubters, like it or not, NS is necessary for a microstate like Singapore. When something is necessary for survival, it is no longer a choice. Since it is no longer a choice, take it positively. Else, it is a drag not only for yourselves, but also for the more positive ones amongst us.

    As for for Tony, I strongly disagree with you. What’s the point of winning the “real” battles you mentioned if you cannot defend the victories. Also, since you are so negative, you will lack drive anyway, with or without NS. Don’t blame the lack of drive on NS. I know FTs who become citizens whose sons serve NS as Navy divers and commandos, and took NS more positively and enthusiastically than you did. In addition, please stop spreading the myth that Singapore can build up a credible deterence without NS. Unless, of course, you believe a strong deterence is not necessary these days for survival, which again, I strongly disagree if that is what you believe.

  11. Tony says:

    Reality is biting Singapore hard and things will change. We have managed well so far by encouraging citizens to donate their time and effort to NS. This is very fortunate because if it wasn’t from NS, we would have to fork our more then the 3.77% (reported) of GDP (down from 5.7% in 1998) that we currently spend on defence. Our NSmen form 6.9% of the labour force in Singapore.

    If you quantify the “donations” from the citizens, you can understand why naysayers are justified to bitch about this. However, the cost of NS men at 18 years is minimal, based on the below minimum wage that the NS boys get. However the risk they take are not justifiable.

    I am all for building Singaporean identity. However, I believe we need to stop exploiting Singaporeans. NS is morally wrong from a people-management perspective. We can close an eye, which is what we have been doing for 40+ years. The dynamics of the 21st century is very different from 40 years ago, and identity building in Singapore will change. Its needs to be ground-up.

    I am happy for those of you who took NS positively. I am concerned about the >50% and probably more in the range of 80% who don’t, who are exposed to risk that do not justify NS.

    You cannot take the standard mindless rhetoric that “we need a military to protect what we own”. What we own is 50% overseas, and many other countries have stakes in Singapore. The threat is not there anymore. The real problem is that our citizens have very little stake in Singapore anymore, and that is the problem for the 80% of NS men. The PAP is changing the quantum of a citizen’s stake in Singapore, NOT by increasing citizen wealth (through efficiency and education), but by importing citizens with wealth (the easy way). The problem with that is the % of new citizens wealth in Singapore is a fraction of their overall wealth, and thus loyalty to Club Singapore is minimal.

    You should be glad that there are alternative perspectives out there or your sons will truly serve a futile cause. Better still, I encourage you as parents to train your sons to truly serve Singapore not by repeating the mistakes of the past, but to forge forward to lead Singapore where possible with independent and truly valuable leadership.

    • TC Lai says:

      I don’t think you can qualify NS as just a man-management or labour issue. It is about getting young men trained in the military arts so they can play a part in its defence. We can opt to do away with NS and just use a professional army but given our small size and forever shrinking boundaries, we have to arm every able-bodied citizen the skills to defend this small piece of land we all call home. Our overseas assets are just that: assets. They are not in our country. If that country goes rogue, we can all say bye-bye to whatever we have there. This is the only true place you can hang back and claim it as your home. Sure, two years may seem like a lot, but if you count the courses and training, two years is not really that long. We only have to look at WWII history to realise that everyone has a role to play in a country’s defence. We can’t wait until a conflict starts or when things go bad to begin soldier-training people. That would be too late. It’s like learning martial arts. You learn it hoping you’ll never have to call on those skills.

      Other countries might have stakes/businesses in our country but they’re just external assets like what we similarly have in theirs. And as investors, they might flee at first sign of trouble. They might regret the passing of a ‘once wonderful Singapore’, but at the end of the day, it is not their nation. Unless they become citizens and hold dear what we cherish. Singapore is a city-state. It will evolve like any other city-states pressured by the same social and economic factors. But we are worst-off because we have no hinterland. It’s a cauldron we are all thrown in like it or not. Its a place to live as well as a place to make a living. It’s never easy in any such small space.

      All we can do (even in National Service) is to treat each other with grace and compassion, brotherhood and kinship. We might learn from others, but in the end, we are what we make of ourselves and how.

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