After graduating with a Diploma in Clean Energy, Lee Jia Wei, like most Singaporean males, went on to serve his National Service (NS), during which he won the “Platoon Best Trainee” during his BMT, as well as the “Golden Canon Award” and the “Sword Award” in Officer Cadet School. He tells us about army life, how he made it through hell and back with great acclaim, and dishes out some advice for all NS-bound Singaporeans…
National Service (NS) is what every Singaporean Son has to go through once he turns 18. NS brings everyone, from all walks of life, together for the same purpose – to defend and protect Singapore. Being a proud Singaporean, I have braved the tough training of Basic Military Training (BMT) and Officer Cadet School (OCS) and I have survived. In fact, I actually earned the title of “Platoon Best Trainee” during my BMT, before continuing my NS journey in OCS – where I achieved the “Golden Canon Award” and was also one of the 3 trainees to be awarded the prestigious “Sword of Honour”. To win these awards, one does not only need to do well in the various tests (both written and practical) but one also needs to possess good leadership qualities, knowledge and fitness, as well as be appraised favourably by one’s peers and fellow trainees.
Most people would be surprised if they could win even one award during their NS, let alone winning 3 awards. So many of my friends have asked me, how did I do so well? Well, it all boils down to one word: ATTITUDE. I am sure most people have heard of “chao keng” (army slang referring to those who skive or feign illness). Some people try hard to downgrade their Physical Employment Status (PES) so that they need not engage in combat duties, or they can be exempted from physically demanding tasks. For me, I believe that every man should play a part in protecting Singapore, so what is there to “chao keng” about? If you put in your best effort and do it with your heart and soul, you will definitely do well! Everyone should have the same mentality and recognise that we have to train in order to ensure that Singapore can continue to enjoy the same peace and harmony that we have enjoyed for the past 50 years.
For me, the toughest part of NS was – as I believe it will be for any male enlistee – getting used to army life, transitioning from a being boy in the heartlands, to a soldier in Pulau Tekong. Before army, I could go anywhere I wanted, anytime. After enlisting, I had to follow the training programme and adhere to the strict rules. I was stuck in Tekong 5 or 6 days a week, I lost my freedom to go anywhere I wanted. I missed my girlfriend and the good times we spent together. But I saw all these as a necessary part of the discipline and mental training to make me a stronger person, more resilient and more able to endure hardship for my own good. These are cultivated qualities which will stay with me for life, long after I have ORD (completed my NS liability).
With my girlfriend, Cherlyn Tei on Graduation Day 2014
I guess, my most memorable event in BMT was the night I received my rifle. I felt the responsibility vested upon us to defend the country. I felt the adrenaline rush; it was the first time I held a weapon and that made me feel nervous. Most importantly, it was symbolic. We were supposed to treat the rifle as our “wife”. Now when you marry a girl, you treat her well and take care of her for life, right? You don’t want to lose her to someone else, right? So is it with the rifle. The rifle is the most important thing to a soldier, because without it, he cannot fight.
During field camp, it was the time where we could see our buddies or section mate’s true colours. The worst part was actually not the training; it was the fatigue that we had to endure. We had to dig a shell scrape (a shallow trench) for half a day. Absolutely tired out in both body and mind, we had to push on.
After the exercise was cut, on day 3, we were all so tired and worn out… and yet we all were “tekan-ed” very badly. After this, the commanders explained to us why we needed to protect our country. It was then that our platoon commander handed out the letters sent to us by our parents, or our girlfriends. Totally drained physically and emotionally, we perked up when the letters were placed in our hands. It was a touching moment for everyone, and as I turned to look around, I saw many of my platoon mates shedding a tear or two. All the tough training that we had to endure, no doubt, was to protect our loved ones – our family, our parents, and our girlfriends.
Soon, it was our Passing out Parade (POP). It was a moment of mixed emotions, actually – we felt both a sense of satisfaction and relief, as well as apprehension (maybe tinged with slight fear) about what laid ahead next. NS was not over yet. Maybe even tougher days beckon.
With my BMT buddies and commanders during the POP
On posting day I logged into the NS Portal to check my posting results, and I was really shocked but yet elated. I made it into OCS! It felt so surreal. Indeed I was happy as it was what I had wished for! I was posted to the Tango Wing in Officer Cadet School. After 14 long weeks of Infantry training, I was going into the Artillery vocation. It would be another 20 weeks of tough training!
Family Day at OCS
My OCS days were no less difficult. In fact, it was even more demanding, because our commanders expected more from us, as future leaders. The equipment that we learnt to handle was also more specialised; for example, we learnt to handle the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The most memorable event in OCS was probably one of the exercises called “EX Scorpion King”, which stretched us mentally and physically. Already on an empty fuel tank, we had to push ourselves on, as we struggled to survive in the jungle. The mosquitoes, centipedes and leeches which seem to like us so much, didn’t make life any easier for us either. Call it unlucky, but when we were in the jungle, the heavens opened up. As it was a defence exercise, we had to carry our buddies, in a simulated withdrawal exercise. With 60kg on our backs, we pounded the road in the pouring rain, running for several kilometres. You may think that the person being carried would be so lucky. But you are wrong. Let me tell you why: first, you would be carried with a “fireman’s lift”, which means you would be literally draped over the shoulders of your buddy, so as he trudges along, his shoulders would jerk up and down, jamming into your abdomen and causing immense pain and discomfort. Secondly, your head would be upside down, not the most comfortable position, especially if it was raining and water flowed into your nostrils. And lastly, your buddies slug it out carrying a heavy load – your load – which makes you feel guilty about it.
Exercise Centipede during OCS
Finally, the day came. It was 17 October 2015 – our commissioning day. I had waited a year for that day to come. As I marched past the officer cadets and went up the rostrum to receive my sword award, I felt so proud and honoured. It was the highest award that an officer cadet could receive. The moment that Minister Lawrence Wong handed the sword to me, it felt like the future of Singapore was in my hands. It was kind of bizarre. At that time, all the memories of my rigorous training in BMT and OCS came flashing back to me in an instant. It made me feel that hard work pays off after all.
After the ceremony, I handed the ranks to my parents. They pinned the ranks on both of my shoulders. I was finally an Officer! I felt very thankful to have all my loved ones there, to witness my commissioning. They had been my inspiration and motivation through the difficult journey. I wouldn’t be here without my family, friends and my band of brothers, and of course, my girlfriend who supported me throughout.
To celebrate the completion of our OCS course, we had a commissioning ball for the 63rd Batch Field Artillery Officer Cadet Course (63FAOCC). It was the culmination of our long 20-week course, and a kind of celebration as well as farewell, as each of us would be posted to different camps. It was a grand affair that made me feel like an officer and a gentleman.
Social Night for 63FAOCC
I feel that my NS days will be one of the most memorable periods of my life. I have signed-on in the SAF, and my ambition is to be a colonel in the army. When I have earned enough, I would want to sponsor children in Cambodia for their education too. I hope to be able to achieve this dream after completing my Bachelor of Engineering with Honours in Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering (Building Services) degree programme at the Singapore Institute of Technology.
For now, I hope to be able to inspire my future cadets and be a role model to them. You will never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice.