“I remember it felt like a roll call. There were people standing there, calling out names. Most of us were really nervous; we didn’t know what to expect.” These are the recollections of Yu Neng (‘Gan’ in the UK) on his first day of two years that would be spent being taught alongside his peers. Yet this wasn’t the first day of college or University as one might expect, but the first day of National Service.
Gan is a second year English Literature student, at the University of York. He is also from Singapore, a country in which two years’ National Service is compulsory for all males who have reached the age of 18. It is also open to women who choose to serve, although this is often seen as a step to a military career, as opposed to a citizenship commitment.
National Service was introduced in Singapore in the 1960s. For most people, Gan explains, this begins with two months of intense, Basic Military Training (BMT). This, he informs me, was a bit of a shock to the system. “In BMT you are called a recruit and you get treated like shit. The aim is to re-socialise you and break your spirit down so that you get used to the idea of working as a platoon, instead of as an individual. And then, from this batch of people, some will be selected to go to Officer Cadet School, some to Specialist Cadet School and the rest will go straight into their respective vocations.”
Gan recollects his first day: “Our parents were allowed to see us off. They were invited into the canteen to see what the food was like. The canteen, of course, prepared food that was especially nice, so that the army left the parents thinking that this was the food we were going to get every day. After that, the boys all waved goodbye to their parents and girlfriends.”
During BMT, recruits are required to carry out a large number of activities, ranging from lectures to more physically challenging tasks. “We did different things every day. We had a lot of lectures, where they would teach us the theories behind different formations, and the theory behind the workings of a gun. Aside from that we had a lot strength and speed training.”
Gan describes one activity that really stood out to him, which he labels as “one of the highlights” of BMT. “We had to do field camps, where you get stuck in the jungle for a week. You don’t get a tent.” You sleep in a hole that you dig yourself, he informs me. And it’s got to be “big enough to put your coffin in.” Not exactly what you want to think about as you go to bed. “It also has to have a step in the front so you can rest your elbows and hold your gun. You learn to sleep on your belly with your gun in front of you, so that at any point in time you can just get up and start shooting. That was a surprise for me, because I always thought in the army you had a tent.”
“You have to sleep in a hole. They told us it’s got to be big enough to put your coffin in…”
The punishments during this time, however, he recalls with less enthusiasm. “The standard punishments were things like push-ups and runs. They were fine, but let’s say you were in the middle of your field camp for instance, and you were tired and had a lot of things to do, and you were made to do the same run over and over again. It can get kind of wearing, mentally. There was one punishment that became famous in our batch. A platoon didn’t cover one of their latrine points properly, so they were made to crawl across the whole latrine on their bellies. Stories like that stay with you.”
After his two months in BMT, Gan was assigned the post of Combat Engineer Specialist, and was sent to carry out a two month Basic Specialist Course. Here he learnt numerous skills, including infantry drills and more advanced jungle fighting. “We started learning how to use not just our basic rifles, but a number of different weapons. We also had to learn a lot of different section movements. As Specialists, we go on to lead a squad of 6-8 men, so learning these movements was important, as they were different ways you could arrange your squad if you encountered an enemy.”
“As Specialists, we also did a lot more digging, to build encampments. It was always really smelly. You go into the jungle and you are covered in sweat and you have the strong smell of insect repellent, as well as the smell of half decomposed food.” Despite this seeming like an incredibly tough journey, Gan looks back at this experience with a positive light. “Was it hard? After a while these are just things, you know? You have something to do and you get it done. The smell just becomes something you get used to. I wouldn’t say it was difficult. But it was tiring, and mentally exhausting. I can see why not everyone makes it to be a specialist.”
After these two months, Gan was sent to Engineer Specialist Training, where he learnt everything that a Combat Engineer is required to know. “That was the part of my army life that was most similar to school. We had a lot of lectures, because being an engineer is very technical. I learnt how bombs are made and how explosives function. I learnt how to dispose of different types of explosives, such as rockets and missiles. I was taught how to make them and how to detonate them, and how to detect them and dig them out when someone else had left them. I also learnt how to drive a tank! Although, it doesn’t really look much like a tank – it looks like two boxes on tracks!”
Despite being both physically and mentally draining, Gan was able to find a way of coping throughout his training. “Today, I have this thing where every day I have to fill one page of a notebook, and the root of this idea started in the army. From the first night onwards I sent a message to my friends and family telling them what had happened that day. It was like a journal but to my friends, and was a way of venting I guess, a way of getting through the day. Even when the day was really shit I’d just be thinking, well, this is going to sound really funny when I write it to my friends.”
After his training, Gan was promoted to a Sergeant, and took part in quite an unusual parade. “All the new Sergeants were coming together for this parade. Our parents were going to be the ones to pin our new rank to our chest. We had practiced for an entire month. But on that day, there was a thunderstorm. It looked like it was going to be cancelled. We were all really upset, because we had trained really hard. So we just refused to move. And then, finally, the lightening stopped. Everyone grabbed their equipment and body armour and slung it on. It was soaked, but no-one cared, and we carried out the parade. Then we did the Specialist pledge and the Specialist roar, which is a big cheer – kind of like an enormous haka!”
Gan was then posted to his unit, a Field Engineers unit known as the 30th Battalion of Singapore Combat Engineers (30SCE), where he spent his last one and a half years. Here, was put in charge of a group of men, which, he explains, changed his experience of National Service completely. “What I learnt in training in 5 months, I had to teach people in a year. I suddenly went from being the one who always got shouted at to the person who did all the shouting. As a Sergeant, I had the authority to punish people, and other people were no longer allowed to publically punish me. My punishments were no longer physical. They were additional duties I had to carry out on the weekend, rather than being able to go home.”
After this, Gan reached his ORD (Operationally Ready Date), completing his time in National Service. Looking back, he believes that this was a hugely worthwhile experience, and something that is valuable for Singaporean men as a whole. “I do think I’ve learnt a lot, and that I’ve benefitted a lot from National Service. It was a very positive experience for me, even though I know it wasn’t for everyone.”
“For me, the benefits of National Service are not evident in the defence of Singapore, but rather in the common experience that this gives all Singaporean men. Some people like to say that National Service is what ties men together in Singapore and I think that this is true. I can stop any man, be he a taxi driver, or a fellow that looks my age, and I have a common topic with him. It also lets us mix with people from different backgrounds. Socioeconomically, Singaporeans are very stratified. It took going into the army for me to start communicating with people who had very little formal schooling at all. That was definitely educational.”
Yet despite this, Gan does not feel that the UK would benefit from it: “Society in the UK is structured completely differently to Singapore. You make friends based on where you live or the town you come from, rather than what type of school you go to, and so benefits for the UK would be different. Compared to other countries that have conscription, such as Taiwan and Israel, the UK also has many international allies, so I don’t think there is a case for it.”
On a more personal level, I ask Gan whether he feels his time in National Service has hindered his studies here at the University of York, and whether the age difference has had an impact on his University life. “In terms of age, I don’t really feel older than everyone until we start talking about relationships. We’re pretty much the same age where culture is concerned.
“In terms of studies, I know a LOT of guys complain about it. They say that it’s just two years wasted, and that their studies are thwarted because it puts you out of practice. But for me, it was just a switch, like, OK, I’m back in my academic life now. My first year English exam was the first exam I had taken in three years. But I think I caught up.”
What seems evident in speaking to Gan is the positive outlook which he brought to his time in National Service. “I went in with a pretty positive attitude, and I think I adjusted to army life quite well. I threw myself into all of my duties, and that’s what I’m doing here at York now. Although, let’s just hope the English Professors don’t start making me do push-ups!”