Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pay Correct Sir

Every adult male Singaporean remembers that dreaded day. (No I am not blogging about weddings). I am referring of course to the day when we were called up for national service.

For me that day happened thirty-five-and-a-half years ago. A very long time ago indeed. But I remember clearly gathering at the CMPB (Central Manpower Base) in Dempsey Road, and boarding the three-tonner which brought us to this huge complex called SAFTI (Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute) in Pasir Laba Camp along Upper Jurong Road. My kampong friend by the name of Tor Koon (pronounced in Hokkien) was called up on the same day but he was posted to a different camp. His mother was crying as they said farewell. But my mum was not emotional. Maybe it was because my elder brother David had gone in the year before. He was posted to 6 SIR, or Tanjong Gul Camp in the farthest Western corner of Singapore.



This is an old photo from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore showing fresh-faced 19-year olds being herded onto a 3-tonners, probably from CMPB in Dempsey Road, looked on by anxious parents. It reminds me of movies scenes of Jews being sent to their concentration camps in Nazi Germany

As a recruit in 1971, our pay was $90 a month. The army called it ‘allowance’. Since we toiled practically 7 days a week, this worked out to about $3 a day. Life of a recruit was tough. Practically anyone could ‘tekan’ (bash up) us; and training was tough. On days when the going was particularly bad, we used to lament; “kia ji sa kor pai tan’ (today’s $3 is hard to earn). Pay day for most people is a happy time. But for us lowly recruits, it can be a stressful time, fraught with dangers. We had to queue up in front of the company 2IC’s office and await our name to be called, then march up to the pay officer’s desk, ‘berhenti’ (halt) and salute sharply. For some, this simple process had to be repeated several times at the whim of those in charge. When the money was handed to us, we had to put out 2 hands to receive it smartly, check the amount and then salute and say; “Pay correct sir!” (Hey – shouldn’t that be “Allowance correct sir!”?) Some childish officers liked to trick us by deliberately keeping back one $10 note. Those who did not count properly became a source of more amusement for our 'dear' leaders.


(Just in case you didn’t get it the first time) Life of a recruit was tough. Practically anyone could ‘tekan’ us. From day one, we were taught this simple principle in the army. The screw travels in one direction only … downwards. Right at the bottom of the pile is the recruit. There is nothing else below except his bed.

We had a CSM (company sergeant major) by the name of Royston. Personally, I think he was sadistic. . His policy was “punish until drop”. On days, when he was on BSO (battalion orderly sergeant or something like that) duty, he looked particularly fearsome with his ‘walking stick’ and red sash. Us innocent, fresh out of school, 19-year olds learned the meaning of fear from this man.

Once my friend (I shall not reveal his name) was having lunch in the cookhouse when he was summoned by staff Royston. I do not know what big crime he committed, but when we returned to company lines after lunch we saw Royston still working on him until he threw up his lunch.

But I was quite lucky and never got into any serious trouble. Both my platoon and section commanders were reasonable gentleman. I shall blog about them another time. Minor brushes of course there were a few.

Once I was caught drinking Pepsi in my bunk during training hours. I was made to run around the parade square with my Pepsi bottle lifted up like an Olympic torch. When I ran past Juliet (I think that was Lee Hsien Loong’s company) and Kilo company, everyone cheered and clapped.



safti2
This is an old photo of the Safti parade square (from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore). The block in the background is the block of my company, Romeo Company, later renamed Lima Company. To the right, behind the troops, is the cookhouse.

Another occasion I was caught eating noodles in the bunk at night. Occasionally, when we got sick of the cookhouse food, we took a bus from Safti (now Pasir Laba Camp) to Tuas seafood village and ate the famous the fried prawn noodles (only 70 cents per packet if I remember correctly). Once someone ‘tar powed’ a packet for me and I was caught by a corporal who came around at night to do a spot check. He put my helmet on the floor and asked me to put one finger on it and then run in circles around it until I got giddy.

But the ones who suffered most, in my opinion were those who were physically unfit. Those days, they do not downgrade you from ‘combat’ vocation so easily. I had a section mate who was quite plump (for guys of our era) and I saw him suffer every time we went for runs and other types of physical training for the entire 6 months of our basic and section leaders training. I resolved that my son should not suffer this type of torture and so I encouraged him to take up sport. Thankfully, he is active in kayaking and so I have one worry less.

28 comments:

pinto said...

Interestingly, I once talked to a Greek friend who did National Service in his country. He's around my age, probably in his late 20s or early 30s.

Anyway, he described how the Greek NS boys received their pay, and it was similar to what you described. Except that they were paid cents. Literally.

Even then, they too would be 'tekan-ed' and sometimes didn't even receive their measly pay at all.

Chuck said...

I would also be clapping if I saw you running like an Olympian.. Talking about punishment, I was told to wish a papaya tree as follows: 'Good Morning Papaya Tree, Good Morning Papaya Tree..', until it replied.... Reason is that I did not greet my Corporal during my recruit days and did not respect his two stripes.

peter said...

Chun See - you really got big appetite at night. Me - I consume Ma Ling luncheon meat (1 can per night. 3 times a week) My first knowledge of instant noodles I learn was from my bunkmates who brought maggie mee and use a heater placed in a SAF tin (which holds the water bottle) full of water.

When I was BMT at Bedok Camp, we patronize the "Jill Hee Eng Chye" + "Cheng Teng" across the road (now still at Bedok Corner Hawker Center run by the son Peter Lim and brother). Those who were free stood at the fence and shouted across the road. Peter Lim took our orders and ran up and down to make delivery through the fence. He still remembers us till this day.

Hokkien Peng introduced us to Joo Chiat bars. One place I remember was Sing Po Po Bar. Those days (or nights) where got Viet girls. Mostly Lau Lau ones.

BYW what is CB leaf? How did the name come about - I am still puzzled after so many years have passed?

Ivan Chew said...

Peter, I would take a picture and blog it but it would be deemed as obscene, heh heh!

Chun See -- you seem very hungry as a recruit. Actually I was too tired to think of food. Maybe by my time, the cookhouse food was much more palatable.

Alex said...

Chun See - I believe you have forgotten that you do not get all the $90 pay, because there is the SAFSA fund (I cannot remember how much, likely $1.00) and 50 cents barber "charge" we have to pay. On pay day, the whole company will assemble on the square and in order of the platoon and by NRIC number, recruits will march into the Company office and receive their salary.

Lam Chun See said...

Yes, I hope nobody will discuss that plant with an obscene name here on this blog where kids are likely to read. I will blog about it at a later date when I touch on subject of kampong style food packaging.

As for my appetite; Well firstly if Ivan had a chance to try 1970 cookhouse food, he will certainly understand why we were still hungry at night. Secondly, as I mentioned in an early posts about Our Kampong, I fell in love with Pepsi as a child. But after drinking too much of it in my army days, I began to develop indigestion-like discomfort. After I stopped, the problem went away.

peter said...

How can you critisize SAFTI Restaurant (I mean Cookhouse) food? Got standard what! Let's see:

1. We were spoilt for choice - got Muslim and Chinese cookhouses - Muslim at SISW and Chinese restaurants at School of Manpower, SSL and OCS

2. Best Hanainese chicken rice west of Swee Kee. Chicken like HK style - very cold type. Also served with red chillly sauce. Cooks were from SAF school of catering at Maju Camp

Tuas Sea Food Restaurant has the ambience of a fishing village like "The End of the World" in Penang. No joke there is such a place for seafood in Penang - at the end of Tunjung Bunga.

SSGT Royston - was he also a boxer, an aneh?

peter said...

I won't say life as a recruit was tough, maybe it was because I was a sportsman but I could not agree with the kinds of ridicule that were melted out.

To all recruits when it rained that day, we were happy. "Kia Chit lok hau…....Si bei hor. No Training”.

Can someone else list down all the different kinds of punishment we went through.

Lam Chun See said...

An old friend just reminded me the procedure was known as Pay Parade. And they also 'ask' you to donate to all sorts of charity. Speaking of donations, many of us donated blood for the first time in the army.

peter said...

You also forgot, we were asked to buy insurance in return for 1/2 day off. Guess who was the insurance company? NTUC Income. I htink blood donation also qualified for 1/2 day off. After some time, we realised that 1/2 day off was changed to time-off of 2 hours because training syllabus not yet finished.

Lam Chun See said...

Peter, you sure about the NTUC Income part or not? After kena sue. My 2 colleagues and I don't recall this.

pinto said...

CB leaf = Simpoh Air (Ayer) = Dillennia suffruticosa =)

Chris said...

Woa, thanks for the memory, Chun See. I had my BMT in 1983. By then, our paltry pay (ok so it was more then your time, but still meagre) was credited into our bank account. I could still remember part of the lyrics as we do our road marches, especially one about the pay:

When I was in the army
The pay was mighty fine
They gave us 100 dollars
And took back 99


There were a few others army ditties that I could still recall. Army "sucks", but it was also the time when most of us boys grow up.

peter said...

Buy life insurance? Sure. Most of us in the units doing BMT attended those insurance talks at the hall. It was the usual instruction - must attend "OC Talks".

Many signed up because if you recall we did NS with no insurance coverage. The insurance speaker told us the danges if we had no insurance. I do recall hearing that at best SAF would pay for your burial expenses should the worse happen. Unfortunately many did not sign up because our pay was so low. My half month pay I got was $45 in cash - notes & coins - but deductions for barber, rifle cleaning rod, platoon fund, etc.

I am not sure today if there is insurance coverage during NS-maybe younger ones can tell us.

Having said that, I think NTUC Income is doing a good job of providing low-cost insurance; otherwise kena pay high premiums for motor insurance.

Did you not donate blood to the Singapore Blood Transfusion Center? They came by those big cream and red vans to camps in those days. One thing we army boys enjoyed - the nurses quite "chioh". For 10 mins look at her eyes.

Lam Chun See said...

Oops - I just recalled. The year was 1971 not 70.

Thanks Chris for the nice song. You shd do a duet with your son and put it up on your blog for all to enjoy. I remember we also had some relaxation/entertainment activities like shows by Music and Drama Co. Also our own concerts. I participated in a song item for my section. We sang Jamaican Farewell and I'll Never Find Another You (Seekers) - would you believe I can still remember the lyrics? I also remember this duo who played guitars beautifully and sang the Everly Brothers' Lightning Express.

Victor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Victor said...

Chun See, it's funny why you didn't give me the assignment to blog about the CB leave, since it is considered as... well, my forte. I had wanted to blog about old food packaging as well and this leaf, Simpoh Ayer as Pinto rightly puts it, was in my repertoire. But as usual, so little time, so many things to blog about. So, as the army would say, 'carry on'.

Peter, be careful about what you say regarding nurses. Chris' wife is one. Lucky you said that they are chio. Chris would be delighted. (He's my colleague.)

Chris said...

Yo Peter, here's a rejoiner for the army song, this time about the "chioh" nurses or, rather the "chioh bu". I didn't make this up.

They say that in the army
The girls are pretty fine
You asked for Farrah Fawcet
. (She was all the rage then, thanks to Charlie's Angels)
They gave you Frankenstein
I don't wanna be an army boy
OC I wanna go
CO I wanna go
Mummy I wanna go home


Chun See, to do the duet with my son, we would need two sets of No. 4 plus SBO and helmet. And the rifles of course. Standard gear for the road marches :P

Road_virus said...

Served my NS in 1999 and ORD in 2001...

by then the song that was so talked about has evolved to new heights.

let me clear my throat and sing it...

They say that in the army
The girls are very nice
You happy go to book in
And got yourself a wife(SAR21)
I dont wanna be a soldier
OC i wanna go
CO don't let me go
Mommy i wanna go home!

They say that in the army
The food is very nice
You happy go to cookhouse
And find out ka na sai
I dont wanna be a soldier
OC i wanna go
CO don't let me go
Mommy i wanna go home!

They say that in the army
The haircut very nice
You ask for DeCaprio
They give you Or Ni Gu
I dont wanna be a soldier
OC i wanna go
CO don't let me go
Mommy i wanna go home!

well hope that entertains all of ya...

Lam Chun See said...

Thank you Road Virus for that update. Very funny indeed.

clint said...

Hi Chun See

I came upon your blog by chance and enjoy it very much. I am slightly junior than you and enlisted in the navy in 1972. Those days all the services (army, navy and airforce) did their BMT together for 3 months. Prior to that I was at Transit Camp for 3 months in Portsdown Camp (Ayer Rajah Road). My SBMT was in Changi (together with the Commando Unit, RSAF etc). We did our field training along Jalan Tiga Ratus (Upper Changi Road Chinese Cemetery) and Pulau Tekong. Pulau Tekong Camp those days had no facilities, no water, no electricity. A large number of civilians, mostly Chinese farmers was on the island then.

Clint

Lam Chun See said...

Welcome to GMY, Clint. Glad you enjoyed our stories (including my buddies of course).

Thanks for sharing that bit about your recruit days. My younger brother (3 yrs younger than me) did his in Telok Paku Camp also in Changi.

Charlieada said...

Hi Chun See;

Came across your blog by chance and i must say that the posts are an interesting read.

I was very much your junior, enlisted in 1993 and was OCS in 94 (17/94 Alpha), back then we had alot of songs that we were taught to sing during the camp run for our initiation week, can't remember much now except the we shall not be move song..

Just got my letter from Mindef posting me to reserve, sure gonna miss those days in green despite all the bitching when i had to go for ippt.. hah hah..

Frank said...

Part 1

I think I was a punishment magnet and after all these 30+ years I can still remember the punishments, generally not because they help me to learn from my mistakes but I think more for the pleasure of the sadists and perverts whom we call instructors. (Hopefully the SAF actually trains instructors nowadays.) Like Chun See, I was drafted (enlisted is not the correct word in my vocab) twice, in 1973 and then in 1976, with disruption for university. In 1973, I went through BMT and section leader training. From 1976, I went through OCS, JOEC, AOEC, basic and advanced officer mil intel (can't remember the SAF acronyms now). What I don't understand is that the upper echelon courses were punishment-free not that I became a perfect student. The last time I suffered punishment as an "instructee" was in JOEC. It was not that I was not punished as a PC but that's a separate story later.

Let me categorize the types of punishment that I remember, some of which I believe are banned. What frequently went through my mind was "if this is how we treat our own, how would we treat our enemies?" I suppose the Geneva Convention does not apply when you are an SAF trainee.

1. Apollo (described by Chun See) -- the going-around-the-helmet punishment. The corporals know how many rounds you can do before you go crazy (minimum 3 is how tough Apollo is before you deorbit and "land") so if you cheat by spinning out of control early you get to do it again. Talking about enhanced interrogation techniques! I believe Apollo is banned.

2. Star jump -- this is perfectly good for 5BX and other exercises. I still do it to keep fit. But if you are ordered to do X number, your stomach's gonna cramp. Try doing even 10. Banned.

3. Duck walk -- if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is not a duck but a recruit. Banned.

4. Pushup -- this is still punitive although in my mind it may actually build muscles. Usually, the corporal says "drop 10" and the hapless victim does 10 pushups. The recruits get so jumpy that I remembered "take 5" was misunderstood for "drop 5" a few times to the laughter of the smart alecks who then had to drop 10 for laughing.

In OCS, we sometimes have to chant "1 duty," "2 honour," "3 country" while doing pushups. As I said, I was such a punishment magnet that I "graduated" from OCS owing 600 pushups without having to pay. Really, if interest was added, it must be like 100000 by now to say the least. The reason why I did not complete was that another guy overdid the pushups and collapsed, breaking a number of teeth. Lawsuit anyone? Nah, just sweep it under the floor and deny everything. No inquiry, nothing. Cadet was so scared too. I think nowadays, one picture to Amnesty International will create an international uproar.

5. Change parade -- changing from one set of uniform to another in a few minutes. A no-win situation 'cos you are not the one keeping time but the instructor. So, resign yourself and do the best, knowing that you got to change a few times. The trick is to let those sobs (or a Hokkien obscenity that is m***erf***ers) get their way. Some soldiers "gabra" and come out with everything but no pants. Some come out with the helmet worn the wrong way so were berated as being firemen. Some slipped on the stairs injuring themselves. And I believe some tried to jump from the 4th floor. I think it is these potential suicides that caused this punishment to be banned. Maybe the reason is something else.

Frank said...

Part 2

6. Running round the parade square. Chun See mentioned the pepsi bottle. That is nothing compared to running around not once but multiple times with the AR15 overhead. One can start hallucinating after the first round at noon (what lunch?), from personal experience. Those SOBs make you run around and then give you 15 minutes for lunch. You're lucky to drink from that plastic mug as you will otherwise puke your lunch.

7. Parading around the parade square. This can be individual, a few or the entire platoon. I guess those enciks love parades so crossing them may result in extra drilling. Talking about songs, no one mentioned this vulgar one: "If I were a sergeant major's son, if I were to marry, I would marry a sergeant major's daugher more than any one. 'Cos she can drill and I can drill, we can drill together, in the middle of the night, drilling one another." Sing this a few times while encik's drilling you and you feel better. I had a nasty experience when it wasn't the CSM but the instructors who got the platoon to march around the parade square in underwear and backpack. This is at night and since the parade square is holy ground those corporals who must themselves be terrified by the CSM/RSM got us to march around the square. (I've seen some corporals punished by the RSM which is sweet.) Again, no one complaints. I bet nowadays with so many cameras and You Tube, this will be a great disaster for public relations for the SAF.

8. RP -- this is not regimental police but restriction of privileges. There were rumors that this is a popular punishment for officer cadets. Sure enough, I witnessed more of this in OCS than anywhere else. It involves reporting to the guard house every two hours if the accused is in camp and not training. First, the accused get a very short haircut which identify him as being on RP. The accused reports to the guardhouse smartly dressed (No. 4 uniform if this language still make sense in the modern SAF) and with a backpack with prescribed items. The MP/RP checks the backpack. Tough if something's missing. Then the MP/RP drills the accused double quick time for I believe 10 minutes. I managed to evade "capture" but had a few close calls. Later, when I was a lefty I saw private soldiers enduring RP. RP typically is 1 week. Poor bastards.

9. Guardhouse brig -- no officer gets thrown to jail but as an officer I saw many soldiers. Most of them get thrown in jail for doing stupid things, mainly AWOL. Being sympathetic, I asked the soldiers what their problem was. It break my heart to hear their stories and how they got into trouble. Some of them get suicidal and have to be restrained. There is no mercy, maybe no justice either. Summary execution by the PC and OC. Am I getting soft in my old age?

Frank said...

Part 2

6. Running round the parade square. Chun See mentioned the pepsi bottle. That is nothing compared to running around not once but multiple times with the AR15 overhead. One can start hallucinating after the first round at noon (what lunch?), from personal experience. Those SOBs make you run around and then give you 15 minutes for lunch. You're lucky to drink from that plastic mug as you will otherwise puke your lunch.

7. Parading around the parade square. This can be individual, a few or the entire platoon. I guess those enciks love parades so crossing them may result in extra drilling. Talking about songs, no one mentioned this vulgar one: "If I were a sergeant major's son, if I were to marry, I would marry a sergeant major's daugher more than any one. 'Cos she can drill and I can drill, we can drill together, in the middle of the night, drilling one another." Sing this a few times while encik's drilling you and you feel better. I had a nasty experience when it wasn't the CSM but the instructors who got the platoon to march around the parade square in underwear and backpack. This is at night and since the parade square is holy ground those corporals who must themselves be terrified by the CSM/RSM got us to march around the square. (I've seen some corporals punished by the RSM which is sweet.) Again, no one complaints. I bet nowadays with so many cameras and You Tube, this will be a great disaster for public relations for the SAF.

8. RP -- this is not regimental police but restriction of privileges. There were rumors that this is a popular punishment for officer cadets. Sure enough, I witnessed more of this in OCS than anywhere else. It involves reporting to the guard house every two hours if the accused is in camp and not training. First, the accused get a very short haircut which identify him as being on RP. The accused reports to the guardhouse smartly dressed (No. 4 uniform if this language still make sense in the modern SAF) and with a backpack with prescribed items. The MP/RP checks the backpack. Tough if something's missing. Then the MP/RP drills the accused double quick time for I believe 10 minutes. I managed to evade "capture" but had a few close calls. Later, when I was a lefty I saw private soldiers enduring RP. RP typically is 1 week. Poor bastards.

9. Guardhouse brig -- no officer gets thrown to jail but as an officer I saw many soldiers. Most of them get thrown in jail for doing stupid things, mainly AWOL. Being sympathetic, I asked the soldiers what their problem was. It break my heart to hear their stories and how they got into trouble. Some of them get suicidal and have to be restrained. There is no mercy, maybe no justice either. Summary execution by the PC and OC. Am I getting soft in my old age?

Frank said...

Part 3

10. Some "positive" punishments. Screwing up is part of life and part of the learning experience. If one is punished for screwing up, then there is a chance that initiative can be stifled. Hey, no punishment is going to stop me from being creative and full of initiative. Punishment for insubordination maybe something else. But punishment, say, for not shooting well, etc. just don't make sense. There is a disconnect right here. Are there positive punishments? I'm afraid I did not have much experience of such. I played games in my mind by thinking that running up and down Peng Kang Hill is a positive experience despite it being punishment. I got quite good at running up and down PK Hill and I believe I was able to go up and down in SBO 10 times in one shot, tripping over barbed wire, eroded soil, branches, roots, etc., with the rifle and water bottle bouncing until my sides got bruised and without killing myself. I also remembered a few times that I had to run to the boat shed and back as punishment. In hindsight, that was personally dangerous since I discovered I was asthmatic years after I ROD. One guy got heat stroke and became delirious. What if he died? The scene was something I still remember.

11. "Take" -- one way that junior officers get punished is take, i.e., do extra duties. Another way is "donation" to the officers' mess for some fund or another such as the annual dance. I was a "take king" according to my men since I had a little wild streak and got into incessant trouble. Most takes are a few days or at most 1 week long. My most memorable is 3 weeks long because the next week I was on standby so I cannot take. The 4-week stint made me like army food and became friends with the cooks who cooked me special meals so there is a positive outcome.

My approach as a PC is that you don't mess around with my men, even if you are the company or battalion commander. Worse if you are one of those asses (S1-S4) with no real command and anyone of those HQ officers (MTO, SigO, MO). Who care's what animals reside on their shoulders for rank. I know that I gained great respect from my men by being the fall guy. The incident that caused me to be a "take king" was platoon evaluation. I had an S? (won't say to protect the guilty) barking orders at my men through a bullhorn atop a landrover while we were all sweating our guts out. Big mistake as I asked him to mind his business. Big mistake since he complained to the CO when we got back to camp. I got the royal treatment after that -- double quick time march into the CO's office by the S1. CO tried to suppress his smile, while the S1 smiled with that "gotcha" look, and gave me 3 weeks of duty. The CO's clerk had to retype the battalion orders for the 3 weeks and he was smiling (damn private). My men were also smiling but we were well bonded from then on. I could bring them to hell and back, as many of the training ordeals revealed. We passed the evaluation as numero uno in the company, by the way. During my take, I was extra ngiao (but positive by my reckoning) and turned the camp upside down, checking every little thing. Those who have lots to hide had to answer for their stockpiles of stuff. Another story. After that, I guess they kicked me out and I went to HQ SCE where I served out my days in quiet seclusion.

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