Recently, I visited the place where I spent a full 15 months or exactly one half of my active days in National Service. I am referring of course to the old SAFTI (Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute) in Pasir Laba Camp.
As some of you might know, I am one of the 'editors' of the National Heritage Board's meta-blog, yesterday.sg; but we prefer to call ourselves Friends of Yesterday, or Foyers. My fellow Foyer, Peter Chan, is also an 'old boy' of Safti (henceforth, whenever I say Safti, I am referring to the old Safti and not the new Safti Military Institute). He too went through his OCS (Officer Cadet School) training in Safti and later served as an instructor and staff officer at OCS HQ in the mid 1970's. When the two of us heard that our Yesterday.sg project chief at NHB, Walter Lim, was also on the committee overseeing the Army Museum project, we practically begged him use his influence to arrange for us to make a brief visit to the Pasir Laba Camp. And so this was how Peter and I got to visit a place I have not set foot into for 29 years. Although from time to time, I did go to the demolition range as well as the rifle ranges during my combat engineers and reservist days, I have not set foot into Pasir Laba Camp itself since May 1977.
And these two sentimental and thick-skinned 'lau pengs' (old soldiers) even had the gall to email a wish list of the 'must see' and ‘nice to have' places to our kind and helpful coordinator, Major Psalm Lew of the Army Museum Project Secretariat. Let me give you a brief report of the places we saw and the thoughts that when through my mind during this sentimental trip down memory lane.
|FOFO Hill, viewed from Peng Kang Hill|
Our first stop was FOFO Hill. For the uninitiated, Fofo stands for Fighting On Fortified Objective. As I surveyed the area, I was surprised how much details of our training came back to me. For example, I could clearly recognise the FUP area at the foot of Peng Kang Hill where the troops formed up waiting for the command to launch the attack on Fofo Hill. I also saw the 'gap' where we placed the Bungalore torpedoes for breaching wire obstacles and Dragon charge for breaching minefields. It was also here that we were taught how to cut barbed wires silently and to gauge the direction of the wind and toss our smoke grenades. I also recalled one nasty incident here. It happened during night training. I was firing away (blanks) in the zinc sheet lined trenches for some time before having to emerge and move to another location. So I placed my rifle on the edge of the trench and pressed down on the ground to lift myself out of the trench. Suddenly I felt a searing pain on my right palm. I had accidentally pressed on the barrel of my rifle which had become red hot from all that firing earlier. I got a nasty burn from that incident.
Peng Kang Hill
The most challenging part of our visit was to climb up the famous Peng Kang Hill. Every soldier who has passed through the gates of Safti knows this famous hill. Many a times, they would have been punished to run up this hill I am sure. As I struggled up the slippery slope, I couldn't help wondering how on earth we were able to charge up this hill in those days. Anyway, my efforts were rewarded by the view at the top – well, not exactly the peak, but high enough to catch a wonderful view of the surrounding hills, a landscape that is unique to that part of Singapore, and which many Singaporeans never had a chance to see. As I gazed at the surroundings, my thoughts went back to the time we had our Target Indication training. We actually carried the training aids and lecterns up this hill where our platoon commander would give his lecture under the hot sun. It is also hard to believe that I can recall the procedure for target indication which went something like this:
Section (or platoon), 200 (distance in metres), 2 o'clock (to indicate the direction), Tree (or some other prominent object), Right: 2 fingers (followed by a description of what the enemy was doing. We liked to coin some silly description like: "Enemy reading comics under the tree") … the rest I cannot remember.
I also found the area to be surprising peaceful and quiet. My mind’s image of this area was always filled with sounds of gunfire from the nearby rifle ranges echoing through the surrounding hills, and 3-tonners and land rovers speeding up and down Pasir Laba Road and troops marching or running or gathered in pockets attending lessons.
After Peng Kang Hill we proceeded to the Pasir Laba Camp proper. On the way we stopped to see the obstacle course and the magazine where the famous 'haunted' Tower 2 was located. We were informed that the place no longer functioned as an ammunition dump and the 3 towers had been removed. We also stopped outside the reservist camp site which seemed to hold some memories for Peter. As for me, most of my reservist stints were spent on Pulau Tekong and the old Sembawang Camp.
Pasir Laba Camp Itself
The moment we entered the camp, it struck me that this was no longer the same place that I knew from nearly 3 decades ago. Previously, there was a straight road that ran from the gate all the way to the other end of the camp near to where the swimming pool still stood and then swerved sharply to the right leading up to the three OCS blocks, ending at 'my block', Charlie company. On either side for the road were lots of open ground and fields. Huge signboards with names like SISL (School of Infantry Section Leaders) and SISW (School of Infantry Support Weapons) and low buildings used to line these fields. And invariably, you will see troops running in step and singing silly army songs that went something like this:
“Everywhere we go-oh. People want to know-oh. Who we are-aa. Where we come from.”
But now, all I saw was a concrete jungle comprising spanking new buildings with adjacent car parks and linked by clean new roads. The entire section that housed our beloved Safticana where we bought our sundries and snacks was gone. So were the lecture theatres which had huge banners with quotations like; “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. Fortunately, the three OCS blocks were still standing. They appeared to have been 'upgraded' and looked different from the ones in which I spent 9 grueling months as an officer cadet. Gone also was the huge field in front of the 3 blocks.
|During my time, this parade square was black in colour.|
Our final stop was the Safti Parade Square where I finally got to see the place where I spent my first night in the army. Other than the usual HDB-style upgrading, this place remained relatively unchanged. The cook house and drill hall have gone, and the colour of the parade square has changed to red, but the four company blocks have remained where they were before. It is hard to believe that I was standing at the place where I had spent countless hours marching under the hot sun, sometimes seeing my friends faint from standing too long in one place when we practiced elaborate drills like the ‘trooping of colours’. This was the very place where we were often punished with ‘extra drills’ at night and of course doing the ‘change parades’ which today's soldiers no longer get to enjoy. I could clearly see the spot where my recruit mate was punished till he threw up his lunch. And I could practically here the cheers that greeted me when I was punished to run around the parade square with my Pepsi bottle lifted high like an Olympic torch. (Full story here)
Finally, it was time to say goodbye and thank our hosts for their kind hospitality. As we drove down the short stretch of Pasir Laba Road in front of the camp, we caught a glimpse of that familiar perimeter fence along which we used to patrol when we were doing guard duty. I tried unsuccessfully to locate the nearby training shed from which we used to stare out at the Green Bus Service Number 175, envying the civilians for the freedom they enjoyed outside.
Even as we drove home and tried to retrace the old Upper Jurong Road, and ended up in Jurong Point instead, we realised that just like Jurong Road and most parts of Singapore, the old Safti at Pasir Laba camp has transformed beyond recognition for people of my generation. Only the hills, it appears, have not changed.
My feelings from this short jog down memory lane are best summed up by this classic Tang dynasty poem;
An Impromptu Verse on Returning Home by He Zhizhang
Left home when young, I return when old
Accent unchanged, my hair has thinned
Children I meet do not know me
"Traveler, where are you from?" they ask laughingly
Source: Tang Poems Revisited; translated by Lien Wen Sze and Foo Check Woo, EPB Publishers Pte Ltd