Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Remember Mandai Camp

I interrupt my series of articles on the Bukit Timah Heritage Trail to tell you about a place that occupies a special corner in my memories of the Singapore of a bygone era. The place was called 30SCE or Mandai Camp.

Exactly 30 years ago on 10th of October 1977, I was posted to the 30th Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers, as a rookie platoon commander where I served the remainder of my two-and-a-half years of full-time national service. Actually, there were 2 army camps side-by-side along Mandai Road at that time. One was 30SCE and the other 40SAR (Spore Armoured Regiment) …. maybe it was 41SAR, I don't remember exactly; but never mind. They were usually referred to as Mandai Camp I and Mandai Camp II. I cannot recall which was I and which was II.

Although our camp was usually referred to as 30SCE, there were actually other Engineer units within the complex; such as Heavy Plant Company and Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU). Today, this camp is occupied by the Police Tactical Training Camp. It’s hardly visible from the main road and the buildings are all blocked by trees. During my time, I could see the main road from my bunk. At night, the street lights shone into my bunk. This photo shows the entrance. How I wish, somebody can arrange for me to visit this place so that I can take another jog down memory lane.

As for the 40SAR camp, it is now occupied by the Civil Defence Training Village and used for rescue operations training. During my last few years of reservist training, I was posted to SCDF, and we went there a couple of times.

Here’s a sketch of my camp drawn from memory. I am pretty confident about what lay to the right of the main entrance, but am a bit hazy about what was to the left as I seldom went there. We had a small demolition range but you are not allowed to fire more than certain number of kg of TNT. But judging from the occasion rumble and shaking of the buildings, we know some people didn’t follow the standing orders. Beyond the pond, there was also a magazine (ammo dump). The pond was used for Bridging training and next to it was a huge warehouse for storing the bridging parts.

Unpleasant Welcome

I was posted to Platoon 6, Bravo Company, one of three engineer companies. My OC (company commander) was a regular officer by the name of Lta Ajmeer Singh. My fellow platoon commanders were 2LTs Loh Wing Thye, Chan Wing Kong and (I think Tan Chin Poh, who was acting 2IC for a time).

Our first encounter in this camp was an extremely unpleasant affair. Since three decades have past, I think it is alright to blog about it.

Altogether there were about a dozen of us new officers who have been posted to the camp. As a tradition, there was a welcome Happy Hour at the officer’s mess. I believe it was held on 11th October. The group of us new 2nd Lieutenants assembled in our best No. 3 uniforms in front of the officer’s mess and the first item of the evening was a ‘water baptism’. They had collected pail loads of dirty water (after mopping the floor no doubt) and poured onto us from a few storeys above.

After we had changed to dry clothes, the actual Happy Hour began. This comprised the usual dinner followed by drinks. The rookie officers were each served with a concoction of liquors which included the Chinese ‘mao tai’. This drink was dubbed the Mandai Rocket because just one glass was certain to send you ‘high’. As a precaution, each one of us had a pail hung around our necks so we would not throw up onto the floor.

Of course we got drunk pretty soon. I remember clowning around and displaying some of my boxing moves – yes for a time, I learnt boxing at OCS (officer cadet school). And then there was this nasty chap (I can remember his full name), the S2 or intelligence officer who gave me a punch in the face. What kind of officer and gentleman punches a fellow officer when he is drunk? I didn’t feel much pain because I was tipsy anyway, but I pretended to be knocked out so as to avoid further torture. (Although I am a teetotaler, I have a pretty high tolerance for liquor).

Actually, except for the punch, what happened up to this point was acceptable to me. But it was what happened after we got drunk that was truly despicable. But to protect the innocent, I cannot go into details. Anyway, to keep the story short, one of my friends was seriously injured and there was a Board of Inquiry. I remember going down to Mowbray Camp in Ulu Pandan to give my testimony. Shortly after, we got a new CO (battalion commander) by the name of Balwant Singh.

Standby and other duties
After that, my ten months that I spent in Mandai Camp was quite event-free. In fact I quite enjoyed it. It was the most care-free period of my life actually. No exams to worry about. Nobody to disturb you as long as you did your job. Plus 2nd lieutenants wielded considerable power in a small camp like ours. The company commanders were highly dependent on us to keep things running when they were not around (which was very often – shall not elaborate) and so treated us quite well.
Besides the usual training, which was relatively easy compared to the JOE (Junior Officers Engineers) Course that I had just gone through at Gillman, we just looked forward to weekend parties and of course our ROD (Run Out Date) and civilian life. Life of course was tough. Because of shortage of junior officers, we had lots of duties to perform as either battalion duty officers or standby platoon commanders. At one time, the SAF had only 2 operationally-ready field engineer companies (i.e. 6 platoons). And that meant that, every six weeks, my platoon had to do one week of standby.

We all hated doing DO duties. Those platoon commanders who were involved in BMT (Basic Military Training) were exempted because they had to conduct a lot of night training. As such we were really short-handed, and many weekends were ‘burnt’ for the rest of us. I remember one occasion when one of my men asked me; “Sir, you kenna take is it?” (‘take’ means to be punished with extra duties). No I replied. Why do you say that? “Oh, it’s because I always see you on duty!”
I hated doing ‘standby’ even more. You had to be in camp 24 hours a day for 7 full days. At any time, the DFO, Duty Field Officer can sound the siren and your platoon had to fall in and be ready to move out. As we did not have our own medical centre but had to share the one in the neighbouring 40SAR, every time the siren sounded, the poor ambulance driver and medic had to race over to our side.
I don’t know about the SAF nowadays, but during our time, the standby platoon had to do a lot of non-military duties because we had all the basic equipment and men ready and could be deployed at short notice.
Once, early on a Saturday morning, my CO himself called up and asked me to bring my platoon all the way to Marine Parade to help to clear the water from this flooded field which was being used for National Day Parade rehearsal. It had rained heavily the previous night. We dug holes to collect the water and then used our pumps to extract away the water. Because Marine Parade was so far from our camp, it was outside the range of our signal sets. That meant that every now and then, I had to look for a public phone to report back to our Ops Room. No handphones then.
Another time, we were assigned to Normanton Park to construct the stage for a performance by the SAF Music and Drama Company. I think they called it the SAF Road Show. It was a ‘mission’ fraught with danger because many SAF big guns lived in Normanton Park. Some of the naughty children came around and disturbed us, and I was so worried that my men would lose control and let go some F-language on them.

As platoon commander, I had my own office and runner. I often asked my runner to buy the char chai tau kueh from canteen for me when I got tired of the cookhouse breakfast. Very nice.

As for people-management, I was fortunate in that I stayed with the same platoon throughout. After my men completed their BMT, they joined my platoon where I took them through the Pioneer Class 1 and Pioneer Class 2 courses. After that they became full-fledged Engineer Sappers and then we became operational together as a platoon. This meant that they were much easier to manage discipline-wise; plus my NCOs and me had gotten use to each other.

I will end with an interesting incident that happened at the squash courts which were located next door at 40SAR. Squash was very popular in those days. I was in my PT kit and so strangers wouldn’t know my rank. Along came a full lieutenant. When he saw me, he politely greeted me Good Morning Sir. Please bear in mind, I was a disrupted case which meant that I was at least 4 years older than the usual 2nd-lietenants. After a while, he realized that he had mistaken me for someone else and he said; “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look very much like our chief of Armour, Colonel Raymond-something?” Yes, I replied. Years later, when I was doing my reservist training at the PDF HQ in Beach Road Camp, I finally had a chance to meet this colonel who looked like me. Of course that became a topic of conversation among the officers; but both of us agreed, there was little resemblance.
My Last Day in the Army

My last day was an uneventful and quiet one. Because I was a disrupted case, I was the only guy RODing on that day. I remember going over to the Medical Centre next door for a checkup. The M.O. took a look at me and said; “Hey! I think you are a bit flat-footed.” What the hell do you mean by “a bit flat-footed"? I thought to myself, mindful that the joker had the rank of Captain. You mean, I went through two-and-a-half years of Peng Kang Hill and what not when I could have been enjoying the company of pretty SAF clerks in Dempsey Road like my friend Victor? (I won’t let you get off so easy my friend!!!). No wonder, I have been getting backaches all these years.

I remember taking an SBS 171 to Bt Panjang terminus and changing to TIBS 181 to bring me back to my home in Farrer Road. It was late morning and very quiet. A strange mixture of feelings went through my mind as I sat in the TIBS 181 waiting for it to start. Happy of course to be finally back in civilian life, sad to leave a place that held many fond memories and fearful of what lay ahead as I was to begin a new career shortly as an Industrial Engineer in Philips.


Victor said...

My, you were quite a handsome young man 30 years ago. And no wonder you enjoyed your stint in Mandai Camp - your table was completely clear of all paper work. :)

Anonymous said...

Chun See
U sure u never "take cover" during DO Duty; e.g. sitting in a rover to tour the town?

Anonymous said...

Hi Lam, your article brought back a lot of memories. Thanks! I've featured your post at The Singapore Daily []. Keep blogging!

Lam Chun See said...

Sorry I forgot to blog about my last day in the army. So I just added a concluding section

Victor said...

What to do? Some people are just born to have a better life, hee.

You were a disrupted case? So there is a 2nd part to your story? Tell us the whole story leh, don't keep us in suspense.

Tom said...

Tom said...
My My Chun see, you look very relax you must have had a good runner, and by looking at the
photograph, how many girls did you
have runing after you at that time?
are you going to us?

Lam Chun See said...

Victor, this is already the 2nd part. The first part was before I went to U. I went thru Basic and Section Leaders. I was Corporal for 1 day!

Anonymous said...

There is always a mixed feeling when a person leaves a place which he is attached to for a period of time - fond memories, nasty experiences, freedom, relief, and a bit of apprehension of the future, all rolled into one. Sometime painful experiences may reappear in our dreams in various forms, and thankfully we tell ourselves that they are only dreams. They are all over and nothing to worry about.

Anonymous said...

Chun See, you could be one of the officers I saluted during my NS days. I used to go to quite a few camps in Mandai area for routine administration. I must admit as a private soldier, I am always on the look out o 'on' officers and senior NCOs in case they are in a mood to 'tekan' low ranking soldier like me.

Lam Chun See said...

Chuck. You needn't have worried about bumping into me. I have a near-perfect record all the way until the end of my reservist at aged 50. I have never charged anyone except for one beyond-my-control case in reservist, and over a very petty rule some more. As PC for 10 months in Mandai, I only punished my men once; extra drill one night for dirty bunks. I mean it was really dirty. And it was nothing compared to the kind of stuff I suffered at the hands of others at Safti.

Lam Chun See said...

Tom, I am still waiting for your real life action stories from Brunei and Falklands War. So many years have gone by already, I don't think the British govt will come after you for leaking military secrets.

Anonymous said...

Some Ex military men are sometime reluctant to talk about their past exploits (quite understandable) especially when it involved killings, though the servicemen may or may not be directly involved in them. It was a guilt factor even if it happened in war situation (kill or be killed). For example, my late boss (a Burmese) who was a young army officer fighting for the British against the invading Japanese forces in WWII. He once slipped his tongue while having a conversation with me: "Lam, I can tell you that some of these Japanese soldiers fighting in the Burmese jungle were really young and inexperienced. At night we found them smoking and you know what happened..." without elaborating further, meaning he took part finishing them off.

Anonymous said...

Chun See - a wonderful further light on your interesting life! We have no national service in the UK - it was abolished a few years before I got to call-up age (of which I was very glad as I felt with a father in the airforce that I had already served my time!). Of course some people had it easier than others. I recall hitch-hiking around France and the UK as a student with a French guy who spent his national service as a chef in Tahiti! Now how lucky is that?

Lam Chun See said...

Yes Brian. We know about your national service served here in Spore. You and your friend Malcolm were on Her Majesty's Secret Service right?.

Unknown said...

Interesting tale which brought back my own memories too. I find that your tale of 30 SCE is rather positive and heavenly, which is quite unusual as it had quite a different reputation when I was doing NS. I recalled that 30 SCE was one of the toughest combat engineer units, and many soldiers broke their backs there due to excessive...err...weight lifting.

I was from 35 SCE which was the amphibious or bridging engineer unit. Training was tough as all engineer units were bound to be, and I went through both the Bridging Pioneer courses 1 and 2 (which included field engineer sections like demolition, mine-field laying etc), a stint at school of transport for jeep driving and finally the recce course at School of Combat Engineers (SOCE). Being at 35 also means that we were wet very frequently as the training involved ferry operations across rivers, ponds (wet gap at Seletar camp) and even seas.

Unlike you, I was only a small ikan bilis during NS and had to salute many officers. The funny thing was that NS became more enjoyable during reservist rather than active days. Somehow, it provides a nice mental break from work and allows one to indulge in the camaraderie of "brothers in arms" without the accompanying politics that come in any working life. And that in itself is where the true value of NS comes in.

Lam Chun See said...

Walter. So you were from 35SCE. Maybe that's where you developed your interest in dragon boating.

Yes, indeed combat engineers training was very good for developing arm muscles. I saw my men change from scrawny to muscular within months. But sadly, they were not too good in running, compared to the infantry people. Sometimes, I took them for PT and made them run to Mandai Zoo, with only uniform and rifle, no sbo, and yet many had to struggle.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting account; you must have very good memory indeed. I guess you also keep a diary at those times.

That's a nice picture of you - relaxed, warm and pleasant.

Tom said...

Tom said...
Chun see, you said that you are all waiting for me to start my real
live action storys, I think ,I will
need afew Tiger Beers,and afew drams of strong scotch whisky to
start me of ?,haha I will see what I can do ?

Anonymous said...

Hi Lam,

Mandai has 40 SAR, 41 is at Stagmont Ring, 42 is Selarang Barracks.

You are correct to write it sa 40 SAR.



Lam Chun See said...

Thanks Alex for that bit of info. I have been to Selarang Barracks once when my section mate in OCS (a regular) was the QM. Went there to play squash one weekend. Those days, squash was very popular and very few other places besides the army camps had squash courts.

But I don't know about the camp at Stagmont Ring.

Khai said...

Hi sir, i came across your blog while googling about the history of mandai camp and i must say that ur post has triggered great interest in me and my fellow colleagues. Just a brief introduction about myself, I am a national serviceman currently with the Special Operations Command(SOC) and i have been assisting my regular officers for training at this particular camp which u mentioned , holds a special place in ur memory. I have been walking and exploring the vicinity of this camp along with some of my fellow nsmen and we are deeply interested to know more about the camp's golden years. Is there any other way whereby i can communicate with you other than through this comments section? Your reply is greatly appreciated.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Khai. I certainly would be happy to assist you in whatever way I can. In fact, I have recently re-connected with an old friend from Mandai Camp and he stayed even longer as he was a regular. I only have 1 request. Pls arrange for me to visit my old camp. It would truly be wonderful to see this place again after more than 30 years.

You can reach me via email at:

Anonymous said...

Wah! Opportunity to visit your old camp?!? I must admit I miss mine (35).

Lam Chun See said...

Unfortunately I have not heard from Khai since :(

Anonymous said...

Hi, stumbled onto your blog when I was searching for history on the combat engineers. For some background, I was a 2LT and then LTA at 30 SCE (Jurong Camp) from 2001 - 2003. Your retelling of your hazing story brought back some some of my own unpleasant hazing memories that we had to go through at our first week at 30 SCE. So unpleasant that I am certain 90% of the people who read about it will think I am embellishing the facts. It left a really sour taste in my mouth and I struggled to have respect for some of the more senior officers for the remainder of my time in the unit. The fact that the senior officers chose to turn a blind eye to what transpired really tainted my opinion of them. It was humiliating, dehumanizing, and downright wrong.