And as the parent of a 19-year old NS man, I cannot help asking, what if this kind of incident had occurred in an army camp; and instead of a kitchen knife, the disturbed young man had a loaded SAR21 or worse - a grenade or a claymore?
I am comforted though, to learn that the SAF has come a long way in managing national service and today, our NS boys suffer less, and no longer go through the kind of nonsense that guys of my time had to put up with. From what I have seen so far from my own son’s enlistment, I can see some big improvements.
The physical environment
From my visit to the BMTC at Pulau Tekong, I can see that the physical environment has improved a lot. Although not exactly ‘like a hotel’ as some people have described, the camp facilities are really quite impressive. Among the things that I saw during the camp walkabout was a beautiful swimming pool, gymnasium and athletic track.
This photo was not taken at a country club or hotel by the sea
The bunks looked comfortable. (My wife was so impressed with the Simmons mattresses - or maybe it was King Koil) and the catered food is another well-known ‘improvement’, to put it lightly. In fact, they even have ice-cream on some days!
But I believe one big advantage was having the BMTC in Pulau Tekong so that it is far away from civilian life, and so there is less chance of the recruits being reminded of their loss of freedom. I remember one time, as a recruit, I was attending a ‘lecture’ in the training shed in Safti (Pasir Laba). Just across the fence I could see buses and civilians passing by on Upper Jurong Road. It really made me feel home-sick.
The ‘mental’ environment
What I am most happy about is that nowadays they have done away with many of the inhumane punishments like change parades; and hassles like pasting cupboards, and polishing boots and ironing uniforms. Not only will there be less mental stress on the boys, it will also give them more free time. I remember having my hair cut and then going back early to camp on Sunday nights so as to prepare for the next morning’s Muster Parade (where the nasty CSM wants to be able to see his reflection in your boots, or crazy CO’s like Col Jimmy Yap will actually check that the metal studs under your boots were not rusty or you will be put on charge).
With more free time, the boys could engage in more social activities like sports. For example, this week, being the last week before their passing out parade next week, my son is taking part in tug-of-war.
At the parents’ briefing session, we learned that they even have two trained counselors in the BMTC to provide professional help to troubled recruits.
Adjustment to military life
Yet another improvement I can see is in the system of easing the school leavers into military life. For example, those who were physically unfit are required to report 8 weeks early for a Physical Training Phase to build up their fitness slowly. And the use of the NAPFA standards ensures that the recruits will be able to cope with the training. I remember during my recruit days, I had a friend who was slightly obese. Whenever we went for physical training and runs, he would lag far behind and often got scolded by the unsympathetic NCOs. I will never forget the sight of him throwing up during one of our runs – and still being forced to continue.
Even the equipment is better these days. You must have heard about the New Balance track shoes that have replaced our black ‘kung fu’ PT shoes. They even issue the boys with the latest Gillette Fusion shaver with 5 blades!
Another advantage that the NS boys have nowadays is that their fathers have gone through NS and thus in better position to empathize with them; although I think we should refrain from boasting too much about how tough army life was in our time and thus make our sons feel inferior or pampered.
Still, with all the improvements, I think the SAF should learn a lesson from this tragedy at NTU and step up their vigilance. They should especially tighten their selection of personnel in sensitive vocations where the staff are in charge of live ammo; e.g. storemen and armskote men. And of course, they should keep a close tab on the psychological condition of these people.