Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Thoughts on the tragedy at NTU

I am indeed saddened to learn of the tragedy that occurred at the Nanyang Technological University yesterday, where a final year Electronics and Electrical Engineering student attacked his project supervisor before taking his own life. As the parent of an NTU student of a similar age, my heart goes out to the parents of 21-year old David Hartanto Widjaja for their great loss and anguish.

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!

Parents’ role

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.


Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating article Chun See.But I wonder if this Pulau Tekong camp is the same one that my late brother did his basic training in 1978. Is this the famous 'terror' camp? Family and friends kept calling it the 'terror' camp and it even terrified me hearing them talk about it.
I remember the journey was long to this camp when we all went to see my brother at his passing out parade.We were all so proud of him but I know he really suffered a lot and you described very well how the former camp system seems somewhat raw and cruel in comparison to NS today.
Coming back to this famous terror camp I recall it had a big swimming pool like the one in your picture.However I know Pulau means island but I'm sure this 'terror' camp wasn't on an island.Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Times have changed and I guess the SAF has also kept pace with the times. Even our roles as parents may need some adjustments in relating to our children though the core principle and values remain the same. An insightful post you have made. Cheerio.

Anonymous said...


The island is the same but the old camp in the 1970s was much further inland and not the current site that Chun See mentioned. The present jetty is not the same jetty as the old one which was at Salabin Village, to the left of the present jetty.

In fact it was a WW2 British Army Camp comprising Tekong 1 and Telong 2, 2 different camps that were a mix of both concrete and wooden buildings. There was even a water tower because fresh water had to be collected when the pressure was not sufficient to send piped water from mainland to Tekong. Old NS Medics who served on the island in the 1960s would be able to tell you more of hilarious experiences when "Book-Out" and "Long Week-end" were so important.

There were plenty of stories about ghostly appearances. One story I came across was a Malay cemetery which prevented SAF from training on Thursday evenings or when there was a full moon.

I believe today one of the original Tekong Camps is a heritage site used by the SAF. The Tekong Camps are behind the present parade square.

Lam Chun See said...

Jean. I did a few in-camp trainings in P. Tekong in the 80's. Most of my in-camps were done at the one nearer to the jetty. The bunks were wooden buildings painted grey or light blue colour. Going inland, it is on the right hand side of the road.

The second camp was smaller on further inland. It was on the left hand side of the main road. I only did one in-camp there.

The present Tekong Camp is totally new from the old ones. The older ones were further in-land and the from the (civilian) jetty you had to take a pirate taxi to get to it. The present one is very big. Actually two BMTCs and the jetty is part of the camp complex. You can actually see the camp from Changi beach.

Anonymous said...

Chuck :
Jean, the 'terror' camp you mentioned I believed is at Sembawang - ITD asa Infantry Training Depot. I was there as a recurit in 1978. During our time there, we envived other recurits posted to Nee Soon Camp or SBMT. The reason is that at Terror Camp, changes going to a service vocation is slim. While at SBMT, life is so much more easier...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chun See,Peter,Ordinary Guy and Chuck for enlightening me about the camp.Chuck hit it on the nail.It was at ITD that my late brother did his training.The key words ITD and Sembawang brought a flood of memories back.Chuck I even recall my brother telling us about a certain Sgt.Valentine or Valentino who made life miserable for the recruits.My mother made us laugh when she insisted with a name like that he couldn't possibly be that mean.Thanks everyone for another walk down memory lane.

Anonymous said...

You are welcome Jean.
I don't know about Sgt Valentine or Valentino. Maybe he is from another Company or intake. My Sgt at that time was Sgt Pow.(April 1978, Alpha Company} He look like a small innocent boy but during his last 2 weeks there we got hell from him.
One things I can assure you and your mother is that during our recurit time, all the NCOs, however nice and romantic their name are, they will make life miserable for all the recurits under their care. Maybe the nicer the name the treatments dishes out is more terok....

Admin said...

It's sad to hear of this tragedy. Hopefully, we can learn something from this to prevent another one.

Anonymous said...

Yes in my haste I forgot to mention about the NTU tragedy.So sorry for the family of the victim.We read horrible things like this reguliarly unfrotunately.Life is not so innocent anymore.A slight remark or stare can lance a physical attack these days.

Chuck I had a mail from my brother's good friend and fellow ITD recruit.Sgt.Valentine was not their Co.Sgt. but from another one.He just had a notorious reputation.
Its a strange surprise but my brother was in the batch just before you in Jan 1978 Alpha Co.There was a Sgt.Pow too and I'm told he was not chubby but slightly stocky,average height,wore thick glasses,a bit baby face and had a perculiar voice always shouting.Maybe the same one.

JJ said...

yes, during my "confinement" period of 3weeks at nee soon camp bmtc2 i did not feel any sadness until one night when i was on guard duty patrol, we stopped n took a break near the white house.

it was the edge of the camp near SLE and the entrance to executive golf course.

seeing the taxis and civilian cars zooming by, me n my buddy suddenly felt incredibly home sick...imagine, just weeks ago we were just some poly students hanging out at orchard...

when i had my sispec training at pasir laba (old safti) camp, my bunk was literally just beside the PIE, and i had a good view of the distant (new safti) safti tower and one power station chimney...every morning when i wake up n look out of the window...man..its difficult to describe the feeling of sadness...

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