Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Commanders

My description of the punishments we received as recruits in my previous post might give you the impression that our commanders in those days were all unreasonable ‘mad dogs’. This of course is not true. In fact, the commanders that I trained under were mostly gentlemen worthy of our respect. So I would like to share a bit about what I can remember of them.

My First Platoon Commander

My first PC when I was drafted into SBMT (School of Basic Military Training) in Safti in 1971, was a Lieutenant Thing. On the first night after we had ‘checked in’, he came to check on how we were doing and introduced himself. He was dressed in all white PT kit and looked quite dashing. Those days, only officers were allowed to wear white PT kits. He told us that he too was a national serviceman and had graduated from Nantah before he was enlisted. He was with us for only a short while before he completed his NS.

I met him again about 10 years ago when I did some work for the Corrugated Box Manufacturers Association of Singapore. He had become a wealthy businessman running a string of carton box factories, the largest being the Far East Packaging Group, and one of the association’s management committee members.

My Second Platoon Commander

My next platoon commander was 2LT Neo Keng Kok. Unlike Thing Chiang Ching, he was a ‘tan-chia’ or regular soldier. Although he was not highly educated, he was a real professional and we had great respect for him. He was also very fit physically. Whenever we went for runs, he would shoulder the rifles of those of our platoon trainees who were having difficulty. Try to picture it – an officer shouldering 3 or 4 rifles running alongside his men. This was one feat I was not able to emulate when I became a platoon commander.

Platoon Photo. I am seated in front row extreme left. 2LT Neo is seated in the centre. On his left is our section commander – but I cannot recall name.

2LT Neo seemed to like me. I remember one interesting incident when our company was assigned to do ‘fatigue’ work along the ‘long and winding road’ leading to the ‘Boatshed’ on the western coast of Singapore. Earlier, there was a fatal accident involving a land rover at one of the sharp bends. So we were tasked to improve the road by building an embankment with sandbags. As we broke for lunch and rested by the side of a hill, I was punished by one of the corporals. I cannot remember what the offence was, but it was not over food or drinks as what my friend Ivan, the Rambling Librarian, may think. He asked me to run up one of the steep hills. 2LT Neo probably disapproved (看不过眼) of his bullying tactics, but he didn’t want to contravene his subordinate’s orders. So he said, “And Cpl So-and-so will race you up the hill and back.” So the Cpl who punished me ended up being punished himself, and that was one occasion when I actually enjoyed my punishment.

2LT Neo continued to be our PC when we progressed from BMT to Section Leaders Course. But towards the end of our course, he left us to join the newly set up Commando Training School which was located just behind our company lines. Occasionally, we saw him and his buddies being ‘tekaned’ by the tough commando trainers and found it quite amusing.

The last time I met him was when I was an officer cadet in Safti’s Officer Cadet School a few years later, after I completed my university education. He was holding a captain’s rank and was on DFO duty in the cookhouse. Looking every inch a professional soldier with his red beret, he loudly called out; “Recruit Lam Chun See; Platoon xx, Lima Coy”, when he spotted me. I felt quite honoured that he could remember me.


This photo was taken during route march. The place is somewhere behind the Nanyang University Campus. Me looking like a clown with the Troops Marching sign hung around my neck. I had to walk far in front of the rest of the company to stop the traffic.

Disper or you will disper by force

Regular officers in the early days of SAF were usually not highly educated. So we used to be quite amused by the way they mispronounced certain English words. One particularly funny line was “Disperse or you will be dispersed by force” which the officers loudly hailed when conducting what was called IS Operations training. IS stood for Internal Security, and we were being trained to disperse rioters. We had to put on our smartest No. 3 uniforms and metal studded boots with bayonets fixed to our rifles for this training. When the command was given, we had to yell “HA!” in unison.

Although it all appeared rather silly to us at that time, I appreciated it because I have experienced the calming effect of seeing such soldiers patrolling the streets outside the National Junior College in 1969. This was during the time of the May 69 racial riots in Malaysia. Apparently, some thugs in Singapore wanted to stir up racial trouble, and so the SAF soldiers were out in a display of force. It was quite comforting to see and hear them marching in their metal-studded boots.


In OCS, my section instructor was a young second lieutenant by the name of Bilveer Singh. I said young because, strangely, he was the youngest in our section. This was because most of us were university or polytechnic graduates who did NS after completing our tertiary education. Some were ‘disrupted’ cases like me. Others were regulars who had already several years of experience in the army.

He was given the above Chinese name when we went to Taiwan for training. He became friend to some of us after our OCS training. We told him stories of university life as he was headed for the University of Singapore after his NS.


This is a photo of our section. Our section instructor, 2LT Bilveer Singh is standing 3rd from left (he was a ‘modern Singh’ and hence didn’t wear a turban) with me to his left. He made us charge up a hill before taking this photo saying it would look more ‘realistic’ if we were all sweaty and tired looking. This photo was taken in the Safti training area somewhere between Safti and Nanyang University.

A**hole Chan

Coincidentally, my platoon commander in OCS was also a commando. We nicknamed him A**hole Chan not because he was a jerk, but because he liked to use that obscene word.

Lta Chan, didn’t believe in silly punishments like extra drills and stand-by-beds or petty regulations. His main emphasis was on fitness and combat training. There was one occasion when our platoon was punished by our company 2IC to do ‘extra drill’ at night. Half way through, he got fed up and made us practise battle formations instead. It felt really funny doing this type of training, which was usually carried out in the field, in our smart No. 3’s right there in the middle of Safti parade square.

On another occasion, we were returning to our barracks after demolition live firing training. Some of our ‘unlucky’ platoon mates were assigned stores duty, meaning they had to carry the stores back to company lines a few km away. Mind you this was at the end of a tiring day of training. Our platoon IC then ordered the rest of the platoon to fall in and ‘high-port’. That was one word we hated because it usually meant we had to get ready to run and not march. Those days, the standing order was that we had to ‘double’ (run) and not march from point to point. This was to train up our stamina and prepare us for Exercise Starlight in Taiwan, the culmination of our 9 months of officer cadet training. We were so happy when we finally approached the gates of Safti. But our hearts sank when instead of the command ‘kiri belo’ which meant turning left into the Safti compound, our PC ordered us to continue running. And so we plodded on waiting for the order to turn back which never came until we reached all the way to Tuas! Boy, if we had known this would happen, we would have gladly volunteered for stores duty. I reckon that on that occasion, he broke at least 2 safety regulations. Firstly, for any running that exceeded 5 km, we are not supposed to put on steel helmets but only the inner liner (made of fibre glass I think). Secondly, no running was allowed on the main roads.

Staff Rahman

In OCS, our platoon sergeant major was a staff sergeant called Encik Rahman. We all liked him very much as he was patient and gentle – a far cry from the SSG Royston that I knew from 1971. His favourite line was, “Don’t always say say but never do.” Staff Rahman was probably a body builder. One day we discovered how strong he was when he turned out to be the only one who was able to unfasten a stuck rifle muzzle after all of us had tried unsuccessfully.

The last time I met him was probably was about 15 years ago. I met him at the National University Hospital lobby where he was working as a security officer.

Educated Idiots

There were 3 companies in OCS; Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. My company, Charlie Company was the most fortunate. Practically all our commanders and instructors; our OC, CSM, platoon commanders, section instructors, right down to platoon sergeant majors, were very ‘nice guys’ compared to those in the other 2 companies. As such our friends in A and B, who seemed to be receiving punishment all the time, really envied us. The only exception was our company 2IC, a two-pip lieutenant by the name of Toh Peng Woo. He was the nastiest but also the most colourful. We all thought he was crazy and so we nicknamed him ‘toh peng’ which was Hokkien for upside-down. He especially disliked my platoon which consisted mostly of university and polytechnic graduates. He called us ‘educated idiots’.

I remember one occasion when we had defense camp on one of the hills. I was holding the appointment of platoon sergeant. At midnight, he came to inspect our trenches and he issued me this command; “Platoon sergeant. Fall in the men for a screwing session!” So there we were; twenty over ‘educated idiots’ with all sorts of degrees and diplomas after our names being ‘screwed’ by a crazy man with probably 3 O-levels on Hill 265 at 1 am at night. Next morning, this poor platoon sergeant kena another round of lashing by the toh peng commander. That was the first and only time in my life I experienced obscenities being hurled at me from a distance of only inches from my face. I tried to concentrate on my reflection in his sun glasses and ignore the showers of saliva.

The last time I met him was in the late 1980’s. I was a trainer in the National Productivity Board, and he was a trainee in one of our diploma courses. I think at that time, the SAF was fast replacing its older officers with scholars of all shapes and sizes. Too bad my specialty was Industrial Engineering and not Business Administration.

Ah …

Those were the days my friend,
We thought they’d never end ….…


Anonymous said...

This is an very interesting topic.

The impression I get is: Some superiors demand respect from subordinates, some demand total obedience, some go out of their way to make sure under various disguises to get the respect and obedience. A few won respect and obedience through their exemplary conduct.

Sir, I had the pleasure to work under those "characters".

Extrapolating this to the civil world, do we see a close correlation?

Victor said...

A very well written article. It's amazing that you remember so many names, faces and details.

Wah good chance to tekan Toh Peng back in NPB and you didn't? I admire your tolerance, Chun See. said...

Inspired by your posts, I would also like to write about my army days, but somehow I feel I might have to wait for another decade or so (even though it's been a decade since my BMT) ... like, some of these people I'm going to write about might still be in the service. Not so nice lah :)

Lam Chun See said...

Victor, looks like you too are guilty of speed-reading. In the last para. I said I was instructor in IE, but he enrolled for BizAd or some other prog.

Anyway, I was just kidding. I don't abuse my position and as a trainer in NPB, we don't have that kind of power anyway.

Interestingly, one of the privates in my platoon during my reservist days was a very nasty/fussy storeman from OCS. My 'revenge. took the form of ribbing him in front of the rest by saying, "This bugger used to be damn ngiao, and made our already miserable lives even more miserable by picking on every little fault when we returned our stores." Of course he had his chance to tell his side of the story.

fr said...

You must have kept a diary during those days. I can't remember much already, though I think there was also a Royston in our company, looks like the same one.

Anonymous said...

It is important to note this quotation: "We have to be kind to people when going uphill, because we may meet them while going down"

Chris Sim said...

Chun See, you sure have met "A Few Good Men" during your army days.

Like Ivan, I'm so inspired. Your post stirred up memories of my Army Daze too ;))

Lam Chun See said...

Oh dear, I hope I have not pioneered a new genre of blogging known as'commander-bashing'.

mister said...

nonetheless i find NS related entries to be... very entertaining an insightful to every individual's perspective of going through their national service.

even for mine

Anonymous said...

I did not join national service due to the age factor. However, during my earlier working life, some of my younger colleagues who were the first batch of NS men trained under Israeli instructors, related near-death experiences. Many said that they trained under live-bullets conditions while crawling under barb wires. Are they telling tall tales or not (?) I really don't know.

Anonymous said...

Your friends in NS (which batch?) were they from Infantry, Logistics or Armour?

Anonymous said...

Peter: Since it happened in the early sixties, long time ago, I can only remember that one of my colleaques, a Singh left us to join the Singapore Arm Forces. One day he came back to visit us relating his training under the Israeli officers, hence the story. He mentioned that he was a 'blue-eye' boy of the these foreign trainers and was subsequently promoted to Captain. Since these foreign military personnel came in with political sensitivity (especially in this region) at that time, this Singh colleaque of mine could not disclose much confidentiality. If you are to read reference books, it also does not reveal much on this topic - heavily classified to this day.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, you attended 4th SMC.
I was a recruit at SAFTI, then Section Leaders, then 8 SIR, senior term 4th SMC at Bravo Coy.
LTA Neo Keng Kok was one of my instructors, when I was holding the appt as platoon commander at Ex Starlight.
LTA Neo is a much respected professional officer. He was like a colleague to me.

Anonymous said...

LTA Neo, a US trained Ranger, was also a champion skydiver.
During one of visits to SG many years ago, I located his phone number, but his dad indicated that he was out. I always wanted to chat with him.
I found your blog via google "Commando Neo Keng Kok" and also located the "part" which MINDEF published what I submitted (from Toronto) to MINDEF for the publication commemorating 30 or 35 years of NS [my instructor at OCS, LTA Neo Keng Kok, a champion skydiver, treated me like a colleague, shared his food, water and refreshments with us].
LTA Neo was promoted to CPT and was OC Airborne School.
I may have met the LTA Chan you mentioned somewhere in your blog. There was another commando LTA, who was OC Delta Coy at 8 SIR.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks 'Colonel' for your inputs. Looks like we can learn a lesson or two about leadership and management even from bloging eh?

Do 'come back oftern' and share your stories with my readers.

Anonymous said...

Did you attend 4th SMC or 3rd SMC or 2nd SMC?

Lam Chun See said...

I was with 4th SMC.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, you may also recall that Koh Chee Hwa (graduate from SU, then attend 4th SMC, Alpha Coy, and a rugby player) received the Sword of Honour.
At Bravo Coy, I believe our OC was CPT Tan Hock Bee, Coy 2IC was a regular LTA (with orange name tag), and unless I look at OCS photos, I am unable to recall his name.
Who was the OC and 2IC at Charlie Coy?
If my memory does not fail me, LHY was at Charlie Coy, 3 SMC.
At OCS, my platoon instructor was a LTA Melvin Sim (from 19th or 20th batch OCS - last batch before 1 SMC in Dec 1974), Section Instructors: 2LT Chow Yee Shing (rugby player, St. Andrews, 3 SMC), 2LT Tracey Tay (St. Andrews, 3 SMC, that is same year at Pre-U as most of us, CPL, who went to Bravo Coy, but different school), 2LT Ng Kang Wei (a graduate or a scholar) and a "character." Our Platoon Warrant Officer was a NS SGT, unlike others who are regulars.

Lam Chun See said...

I am afraid I can't remember much about Bravo. except that their officers were damn ngiao. We always felt sorry for you Bravo guys. And every time we made our way to cook house, we had to pass by Bravo, and it was really scary. There was one very nasty 2nd Lt with a moustache by the name of Goh. We became colleagues for 13 years in the same reservist battalion.

And yes, I caught a glimpse of LHY on the first day when we moved in to take over C barracks. He was in civies and wearing blue jeans.

professor said...

To Colonel in Toronto:

The names you mentioned, some I am familiar

Koh Chee Wah was my school mate. Now MD of City Neon, a public listed company if I am correct. he was one of a lucky few who got deferred from NS (not sure why but some said he was PAP Pyramid Club member)

Chow Yee Shing was my trainee at SMC 1. In fact he was my rugby player for SAFTI when I was OIC. If I am correct he is with HP Singapore and was my customer then.

Tan Hock Bee was my OC of Hotel Coy when I took SMC 1 batch. Did you ever come across one Hitler-compatible or look alike called Tan Ngah Kok?

Anonymous said...

Greetings, Peter,
It appears that Easter and Christmas are switched around vis-a-vis temperature (minus 6C but with the wind chill feels like minus 15C, whereas Christmas 2006 was mild).
I remember Koh Chee Wah when I was several years his junior at RI Bras Basah Road. I believe he was fortunate to be deferred, and read Business Ad at SU. Govts work in mysterious was, more so the SG govt.
Talking about rugby players, Tham Kui Seng (my 1975 batch from RI) was SAF and President's Scholar.
I am trying to figure who you are? Rugby player at RI? 1971 batch? Do you know Boey Tak Hap? Toh See Kiat?
CPT Tan Hock Bee is a nice fellow, but the Coy 2IC and Tan Nga Kok.
As other officers called me "Colonel" during reservist, Chow Yee Shing and another rugby player (3 SMC) [I forgot his name] both of whom read Biz Ad started calling me "Colonel" on campus.

Anonymous said...

Greetings, Peter,
Recently, I was in Singapore, and bumped into Chow Yee Shing a.k.a. Colin Chow at the washroom of the Guild House at Suntec City. Apparently, he is now Director of Investments, Private Wealth Manager, Global Private Client, Merrill Lynch
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous

R u the same "Colonel"? Drop me an email. Do identify yourself instead of remaining anonymous. Send your email addr to Chun see please.

Apologies for long awaited response as I had not been reading this article much.

Tham Kui Seng - yes I heard about him, very much my junior, I think with CapitalLand, that's what I hear.

O I c Colin Chow has moved out of HP! Good for him.

Usually we use ppl as reference point, in your case it was Toh See Kiat ("Old Man" was his nickname) or Koh Chee Wa. Yah I know them. Yes i was in that rugby team winning the Triple Crown in 1971 and winning only the KIWI Cup in 1972.

BTW there's a SAINTS player from London now in town, I am spending time with him. He might like to meet Colin again.

Anonymous said...

oops posted my comment in the wrong entry haha... and my father (Neo Keng Kok) really appreciates that ppl remember him after so long. He still keeps that commemorative book they sent him with that comment about him inside.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Bel. What a pleasant surprise. How is you father? In good health I hope.

Did he see the photos in my blog? Can he remember me?

And what 'comment' are you referring to?

Anonymous said...

I posted an earlier comment in the wrong entry haha. And my father is fine, he likes to tell us about his army days... And he says he remember your face but not your name haha.

Lam Chun See said...

Bel. I meant this comment - "commemorative book they sent him with that comment about him inside."

Ask your dad not to waste his army stories. As one Spore's earliest commandoes, he must have lots of interesting stories; e.g. how they kill snakes and frogs for jungle survival training. Preserve them here at Good Morning Yesterday. If he is not good with PC - how about you be a good son (daughter?) and type it out for him and email to me. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bel,
I would like to get in touch with your father. During my last few visits to Singapore, I have phoned your father several times, but someone always answered the phone in Hokkien, that Neo Keng Kok is not in.
I did mention about Neo Keng Kok in the SAF Commemorative Book on 35 years of NS. I believe I said "My instructor at OCS, LTA Neo Keng Kok, a US trained ranger, commando and a champion skydiver, treated me like a colleague, shared his food, drink and refreshments with me."
Please contact me at
I (nickname Colonel) have live in Toronto for more than 27 years.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, I chanced upon this blog and I think the Toh Peng Woo you're talking about is none other than (Ret) Maj. James Toh Peng Woo from the then Special Investigation Branch (SIB). I don't think there was a better man for that job and I remembered the slight disdain I got from him when he saw my educational credentials. He said to the effect, "Your credentials are impressive, but you'll be more impressed with me."

Indeed, the following years spent with him was both educational and interesting to say the least. I bumped into him about 10 years ago, and he's chill now that he's no longer in the service. I suppose that's some sort of bravado / raw deal we get as recruits when in NS.

But this isn't about Toh Peng Woo, so I digress... Thanks for the walk down memory lane though!

adam said...

COL Tan Nga Kok was Assistant Chief of General Staff (Intelligence) back in 1994 when I just signed on in the Army. My immediate superior was MWO Chia Chew Chua, an SAF old-timer who joined in 1966 and had trained NS recruits in the early days.

colinchow said...

It s me ! Colin Chow YEE Shing, 3rd SMC n later went to take my 1st batch of OCS trainees in 4th SMC B!
Nice to near some of the old old news here ! Yes playing rugby for OCS n Safti was great fun n good break from trg!

Hope to see all of you again !!

Anonymous said...

I thought 4th SMC sword of honor was TAN SIEW ANN.

Anonymous said...

SSG Royston was WO2 & CSM Foxtrot in 7SMC. One night, during GSI inspection in '78,Maj Pennefather found a cracked toilet bowl, which pulled down the rating.
That night WO2 Royston returned to company lines after getting drunk at the SNCOs Mess & punished the entire company with extra drill close to 10pm.

When the School Duty Officer (newly promoted LTA Richard Chew) stepped in after 1 hour of punishment, WO2 Royston told him to F.O.

Royston was put on charge the next day, but given his length of service, kept his rank but was posted to 62SIR (reserve unit under 5SIB, 6Div) in Tanjong Gul (aka Siberia).

Interestingly, Royston was a CPL taking the early batches of NS men in Fort Canning. My sisters math tutor could still remember his foul language and behaviour some 10 years after ROD.

Every month, Royston would try to get an officer to sign the authorisation form for him to collect the 6 cans of duty free beer for all the men......most of them didn't get the beer....but willingly let the RSM have their allocation...RSM plans the duty rooster so you can speculate the motivation for the men.

Toh Peng Woo was instructor in OCS, always flaunting his red beret. Took us on Platoon Raid in Taiwan and kept poking cadets with the pointed end of the sisal hemp plant. Years later we heard hr failed his parachute recertification exam - but still insisted on wearing his red beret.

Strange how these people can connect us across multiple SMC

Anonymous said...

Just to correct my poor memory After his incident in SAFTI OCS, Royston was posted to 63SIR (not 62SIR)