Friday, March 27, 2009

Some things never change (2)

Recently my son completed his BMT and brought back a lot of stuff from his camp while waiting for his next posting. I saw some interesting items among his things; including stuff that we would not be allowed to take home during our time; such as a personal helmet, SBO webbing and toggle rope.

Of course these items are quite different nowadays; and of better quality. The webbing for example is made of some kind of water-proof synthetic material which can be washed and dried. In our time, it was a kind of fabric-canvas which soaks up all your sweat ….. and that of everyone else who had used it previously. The only washing it gets is when we did our training in the rain!

As for the helmet, I was surprised to see that it was quite heavy. I have heard people say that nowadays the helmet is much lighter than ours. I don’t think so.

I noticed that he didn’t have a belt. He told me it was optional. I guess it is because nowadays, they don’t need to tuck in the shirt. In our time, we had to kiwi and brush our belt until it shines whenever we had drill period. Otherwise you will be punished when the CSM checks your turnout. And your belt must not be loose. He will grab it at your tummy level and tug and shake you to see if there is any slack. By the way, the belt was very handy for removing soft drinks bottle caps.

But I saw two items which looked exactly like ours - the mess tin and water bottle.

To the ‘lau pengs’, what comes to your mind when you see these two items?

For me, the mess tin brings back three memories.

1) Maggie Mee

The sight of the mess tin immediately brings back memories of times when we had to cook our instant noodles in the field. We were issued solid fuels which came in white packets.

2) Queuing for our food behind the 3-tonner

How can one forget the routine? First you wrap your mess tin with a plastic sheet to prevent it from getting dirty. Then you will queue up behind the ration truck where the cooks will sit at the edge of the 3-tonner and scoop the food from stainless steel containers (I cannot remember the name) into our mess tins. After that, we would look for a shady/comfortable spot to eat our meals.

Man … how I envied our commanders who not only were served on proper plates, but sat on wooden chairs and ate at GS tables in the shade of huge tents (again I cannot remember the name of the tent).

3) Stand by bed

One of the things the commanders liked to check was the cleanliness of our mess tins. I have heard friends say that any dirty mess tin would be flung out the window, but I have not actually witnessed this myself (neither did I do such things when the time came for me to check others). But I do remember using steel wool to polish our mess tins until they shone. Needless to say, nowadays the NS boys don’t need to do that.

As for the water bottle, ours had an alluminium cup as a base, and it was always a hassle to remove it from the water bottle pouch.

Sometimes after an exercise, we were too lazy to discard the leftover water, and then in our rush when the next exercise came along; which could be days later, we simply drank the stale water in the bottle. Yikes. Just think of all the bacteria! My wife would faint if she thinks our son does the same thing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The smelly flower with obscene name

If you had walked past the two rubbish bins in front of my house at night last week, you would not be able to savour the sweet fragrance of our Solandra Longiflora; even though they are blooming profusely. Instead you would be greeted by a pungent smell like that of rotting meat.

Don’t be alarmed. No crime had been committed. Neither had any animal been harmed. It’s just that this flower with an obscene name had just opened; and its stench was so strong that it had completely drowned out the fragrance of it’s neighbour.

Apparently the smell attracts insects which help to pollinate the plant

Do you know the name of this plant? Its common name is Corpse Flower or Elephant Yam. My Indian neighbour told me that it is a sort of yam which the Indians used for cooking. You can buy them in Serangoon Road. He told me the name in Malay, but unfortunately I have forgotten. But never mind. I am sure Chuck or YG is able to help out.

Below are more photos taken from a few months ago when the plant was still young.

Before I give you the answer, I should clarify that the big ‘flower’ is technically not a flower; but a leaf. Having little interest in Biology or Botany, I had quickly forgotten the explanation given by my son who planted this ‘beauty’ in the first place.

The name of the plant is Amorphophallus paenoiifolius. Amorphophallus is Greek for misshapen or deformed phallus (male organ).

Thursday, March 19, 2009


There is a Chinese idiom, 有缘千里能相会, 无缘对面不相识. Roughly translated, it says; “Fate brings together people who are far (1,000 miles) apart”. On the other hand, if not fated, you would not even know the person who lives across the street.

Well I don’t know whether or not it is fate that brought first John Harper and now Brian Mitchell and his lovely wife Tessa thousands of miles from wintry Cambridge to our sunny shores. (Actually not all sunny because we had quite a few rainy days this past week). Still I am thankful to be able to finally meet up with somebody I seem to have known for decades this week. And they also got to meet a few of our regular friends of GMY (Good Morning Yesterday), Victor, YG, Peter and Chuck. I think our visitors were happy to be able to see most of the places that they wanted to see, such as:

Brian’s houses in Toh Drive and Opera Estate, Brian’s school in Changi, Pulau Ubin, Cliff House in Bt Chermin and Johore Causeway. Unfortunately, Brian’s school is now part of the RSAF’s Changi Air Base and thus out of bounds.

I will leave it to Brian and Tessa to tell you about their trip to Singapore in their blog. I will just show a few photos here and keep my fingers crossed that another friend from UK, Tom Brown will make it to our shores soon.

Brian and Tessa with Cliff House in the background. Notice how dark the skies were. It was raining heavily and we almost decided to turn back. Miraculously the rain ceased long enough for us to take a few shots. On the way back, it started to pour again. At Benjamin Sheares Bridge, you couldn’t even see the sky scrapers of Shenton Way.

Brian and I at the Siglap Road entrance to Opera Estate. Brian recalls that the bus taking him home from school would speed down this slope. The surrounding was mostly empty land.

Brian and Peter taking a shot of the houses at Aida Road in Opera Estate.

Brian and Tessa sampling our local hawker fare at Sunset Way Food Court

I stopped my car at Woodlands Street 13 to let our English visitors see a flowering durian tree close-up. Unfortunately, in this trip they did not get a chance to try the durian. I guess they can do that in Malaysia. After all our durians are mostly imported from Malaysia where they’re much cheaper.

That Chinese idiom may not be 100% appropriate in describing my meetings with Brian Mitchell and John Harper. But it certainly applies to a chance meeting between Lynn Copping’s brother and their amah. Lynn, you may recall has written about her stay in Pulau Brani here. Recently, she emailed me to describe the amazing coincidence which enabled her and her brother to be reunited with their amah from more that 40 years ago. Here is their story in her own words.

“By the way, I was in Singapore in July 2007, to meet up with my old amah. My brother found her completely by chance.

He has been in Singapore about 18 times in the last three years, and in April 2007 he mentioned to the porter in the hotel that he had been brought up in Singapore, on Pulau Brani. 'So was I' said the porter. My brother asked him to look at some photos of old Pulau Brani that he had on his laptop, and when the porter saw one of my elder brother with our amah, he said 'that's my mother'. (He had first seen one of me, and thought to himself that he had seen a photo of that girl before, but didn't like to say anything - it was a copy of one that his mother had in her album). My brother went to see her the next day, and I flew out on my brother's next trip (in the July) to see him and to meet up with her. It was so exciting.”

PS - to read Brian and Tessa's posts click on the label Brian Mitchell on right side of this page

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Recollections of Braddell Rise School by Kim Aii Chan

1950 photo of Braddell Rise School nearing completion


This article is contributed by my primary school classmate Aii Chan. As some of you may know, I went to Braddell Rise School for 4 years from 1960 to 1963 and have blogged about this school previously. Aii Chan read my story and contacted me. Since then we have exchanged emails and managed to unearth many old memories of BRS.


Years: 1959 – 1964 (6 years)

Location of BRS was 2-3 bus-stops away from home (Thomson Road), so to save the 5 cents bus fare (for extra use in the school tuck-shop) quite often we (my sister & I) walked to/fro school.

School Principal was Mr Marriappan (I thought we had a temporary one in early years before his arrival, a certain Miss Guin or Miss Quin (Caucasian lady) ??

List of class teachers
Pr.1 Miss Koh (children with neat handwriting – received a sweet each) Pr.2 Mr Seto Mun Chap (he taught us sewing !! really unique)

Pr 3 Miss Josephine Gomez (v. lively teacher, brought her favourite students (me included) out a lot and even to her home near Farrer Park swimming pool)

Pr.4 Mr Chew Wai Choon (yes he taught us to sing Yellow bird with his guitar. We loved also his Art lessons becos we moved our desk into 4’s )

Pr. 5 Mr Chia Kah Hock, thin (not tall) soft-spoken

Pr.6 Mr Pang (drove a red sport car like a playboy, can be quite fierce esp. to the boys) Our Chinese teacher was Miss Ong and I think she stayed v. long because she also taught my nieces many years later.

School Tuckshop

On entering the first stall sold kueh kueh and otak in banana leaves, then came the old Hainanese lady who sold cakes/biscuits, tea and coffee, then the drink stall of Fong Jie who kindly gave us cold water foc, the mee pok lady (her niece called Lily was in our class for some years), the Indian Mee siam stall then the sweet stall (our favouriteJ)

Girls Toilet (2nd Block)

Facing the entrance door are table-tennis tables, we have to go early to “chop” the table for our group of friends to place. The toilet doors can be quite difficult to lock esp. for young children and I remember one girl called Elsie (who stayed across the school, at the corner of MacRichie Reservoir, she was in my sister’s class) got locked in the toilet for some time !! After this, we all got frightened and never went to toilet alone during recess time. Near to the girls toilet was the Indian Jaga’s home or storeroom (?).

Girls Toys

Some of the girls also played the kuti kuti but I think it was considered more for the boys, for us I remember that we sewed our own 5 stones (triangle cloth-made filled with red seeds from the angsana trees growing in the school ground) and we also played group skipping : 2 girls turning a long rope while a 1 or 2 girls jumped inside.

Memorable events

School sports days (since Miss Gomez came, our sport days included also Folk dancing. I was involved in this in Primary 3 we wore a standard white blouse but Miss Gomez made us red skirts from a type of fluffy paper) and I remember also some concert days which took placed in 2nd block with a piano esp. when Singapore merged with Malaysia in 1963 and there was a song which went like this:

Let’s get together, sing a happy song
Malaysia forever, ten million strong
Land of the free, marching as one
Ready to go in every way, so let’s get it done, get it done!

We’re all in the same boat, sailing as we go
we’re ready for merger, let’s open the door
To Malaysia forever, ever more.

Malaysia forever, ever more, united for Liberty,
Homes of the happy people Just you wait and see,
wait and see !

** You can hear this song on YouTube here.
I also remember singing at a school concert with Catherine and another girl (Lim Poh Lan ?): Isles of Capri (must have been either Primary 4 or Primary 5)
The BRS sports field was situated at the back of the school at the highest point. Today it would be the Assissi Home and the Marymount Road
Unpleasant memories
Early years, when the mobile Dentist van came and we queued up for the nurses to check our teeth. The primary 1 classes were situated in the first block where we could see the arrival, then fear set in our little heads!
During primary 2, Mr Seto picked me (with a few others) to be School Prefects. I ended up being assigned to make children pick up papers/other rubbish on the school ground during recess time. This was really difficult because being only at Primary 2 (also shorter than the other kids), so much younger - how could I get the other “bigger” ones to obey me? I tried always to get the lower primary ones to do that but they were not always around. Quite often I ended up picking the papers or rubbish myself!!

Of course this was only the first initial years, on getting older with each passing years, it was easier to get the others to obey J During Primary 5 or 6 years Catherine and I even helped the primary 1 or 2 teachers to look after their classes in their absence: it was great because we felt like teachers and the “little” kids respected and obeyed us too!


BRS brought to me more pleasant than unpleasant memories : A great school!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SAF (public) training areas – Where is Hill 265? (by Peter Chan)

Hill 265 was used as a site for Company and Platoon-level defense exercises for “active infantry units” or those attending OCS and SATO courses. For trainees after a hard day’s work of “grave digging”, they retreated to the bunkers to chat about our future after NS or to look to the Johore skies at night. Duck-walk and kissing a single tall tree that grew at one end of Hill 265 remained in the memories of the very unfortunate soldiers who were often punished for breaches of field training safety.

Photo 1: Impressions of the Mandai forest area taken 40 years ago. Hill 265 is at the top right corner and Lorong Asrama is at the bottom right corner. Tracts of cultivated vegetable plots are found north of Hill 255. South of Hill 251 are the ponds.

It was a big challenge to “rediscover” the origins of former SAF camps and training areas but I can tell you the immense satisfaction and surprises after finding one. To begin with, I had very little intelligence on Hill 265. Through the years, I was told the following;
a) Has a good view of the Sultan of Johore’s palace whose tower resembles very much like our St Andrew’s School tower,
b) Former SAF regulars pointed out that Hill 265 is still around and was in the Singapore Sports School” compound,
c) Another hill from the era of Hill 265 - Hamburger Hill - is still used by the SAF, and
d) Hill 265 was linked to Mandai Road through Lorong Asrama.
Photo 2: Left - A fire trench with a soldier armed with mounted AR15 on look-out duty. Right – Platoon marching in a single file formation on Lorong Asrama towards Hill 265. Platoon Commander and his runner are at the back of the single line formation. (circa 1974)

Photo 3: the Line of Sight from a hill in Mandai/Marsiling training area points to a tower called the Bangunan Sultan Ibrahim which is now blocked by Waterfront City (circa 1981). From a distance, we saw the top of the tower emitted a yellow glow at night. During WW2 General Yamashita stood in this building peering through his binoculars across the Straits of Johore into the Kranji area.

We had to summon all historical knowledge on what the SAF had previously trained us to be good mapping specialists and intelligence scouts. Frankly, what we did was rather primitive. Finally the big day arrived. Initially it was quite hard to accept that this was Hill 265 but in Singapore nothing really remains after 15 years since we are always renewing ourselves.

So where was Hill 265?
Our conclusion is that Hill 265 is now the open space between Woodgrove Avenue, Woodlands Avenue 2 and the 11km Seletar Expressway. The same water-pipeline from Tebrau Water Works, Johore into Singapore runs parallel to the BKE. The Woodlands South Flyover was built over farm houses and ponds. At Exit 11 of the SLE, to your left was Hill 251.

Photo 4: This we believe is what is left of Hill 265. Behind us is the SLE. Photo taken on 5 Mar 2009.
Chun See continues ……

I am afraid I do not have much recollections of this place called Hill 265 although the name is familiar. However, whenever I drive along the SLE past what I now know is Hill 265 - or what is left of it - and exit downwards towards Woodlands Ave 2 and see the flat land before me, I am reminded of a sight from my SISL days.

I believe the exercise was called Recce Patrol. We started after lunch from the old Bt Panjang Community Centre at Lorong Malai off Upper Bukit Timah Road and made our way northwards in section-size groups (8 men) towards Marsiling. Our mission was to spy on some location there and report back. I remember the long and arduous trek through difficult terrain. Finally we climbed a ridge and as we emerged on the other sight, we were met with the unforgettable sight of a huge valley below us and lots of vegetable farms and hills in the distance. I believe that ridge that we climbed that afternoon 38 years ago must have been Hill 265.
Another encounter with Hill 265 was a night training exercise during my OCS days which involved ‘withdrawal’. As often the case, I was appointed the ‘casualty’ and my section mate had to carry me using the fireman lift method. He ran along a ridge and to our right was a steep slope. My position was very comfortable, but I dared not complain, knowing how tired my friend was. All the while, I was keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t drop me down the slope.

Monday, March 09, 2009

SAF (public) training areas - Where is Hill 180?

Today, it is called Sispec (School of Infantry Specialists), but back in 1971 when I was first enlisted into national service, it was called SISL (School of Infantry Section Leaders). It was during my time in Lima Company, SISL that I did a few days of Defence Camp at a hill in Marsiling called Hill 180.

Over the years, much changes have taken place in Marsiling. A whole new Woodlands New Town, complete with MRT lines, have emerged and I had assumed that Hill 180 had long vanished from the face of this earth. Still I was very curious to find out where exactly Hill 180 used to be, and where would it be today.

With the help of my friend Peter Chan and one of my readers, Keith, we went on a ‘mission’ to find Hill 180 and Hill 265 last week. I am very happy to report that our ‘mission’ was a success. We believe that Hill 180, or at least part of it is still intact. We also found what was left of Hill 265. I will blog about the former and let Peter tell you about Hill 265.

We did not have much to go on. First, my memories from 38 years ago.

1) I saw two blocks of flats

I remember that as our 3-tonner approached the foot of Hill 180, there were two blocks of what looked like HDB flats on the right side the road. I saw some Malay women and children in front of these flats. A short distance after passing the flats, we reached the foot of the hill where we unloaded our defence stores – stuff like iron pickets, sandbags, wooden beams and changkols. We carried our stores up the hill along a gentle slope, continuing in the easterly direction from where the road ended.

The reason these two blocks of flats remained quite fresh in my memory is that in subsequent years, when I traveled along the present Marsiling Road, I often saw these two blocks of flats. But last week, when we went there, I did not expect to see them anymore. Hence I was happily surprised to see them still there in an open field, but fenced up. According to Peter, they belonged to KD Malaya, or Royal Malaysian Navy and were the housing quarters for staff of the Malaysian Navy camp which used to be located at Admiralty Road (near the present Riverside Road).

Today, these flats are called Marsiling Apartments; and they even have a website here.

2) I could see JB

The hill was divided into sectors. My platoon was in charge of one sector called Apple (or maybe Orange) Sector. One night I was on guard duty. In the dead of the night when most of the others were asleep, I sat in my shell-scrape and admired the beautiful sight of the Johor causeway as well as the neon lights of Johor Bahru. (I seem to recall seeing a grey tower-like structure which was part of the JB prison. Can anyone confirm?). Of course, it was also a time for reflection; and as you might expect, I felt lonely and homesick.

3) A newspaper article

Another vital piece of clue was this 1974 news clipping with Peter sent me. It was about a soldier who was killed by lightning on Hill 180. It mentioned that Hill 180 was off Marsiling Avenue. With the help of a map from YG’s 1970 street directory, we were thus able to work out the rough location of Hill 180. We suspected that it should be next to Woodlands St 13. Peter even singled out Block 118.

What we saw last week

As we traveled along Woodlands Street 13, I was so glad to see the Marsiling Apartments and thought to myself – could these be the same blocks that I saw in 1971?

It soon became apparent that they were. And then we saw this hill near the bend in the road. There was a track leading up the hill which I was so sure was the very same one that we took in 1971. Once we reached the top of the hill, the first thing I tried to confirm was, would we be able to see JB from here?

The answer was yes. Even though the view was blocked by some flats, JB and the causeway would definitely be visible had the flats not been there.

We were thus very sure that we had found Hill 180 or part of it at least. But two doubts lingered.

a) Peter remarked that the hill was too low to be Hill 180.

b) I recall clearly that the 2 blocks of flats were to my right hand side in 1971 when we approached the hill; and they were quite near to the road.


Hence, our final conclusion is that Hill 180 was located in what is today the Woodlands Town Park East. In 1971, there was another road parallel to Woodlands Street 13 which was north of the Marsiling Apartments. Maybe it was today’s Marsiling Road. The actual Hill 180 would be slightly to the north of and probably joined to this hill that we climbed on 5th of March 2009.

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.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The buah su su (passion fruit)

YG has recently blogged about the passion fruit or buah su su, in Malay. Since he has already given you much information about this fruit, I will simply complement what he has written with some photos from our garden. It so happens that we have a buah su su growing in our garden; and right this moment there are 5 fruits on the vines.

The first 3 photos are of the fruits on the vines. As YG mentioned, the buah su su is a climber. In our house, we have constructed a wooden frame for my son’s pitcher plants and it was also ideal for the buah su su.

You will notice that the fruits are greenish purple in colour. Those that you buy in the market are usually light brown or orange in colour. They look rather artificial don’t they? As a matter of fact, we actually had an elderly couple ring our door bell one morning to enquire if our buah su su were real or plastic! They happened to pass by our house during their morning exercise.

There next 2 photos are of the leaves and flower. Actually I find the flowers very beautiful.

This last photo is of a buah su su that we bought from the market for comparison.