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If we don't defend Singapore, who will?

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Technology may have made the SAF stronger, but the heart is still most essential

One of my earliest memories, of wanting to protect my family and myself from danger, was when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942.

I remember they barged into my home, taking all the canned food off our shelves. On both their wrists were watches, probably stolen from the households they raided before ours.

I asked: "Who were they? How could they just come in and take our stuff?"

I was just a 10-year-old boy.

When I was older, I worked in a bank as an office boy. I heard about the opportunity to enlist in the Singapore Volunteer Corps and went to sign up eagerly. But my application was rejected as I was underage. I applied again as soon as I was eligible.

While I cannot say exactly why I wanted to volunteer so badly, I believe my childhood experience might have been a major factor.

After joining as a volunteer in 1952, I worked my way up to become a corporal. They soon discovered I had a knack for instructing, so in 1954, 15 of us were selected as permanent staff instructors, trained by the British army.

I was eventually appointed regimental sergeant major of the Officer Cadet School, in charge of drills and weapons training.

Despite the many years of peace and prosperity that Singapore has enjoyed, we must never forget that what you cannot protect is not yours.

I served as an instructor for years and had the opportunity to watch my son Azlan, and more recently my grandson Afiq, serve the nation.

I have seen some things change over the years, but there are also some which will always remain the same.

One key difference is the role of technology in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Since my time as an infantry instructor, our weapons have become lighter and they shoot faster. This has made us more agile.

I started off with the bolt-action rifles, then the self-loading ones, and finally the M16 rifles.

Now, I hear they have upgraded to the SAR-21 rifles.

I am a little jealous because Afiq tells me that the SAR-21 is even equipped with a laser-aiming device for better accuracy.

Even the changes in the SAF uniform over the years bear testament to the important role that technology plays in upgrading the SAF's capabilities.

The pixelated uniform that Afiq wears is far lighter and more comfortable than the Temasek Green uniform I had.

Training methods have also improved. I remember when we were training under the Israeli Defence Force advisors before my posting to SAF Training Institute, we were told to dig trenches with our hands.


We tried to tell them this was impossible because the ground was hard rock. It was only after I showed them that even my cangkul (Malay for hoe) broke from digging that they conceded that their instruction was not very logical.

We have come a long way since. Our national servicemen today are highly educated, and lessons are now very detailed and structured.

Azlan and Afiq have told me of how their instructors explained what they were doing and why they were doing it.

This has helped them to better understand the rationale behind the training session and consequently, for the soldiers to train with stronger conviction.

As a former instructor myself, I cannot help but agree that those with a strong conviction are more committed to give of their best in training.

I have had my fair share of challenges, but never once did I feel that my sacrifices and hard work were not worth it.

My commitment to serve is still as fresh as it was when I signed up to be a volunteer. Azlan and Afiq feel the same way.

In our conversations after they enlisted for national service, they came to understand what an honour and great responsibility it was to put on the SAF uniform and defend Singapore.

I am confident that our servicemen and servicewomen feel the same.

Despite the many years of peace and prosperity that Singapore has enjoyed, we must never forget that what you cannot protect is not yours.

For this reason, NS is vital to our nation's survival and continued way of life.

Although technology has contributed to a strong NS system, our people and their sense of purpose are what matters most.

I think there was an important lesson for us to learn that day as we were digging the trenches.

Nobody likes to dig a trench, not even with a cangkul, especially under the hot sun, but we still do it anyway.

Why? Generation after generation, if we cannot overcome hardship, how can we think of doing the bigger things like defending our families and protecting this land we call home?

And if we don't protect Singapore, who will?

The writer spent 29 years in the army and was the Singapore Armed Forces Officer Cadet School's first Regimental Sergeant Major. Today is the 50th anniversary of the NS (Amendment) Bill.

Singapore Armed Forcesnational serviceTechnology