On my 3rd day in OCS I found myself on the top of SAFTI tower, looking over the western expanse of the Singaporean cityscape where the factories and buildings and people bustled noiselessly across the land, casting long shadows against the setting sun. The 4 pillars of the nation, or so they called it – the industries, our education, the people. The military. We were heaving there, in the silence of the gentle breeze and unnatural stillness of it all, the effort of climbing taking its toll. 256 stairs: each one to represent a day to be shared and enjoyed, else endured.
As we descended, the orange haze of the horizon lingered for a few hours more.
OCS is the single longest course in the SAF. For many in BMT, it’s their singular aim: to be nominated is a privilege, an honor. The motivations for undergoing the course are numerous, ranging from the selfish and narcissistic, to the more altruistic/respectable. Whatever the reason, typically only those with a strong drive make it through to the other side. Some of my toughest days and nights have been lived here: the familiar cold hand clutching my chest in the pre-outfield book ins, the sweltering nights anticipating a turnout, the endless marches that led us round empty parade squares.
And yes, there are people that Out-of-Course (OOC). More than you’d think in fact. Something as simple as a shoulder dislocation could put you out of the running for the much coveted chocolate bar – I’ve seen it happen to people with just under a month left to commissioning. Equally perilous are “integrity issues”. Lie once to the right (wrong) people at the right (wrong) time and you’re finished.
Now don’t let all these caveats put you off. It’s also immensely rewarding: when taken as a whole, my days as a trainee have been positive and ultimately fulfilling.
You learn, not just about the world without but also within. How to lead, how you react under stress, how to handle people, it’s all part of the journey.
As for the actual structure of the course, there are 4 major segments. The content and length of each of these varies with the branch of service/vocation but for simplicity’s sake this is my journey from a scrubby recruit to a Signal Officer.
1. Combined Leadership Module (CLM)
We were greeted into OCS with the prospect of 2 weeks of confinement. Fresh faces out of BMT, we thought our dog days were behind us and that the respect which had been withheld so long was finally upon us. There were talks, admin and “in-pro”. More memorable were the rituals and ceremony, those sacred cows that remain central to the narrative of officership. Under the slight drizzle of the morning rain, our first rank was presented to us: a single stripe of pure white against drab pixelated green. We were introduced to the luxurious two-man-SAFTI-bunk (it’s as good as they say, except you don’t use it much). Then it was off to (many) more talks, route march build-ups, and at the end of it all, a time of reflection. All this, interspersed with the occasional turn-out. It varies from wing to wing (and year to year) but I happened to land in what was to be the most xiong wing of my batch.
Twice it happened, both when we least expected it. An almost deadpan “5 minutes FBO. Now.”, at once both urgent and deeply threatening. A split second of denial, then the wailing of sirens and panicked shouts amongst the resulting chaos. At some point we were conducting force prep in push-up position, using one hand to lift up our items while the other trembled against the unforgiving tarmac. Not soon after, we were camo-ing on each others faces in that same position. Then crawling across the parade square to refill our canteens. Woe to you if you found yourself as the platoon IC; it was one of the longest two weeks of my life.
But even amongst the endless machinations of our instructors, there was much respect and mutual understanding. Often after these tekan sessions were over, we would be gathered in in a great circle round our platoon commander who would piece together what was left of our motivation from camo stained gravel, and tell us that we – pressing a pointed finger into the air for emphasis – were chosen for a reason: to protect the ones that we loved, and the ones that other loved. Whether we held the same beliefs or not were besides the point; you could see the fire that drove these men of stature, and knew we’d have to find our own to push us through.
On the last night of the term, we were slumped with our backs against field packs, watching the blooming sun ushering a new day, a new phase of our NS. We’d receive our family here at SAFTI after two long weeks, but now with two luminous stripes seated proudly on our chests.
2. Service Term
Now we were out of the cradle and going headlong into our first real baptisms of fire. Gone were the designations of “platoon IC”, instead came the much more nuanced “cadet governance system” along with the many confusing acronyms and weird ranks that it brought. Most important are the so called “big 3”: the Cadet Wing Commander (CWC), Cadet Wing Sergeant Major (CWSM) and Cadet Wing Two IC (CW2). Collectively these three cadets run the wing (although still very much subordinate to the instructors), planning duties and enforcing discipline/regimentation. Apart from them are also a slew of other appointments ranging from welfare to PT. Through these roles we were to be tested and evaluated; we had a chance to prove ourselves worthy or otherwise.
The first few weeks consisted of physical and combat fitness training: fast marches, endurance runs and the sort, as well as technical handling lessons for the varied assortment of weapons at the SAFs disposal. I hardly had any problems with these things in BMT other than my IPPT (personally, I blame the ELIS System) but here everything was raised to a different level. We were the strongest and brightest that BMT had to offer, and among these overachievers I found myself struggling much more than I was comfortable with. Gone were the days of watching my peers groaning and squirming on the ground while I remained unfazed, here we suffered together with hardly any footing above anyone else.
Another new development were the length and intensity of our outfields. We’d barely just set out on our first one in Lorong Asrama when we found ourselves hastily expelled from our tonner to the sound of thunderflashes, running off in the heat of the midday sun with an FBO and a stretcher on our backs. Soon after, we had 8 days of firefight evaluation in Tekong, then 4 days of digging and 3 sleepless nights of constant turnouts along jagged slopes. In the nights before these outfields, we’d march into the gates of SAFTI together and one glance was all it took to convey our dread to each other. Worst book in feels ever.
The term had its share of fun though. We get the chance to practice our urban operations in abandoned HDBs, fire MATADORS, grenade launchers and machine guns. By the end we’d earned ourselves some long overdue welfare: nights off, order in and long admin times. It’s the simple things that really get to you after being a cadet for so long.
Before we knew it, we were standing on sacred grounds of SAFTI parade square after a painful 24km march, watching yet another rising sun, waiting our turn to set out on the longest leg of our journey.
3. Professional Term
We arrived at Stagmont Camp in the stillness of night. Once again I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces, new people to acquaint to, new spaces to navigate. We stood in our common area where the walls were adorned with the murals of past batches, telling tales of their exploits and a thousand other inside references. In time we would leave our mark here too.
The first order of business was to send us off to the jungles of Brunei for our JOT or Jungle Orientation Training along with all the other support arms: this meant a gradual buildup of stair climbing and route marches to prep us for the journey. The actual ordeal involved 3 days of unguided navigation that led us up 70 degree ravines, endless ridgelines and river crossings in crocodile infested waters (the last one was heavily supervised). By night we set up camp on the lonely clearings in the vegetation and kindled our fires to cook. We shared our stories and sang songs under a pitch black canvas that shrouded the sounds of the forest with a hypnotic sense of wonder.
Unfortunately JOT will not be conducted for batches after 109/17.
Here’s where the stories will begin to really deviate. The Signals Formation is highly specialised, much like its other support arms counterparts so for the first month or so we had a (relatively) peaceful time of lesson after lesson of signal syllabus with plenty of time for “self directed learning” (napping). But when the outfields started they marched on at a relentless pace. We didn’t run through the jungle with guns blazing anymore but instead we sat in tentages with projectors and laptops and GDCs for map planning exercises with hardly any sleep over 4 days. Yes I actually brought and used my GDC outfield. By day we did calculations, slides and presentations; when darkness arose we headed out for the missions we’d just planned, with high kneeling, marching and firefighting to fill the night. By dawn we’d be back, only to repeat the process all over again.
Most memorable was the one month period we headed overseas (location classified) for back to back missions. This was our summex, where we would apply everything we’d learnt over the 4 months prior. These were lonely weeks where we only had each other – our phones were taken away from us – and the uncertainty hung over our heads like a guillotine. We had no idea how many missions we would be doing, but we knew that at the end there would be yet another turnout, followed by an arduous 40-50km march/navex. We trudged along the rural countryside, past the rolling fields of grain and rickety shacks, we collapsed along temples and highways to catch a breather. Sometimes a stray dog or two would tag along, resting while we rested and getting up once we were ready. As the night turned to day then to night again we would bid them farewell as they continued along their merry way.
We came home to the acute realisation that the seemingly insurmountable mountain of OCS was all but behind us. In those last days in stagmont there was much laughter both among and between our instructors and us as we let the days slip by in anticipation of our final steps towards officership.
4. Joint Term
We came back together: all the formations and service branches. I did the math: our 500 strong cohort had been whittled down to something approaching the high 300s. Nevertheless, at long last we were all together, going through the long parade rehearsals in the sun, running around the scorching square with the thunderous “clackclack” of our drill boots filling the air after someone inadvertently held their rifle the wrong way. Still, the mood was electric. There was drinking, pizzas and reunions long withheld, and together we weathered the highs and lows with the same rugged determination that had held us together till then.
At once we were back on the parade square, but unlike the previous 10 times, this one wasn’t a rehearsal. We waited there outside warriors hall with a tense silence as beads of rain began to moisten the ground – then a magnificent cheer arose as the westward winds prevailed against the darkened skies. Soon the band let out their thunderous first number as they marched proudly from the steps beneath, and we quickly followed suit. We made our way, step by perfectly synchronised step, to the middle of the square with the roaring applause of proud parents and friends behind us. There we stood as the parade progressed, while the dying sun faded from itsorange grandeur to a majestic deep lapis blue. The taking of a solemn oath, and then…
“Ladies and Gentlemen…”
The emcee raised his voice to address the crowd for the last time and a wave of disbelief, wonder and joy suddenly coalesced into a single moment of tremendous clarity. We’d come full circle. A cap in hand, and behind me, the enormity of 9 months of hard training. Before me: the people I held most dear.
We’d made it.
“Now this is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”
Of course there’s more to the journey of officership that I couldn’t quite fit here, and commissioning is really just what it is: a milestone. The actual life of an officer in unit can come as a culture shock for some, and a challenge for all; during meetups many of my fellow course mates (even the regulars) often express at least some form of dismay at the state of the force. Working and finding your place in a large organisation is never easy, especially one with so many levels of hierarchy. But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from my days as a cadet (and in AC), it’s this: good things are worth fighting for. So I’ll keep pushing, keep working for the things I believe in. I urge you to do the same.
Joel Ong graduated with the class of 2016, and enlisted on 6th January, 2017. During his service, he was awarded Platoon Best Recruit, and the Sword of Merit (Signals). He is currently serving as a platoon commander in 16C4I. During his free time he enjoys drawing and pretending that he can sing. He also has a basic understanding of What AC Means.