Anyone who has been through National Service (NS) will testify that it’s a time when the deepest bonds are forged with the comrades in your company. Through the rigorous training, mental tests and hardship comes the resilience that builds up the spirit of togetherness and also camaraderie.
It is because of this spirit that the cohorts of the 4th Officer Cadet Training batch of the SAF Combat Engineers still meet together once a year to catch up with one another after their last ROD in 1973. This year, due to the COVID-19 measures, this group of ex-soldiers decided to still go ahead with the meetup but via a virtual dinner. Here, we caught up with them to find out more about their virtual dinner and what we can expect from a book project they’ve been working on.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us more about this virtual dinner you are organising? How did the idea come about?
We are the cohorts of the 4th Officer Cadet Training batch of the SAF Combat Engineers. Enlisted on 11th January 1971 and ROD (it was called Run-Out-Date in those days) on 10th July 1973. We traditionally meet every year on 4th October to coincide with 4th OCT. This year we planned to have our reunion dinner as usual but the restrictions on socialising due to the COVID-19 outbreak made that impossible. Hence we decided on a virtual event. There are several reasons why we do this: Firstly, that is what we do as Combat Engineers! – our motto is “Advance and Overcome” and we are not going to let an ‘obstacle’ like COVID-19 stop us from having our reunion. We have to “overcome”. Secondly, this is going to be our first digital reservists officers’ reunion. Hopefully, this would be the last virtual dinner, at least for the 4th OCT Engineers who are mostly 68-70 years old and still prefer the old-fashioned face-to-face meetings. And lastly, we have to “advance” and bring this batch of ‘dinosaurs’ to become ‘digital men’ .
This year, we had planned to do a soft launch of our Photo Book during our 4th October reunion. This idea of a commemorative book was mooted during the Circuit Breaker period of the COVID-19 outbreak sometime in May. We thought that this pandemic would, like the SARS outbreak, last only a few months and mistakenly assumed that we could meet in October for the soft launch.
Who was invited for the virtual dinner?
Everyone from the 4th OCT training batch was invited. We all come from very diverse backgrounds after our National Service stint. We came from all walks of life and we went on to different walks of life after our NS.
What topics were discussed during the virtual dinner?
Like all reunion dinners, we have no specific topic tabled for discussion. The reunion is basically for reconnecting and socialising purposes. We just want to catch up with one another and to recapture the bitter-sweet memories we had during our time serving full-time NS. The training then was tough but it also was a very memorable lifetime experience for the group that went through the “suffering” together; a sort of bonding of a band of brothers with strong common shared memories.
Tell us about the food you dined on during the virtual dinner.
The food was catered through a SAFRA restaurant. It was delivered to our respective homes about an hour before the start of the virtual dinner. We then connected for the virtual dinner through the Microsoft Teams App set up by one of our organising committee members.
Share with us more about this commemorative book that you are putting together to capture your stories during NS.
This Photo Book idea was mooted during the COVID-19 enforced Circuit Breaker. We had little to do due to social restrictions so the group shared memories with each other with photos posted in our WhatsApp chat group. The attached “Introduction” page (below) will give you a better idea raison d’etre of the book. It is aptly titled Bridge Over Troubled Water to tie up with the very popular pop song of our period by Simon and Garfunkle, which all of us in this group can identify with. The core specialty of the Combat Engineers is building bridges and we built them while being transformed from the troubled angst of our youths to the calming maturity of adulthood.
Our planned launch of the book is scheduled for 11th January 2021 in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of our enlistment as recruits on 11th January 1971. Hopefully the easing of the COVID-19 restrictions it will then be enough for us to be able to have an actual launch rather than a virtual launch. Coincidentally, PM Lee Hsien Loong was our fellow recruit who was enlisted with us on 11th January 1971 but he took an accelerated path in the army after BMT.
Can you share some of the highlights in the book and what are some of the best memories you’ve captured together?
It is a compilation of photos and write-up of some of the more memorable times we went through during the time together during our NS period. In general, it traces our journey from enlistment as recruits to section leaders’ training and officer cadet training. It will also have snippets of our Reservist Training, ending with personal photos of where we are now family-wise. Many of us now have sons who have likewise completed their NS obligations and some are proud grandfathers of grandsons who will be serving NS in the near future.
How did the group remain in touch for 50 years? Can you share what’s your bonding spirit? What are some of the memorable moments during the 50 years of NSman brotherhood?
The ability to keep in touch has much to do with the availability of modern telecommunications technology. We met a couple of times over the first 30 years after our ROD. It was not as convenient to communicate then and we depended on emails and SMSs as the main means of communication. It was the advent of WhatsApp that accelerated the volume of our contact time. This, coupled with the shared memories and experience of a very close-knit group of trainees, helped cement our strong bond. Most of us went through training from Basic Military Training to Section Leaders’ Training to Officer Cadet Training for as long as 20 months before we received our officer rank. The extended contact time helped mold us together to become more tight knit.
Tell us how NS and being Officers has shaped you and impacted your life throughout the years?
NS had helped us mature a lot faster and having gone through the very difficult training and psychological pressure toughened us considerably and made us more confident. We were the first batch of A-Level students that completed NS first before going for university studies. When we were freshmen at university the girls on second-year were actually our juniors during our Pre-U (now called JC) days. There wasn’t much ragging of this first batch who did NS first before university.
Our belief that “if we can make it through the crap we went through, we can make it through anything” mentality helps.