NSmen Share: Expectations vs Reality Of National Service

Clichéd as it is, perception is not always reality.

By Sean Yee        22 December 2023

Remember the moment when you received your Enlistment Notice – that feeling of dread, strangely mixed with excitement? It was a stark reminder that National Service is a tangible reality.

Days leading up to enlistment were a blur, a frenzy of information gathering from those who have served and forum browsing to unravel what exactly is the NS experience. Speculations about what this mysterious military life was about intensified. But how realistic and true were these perceptions held by pre-NSFs? 

We ask four NSmen to share their thoughts on what they initially expected the NS experience to be like, and whether those expectations aligned with their realities.  


Vincent Su (above left)

Back when I was just fresh out of Polytechnic, no one really shared much about NS life, unless you count the veterans who constantly reminded us how we have it so much easier. All I had to work with was my short stint at the National Police Cadet Corps.

Essentially, my preconceptions can be summarised into 4 points:

  • We must do exactly what we are told to do.
  • We cannot come and go as we please. 
  • There will be a lot of drills, exercise sessions and so much sweating. 
  • There will be lots and lots of punishments (aka code reds).

Years later, I’m happy to report that the contemporary military experience was far less exaggerated or daunting as I assumed it would be! When I was posted to 160 SQN, there was a good balance of work and play – we were diligent soldiers, but we weren’t afraid to unwind and let loose during our breaks. Not only was our mess hall furnished with a gym and a swimming pool, but it also had loads of beer and delicious goodies. Really, it was a pretty SAFRA-like experience to me. 

What I didn’t expect: I made many friends from all walks of life and among them were buddies who were on the journey to becoming New Citizens at Basic Military Training (BMT). It is so heartening to know that everyone in our little red dot wants to do their part. It was definitely interesting to hear them run through military commands in Malay (though they did their very best)!”

– 3SG Vincent Su, 160 SQN, Signals

Before I was called up, NS to me was this enigmatic coming-of-age ritual shrouded away at this faraway island of Pulau Tekong.

My parents hail from Malaysia, and I didn’t have an older brother. Sure, I had heard snippets about military life from peers, but rarely did I come across any first-hand recount that revealed anything that we didn’t already know. 

The actual day of enlistment hit me hard. It really was a cultural shock. Just imagine, upon being ushered onto this distant isle with a herd of students-turned-soldiers, you are immediately greeted with stern sergeants yelling at you to hurry up. 

I think the hardest part of it all was learning and embracing the unique hierarchy system. The nuanced dynamics between the ranks, the regimental adherence to the pecking order and the constant yelling – it could be overwhelming. 

In hindsight, I do think the hierarchy is necessary to get things moving. NS certainly can be challenging, but it can be equally as meaningful. I’m grateful for the many opportunities that were given to me during my service.”

– LTA Ernest Tan, Logistics (Maintenance)

“National Service and me are akin to two forlorn lovers who fell apart. 

Information about camp life was so obscure, so veiled that there was no good way for us to prepare ourselves for what was to come. The anxiety as a result of the uncertainty just exacerbated the heaviness that I felt on my first day. No orientation, no warning; immediately I’m tossed into a flurry of deafening yells, punishments and a stressful day-to-day schedule.  

The military back then wasn’t as considerate as it is today. Any signs of weakness were seen as an attempt to “Chao Keng” (A Hokkien colloquialism meaning feigning sickness or injury to skip training). I tried hard to assimilate myself into the experience, to process the changes in my daily way of life, to enjoy the military life but truth be told, that really wasn’t the case. 

Sure, I thought that the military experience would be disruptive, but never had I expected it to take such a toll on me. I’m so glad that the current batch of NSmen are more empathetic and supportive of those going through a rougher time and are aware of the resources available for those in need of help. To those struggling to adjust to their military obligations, stay strong and keep going!”

– CPL Thomas Yeo, 1PDF, Medic

“The days leading up to my Enlistment felt like an insurmountable barrier. 

Now, hear me out – I enjoyed my time in the military. But prior to my enlistment, I was incredibly skinny and frail. It didn’t help that I’m also a very picky eater. With a profile like mine, would you think military life was for me? 

Strangely, NS was a delightfully pleasant experience. Sure, there were the tribulations and obstacles that defined this rite of passage, but as they say – the strongest bonds are forged by the fiercest of flames. You see the best and worst in people during some of our most challenging moments, and thankfully, there were more good than bad!  

If I could do it all over again, I would hope that I would be less anxious about what’s to come and instead, focus more on the present.”

– CFC Akmal Rifqi, Medical Response Force, (CBRE) Combat Medic 


There are only two types of people in Singapore: Those who enjoyed National Service (NS), and those who didn’t – but all will agree it was a memorable time. In this series, we speak with NSmen who share their most memorable experiences during National Service.

Share your favourite NS memories with us at magnsman@sph.com.sg!

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