NSmen Share: Generational Military Struggles – Then VS Now

How often have you heard “Back in my day ah!” from veteran NSmen?

By Sean Yee        2 November 2023

No doubt our military curriculum and training has evolved over time, but have our struggles remained the same as those of veterans of the past? Does the younger enlistee really have it easier today than our previous generation of soldiers? 

Far too often has the euphemism “strawberry generation” been thrown around without any merit and it is  time that we discuss it. In this edition of NSmen Share, we bring together both veteran and young soldiers to ask about their personal military struggles and their insights on other generational challenges. 


“Thinking back to the days when Singapore was less of a metropolis and more of an urban kampung, military life was fondly straightforward. We worked hard and rested harder. 

It is sad, however, that the social divide back then was more overt than it is today. I was part of the “hokkien” tribe – a group that mostly consisted of students who went to a Chinese-medium or a vocational school. Those who could afford to continue their studies overseas (we didn’t have any local universities then) were noticeably well-spoken, and in my opinion, pompous. We had to do everything we could to give ourselves an edge, even after we phased into MR (military reserve). Thankfully, I and many of my friends have done very well in life.

While the current generation has ample opportunities to better themselves academically, it has saturated the playing field to the point that everyone is distinguished by their highest educational qualifications, even in the military. Everyone is homogenous, and they must do way more to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Cynicism seems to be an increasingly popular theme amongst youths.

– LT Yee Chong Wah, 68th Guards, NSF from 1982-1984

“My military experience is far from conventional, to say the least.

Back then, I was a regular in the Air Force who was undergoing the training needed to qualify as a Weapons System Officer. I was on a scholarship that would cover my studies at NUS and my professional pathway seemed so secure.

Until that fateful day when I failed the final test that would conclude my initiation and training. I had my scholarship revoked and was placed on administrative duty. It was bad enough that my dad had to utilise his CPF to pay off my school fees. The disappointment in myself that seeped in was almost unbearable.

Regardless, life had to go on. I paid my dad back and went headlong into the realm of finance. While technological advancements have made archaic administrative processes in the army obsolete, the problem youngsters face today is the barrage of available information. It can be especially overwhelming especially when the field is as competitive as it already is. 

My advice? You cannot control what life throws at you. Ironically, you can be your worst enemy at times. Stay strong younglings!

– 3SG Isaac Fang, Guards Section 84, NSF from 2000-2002

“I personally struggled the most with my obesity. It reached a tipping point during my Basic Military Training (BMT) when I couldn’t keep up with my platoon mates during our training. That was made worse by the incessant pain that I felt in my right knee (later discovered to be the result of an ACL or anterior cruciate ligament tear). It was rough.

But there was nothing else to do but suck it up. Really, it was mind over matter that allowed me to push through the arduous training.

Sure, things were tough, but we weren’t encumbered by the emotional problems that are so prevalent today for our youths. It may be the environment or the fact that they are more sheltered, but these are real issues nonetheless that should be addressed properly.”

– Lee Jian Ming, Changi Defence Squadron, Sea Soldier, NSF from 2006-2008

“Digging an entire shell scrape during our field camp is probably one of the most challenging trials I have ever encountered. We had to wear our helmets and Integrated Load Bearing Vests (iLBV) while digging, which made the entire experience more dreadful. It was also deceivingly easy, and it was only after you actually started digging that you realised how exhausting it was. I was drenched in sweat just after 15 minutes of digging. 

After 35 minutes, I realised that the foundations of my shell scrape were messed up. Anxious and tired, all I wanted to do was to give up.

But my comrades would come over to cheer us on. They would chant, roar, and exclaim, “Tough times don’t last!” repeatedly, like a spontaneous rallying cry.  And miraculously, everyone, including myself, managed to complete our shell-scrapes in time! 

Honestly, there was much I didn’t enjoy, such as the unique phenomenon of “rushing to wait, waiting to rush”. But after listening to the stories told by our Enciks and Uncles, perhaps we have it a bit easier. I heard that training back then was more hazardous and tougher. 

Thankfully, the food isn’t as bad as they described it to be in the past!”

– CPL Costant Tan, SAGE, NSF from 2016-2018

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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Main photo: SPH Media Trust