Monday 21 December 2015

We remember: Being in the first batch of officer cadets

Young men drawn to tough regime
By Ho Ai Li, The Sunday Times, 20 Dec 2015

Ramachandran Menon gave up the pen for the sword when a chance to join the first batch of officer cadets arose in early 1966.

The Singapore Army Bill, which provided for the establishment and administration of the armed forces, had been passed months earlier in December 1965.

Retired Colonel Menon, then 25 and a teacher, was among the oldest of about 300 men selected to be the first batch of potential officer cadet trainees at the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI) at Pasir Laba, Jurong. Their ages ranged from 17 to 27.

Many of them would go on to train the first batch of national servicemen, after national service was introduced in 1967.

Mr Menon, a graduate, was teaching literature at the then Serangoon Garden Integrated Secondary Technical School but grew bored. He was drawn instead to outdoor life and soldiering.

Adding to the appeal were recruitment brochures featuring an officer with a red MG Midget sports car and another living in a government flat. "All the goodie, goodie things you can get in the armed forces," he said with a smile.

Like Mr Menon, now 75, retired Lieutenant-Colonel Chan Seck Sung, 71, was also drawn to a military career and left his job as a People's Association youth leader to join the armed forces. The training was tough, he recalled. "We had to wake up as early as 5am and training ended around 11pm."

While some dropped out, those who stayed on found it gratifying, said Mr Menon, who led a team to document the experiences of pioneer officer cadets in the book, One Of A Kind.

" was rough and tough. And that was actually attractive to young men," he said.

Previously, Singapore's armed forces were made up mainly of two regular infantry battalions and volunteer corps. They tended to be made up of the upper crust of society, said Mr Menon.

But the first batch of SAFTI trainees were from a wider mix of social backgrounds, including farming ones, and recruited for their competency, he said.

It was a kind of cultural assimilation with people from all walks of life thrown together.

"In some cases personal hygiene was non-existent," said Mr Menon, noting how some did not take showers or brush their teeth.

The first batch was probably the only group in Singapore history to have free run of uninhabited or sparsely inhabited parts of the island for training, noted The Pioneers Of SAFTI, a commemorative publication. They trained not only around Pasir Laba, but also in Bugis Street and Stamford Road. Amphibious raids were carried out from places like Pasir Ris to isles like Pulau Senang.

One exercise that spanned Changi to Pasir Laba was Exercise Red Beret, in which trainees were blindfolded, dropped into Changi or Tampines and assigned to find their way back on their own.

Some villagers mistook the men for Indonesian infiltrators. They called the police or chased after them with parangs.

The pioneer officer cadets also took part in the first National Day Parade in 1966, two months after starting training in June that year.

After basic and section leader training, about 140 went on to train as officers, and 117 eventually graduated from the programme.

Mr Chan, who was sent to the United States for Green Beret training, set up the Commando and Guards formation. After several command assignments, Mr Menon later became Singapore's defence attache in Washington and director of public affairs at the Ministry of Defence. Mr Chan retired in 1994 and Mr Menon in 1995.

The pioneering officer cadet trainees have "stuck together for 50 years" and are very close as they are still interested in soldiering. They became soldiers at a time when the SAF was being put together and new things were introduced constantly, reflected Mr Menon. "We had a good deal, a unique opportunity."

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