Once In Our Lives, Two Years Of Our Time

National service is considered as a rite of passage to adulthood for Singaporean men. Enlistment and the challenges that lie ahead may seem daunting, but knowing what to expect will help you to adapt to life as a full-time serviceman.


In Singapore, it is compulsory for all male citizens and permanent residents who are 16½ years of age and above to enlist for National Service (NS). Over the course of two years, you will be tested physically and mentally. However, you will also get to interact with people from different backgrounds and learn to be more independent.

Prior to enlistment, you will have to register for NS after receiving a notification letter from Central Manpower Base (CMPB). You will then undergo a medical examination and aptitude assessment test, that will determine the eventual nature of your NS.

Depending on your Physical Employment Status, you will either undergo a full term of Basic Military Training (BMT), a modified version, or no physical training at all. Whichever is the case, there are several ways to prepare yourself before reporting to your unit on enlistment day.

Getting ready
Firstly, work on improving your physical fitness! It is advisable to engage in exercises that will help you to ace the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT), an important component of NS. Hitting the gym will be helpful for sit-ups and chin-ups, while jogging and skipping will prepare you for the 2.4km run and standing broad jump respectively. Secondly, learn to be independent. If you have never swept the floor or washed your own clothes, now would be a good time to learn. Area cleaning of your bunk is a daily affair in NS, which means not knowing how to use a broom will definitely make you a target of ridicule.

Thirdly, spend as much time as you can with your friends, family and girlfriend(s) before enlistment. You will definitely see less of them during the initial months of your NS experience, so do what you can to strengthen your relationships with them. Lastly, speak to those who have gone through NS to get an idea of how it was like for them.

Being well-informed will prevent you from having a culture shock when you enlist, but also remember to keep an open mind.

Training to be soldiers
On the day of your enlistment, you will be allowed to report at your unit with your family members. They will witness your oath-taking ceremony before bidding you goodbye. You will then spend the rest of the day going for a haircut, collecting issued items and cleaning up your bunk. Activities that you will be exposed to in BMT include route marches, IPPT training, arms drill and the Standard Obstacle Course (SOC).

These may sound demanding to you now, but look at it this way: if generations of Singaporean men have gone through them, why can’t you?

In fact, some feel that NS is not as tough as it used to be. Other than the duration of service being reduced from 2½ to 2 years, servicemen today are arguably pampered as compared to their predecessors. Long queues to use public telephones are a thing of the past, as mobile phones (without cameras) are allowed in camps. Air-conditioned lecture theatres and well-equipped gyms are also common facilities in camps all over Singapore.

Nowadays, the food and accomodation are better, and there are guidelines in place to ensure the welfare of servicemen. For example, the maximum number of push-ups they can be ordered to do at one go is 20. Even the duffel bags that are issued to recruits come with wheels now! It’s pretty much like going for a chalet,” says Melvin Sim, 24, an infantry officer who completed his NS in 2004.

However, there are aspects of NS that remain unchanged. Whether you like it or not, you will have to interact with people from vastly different backgrounds. Some may possess similar educational qualifications as you, but others around your age may already be working to support families of their own. You may also find bunkmates who are more comfortable with speaking in dialects than English. Hokkien is particularly popular among those who have no qualms about swearing!

While diversity is inevitable in NS, teamwork is essential. Most activities require the cooperation of everyone to be smoothly carried out, which means that you have to work as a team player. Being self-centered will definitely work against you, as servicemen strongly believe in the mantra “one for all, all for one”. This applies to BMT and the combat or administrative vocations that you might be posted to subsequently.

You must also be mentally prepared to handle the high level of discipline in NS. Strict rules apply to areas such as dressing, punctuality and the handling of weapons. For example, not cleaning your rifle properly after use may lead to you booking out later than your peers.

Other penalties for failing to obey instructions range from push-ups to confi nement in the detention barracks! But as much as regimentation may seem stifling at first, you will get used to following orders as time goes by. A good rule of thumb is to never assume — always check what is expected of you, and make sure things are done properly the first time round.

From boys to men
Contrary to popular belief, there are benefits to be reaped from serving NS. Financially speaking, there is the monthly allowance that will increase as you progress in rank. Considering how most of your time will be spent in camp for two years, this can add up to a significant amount of savings for further education. NS is also an ideal time to expand your social network, due to the numerous people that you will meet in different camps. Some of them may end up as your future reservist companions, while others may prove to be useful contacts when you enter the workforce.

However, the best thing about NS is how it can exert a positive influence on your character. You will learn to appreciate things in life that you might have previously taken for granted, such as the comfort of your own room and the freedom to choose your own hairstyle. Being away from your parents (and maid) will also do wonders for your independence, as you have no choice but to make your own bed and fold your own clothes!

Playing an active role in defending your country will instill a sense of purpose in you, boosting your confidence and ability to shoulder responsibility. “NS inculcated certain values in me which are very important in the working world. For example, I learnt about the importance of meeting deadlines, and how to take ownership of tasks assigned to me,” says Narfirus, 25, a combat medic who completed his NS two years ago.

NS may be the most challenging phase of your life yet, but when approached positively, it can be a rewarding experience. You will learn lessons that can never be taught at school, establish a sense of camaraderie with peers who go through thick and thin with you, and ultimately emerge as a more self-disciplined and mature individual.

Oi recruit, don’t blur!
What? You don’t understand? Here are some terms you better get used to before you start wearing green fatigues:
Bobo Shooter: Someone who often misses his shooting target.
Chao Keng: Acting in a way to avoid being given additional responsibilities.
Chiong: To rush forward.
Garang: Used to describe someone courageous or zealous.
Horlan: Finding oneself in an unexpected location.
Kan Cheong Spider: Used to describe an uptight person.
Own Time Own Target: To do something at your own pace.
Siong: Used to describe something that is difficult to go through.

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