NS50 campaign launch: Pioneers recall early days of national service

Senior Warrant Officer (Ret.) Ong Hui Pheng (in white shirt) with one of the first national service recruits he trained, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Albel Singh. (PHOTO: Safhras Khan)

Communicating with his trainees was a major challenge that Senior Warrant Officer (Ret.) Ong Hui Pheng faced when he trained the first batch of national servicemen in 1967.

“Unlike today, most of them were Chinese educated and it was difficult for them as the commands were in Malay and instructions were in English,” said the 79-year-old Ong, who was one of the 98 pioneer officers who attended the launch of the NS50 campaign on Tuesday (7 February).

“Moreover they were mentally unprepared for NS as it was new,” he added.

50 years of NS marked

The event, held at the Basic Military Training Centre on Pulau Tekong, was attended by Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen.

“Indeed over the past 50 years, NS has become an institution through which Singaporean males define themselves in their formative years, a crucial period where close friends are made for life; where values and character are deeply forger; where they begin to understand why and how they protect those that they love and what they cherish on this island home,” he said in his speech.

Ng reiterated the need to maintain compulsory military service as Singapore “cannot depend on others to rescue it” if the nation’s sovereignty is threatened.

The event also saw the launch of an NS50 Recognition Package, which will see past and present national servicemen receive $100 vouchers.

Troubled times recalled

One of Ong’s first trainees in 1967 was Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Albel Singh.

Singh, who is 68 this year, was attached to the 3 Singapore Infantry Regiment and went on to sign up as a regular officer with the army. He said it was tough to be in the first batch as they were “going in blind and had no idea what NS was all about”.

However, Singh soon realised how important it was for the Republic to have its own conscripted army.

He recalled the racial riots that took place in 1969 and said that the presence of an army reassured Singaporeans that peace was maintained. Furthermore, NS allowed Singaporeans of all races to mingle and get to know each other.

“However, it’s unfair to compare the training then and today. We were the outdoor type and had trees to climb. It worked for us.

“It’s different now and we will have to adapt,” said Singh.

F&B manager Edward Lee, 59, was also present during the event, during which 100 enlistees were conscripted.

Lee, who held the rank of Second Warrant Officer during his NS days, was there to watch his son enlist.

“I tried to prepare him mentally. I know that physically it won’t be a problem and I am looking forward to seeing a different him in three weeks’ time,” he said.