Uniquely Singaporean


Beckman not Beckham: 2LT Beckman was commissioned as a naval officer in July.

Beckman not Beckham: 2LT Beckman was commissioned as a naval officer in July.

What makes Singaporeans, well, Singaporean? As we celebrate our 40th birthday, cyberpioneer meets three unique Singaporeans, each coming from diverse backgrounds and at different stages of their lives, but all bonded by the common experience of National Service (NS).

Youth with a sea of possibilities: 2LT Jeremy Beckman, naval officer


At an age when most of his peers want to fit in or be part of a group, 2LT Jeremy Beckman, 20, is very comfortable being 'different'.

Born in Singapore to an American father and a Singaporean mother, 2LT Beckman certainly looks different with his Pan-Asian appearance; and he sounds different, with a low, American-ish drawl.

He says growing up in Singapore was like being "in a bubble within a bubble", as he was not really too exposed to the typical Singaporean way of life of flats and local schools. And while he celebrates Chinese New Year, his family also commemorates Thanksgiving.

For six years, he attended an international school where he had classmates from all over the world - Koreans, Africans, and New Zealanders. His school's curriculum also devoted more time to activities like sports, drama classes and even helping out in hospitals.

Thus, there was an initial adjustment period when he enlisted for NS.

He explains: "Before, in school, I was used to everyone being different, but in NS, I discovered most people are from similar backgrounds. I was the different one!"

2LT Beckman lets on that over the year or so during his NS, whenever he meets a new group of people, they are usually curious about the same things.

"They ask me what I am doing here (in NS), or why I am doing NS. And they think my name is Beckham!" he says with a slight shrug.

He adds matter-of-factly: "It's just something I go through."

Looking ahead, 2LT Beckman says he is likely to further his education in America after NS. Does he plan to stay on there?

He answers thoughtfully: "I'm not too sure how much I'll like it in America. Right now, I've no plans yet. I've lived in Singapore all my life and I'm very comfortable here. I guess I'll find out when I get to America!"

Still, do not be too quick to dismiss him for being totally cut off from the Singaporean way of life. "I eat local food all the time, I hardly eat Western food, even at home. Language-wise, while I don't understand Malay or dialects, I've studied Chinese, so I understand Mandarin," he says.

"People are really surprised when they find out that I can speak Mandarin!" he quips.

The time in NS has also made him more comfortable with living in Singapore. 2LT Beckman explains: "Before, I hardly interacted with Singaporeans, but now that I've done a year of NS, it's a lot easier to relate to other Singaporeans than before."

How so?

"Well, when I'm talking with Singaporeans, my Singaporean accent comes in now and then. It's almost like a different language for me, but it just comes out quite naturally!" he replies with a grin.

Take to the skies: CPT Gaurav is glad to have made Singapore his home.

Take to the skies: CPT Gaurav is glad to have made Singapore his home.

Flying high but staying rooted: CPT Gaurav Keerthi, pilot, 127 SQN

CPT Gaurav Keerthi was a globe-trotting kid. Born in India, he grew up in Nigeria in Africa, and then moved to Germany. When he was 10, his family moved again, this time to Singapore.

The 26-year-old remembers his first few days in Singapore.

"In German schools, while English was the primary mode of instruction, German was the medium of conversation. So when I came here, I was a little Indian kid who spoke minimal English with a German accent!"

After a year attending an international school in Singapore, he started his secondary level education in local schools. There, he was struck by a cultural difference between Singaporeans and Europeans.

CPT Gaurav lets on: "Schools in the West emphasise learning, while Singaporean schools are more concerned with results. There are merits and demerits in both, but the difference was quite striking to me."

He was able to adapt to the education system quickly and was soon participating in sports and making new friends.

"My friends are of different races, so I got to know more about their cultures. For example, my Malay friend lived with his grandmother, who spoke no English."

"Whenever I called to speak to him on the telephone and his grandmother answered, I had to figure out how to communicate with her in Malay, to let her know I wanted to speak to her grandson!"

CPT Gaurav continues: "I also became more culturally sensitive. Like during the fasting month, it's not so nice to offer my Muslim friend a drink after hockey training. That was a good cultural immersion for me."

Feeling a connection with friends and the way of life here, it is little wonder that when the time came, he decided to do NS like his Singaporean friends.

"NS is as much about character development, as it is about a test of character. Few situations in civilian life put you under great stress where you have to decide; during NS, your limits are tested," he explains.

After doing well in his 'A' level examinations, CPT Gaurav was offered some government scholarships, including the one he eventually chose, an SAF Overseas Scholarship.

"I felt a career with the SAF would be both physically demanding and mentally stimulating. I've always enjoyed the challenge of pushing myself to my limits, so I applied for the SAF scholarship."

Although his parents fully supported his decision to do NS, his mother needed a little more persuasion when he decided on a military career.

CPT Gaurav says: "Typical of most Asian parents, my mother was asking why I did not want to be a doctor, engineer or an accountant instead!"

She was ultimately swayed, and his parents are now very proud of his work, especially since his involvement in flying the Chinook helicopters in providing humanitarian aid to the tsunami victims earlier this year.

"Before the tsunami, Singaporeans looked upon the SAF as an operationally ready but waiting force. Now, people feel proud of our work and have realised that we are ready and capable!"

Having seen so much of the world, why did he pick Singapore as home?

"I decided I wanted to continue to live in Singapore. I can really set up roots here, more so than other countries I've been to. There are business and social opportunities overseas, but Singapore has the best blend."

CPT Gaurav, who did his university education in America, continues: "Once you live overseas, you realise you don't know what you've got in Singapore until you've lost it! Being away in college made me appreciate my decision to stay in Singapore even more. I stand by my decision."

Like father, like son: Mr Chung tell his 10-year-old son, Wing Leung, about his NS experiences.

Like father, like son: Mr Chung tell his 10-year-old son, Wing Leung, about his NS experiences.

Building a family: Mr Chung Ting Fai, lawyer

What important lessons did you pick up from NS?

For Mr Chung Ting Fai, he learnt how to speak and understand Hokkien, and how to eat spicy food - two things that made him feel more Singaporean.

Born 41 years ago in Hong Kong, Mr Chung was just a child when his parents moved to Singapore in the 1970s. As a teenager, he attended local schools and even joined the National Cadet Corps (NCC) while in secondary school.

However, while NCC prepared him for the regimental aspects of NS, it could not prepare him for the dietary adjustment and slight culture shock Mr Chung first experienced when he enlisted in 1982.

"Back then, my resistance to spicy food was really quite low! I couldn't even take chilli sauce!" Mr Chung recalls with a laugh.

"But in NS, you had to learn to eat the food or you would go hungry. So whenever there was spicy food served at the cookhouse, I would be sweating as I was eating!"

"Linguistically, there was also some problem because I could not understand Hokkien. Remember in the 1980s, 'Hokkien soldiers' were quite prevalent in the Army. So whenever someone gave an order in Hokkien, I couldn't understand it and he would think I was being insubordinate or that I was 'acting blur'!"

Since he is not born in Singapore, Mr Chung had the choice of opting out of NS. Why then did he decide to do NS?

He answers: "At that point, having studied in Singapore for some years, I wanted to make Singapore my home, to continue my tertiary education here. So serving NS was quite natural."

Upon completion of his Full-time NS, Mr Chung was granted Singapore citizenship.

Besides learning Hokkien and eating spicy food, how else did the NS experience make him fit more into the Singaporean way of life?

"NS is the time when you are really exposed to people of different social levels, of different races and religions. What I found was that we aren't that much different after all!" exclaims Mr Chung.

Currently a lawyer, Mr Chung completed his 13-year In-Camp Training (ICT) cycle last year.

He was pleasantly surprised to note that during his Operationally-Ready National Service (NSmen) days, he spotted a few Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) who also came from Hong Kong. He recognised them from their thickly-accented Hong Kong English!

As the former president of the Kowloon Club, whose members are mainly former Hong Kong residents who have since become Singapore Permanent Residents, Mr Chung has been helping its members better understand the significance of NS in Singapore's defence.

Earlier this year, the club visited the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) on Pulau Tekong to learn more about the training there.

Mr Chung compares his NS experience with how it is today: "So much has improved - food, lodging and even the uniform! Now with better use of resources, you can be sure you won't waste time doing unnecessary things."

Members of the club frequently approach Mr Chung for his advice since many of their sons will soon reach enlistment age.

He says: "I tell them to encourage their sons to do NS. If they opt out and continue to stay in Singapore, their sons will end up feeling like they missed out on this common Singaporean experience."

"Personally I've enjoyed my NS experience. It has been very valuable and an integral part of growing up here. As male Singaporeans, we can always talk about our NS experience, it's a topic we all can share!"

Mr Chung continues: "But it's not just a common denominator for the males. NS continues to affect Singaporeans into adulthood."

"Families of NSmen are also 'touched' by the NS process. My wife supported my ICT commitments and as my children grew up, they often saw me in uniform. And that is a good thing."

Last updated on 01 Oct 2012