This week, we spoke to Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) (NS) Tan Ken Jin, Commanding Officer (CO) of 758th Battalion, Singapore Guards (758 Gds). Outside of National Service (NS), LTC (NS) Ken Jin is a School Staff Developer and Year Head at Bartley Secondary School. Let's find out what it takes to be a CO of 758 Gds and how they managed to clinch the Best NS Infantry/Guards Unit for HQ Guards for the Best Unit Competition!
Balancing Civilian Work and Military Responsibilities
As an NS Commanding Officer, how do you balance your civilian work commitments with your responsibilities in the military?
I would like to first thank all NSmen who serve NS while balancing various life commitments, chiefly work and family. I would also like to help send home the understanding that these should not be viewed as competing commitments. Rather, they support one another. Without family support, we might not be able to work well nor be driven to see NS as important. Without understanding our work commitment, we would not be able to care for our families nor commit to NS. Thankfully, most NSmen have supportive families and workplaces who recognise that a key reason for Singapore’s social and economic stability is a strong SAF that helps to ensure our sovereignty.
LTC (NS) Tan (extreme right) doing mission planning with his commanders.
Specific to NS COs, on top of regular NS duties, we do need to go for more meetings, engage commanders and men outside of in-camp training windows to foster cohesion and maintain physical fitness, manage deferment requests and mitigate IPPT/NS FIT defaults. I am thankful to not only have supportive family members and employers, but also understanding colleagues who step in to cover my work when I am away.
Of course, a little humility and forward planning goes a long way. As much as our workplaces and colleagues recognise the importance of NS, NSmen would also need to pull their weight and ensure that there is proper handing and taking over of work each time we need to devote our time to NS matters. For the 2 to 3 weeks that we are away for In camp Trainings (ICTs), we might have to work a little later into the night to reply to important emails and text messages that come in during our absence.
At the end of the day, we push on because we recognise the importance of this sacred duty that has been entrusted to us, and fight on because the men whom we lead become our extended family. That is why I always refer to my guys as brothers.
Fostering Readiness and Camaraderie
Can you share some examples of training and initiatives you undertake to ensure the readiness of the NSmen in your unit?
To engage the commanders at the company line, the battalion command team organised weekend runs. This was initially started before COVID-19, halted during the height of it, and then re-started at smaller scales as we neared our 5th ICT.
I have also met up with soldiers who had issues passing their IPPTs to train for their runs, and encourage my commanders to do the same with their own men.
When the opportunity to support another battalion for their ATEC Stage 2 came, my S2 [Captain (CPT) (NS) Yau Chun Shin] and I volunteered to be ATEC umpires, with a view to learn best practices and share them with our command team. As a result, we were able to request for specific training sessions for our identified gaps, e.g. training our sand-modelling teams.
Recently, in our 5th ICT, we started a daily feedback scheme to gather inputs on the various aspects of ICT. This allowed us to tweak the ICT experience as soon as we received the data, instead of waiting for the results of the post-ICT survey. Our soldiers noticed the difference, and thanked us for the initiative.
Supporting NSmen in their ICT Preparation
How do you assist your NSmen “brothers” in preparing for ICT to ensure that they are well-equipped and can balance their responsibilities effectively?
LTC (NS)Tan (left) briefing his NSmen
I believe that NSmen are capable of making the right decisions if they know the intent of what they will be doing, have as much information as possible, and receive them in a timely fashion.
Of course, there will be NSmen who, in the business of work and family commitments, lose sight of caring for themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. We therefore deliberately remind our soldiers to care for themselves. We also do our best to lend a listening ear, and help anyone in need.
Factors contributing to unit success
What do you believe were the key success factors that contributed to your unit winning the Best NS Infantry/Guards Unit for HQ Guards in the Best Unit Competition?
In the same way that no man is an island, 758 Gds benefitted from the experiences of other people and battalions. We started off with a strong foundation, with the majority of the unit coming from the 16th Mono-Intake of 3 GDS. The COs and command teams before our current team ensured our soldiers were competent and had forged strong bonds with one another, all through their NSF days and into the first few years of their ICT cycles.
NSMen from 758 Gds during their 5th ICT
We also continuously learn best practices from the other battalions. I have to thank my NS Command and Staff College (CSC) coursemates for readily sharing their reflections and areas for improvement, and Infantry Training Institute (ITI) for being such wonderful and responsive training partner. The trainers at ITI really work hard to ensure that our soldiers level up their competencies in a manner that is as engaging as possible.
Possibly the most important success factor for 758 Gds are the commanders, who consistently and wholeheartedly give themselves, and genuinely care for our brothers-in-arms. No one is indispensable, and I am confident that if I were to be absent, the battalion would still function smoothly because of our collective will to excel.
We will continue to encourage our soldiers to be resilient, identify any gaps that might form and address them as soon as possible. The daily feedback tool has been one such evolution for us to ensure that voices are heard and acted on as soon as possible.
People First, Always
What is an interesting part of your role as CO of an NS unit you’d like to highlight/share?
I am guided by 3Ps in my leadership: People, Policies and Processes. People should always come first, thereafter to formulate proper Policies and implement suitable Processes.
The first P is perhaps the most interesting aspect. What most people don't see are the hard decisions we make when helping our soldiers navigate the fine balance between NS and other life commitments. Some of the cases are very unique, and our soldiers may experience a high level of stress as a result of their life situations. As an NSman myself, I understand their concerns. Hand-to-heart, I always strive for win-win outcomes to help everyone fulfil their NS duties in the prime of their lives, even as they carve out their careers and form their own families. To achieve this, I find myself clarifying with the commanders and men as well as my S8 and Dy S8 to seek out workable solutions. Some of these solutions will undoubtedly still come across as impositions, so that last mile delivery and continual communications are absolutely cardinal to help soldiers understand our decisions.
The Evolving Leadership Journey
How has your experience as a Commanding Officer influenced your own personal and professional growth?
I have discovered that leadership is a journey that can get lonelier as you go higher, and there is always a danger of losing sight of the ground. Even as much as I try to work through the Chain of Command to preserve my commanders’ locus of command, I also make it a point to connect with our soldiers through other engagement sessions.
There will be times when military leaders have to make tough decisions to strike a balance between ground concerns and larger national imperatives, and it is important to help others understand the latter. This is similar to the leadership journeys one might take in the workplace. To some extent, this has made me more sympathetic to some of the decisions that leaders before me have made, whether in the military or in the workplace, and I am now more mindful of the need to help other parties understand the context behind my decisions.
However, what hasn’t changed is why I have agreed to embark on this journey in the first place. As fraught with challenges as my military career has been, it has given me a wealth of experiences that money can’t buy, and a lifetime of memories shared with my buddies ever since I first enlisted in 1997. I want to be able to help each and every of my soldiers create those memories for themselves, so that they may look back on their times in NS with pride, joy, and heck, maybe even a wistful tear in their eyes.
Life beyond NS
Can you tell us more about your life outside of National Service?
LTC (NS)Tan (centre) picking up litter as part of The Singapore Glove Project
Outside of National Service, I lead a community movement called The Singapore Glove Project. The project has three main objectives: staying healthy, exploring Singapore, and showing love for our country by picking up litter along the way. It all started in 2012 when I noticed a shocking amount of litter during my marathon training runs. I decided to combine running and picking up litter simultaneously. Eventually, I spread the movement to my school and it gained recognition. In 2015, we were honoured with a Friend of the Environment award by the National Environment Agency, and I had the privilege of being one of the community flag bearers for the 2015 SEA Games held in Singapore.
As a teacher, I am also engaged in various initiatives in school. One of my notable contributions was establishing a Hawker Culture corner in 2015 to celebrate our cultural heritage.
LTC (NS) Tan with Bartley Secondary Hawker Culture corner in the background
Additionally, I kickstarted an annual Voluntary Welfare Organization (VWO) Expo, inviting different VWOs to set up booths and inspire Upper Secondary students to initiate student-led projects. These efforts are aligned with our school's Learning for Life Programme in Community Youth Leadership.
Outside of my community involvement, I have a couple of hobbies that I enjoy. First and foremost is running. Interestingly, prior to 1998, I didn't enjoy running at all. However, after a cross-country bicycle trip in the US during the summer of '97, I found that I was able to run longer distances more comfortably. Since then, I have participated in four marathons, with my fastest time being 3 hours and 49 minutes.
LTC (NS) Tan (centre) participating in the Gold Coast Marathon 2017, clocking in his personal best of 3 hours 49 minutes
Due to the impact of COVID-19, I haven't been able to tackle anything more than a half-marathon recently, but I hope to get back into full marathon training soon. I'm grateful to have a group of buddies from my NS CSC who meet weekly to run and enjoy each other's company.
LTC (NS) Tan (extreme left) meeting up with his NS CSC coursemates
Another hobby I'm passionate about is scuba diving. I started in 2006 when I was invited to chaperone a group of students interested in learning scuba diving. Since then, I aim to go on two dive trips per year. One of the most memorable trips was to the Bunaken Marine Park. It was an incredible experience, second perhaps only to a liveaboard dive trip I took in the Maldives.
These activities and hobbies outside of National Service have enriched my life and allowed me to make meaningful contributions to my community while pursuing my personal interests.
LTC (NS) Tan during one of his many scuba diving trips
How did your NS experiences influence your community engagement work?
Ultimately, what drives me in my various undertakings and projects is my concept of Home.
Many people see home as a place of comfort and rest that you return to. Without intending to sound egotistic, I would say that, in addition to home being a place of solace and calm, it should also be a place that I have actively built, that I had a hand in constructing, piece by piece, layer by layer, dream by dream.
It is this philosophy of home and a commitment to give back to society that has spurred me in my life, career and NS choices. Whether by educating future generations, or clearing our living spaces of litter, or serving our nation as a soldier, I would like to believe that I have played an active role in making this our home.
✍️ : PTE Sim Shang En (Army News)
📷 : CPL Nicholas Long (Army News) and contributed by LTC (NS) Tan Ken Jin