It starts with meDefending Singapore isn't just about soldiers and weapons. It's also about individuals believing that they can make a difference, helping others to grow and become stronger. Meet these Singaporeans who show how Total Defence begins with them.
// Story Benita Teo
// Photos Chai Sian Liang & Tan Yong Quan
INTO THE DEEP
Growing up with three elder brothers who all serve in the Army, 2nd Lieutenant (2LT) Subash s/o Satapha relished their stories of the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) in Pulau Tekong and outfield training. He even joined the National Cadet Corps (NCC) (Land) in secondary school as a result.
The Army became his passion, and he did well in his Co-Curricular Activity to become a Physical Training Instructor. The 21-year-old, who is about a decade younger than his brothers, even hoped to become a Commando.
So when he received his enlistment letter in 2017 and was told to report to the Naval Diving Unit (NDU), he was shocked.
His own path to swim
There was another problem: he had a phobia of water and could not swim.
His brothers were initially worried that he would not be able to handle the tough Combat Diver Course (CDC), but 2LT Subash was determined to make the cut.
"I thought, since my brothers are always sharing their Army experiences with me, why don't I join the Navy and share mine with them instead?”
He was also inspired by his second brother, Regular Guardsman 3rd Warrant Officer (3WO) Suresh. "At my brother's graduation parade, our mum put the khaki beret on him and his tired face brightened up, like 'I've earned this.' I wanted that feeling too, and I told myself that I would become a diver."
"He (3WO Suresh) told me, if you really put your heart and soul into it, you will be able to do it," added 2LT Subash.
He approached his friend from his polytechnic's swimming team to coach him. Even after enlisting, he continued to train, spending precious weekends at the pool practicing.
His efforts paid off and he passed the drown-proofing and sea circuit tests during his CDC, making him a full-fledged naval diver.
His perseverance earned him another first: since last December, he became the first officer not just among his brothers, but in his extended family too.
"The day after his commissioning, I heard our mum in the family prayer room. She held his commissioning sword and was telling our late grandfather: 'You always wanted one of them to become an officer, and now my youngest son has made it'," 3WO Suresh revealed, adding that their grandfather had lived through World War II and many other periods of unrest in Singapore's early days.
Leading the way
2LT Subash knows that he is fortunate to be able to learn about the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) from his brothers, 3WO Suresh, who was the first brother to enlist, went in "blind". Their father did not serve National Service (NS) due to a medical condition.
"We gave him advice, but it's still all him. He did it with his mental strength," said 3WO Suresh, a 32-year-old Assistant Company Chief Trainer at BMTC. Eldest brother Corporal (CPL) (NS) Suntharam, 33, is an armoured vehicle technician while third brother 3rd Sergeant (3SG) (NS) Surendran, 30, is a combat engineer.
It is now 2LT Subash's turn to pave the way for his young cousins. No longer in his brothers' shadows, he plays an equal part in family matters. And in NS, he is stepping up to lead his men as a Platoon Commander.
"It's become second nature for me to behave a certain way. Being a naval diver has strengthened 2LT Subash's (right) bond with his brothers, especially Guardsman 3WO Suresh (left). When I see someone who needs help, I'll just go up and help them. I won't think twice. The 'someone else can do it' attitude is gone from my system; now it's 'if not me, who else?'"
He added: "Learning from my brothers gave me a better idea of how we come together for a bigger purpose, which for the Navy, is not just to protect our sea lines of communication, but to safeguard our way of life.
"Because at the end of the day, if we don't protect our own Singapore, nobody is going to protect it."
St John Singapore (SJS) first aider 3SG (NS) Lester Oh still remembers clearly the first time he performed first aid on a stranger. Then a Secondary Two student, he was manning the first aid post at the River Hong Bao (an annual Chinese New Year event).
"My hands were shaking like crazy!" he recounted, laughing. "It was just a small cut, but it was the first time I had seen blood.
I couldn't do it!"
Sixteen years on, he is now a certified first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automated external defibrillator (CPR & AED) instructor. And he wants to teach others how to save lives.
Helping others save lives
The idea of being a "life-saver" may seem scary. But 3SG (NS) Oh, 30, believes that with the right skills and heart, anyone can do it.
3SG (NS) Oh started out training his own SJS juniors at Maris Stella High School. After completing his NS, where he had served as a combat engineer, he taught his first public class.
It was there that he saw many people were interested in picking up first aid skills: "My students were aunties and uncles. And they were very proactive and enthusiastic. For instance, when they had to kneel to do CPR, even though they had aches and pains, they would say, 'It's okay' and just do it. It was good to see that there were people willing to learn."
Today, he trains other life-savers, including students, pre-school teachers and Residents' Committee volunteers. The lessons take them through subjects like different types of bandaging, monitoring vital signs and identifying common ailments like heat injury and exhaustion. The aim is to preserve the casualty's life until paramedics arrive.
He also volunteers at large-crowd events like the Singapore Food Expo, sports competitions, National Day Observance Ceremonies and even a neighbourhood Pokémon Go walk.
And more than just equipping the students with skills, 3SG (NS) Oh finds it important to give them the confidence to step forward. "That's why I come back to train (the new first aiders) — I want to help them build up their confidence. We train with simulations, but when you go out there, anything can happen."
Teaching is not the only activity that 3SG (NS) Oh does with his fellow SJS volunteers. They also donate blood together, and have a special chat group to remind each other every quarter.
"We will message each other to say, 'Eh, it's about time, let's go!' We always go to Bloodbank@HSA, so the staff there know us too," he said of the group of about six to eight. When he is unable to go, he makes up for it as soon as he can, so that he can join them in the next donation three months later.
"When you do things alone, you tend to not want to do it. But when you start reminding each other, then we can all do it together. Sometimes it's easier to do things as a group than as an individual," he said.
"You'll never know when it (first aid skills) could help to save somebody's life. That's why I keep teaching."
Stepping up to help
To those interested in picking up first aid and CPR & AED skills, but are afraid they cannot handle severe injuries, 3SG (NS) Oh has this piece of advice: "First aid can be both easy and difficult. The more complicated the case, the lower your chances of encountering it, and the less you need to do. Conversely, simple injuries like small cuts can require the most work."
He concluded: "There's always something you can do. Just pluck up the courage and step forward to help."
And despite his busy job as a sales and marketing executive, he continues to take the time to upgrade his skills and knowledge because he knows he is passing on a crucial life skill.
"You'll never know when it could help to save somebody's life," he said. "That's why I keep teaching."
A TRULY SINGAPOREAN TASTE
Fried rice tossed in the rendering of grilled steak. Creamy carbonara served in a heated claypot. All from a tze char stall operating from an industrial estate canteen in Hillview.
This is the traditional-meets-modern Singapore fare that Mr Pang Seng Meng and CPL (NS) Alexander Pang, the father-and-son team behind New Ubin Seafood, wants to show to the world.
Tastes just like home
There are few things more quintessentially Singaporean than tze char, which brings to mind affordable hawker fare with the comforting taste of a home-cooked meal. This was the inspiration behind the menu at the home-grown tze char joint.
And serving food from the heart is what drives the first-time restaurant owners. Mr Pang, 63, had retired from the corporate world when he joined the original Ubin Seafood. Seeing the brand's potential to grow, he decided to branch out on his own and set up New Ubin Seafood in 2007.
"We were happy with what (Ubin Seafood) had, but I felt it wasn't enough. The world is changing and you cannot keep sticking to the old flavours like black pepper crab and chilli crab," he explained.
He took to the business like a fish to water, thanks to some special training. "I was prepared for it because believe it or not, operationally, running this business is very much like running an artillery battalion.
"We have very specific roles for everybody and we are very pedantic about having a checklist. So the discipline is there," said the former Commanding Officer of an artillery battalion, who still remembers his NS days fondly.
CPL (NS) Pang, who served his full-time NS at the Joint Intelligence Directorate before being posted to the Provost Unit, joined him in 2017.
The eldest of three brothers had spent almost a decade working in top law firms, but later realised where his heart truly lay.
The former lawyer added that his background continues to be a useful skillset as he can help with the business's legal matters.
The perfect mix
"Unconventional" perhaps best describes New Ubin Seafood. Its name conjures up images of rustic island life. When customers enter the restaurant, they are greeted by the rhythmic clanging of spatula against kwali (Malay for cooking pan) and the comforting scent of wok hei (the flavour and taste of food stir-fried in a wok). Yet, customers could be having local classics like fried beehoon (rice vermicelli) with more exotic offerings such as italian clam soup, both of which co-exist happily on the menu.
"Singapore cuisine, to me, is what Singaporeans like to eat," CPL (NS) Pang surmised, adding that the kitchen works with local fish farms, and uses socially and environmentally responsible produce as much as possible.
"We try to preserve Singaporean heritage, but that itself is an evolving concept."
For this reason, the restaurant aims to serve up authentic dishes, both local and international, while sticking to traditional Singaporean cooking methods.
"We are increasingly aware of what Singapore food is capable of being. So we showcase local techniques by using them to produce dishes like carbonara, which we serve in a heated claypot."
They have been showing off their unique take on Singaporean cooking in various international events. Last year, CPL (NS) Pang was part of the "Culinary Zinema" team at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain, where he showcased Singaporean food favourites as part of the screening of Eric Khoo's film Ramen Teh.
Family and beyond
Today, the restaurant is managed by the father-and-son duo along with CPL (NS) Pang's wife, Joline.
Since CPL (NS) Pang's return, New Ubin Seafood has grown and opened two more outlets, in CHIJMES and Zhongshan Park. The father-and-son duo understand that the brand must grow beyond being a family business.
For a start, they are helping their employees, some of whom are retirees, with sponsored studies such as hygiene inspector courses. With an expanding pool of workers, they are also working towards putting in place a skills upgrading programme.
"We need to ensure that what we present to customers is the same, or better," said CPL (NS) Pang. "We have to expand our team and that involves trusting people and bringing them in, and learning to delegate. It's a leap of faith."
BRINGING IT BACK TO BASICS
It's 9am on a Saturday morning. At a void deck in Serangoon, household essentials are laid out in neat piles on the floor. These include groceries such as rice and cooking oil, and toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste.
Packers put the different items into bundles, one item for each. Drivers then take over, loading the bundles into their cars for delivery.
This is not a flea market, but a monthly donation driven by Back2Basics (B2B), a not-for-profit organisation. And the bundles go towards helping about 30 low-income families ease their burden.
Lifting others up
As its name implies, B2B's philosophy is simple: help families with the little things, so that they can focus on the big things.
"Groceries are one of the things we spend the most money on. If we can help reduce that load for a low-income family, they can use that money for school loans, medical bills and other loans they may have, and hopefully become more stable," said B2B President Noor Zahiraah Bte Rahmatullah, 22. Her elder sister, Noor Mastura, founded B2B in 2013.
For the sisters, B2B's success was more than just about helping the underprivileged; it represented their family's own victory over dark days.
Ms Zahiraah and her three sisters grew up well-to-do, but their parents' divorce plunged them into tough times. They moved from home to home, at times going to bed hungry.
Seeing the positive impact of her sister's efforts in helping others, Ms Zahiraah came on board and has been running the organisation for the last two years: "I'm a living example of how we can come out of that state (of poverty). It became my passion and then a responsibility."
Lend a helping hand
Today, the team of nine raises funds to purchase items for their monthly donation drive. The organisation also works with others like the People's Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council in large-scale charity events.
B2B is even extending its helping hand beyond Singapore. In 2018, Ms Zahiraah's cousin, SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) Volunteer Trainee [SV(T)] Halima Yahuff joined as Project Manager and Director of Humanitarian Arm.
The 24-year-old had left her job as a CPR & AED trainer to join B2B full-time. "I've always wanted to give back to society; that's why I joined the SAFVC as well," said SV(T) Halima. She completed SAFVC Basic Training in 2018.
Last October, she led the Youth Care Team to tsunami-hit Palu in Sulawesi, Indonesia to deliver toys to children and explore long-term assistance opportunities with local aid workers.
"We've done a lot for our community over the past five years, and we have the resources, so we thought, why not extend our help further? (The disaster in Sulawesi) happened during that time, so we decided to give them our best too," she said.
Always believe in angels
Running B2B has not always been easy for Ms Zahiraah, a Business Applications student at Republic Polytechnic.
She recalled a challenging period in the early days: "We have an adopt-a-family concept where donors transfer $50 monthly for a family's groceries, and we update them on their progress. One day, several donors stopped transferring money and we had to use whatever savings we had to continue providing for the families."
However, she added that "angels" often make the impossible possible. The team once discovered a typo in their contact number three days before an event, causing them to lose potential volunteer drivers.
But through word-of-mouth and social media blasts by regular volunteers, they received more than the required 100 drivers. "The way the community reacts to such situations and offers help is really amazing," SV(T) Halima said with a smile.
And B2B is looking to do more. Its goal is to see the families "graduate" and become financially independent. It hopes to achieve this through the three Es: employment, education and empowerment.
The team is currently in discussion with companies like Starbucks to help beneficiaries pick up skills, as well as agencies like Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) to provide free tuition.
Empowerment, however, is key to helping the families stand on their own. "Even though you can provide them with these opportunities, they may not have confidence," said Ms Zahiraah.
"We want to focus on how we can employ, educate and empower them, and hopefully they will be able to have hope, faith, and also the confidence to do something for themselves."
All his life, Mr Alexander Franklin Alrivers has had to answer questions about why he carried a blue Identification Card (IC) for Permanent Residents (PRs) and why he was stateless.
"Everyone kept asking me, 'Eh why you got blue IC? Go back lah! You come from what country?' 'Singapore.' 'No, what country?' 'Singapore!'," said the affable 52-year-old, who admitted that such jibes, while said in jest, were hurtful.
"I felt like an outsider, even though I was born here."
Stateless in Singapore
The Operating Theatre Technical Assistant (OTTA) at KK Women's and Children's Hospital is just like any Singaporean. He peppers his speech with Singlish slang like "pan chan" (to give chance) and "arr-gah-leow" (to be chummy with someone).
He grew up in Farrer Park. He served NS, where he was a Private in 1st Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment. He even spent 14 years as a Police Coast Guard (then called the Marine Police), where he patrolled Pedra Branca and carried out "high-speed chases on pirates and illegal immigrants".
However, circumstances meant that Mr Alrivers couldn't call himself a "Singaporean".
His parents were Prisoners-of-War who met in Changi Prison — his father was a Polish navy sailor and his mother a Malay nurse from Malaysia. They settled in Singapore, where he and his two sisters were born. Due to their parents' non-citizenship, he and his younger sister were left stateless while his elder sister, born before Singapore's independence, received hers.
He was once offered citizenship, after his NS. But he turned it down. His elder sister and brother-in-law, who became his caretakers after their father passed away when he was 10, were planning to move to Australia.
Without a house or job then, he decided to follow them.
"I didn't want to reject it, but I had no choice. It wasn't my idea," he said sadly.
The family never emigrated, and he would spend the next 30 years chasing that elusive pink card.
"It's a sense of belonging. I was born here. I went through NS and became a man... I saw life in Singapore evolve and I share a history with Singapore."
A growing pile of rejection letters from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) was testament to Mr Alrivers' dogged determination to find his place in the country he calls home.
It was during an ICA interview that he met an officer who advised him to upgrade himself with new skills. The security guard then decided to pursue a certificate in operating theatre support, and has been an OTTA since 2013.
With the confidence of his new job, he applied again in 2016. This time, he didn't get a rejection letter.
Two years later, on 21 May 2017, he finally received his pink IC.
Building his own home
Admittedly, Mr Alrivers did not face any discrimination as a PR. "Singapore is fair. (Between) being a PR and a Singaporean, there wasn't much of a difference (in terms of opportunities). If you work hard, people will accept you, no matter your skin colour," he explained, adding that he could still find work and travel overseas.
But he longed to give his family a stable life. For the last 15 years, he and his Vietnamese wife had put off having children, for fear they would face the same fate. And it was she who helped him through the difficult times.
"Sometimes, I wanted to give up (applying), but she knocked sense into me," he said. "She would tell me, 'Every time they reject, just send again!'"
He was adamant that this would be his home, and now at 52 years of age, Mr Alrivers feels that he can finally begin living his life. With their successful citizenship and PR applications, husband and wife can move out of their rented room into their own flat and start a family.
"It's a sense of belonging. I was born here. I went through NS and became a man. I shed tears when Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away. I saw life in Singapore evolve and I share a history with Singapore. That's how I 'became' Singaporean," he said firmly. "And when I got my IC, that's when I felt like I was finally Singaporean."