A legacy of national serviceMeet the Chins, a three-generation family of national servicemen.
// Story by Benita Teo // Photos by Chai Sian Liang & courtesy of LTA (NS) Chin & family
"Pak see buay zao" is how 86-year-old Mr Chin Poh Sun describes his fellow volunteers from the People's Defence Force (PDF) back in the 1960s.
The Hokkien phrase literally means "you'll have to kill me before you can get rid of me" and represents unwavering grit in the face of adversity.
"As a new nation, we were weak and under-developed in many aspects. We had to depend on ourselves for defence. We may have been inexperienced, but for the sake of our country, we would not give up."
One of the pioneers of National Service (NS), Mr Chin has created a legacy and inspired the NS journeys of his son Mr Chin Kong Weng, 64, who served as a 3rd Sergeant in the Republic of Singapore Navy and grandson Lieutenant (LTA) (NS) Kenneth Chin, 35, an infantry officer.
Uncle Poh Sun, how does it feel to be wearing the Temasek Green uniform again after so long?
Poh Sun: I feel young again! (laughs)
How did you become a volunteer with the PDF?
Poh Sun: It was actually because of Mr Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore's founding Prime Minister). Back then, I was a member of Chin Woo Athletic Association in Tanjong Pagar, which was Mr Lee's constituency. He visited us one day and encouraged us to join the volunteer force and do our part to protect Singapore. Since we were martial artists and physically fit, he felt we would do well to join the military. So, a whole group of us heeded his call and signed up together.
What was the training like in the early days?
Poh Sun: Training was extremely tough! We did things like digging trenches, and we were all covered in cuts and bruises. I also had to juggle my job as a manager at Keppel Shipyard with the weekly training. The hardest part was training in the heavy rain. We were carrying heavy equipment, and some people slipped and fell. And yet we had carried on.
But we were young then, and there was no injury a good night's sleep couldn't fix! These days, I can't walk for too long before needing to stop for a rest!
Uncle Kong Weng, we heard that you had an interesting NS journey as well!
Kong Weng: I had a black belt in Taekwondo before I enlisted in 1981, so I served as an unarmed combat instructor. I trained soldiers such as infantrymen, guardsmen and commandos.
After my ORD (Operationally Ready Date), I became the chief engineer of a merchant ship. Because of my work experience and diploma in marine engineering, when I came back as an Operationally Ready National Serviceman (NSman), I was posted to the Republic of Singapore Navy, where I operated civil resource ships. I worked on the bulk carrier taking care of the ship's engine and making sure the ship moves.
Those are vastly different roles! How did the two experiences compare?
Kong Weng: Both vocations gave me a different sense of achievement. As an unarmed combat instructor, my greatest accomplishment was seeing men go from having no background to passing their Taekwondo grading within six months and learning to defend themselves.
As for the Navy, I'm happy that I could make use of my professional skills to defend the country. Not everyone can run a commercial ship – it's a skill we spent almost a decade to hone. The role hadn't existed when I was in NS, and I was lucky I could put my skills to good use during In-Camp Training (ICT).
Did your father influence your view of NS?
Kong Weng: Yes, my dad set a very good example for me (by choosing to volunteer). From the start, he had drilled it into me – and even my cousins and nephews – that this was the right thing to do. When I enlisted, his advice to me was to be safe, and to do my best in whatever role I was given. I've passed these wise words down to my son, Kenneth, as well.
Poh Sun: He saw that his father was serving even though he was so old, so he should do the same. They (my sons and grandsons) didn't need to be forced; they knew it was their duty.
I told him to be careful and take the training seriously, especially since he would be handling dangerous equipment like hand grenades. The hardship is manageable. What's important is to focus on the mission and you will succeed.
Kenneth you're a doctor, but, unlike your dad, you chose to stick with your NS vocation.
LTA (NS) Kenneth: I commissioned as an infantry officer in 2010 and became a platoon commander, training recruits at Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) and subsequently in 4th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (4 SIR). After full-time NS, I worked a year in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and then pursued my degree in medicine at Duke-NUS medical school.
I'd expected to be called back later to serve as a medical officer, but was posted in 2012 to serve in 793 SIR. I've been with the unit since then and currently serve as the 2nd In-Charge of Charlie Company.
My dad always told me to give my best in all I do, and to ensure those I lead go home safe to their families. This was especially important as a platoon commander in BMTC with recruits under my charge. I had to make sure I sent them home safe to their families every weekend while seeing that they were trained to the standards required.
Why did you decide to stay on in the infantry instead of converting to a medical officer?
LTA (NS) Kenneth: NS is a very unique experience. It's like seeing a life cycle before your eyes: from school to first jobs to wedding planning. Now that some have become parents, the conversations shift to diapers and childcare. We're growing up and growing old together. But what remains is our determination to fight.
For instance, in the bunks my guys can be very chill, but once they get to the field and receive their mission, it's as though someone turned a switch on. This esprit de corps and aggression is what drives me.
I've worked as a doctor for six years. Currently, I'm a Senior Resident in the Diagnostic Radiology program, training to be a Radiologist. Being in training, I'm only allowed to be away for 19 days for every six-month posting, so every 10-day high-key ICT leaves me only nine days of medical or vacation leave. So far, I have only missed one ICT and it was during my first year as a house officer.
Though we have to make sacrifices, I find NS meaningful. Even as my unit stands down soon, I'm considering extending my service. I believe that there is still plenty of fight left in me!
Kenneth, what is it that keeps you going?
LTA (NS) Kenneth: Hearing my grandpa and dad share their NS stories greatly inspires me. As the next generation, it's only right to carry on this duty of keeping our home safe.
I've had good examples to follow in my dad and grandpa. For example, I remember one night when my dad was activated for mobilisation. Immediately, he grabbed his bag and changed into his uniform. We got into the car and Mum drove him to the old Brani Naval Base.
The bulk of our nation's defence relies on NSmen like us, and I believe that everyone has a part to play in protecting our home. I'm honoured to do my duty to carry on the legacy of national service for my family and my country.