Leadership lesson from the 'father' of 823 SIR's Band of BrothersHis soldiers served, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. SLTC (NS) Darren Tan shares how he won their hearts and minds.
//Story Koh Eng Beng
//Photos Kenneth Lin and Courtesy of SLTC (NS) Tan
//Produced & edited by Koh Eng Beng
One soldier returned for In-Camp Training (ICT) just hours after his wedding. Another fought hard to return to training after his cancer treatment. Many pleaded for deferment requests put up by their employers to be rejected.
Five years ago, this band of brothers from 823rd battalion, Singapore Infantry Battalion (823 SIR) captured the imagination of Singaporeans with their extraordinary camaraderie.
That year, 823 SIR achieved a Readiness Condition (REDCON) 2A, the second highest possible grade for their Army Training Evaluation Centre (ATEC) evaluation.
The battalion stood down earlier this year and entered the MINDEF Reserve, but their legacy lives on.
"They served, not because they had to, but because they wanted to," said Senior Lieutenant Colonel (SLTC) (NS) Darren Tan. The 49-year-old was Commanding Officer of 823 SIR from 2009 to 2017.
Caring family spirit
How did SLTC (NS) Tan build up such a fine battalion? From the get go, he sought to instil a strong family spirit within the unit, where soldiers take care of one another, just like real brothers.
It's a daunting task as these Operationally Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) had not trained together before. They were serving in various units during their two years of Full-time National Service.
It's easy for him to give orders and for the men to follow, but SLTC (NS) Tan chose to use his influence and care to win their hearts and minds.
During ICT, he would hang out with his men and commanders, ask about their lives and their families. Outside of camp, he would meet up with them, and even provide counselling for those facing issues on family, relationships, finances and more.
Because he cared, his soldiers respected him like a fatherly figure. A few even got him to officiate their wedding as their solemniser.
A heart for people
SLTC (NS) Tan was drawn to caring for people at a young age. In 1990, he took up an SAF study award to pursue a degree in social work at the National University of Singapore.
After his studies, his first appointment in the Army was battalion signals officer in 1 SIR. He was then the first and only soldier in 1 SIR to become a paracounsellor.
"My social work background definitely shaped me in the way I relate to people and how I lead," said the former SAF Regular.
After seven years, he left the Army to become a pastor and later start a leadership training company. Today, he conducts courses on leadership and motivation for adults and kids, and also provides family counselling.
Going beyond the call of duty
All these years, SLTC (NS) Tan has continued serving as an NSman. This year marks his 30th year in uniform.
After handing over command of 823 SIR in 2017, he was appointed the Chief of Staff of 22nd Singapore Infantry Brigade. He is now the brigade second-in-command.
On why he has continued serving in the SAF, he said: "Because of our work experiences outside, we bring a different perspective to the SAF. That’s very helpful when NSmen and Regulars work together, we can look at issues from multiple angles and therefore come up with a more robust plan."
His contributions to the SAF extend beyond his role as a combat officer.
As a Commitment to Defence (C2D) ambassador, he conducts talks in schools to share his personal stories and NS experiences. In doing so, he helps to inspire students to play their part in keeping Singapore strong.
He also started a mentorship programme in 2nd People's Defence Force (2PDF) where NS commanding officers would impart their command as well as life experiences to young NS company commanders.
Asked what is his key takeaway from his NS journey so far, SLTC (NS) Tan said: "Learning to use personal qualities to connect with people so that they would follow you — this experience of being a leader of men is something you cannot find elsewhere in the civilian world.
He added: "I am more determined to influence change wherever I am, and to tell the upcoming, new units that it's possible to build a formidable NS unit that is so caring and engaged in their hearts and minds."
Curious about how SLTC (NS) Darren won the hearts and minds of his soldiers? Check out this video: