Bonds of brotherhood

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09 Jul 2021 | PEOPLE

Bonds of brotherhood

"Brotherhood" isn't always about being born into the same family; sometimes it's about a little thing called "fate" bringing two people together to share a bond that stands the test of time. Meet ME4 Lee Siak Kong and ME4 Chua Chwee Huat in PIONEER's "Buddies" series.

// Story by Benita Teo

// Photos by Chua Soon Lye & courtesy of ME4 Lee & ME4 Chua

ME4 Lee (left) and ME4 Chua met as instructors more than 20 years ago, and have become lifelong friends.
ME4 Lee (left) and ME4 Chua met as instructors more than 20 years ago, and have become lifelong friends.

"Orh, you talk bad about Chwee Huat in front of Siak Kong, you die already! Don't you know they are best friends?"

Military Expert (ME) 4 Lee Siak Kong, 57, and ME4 Chua Chwee Huat, 51, are familiar faces in the Republic of Singapore Navy. The Command and Control (C2) System Experts were some of the most feared instructors at the Navigation Detection Training Centre (NDTC) in their time, before running very tight ships as coxswains of the missile corvettes (MCVs) and frigates.

Another thing they are known for? Their unshakable brotherhood that has spanned over two decades.

"Everyone knows us, and they will crack this joke when someone talks about one of us in front of the other," said ME4 Lee, who is currently Master Chief of Doctrine and Readiness Group in the Maritime Training and Doctrine Command.

In fact, their families know each other too because of their unshakeable friendship. ME4 Lee's kids (being older) used to tutor ME4 Chua's kids to help them with their schoolwork!

ME4 Chua, who is the Master Chief of 1st Flotilla, believes their friendship was just meant to be: "If we hadn't been posted to NDTC as instructors, we may never have become friends. After that, things just fell into place.

Now that we are both working in Changi Naval Base, I'm so happy because we can go to work together!"

From fierce teachers to caring mentors: They may be known to be strict as instructors, but ME4 Lee (left) is generous with his advice to his juniors, while ME4 Chua is dedicated to growing the C2 community.

How did your lifelong friendship begin?

ME4 Lee: We got to know each other in 2000, when I was an instructor at NDTC in Sembawang Camp and Chwee Huat was posted to the unit. We began working together, taking charge of the training there. Subsequently I became the C2 (Command and Control) Senior Instructor and he worked under me.

ME4 Chua: We had a very similar working style and our principles were very alike.

ME4 Lee: Yes, we were very strict with our trainees, stricter than the other instructors there. We had very stringent demands and expected the best from them. Sometimes we could be uncompromising with our expectations of them.

ME4 Chua: After that, we realised that we often had similar postings at the same time. For instance, in 2007, I became coxswain of MCV RSS Vigour, and the following year he became coxswain of sister ship RSS Valour. After he moved on to become coxswain of frigate RSS Stalwart in 2012, and a year later I became coxswain of RSS Formidable too. And now we've both been appointed as Master Chief.

ME4 Lee (left) and ME4 Chua at their Senior Military Expert Appointment Ceremony in 2016.

Was there a moment when you realised this was someone who would be your "brother" for life?

ME4 Lee: There wasn't a specific moment. But I remember that when I was a Senior Instructor, I could trust him to oversee matters properly in my absence. When we both became coxswains, he would keep an eye out for my ship crew. It's good to have someone watching my back so that if my ship ever ran into trouble, I know there's someone nearby to help.

ME4 Chua: This type of buddy system is not for our personal benefit; it's helpful to our respective units and the navy as a whole. We are not policing for each other – we are lending a helping hand.

Have you even gotten into a quarrel with each other?

ME4 Lee: We sometimes have verbal sparring sessions, but we've never had a quarrel we couldn't resolve.

ME4 Chua: We live near each other, so I usually give him a lift home after work. Along the way, we will discuss solutions to problems we face at work.

ME4 Lee: And sometimes we can spend the entire journey just arguing the same point! But even if we have disagreements, we know that we just want the good of everyone involved. We may take different routes, but we want to reach the same destination at the end.

Both avid runners, ME4 Chua (left) and ME4 Lee like spending their weekends working up a sweat before enjoying a hearty breakfast.

Do you hang out outside of work?

ME4 Chua: Yes, we both enjoy running. We often go jogging together during the weekend.

ME4 Lee: Usually we'll jog to a place that has good food, and then we'll stop there for a meal.

ME4 Chua: Our weekend routine is like this: first thing when I wake up, I'll text him "Good morning" and he will reply, "Good morning. Breakfast?" I'll tell him, "Jogging" and he will say, "Okay, where to meet?" Afterwards, we'll buy breakfast back for our families.

In fact, our families know each other too. Siak Kong's daughter used to tutor my son when he was in secondary school, and his son tutored my daughter as well!

I've got your back: ME4 Chua (left) and ME4 Lee would often share work tips, especially after finding themselves in similar postings on the same ships.

What's the one thing you like the most about each other?

ME4 Chua: Siak Kong is someone who goes all out to help others. Whenever I need help, he will share his opinions with me. He may be more senior, but he is never stingy with his advice and he will always take care of his juniors. That's how we built up the trust in our friendship.

ME4 Lee: Back when Chwee Huat was the C2 community's Chief Vocational Expert, he played a key role in the training and career progression of our operators. And I saw him putting his heart and soul into his responsibilities. His dedication, knowledge, and familiarity with the individuals on the ground helped to strengthen the C2 community's training standard. It's not easy to find someone like that.

And what's the worst thing about each other?

ME4 Chua: He can be very stubborn – stubborn like a lao lang (Hokkien for old person)! (laughs) But that's also what's good about him: sometimes you need to be stubborn to get things done. And our commanders trust him a lot because they know he will go all out for the unit.

ME4 Lee: (whispers) I've heard from people, even those more senior than him, that he is very fierce! (laughs) But the good thing is that he can get things done more easily that way. Luckily, he hasn't done it to me!

ME4 Chua: I think it's because of how we were trained as juniors. I used to be in an army camp, where discipline was of utmost importance. We never asked "why"; we just did as we were told. We were soldiers of that generation.

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