The Travelling Sisterhood

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23 Jul 2021 | PEOPLE

The Travelling Sisterhood

Travelling can make or break a friendship. For these servicewomen, going overseas together has not only made them closer, it's made them lifelong sisters. Meet the "J2ACE" kakis in PIONEER's Buddies series!

//Story by Benita Teo

//Photos by Ong Ji Xuan & courtesy of ME5 Aw & ME4 Tan

English 华文
ME5 Aw (left) and ME4 Tan are part of "J2ACE" – a group of travel kakis who have started a travel blog to show others how to travel on a budget.

Air Force Engineers Military Expert (ME) 5 Aw Lay Yan, 52; ME4 Christina Tan, 50; ME3 Eileen Tham, 55; ME3 Joanne Tan, 40; and (CWO) Chief Warrant Officer Jennifer Tan, 55, from the Singapore Army, met while working at the National Day Parade (NDP) in 2016.

They discovered a shared love for travelling and adventures. After finding out that they had similar places they wanted to visit, the group planned a holiday together that same year.

(From left) ME4 Tan, CWO Tan, ME5 Aw, ME3 Tham and ME3 Tan during a backpacking trip in Switzerland in 2017.

The experience turned out to be so enjoyable, they've made it a point to go on one big trip together every year. They've even started a blog (www.j2acewanderwomen.com) to share their experiences and show others how to plan a holiday on a budget!

"We are at the age when we need to have 'me time'. And then we find these other 'mes' and enjoy each other's company. That's why we click so well, like a jigsaw puzzle," said ME5 Aw of their friendship.

We ask ME5 Aw, Command Chief of 9 Air Engineering and Logistics Group (9 AELG), and ME4 Tan, Officer Commanding in 9 AELG, about the J2ACE sisterhood that goes beyond the workplace to far-flung places overseas!

ME5 Aw (left) and ME4 Tan first met in 1991 in Air Force Systems Command, where they specialised in radar systems. Behind them is a Basic Giraffe, which ME4 Tan used to maintain.

We heard you go way back in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). Tell us how you met!

ME4 Christina Tan: We met back in 1991, when I was posted to the Air Force Systems Command, which is now known as the Air Defence and Operations Command. Lay Yan was two years my senior. Everything I knew about my job, I'd learnt it from her.

ME5 Aw Lay Yan: We're both trained in radar systems. She was then posted out to anchor the new Agile Multi-Beam radar while I continued with my specialisation in Long-Range Radar Systems. When 9 AELG was stood up in 2014, I became the Group Command Chief and Christina took on the role of Squadron Command Chief for 819 Squadron (SQN). This was how we ended up working closely together again.

(From left) ME4 Tan, CWO Tan, ME5 Aw and ME3 Tham at the NDP 2016 rehearsals. Even though some of them had crossed paths earlier, it was here that their friendship took root.
ME3 Tan (bottom left), ME5 Aw (top left) and ME4 Tan (top, centre) relaxing over a game of Jenga during break time at NDP training. [Photo: RSAF]

How did the travelling group come about?

ME5 Aw: It started when all five of us worked at NDP 2016. As Command Chiefs, we were the stewards of Parade and Ceremony.

ME4 Tan: We ended up training the same contingent, which was the student uniformed group – Joanne and I trained the Girls' Brigade, and Eileen was the Chief Trainer. Lay Yan trained the Boys' Brigade. Jennifer, who is my elder sister, was the Chief Trainer for the Red Cross contingent.

We would spend our breaks hanging out together and chatting. The topic of travelling came up quite often. Eileen and I both mentioned that we'd always wanted to visit Greece, so we decided to plan a trip there in September that year.

ME3 Tham (left) and ME5 Aw continue to support at this year’s NDP. ME3 Tham is part of the Parade Support Group while ME5 Aw is in the Working Party.

ME5 Aw: After Greece, we decided to go on one big trip together every year. We also wanted to do something different each trip. In Greece, we drove rental cars. The next year, we backpacked in Switzerland. And when we visited New Zealand in 2018, we travelled to the South Island in a camper van.

According to ME4 Tan (far left), the beauty of the group is that each person plays a different role to complement the rest and make every trip enjoyable. For instance, during their camper van trip to New Zealand in 2018 (pictured), they would all help to clean their shared living area, while the more confident drivers took turns to take the wheel.

What are you all like as travel buddies?

ME4 Tan: I'm the planner – I'll look for the places of interest and plan the routes to see these spots. And because I'm the only one who likes to plan, everyone is happy to follow my itinerary!

ME5 Aw: Christina is very efficient. That's why she was awarded the Efficiency Medal! If you need anything, just tell her and she will make it happen for you.

ME4 Tan: Lay Yan is strict and firm in ensuring the discipline and maintenance standards of our Air Force Engineers in 9 AELG. But not many people know that she's a very fun person who loves to crack jokes. She always keeps us entertained throughout the trip.

Eileen is the motherly one. She will tidy up our accommodation, help to wash the clothes, or offer medication when we are unwell. That's why her luggage is always the heaviest!

At work, she's a Command Chief in the Supply Chain School of the Air Force Training Command, and she always takes good care of all her trainees.

Joanne (who is a Flight Line Shift In-Charge in 801 SQN) is the one who manages our finances during the trip. She's also our selfie teacher because she takes very good selfies, and she always knows the best angles. Thanks to her, we have a lot of beautiful photos!

ME5 Aw: Jennifer is the leader so whenever we go hiking, she will be the "advance party" helping to recce. She's also a very good decision-maker. For instance, there were times we faced bad weather and were unsure if we should set out. She would assess the situation and say, "Ok, I think the weather won't affect us, so let's go." And she's usually right!

The group in Iceland in 2019. They were going to visit Germany in 2020, until the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on their plans.
(Clockwise from top right) ME3 Tham, ME5 Aw, ME4 Tan and CWO Tan during their first trip to Greece in 2016.

All of you have different levels of seniority in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Were there any barriers when you first travelled together?

ME4 Tan: During our first trip, we kept calling those more senior than us "Ma'am" like we would at work, because we still didn't know how each person would act (in a social setting) but as we got to know each other better, it melted away.

ME5 Aw: For instance, Jennifer was the one who told the group not to call her "Ma'am". She's very easy-going. She even told us, "Outside of work, don't call me 'Ma'am'. Otherwise you must buy me a beer." So we call her Jie Jie (elder sister in Mandarin).

Travelling together often makes or breaks a friendship. How does J2ACE work out so well?

ME5 Aw: We always take the initiative to help out. For example, when Christina does the cooking, I will do the cleaning. We also do our best to accommodate each other's preferences.

Here's a funny story during our Greece trip – we learnt how much Jennifer loves to eat instant noodles. She made us walk over 8km to search for it; she kept saying, “Very fast, very near, let's go!” But when we got there, the shop had closed. Then, on our way back, we found an Asian supermarket very near our accommodation that sold Maggi Mee! Now, I always bring Maggi Mee with us on our trips!

ME4 Tan: Because we all serve in the SAF, we have common topics to talk about and we can turn to each other for help. For example, Jennifer is very experienced in Army matters, so we go to her for advice on anything Army-related.

We've definitely had disagreements, but they never last long. We just talk it out and move on – we are all very open and we don't like to bottle things up.

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