Semula, ma'am!She looks fierce when she's not smiling – but beneath ME3 Eileen Tham's stern appearance is a warm and caring "ma'am" who often goes above and beyond for her trainees.
//Story Teo Jing Ting
//Photos PIONEER photographers & courtesy of ME3 Tham
At first glance, she comes off as fierce – a look befitting her appointment as a command chief. But those who really know Military Expert (ME) 3 Tham sing praises of her kind and caring personality.
The 55-year-old Command Chief from the Supply Chain School in Air Engineering Training Institute at Air Force Training Command (AFTC) doesn't mind being seen as fierce. In fact, this Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) instructor often uses her stern appearance to her advantage when she conducts courses for her trainees.
Since taking up her current appointment in September 2014, ME3 Tham has taught leadership skills, core values and supply chain modules to more than 50 batches of trainees. Her training style? Strict and no-nonsense, as ex-trainee ME1 Chua Yi Yang would attest to.
But peel away that top layer and beneath that is a motherly figure who cares deeply for her soldiers.
During his two-month course with her in 2016, ME1 Chua saw how ME3 Tham softened her teaching approach and took extra time out to coach a trainee who was having trouble catching up with lessons.
ME3 Tham's motherly nature is also widely known within AFTC, especially during pre-COVID-19 days. Servicemen who were not her trainees would often call her up for a drink, simply to catch up or seek advice.
Since 2015, the mother-of-one has also trained various contingents for the National Day Parade (NDP). In the past two years, she has been training the Guard-of-Honour (GOH) contingent commanders.
We sit down with ME3 Tham and ME1 Chua for a quick chat.
ME3 Tham, we heard that you're alright with being seen as fierce?
ME3 Tham: (laughs) My appearance is fierce mah. So I always tell my trainees upfront that I'm stern and that I don't tolerate any nonsense. For instance, don't come and tell me all sorts of reasons for not doing your homework.
After a while, it depends on how my trainees are – if some are still mischievous, I continue to be very strict with them. But as the weeks go by, they will know that I have a soft spot for them lah, especially the younger ones.
How do you deal with the mischievous ones? Do you scold them?
ME3 Tham: Oh yah every time! Where got command chief don't scold people? Got lah. I will explain after why I did it though, 'cos you don't like people to scold you without knowing why, right? So you need to buy them in.
If they are mischievous, I will also speak their lingo. If they still don't listen, I will ask them the reason for their behaviour. We cannot use the same stern methods like in the past. With the current generation, you need to adapt your methods so that they understand and don't make the same mistake.
ME1 Chua, tell us about ME3 Tham's transition from being a strict trainer to caring one.
ME1 Chua: At first, she was very regimental and no-nonsense. But after she realised that one of the trainees could not keep up with the modules, we all saw how ME3 Tham changed her teaching style specifically just to coach that trainee.
ME3 Tham did a lot of one-to-one teaching and took time out to speak to and understand the trainee's difficulties. For example, she simplified the processes, spoke in a gentle manner and stayed back after lessons to coach that trainee. That was when we realised there was a motherly, caring side to her.
ME3 Tham: Yah, not all trainees learn at the same pace so I have to vary my training styles. For those with difficulties catching up, I will put in more effort and patience to make sure that they understand.
ME3 Tham, so you actually care a lot for your trainees lah…
ME3 Tham: I treat them like my children! I make sure that they have their meals and are well-taken care of in their accommodations. If they need extra revision, I will stay back and revise with them to make sure that they pass their exams.
I always let my trainees know that I'm there for them and if they have any problems, to just call me. I'm also very open. If they don't understand anything or are facing personal problems, they can always approach me, even if it's after office hours. I enjoy bonding and building friendships with them.
We heard that you trained the GOH contingent commanders for NDP in the last two years as well, and that they call you mummy?
ME3 Tham: Yah, 'cos I always nag at them to ensure that their drills are good, their uniforms are crease-free and that they bring their equipment. And most importantly, to always hydrate.
I will secretly bring along some extra equipment so if they forget their gloves for example, I will pass a pair to them. Sometimes, they will also text me: "Ma'am, I forgot to bring my white mask." I will then text them back with a palm face emoticon, before going around to ask for a spare.
Tell us why you're well-known within AFTC.
ME3 Tham: Pre-COVID-19, I would conduct morning parades at the hangar in AFTC and these were usually led by one of the trainees. If they give wrong commands, I will shout "Semula!" (Malay command for "from the start") from a corner.
So during that time, every trainee knew who I was and they all called me "Semula ma'am".
Each time I walked past, they would greet me and we would make small talk. That is how I became closer to them even though they are not my trainees – they will even call me up and we will go for coffee! People remember you and know that you mean well when you scold them. But now because of COVID-19, nobody shouts. (laughs)
Finally, what brings you satisfaction as a trainer?
ME3 Tham: To groom the next generation of airmen and women to become leaders. Sometimes, the pilot trainees will come back to AFTC after their training and proudly tell me that they got their wings.
Then there are those who didn't make it and they will come back and share with me as well. That's when I will tell them that it's not the end of the road, to follow their heart, study harder and try again if they still have the passion for it. So my satisfaction is when trainees (be they mine or not) approach you and thank you.