He keeps the naval divers goingThis special boat engineer literally keeps the naval diving unit moving.
// Story by Koh Eng Beng
// Photos by Kenneth Lin & courtesy of ME3 Lee
Mention the Naval Diving Unit (NDU), and images of a highly trained team of elite combat divers come to mind. But supporting them quietly are a group of special boat engineers – they keep the NDU's fleet of boats in tip-top condition, ready to ferry the divers for operations any time.
One of them is Military Expert (ME) 3 Lee Chee Tiong, 40, chief boat engineer in NDU. He maintains the various craft that NDU operates, including the Combatant Craft Medium – a speedy craft that can carry up to 15 naval divers for operations such as shipboarding and counter-terrorism.
For certain operations, ME3 Lee sails with the naval divers to provide engineering support on-site. Each craft has one boat engineer on board, and this is why only experienced naval engineers with aptitude are deployed to NDU.
"Unlike on a Navy ship where there is an entire engineering department, special boat engineers work alone out at sea so we must be well-versed in our work," he said.
He counts his time in NDU as the most fulfilling in his career so far. "When I came here, I got to do special operations stuff with the naval divers so I was excited."
From his front-row seat, he got to see what their job is like, the risk that they are exposed to, as well as their "never say die" attitude and "can-do" spirit.
ME3 Lee joined the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) in 2002 after completing his mechanical servicing studies in the Institute of Technical Education. His first role in the Navy was an engineering naval specialist maintaining the ex-Fearless-class Patrol Vessels.
After working for 12 years, he enrolled in a part-time diploma course in mechanical engineering at Singapore Polytechnic in 2014.
"It had been 12 years since I got my higher NITEC certificate, and the Navy was transforming to the next generation, so I needed to be ready for that," said ME3 Lee on what motivated him to return to school.
The next three years were like an extended "Hell Week" for him – he had to handle work, studies and taking care of his newborn baby at the same time. But his effort paid off when he emerged as the valedictorian!
"To juggle work and studies wasn't easy, especially with a newborn baby. Thankfully, I had the support of my wife, who took care of the family and baby," said the father of two girls, now aged six and four.
ME3 Lee was first posted to NDU in 2010 to maintain their diving and salvage equipment, and again in 2020 as a special boat engineer. When asked about how the NDU had evolved over the years, ME3 Lee noted that it is now a melting pot of different people.
He recalled that in the past, sailors and naval engineers who were posted to NDU may have felt out of place in the diving community.
"We were used to working on board ships but when we came to NDU, almost everyone was diving or doing special operations underwater. So some of us felt out of place and needed to adapt.
"But it's totally different now. We have divers, sailors, engineers, officers and military experts working closely together."
The boat engineers often join the divers for physical training, and those who are adventurous enough can take up the basic diving course, said ME3 Lee.
The divers, in turn, pick up basic engineering knowledge from the boat engineers, he added.
"In the past, the divers could only tell us that the boat was down, but today they can tell us specifically which part of the boat is damaged, and some of them can even do an initial round of troubleshooting themselves."
As NDU marks its 50th anniversary this year, ME3 Lee wants to thank the old guard for laying a strong foundation and identity for the current generation.
"Together, we will continue to uphold our virtue and bring the unit to greater heights. Nothing stands in our way. Hooyah!"