From teacher to soldierCPT Fionne Lai went from teaching primary school students to guiding soldiers. Eight years on, she's still enjoying every minute of being a soldier and a teacher.
Story Teo Jing Ting // Photos Kenneth Lin & courtesy of CPT Lai
Being a teacher was her ambition – until she became one and realised that this just wasn’t the job for her.
Then fresh out of polytechnic in 2010, Captain (CPT) Lai was teaching various subjects like English, Maths, Social Studies, Science and Physical Education to Primary Two to Six students.
The experience was also a good opportunity for the Ngee Ann Polytechnic alumna to gauge if it was the right career path for her. After two years, she called it quits. "I was managing and chasing after a room full of children almost every day and I felt that it wasn’t for me."
After leaving the teaching profession and completing a marketing degree in the Singapore Institute of Management, she joined the Singapore Army in 2013.
CPT Lai explained that she wanted to continue teaching and contribute back to the community in another capacity, and felt that the military would provide her the opportunity to teach an older age group while allowing her to develop new capabilities such as communication, leadership and combat skills.
After going through Basic Military Training and the Officer Cadet Course, CPT Lai was posted to 12th Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence Battalion (12 C4I Bn) as a Platoon Commander (PC) in 2014.
As a PC, she had to look after and equip her soldiers with Signals-related skills. "To me, that felt like teaching, but because they were much closer to me in age, it was easier for us to understand each other."
While it felt like she had come full-circle in her passion for teaching, there was more in store for CPT Lai as she progressed in her Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) career.
CPT Lai also found herself taking on the role of an older sister to her charges. Her soldiers, who were mostly Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), often shared their problems – such as family financial difficulties or relationship issues – with her and she would take time out to counsel them after office hours.
"Perhaps they also wanted to get a female's perspective and advice, especially when it came to girlfriend problems," said the 33-year-old.
"So during that period, I would take on the listening role of a friend instead of a commander, and try to advise appropriately."
At the end of her tour, some of her soldiers thanked her for her help and advice. "It felt good. I guess that's also part and parcel of being a commander where I care for the soldiers under me."
Learning from commanders
In 2016, CPT Lai went for her first overseas division exercise. Preparation for the exercise took close to a year and it was a good learning experience for a new officer like her. She was then a Deputy S3 in 17 C4I Bn.
The exercise lasted about five weeks with a two-week outfield component, where she could not shower for eight days.
"We were travelling about 100km on wheels, moving from one point to another. Back then, it was summer there so you can imagine the discomfort!" recalled CPT Lai with a laugh.
Despite that minor "setback", she enjoyed herself thoroughly. "They say during an exercise, the true colours of people will come out.
"Even during periods of stress, the commanders were still helpful and capable. That helped me to understand that there are commanders who are worth learning from, not just in terms of work skills but also how you treat your people."
It's all about the people
That same year, CPT Lai took up the SAF Academic Award in to pursue a business-related degree in Australia.
She came back in 2018 and was posted to Headquarters Signals for a year and a half, including going back to 17 C4I Bn to complete her officer commanding tour.
In September 2020, she took up her current appointment as Deputy Head Manpower of the Signals formation. Her role includes managing Full-time National Servicemen's postings to various Signal units, as well as handling recruitment and giving talks to those interested in joining the formation.
From engaging students to elaborating what the Signal formation entails to NSFs, CPT Lai has found a new passion for meeting and interacting with people from all walks of life.
"Recruitment is the first touch point for people who want to join the Service. They may not be interested at first but they end up joining after I share my experiences with them."
She also organises farewell ceremonies for soldiers who leave the Service. This was when she realised that a lot of small things can impact people in a big way.
For instance, a simple gesture like presenting a token of appreciation and commendation can mean the world to someone who has served in the military for more than half his life.
"It's always very touching to see that, even I'm just facilitating the ceremony," said CPT Lai.
It has been close to nine years since CPT Lai has joined the military and she is grateful for the help and friendship of various commanders and colleagues she has met along the way.
Striving through tough times together have strengthened their relationship and many of them have become her good friends over the years.
"It's because of them that I'm still in the Army," said CPT Lai.
"The work is enjoyable, but the people are the ones who truly make a difference."