From mortars to mentor2SG Zulqarnain has found his second calling as a BMTC instructor, imparting the values of a guardsman to new generations of recruits.
// Story by Benita Teo // Photos by LCP Amos Chew & courtesy of 2SG Zulqarnain
He's used to calling for mortar fire as a detachment commander in 3rd Battalion, Singapore Guards (3 Gds). But these days, you'll find 2nd Sergeant (2SG) Muhammad Zulqarnain Bin Kamsan on Pulau Tekong, where he's a Big Brother to recruits, helping them take their first steps as soldiers.
While serving his full-time National Service (NS), the 22-year-old took part in various missions and exercises. His most memorable was when he led the mortar platoon as a detachment commander at Exercise Trident in Australia last year, providing fire support to the troops.
Inspired by his own platoon sergeant, he decided to extend his NS so that he could pass on the skills and lessons he had learnt as a guardsman to the next generation of soldiers.
He began his new journey as a section commander at the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) in May.
Sergeant, how to wear combat boots?
Going from leading men to training recruits was a culture shock for 2SG Zulqarnain, who received his first batch of recruits at BMTC's School 4 in May.
"In unit, my men already knew all their soldiering fundamentals, so it was about training and improving our skills together in mortar handling.
"Here in Basic Military Training (BMT), the guys are transitioning from civilian to military life and have no clue about anything. It took me by surprise, because I literally had to teach them everything and get them used to army life."
He recalled being taken aback when the recruits asked him how to put on their combat boots: "To me, it was like, everyone knows how to wear boots, right? (laughs) But I had forgotten that there was actually a method to it, and they didn't know it since they were so new!
"It made me think back to my own first days in BMT, when I didn't know how to do anything. I had to adjust my mindset and teach them everything from scratch, just like how my sergeants used to teach me very patiently."
Do it once, do it well
2SG Zulqarnain's philosophy as an instructor is to always put in your best when faced with a task, so that you can get it done well on the first try instead of returning to fix your mistakes.
It's a reflection of the high standards and expectations he held while in Guards, which he continues to hold himself to.
"As long as you're in green and you're wearing your rank and tab, there's a standard and image you must uphold," he explained as he pointed proudly to his Guards patch.
"Even among the section commanders, we will help to spot each other and correct ourselves so that we don't go out and teach the recruits the wrong things."
Recruit (REC) Zachary Siek from 2nd Company's Platoon 4 Section 4 has been training under 2SG Zulqarnain since enlistment day, and well aware of the standards that he expects them to maintain.
"If you do (what you're supposed to do) well, then everything will be fine. But if you don't follow his instructions and mess up, then you'll end up on his bad side," said the 21-year-old from 2nd Company's Platoon 4 Section 4.
"Of course, there are times when we will make mistakes, but as long as we do our best, Sergeant Zul is easy-going and fun to be around."
Abang to the recruits
Beyond teaching new enlistees how to hold their rifles or fold their Smart 4 uniforms, 2SG Zulqarnain sometimes takes on the role of counsellor and confidante.
He recalled: "When they first enlisted, a few of the guys had trouble adapting to military life. One of them messaged me after last parade, asking to talk to me. When I met him, he cried and told me his struggles. I tried my best to counsel him and offer guidance."
For this reason, he believes in maintaining an open-door policy: "I always tell my section, 'if you guys have any concerns or feedback, feel free to talk to me.'"
REC Siek agreed: "It's easy to talk to him – we find him approachable, especially when we are having problems. He's the abang (Malay for elder brother) I never had!"
Turning young men into soldiers
Although 2SG Zulqarnain hadn't expected to become a BMT instructor, he now finds happiness in celebrating his section's achievements – such as when they pass their Individual Physical Proficiency Test or complete their route march as one, or when one of them was named Company Best Shot in marksmanship training.
As he gets ready to see them off for their graduation parade on 2 Sep, he is sentimental about the growth they have made over the past four months.
"Honestly, I'm super duper proud of them. From day one, I've been seeing their improvements, even in the simplest things. I can see their interest, the effort they put into their tasks, their blood, sweat and tears.
"I'm pretty sure they didn't expect to go through all this – from knowing absolutely nothing about military life to being able to handle the rifle and surviving in outfield conditions for five days, while carrying their 12kg field packs and everything. I'm so proud!"