Doing it for Dad: S'pore officer awarded Best International Cadet in British military academy

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23 Apr 2024 | PEOPLE

Doing it for Dad: S'pore officer awarded Best International Cadet in British military academy

LTA Nicholas Tang's achievement comes after a challenging 44-week journey which tested him physically, mentally, and emotionally.

// Story by Joshua de Souza / Photos by Chai Sian Liang, courtesy of LTA Tang & Singapore Army

LTA Tang, a Section Instructor in Officer Cadet School (OCS), excelled in his course at Sandhurst and was named Best International Cadet. The main driving factor? To honour a promise to his late father.

Since 1992, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has consistently sent officers to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), as part of a cross-training defence partnership with the United Kingdom.

Last year, Lieutenant (LTA) Nicholas Tang Qing Feng stepped up to represent Singapore and started the 44-week Regular Commissioning Course intake 232 at Sandhurst in May.

This would begin a trying period that tested his resolve and his strength, which included the passing of his father during the midst of the course.

During their final conversation, LTA Tang promised to win the International Sword – awarded to the Best International Cadet in the course – and make his father proud.

The 26-year-old kept his word and clinched the award, receiving the sword on 12 Apr this year.

LTA Tang (centre) holding the Singapore flag alongside other international cadets from his batch. He was one of 26 international cadets from 19 different nations.

Hi LTA Tang! Can you tell us what your experience at RMAS was like?

"For our course, there are three key areas of training: physical training, outfield exercises and academics.

(One of the challenges I faced was that) I'm the shortest male cadet in Sandhurst (but) I had to carry the same (load) as all the other cadets – who were bigger and taller than me – and keep up with the pace.

LTA Tang (third from left) in Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear with his fellow cadets. At 1.65m, he was the shortest man in the cohort compared to his peers who were around 1.8m tall, and affectionately nicknamed "Wee Tang".

At the start of the course, I did a three-day navigation exercise in Wales (while suffering from) hip and IT (iliotibial) band strains.

My section had all the tallest people in the academy, and within the first hour my legs were cramping up, carrying the 25kg field pack load. My friends helped unzip two packs from my field pack, about 7 to 8kg, and they helped me carry them.

I really appreciated that, but I also felt demoralised and questioned if I was able to make it through the course if every exercise was like this. So I started resilience training and spent my downtime exercising because I felt the responsibility of carrying my own weight."

Why did you choose to join this course at RMAS?

"My Wing Commander in my previous company, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Sufyan, told me there was an opportunity to go to Sandhurst for a one-year commissioning course. He challenged me to go for the course and represent Singapore.

I didn't hesitate to say yes, because I've always wanted an overseas experience and I'd never travelled to the UK before.

LTA Tang (far right) and other international cadets were invited by their UK companions for outings and home visits, each learning about the other's culture and forging closer bonds.

Another motivation was that I wanted to leave an impression on those who don't know Singapore. I might have been the only Singaporean some of the UK cadets know, so what I had in mind was that I wanted to represent Singapore by…setting a standard and doing well."

Best friends in the course: LTA Tang (left) and 2nd Lieutenant Jonathan Exon (right) from the British Army's Royal Army Medical Corps were in the same platoon and often paired up during physical exercises.

What were your peers like at RMAS?

"I had such a strong connection and friendships (in Sandhurst), and I had the support system that I needed to do well.

Because I was there for a year, it overlapped the National Day period. My friends went to buy a Singapore flag, and my platoon held a very small parade, just around 30 people coming together to commemorate and have a small celebration for me.

Then in December 2023, I got the news that my dad was in critical condition and the doctor recommended the family to visit him as soon as possible.

Arrangements were made and I flew back to Singapore, and I managed to see him one last time before he passed about two days later.

When I came back to Sandhurst after the funeral, my entire platoon wrote a letter to me, and my friends and instructors gave me the space to recover, but at the same time they were present to support me whenever I needed it.

I had wanted to make friends and connect with new people when I went overseas, and at that moment I felt like I'd achieved that because I knew everybody was supporting me."

LTA Tang (second row, third from left) participated in Sandhurst's famed "Log Race", a competition between platoons to carry two logs weighing 100kg and 60kg over a 5 to 6km run.

Did you set out to win Best International Cadet when you were at RMAS? What motivated you to do so and how did you feel when you were awarded the sword?

"When I found out my dad's condition had worsened in December 2023, I went to the hospital and saw him for the last time.

I made a promise to him and assured him that I would do my best to win the International Sword, as something to honour him.

My dad had been very proud of my military achievements so far, and that promise became the main driving force to push myself further.

While overseas, LTA Tang was unable to attend his eldest sister's (right photo, far right) wedding as well as the birth of his second sister's (left photo, right) son, but his family was always supportive and made efforts to keep in touch.

My mom and I had the feeling he held on until I came back before he left. I know he was waiting so that I could make the promise to him and assure him I was doing well, and he didn't need to worry.

LTA Tang (right) receiving the International Sword from the French Army's Chief of Army Staff, Général Pierre Schill, representing King Charles III. He requested his late father's name to be engraved on the sword as a way of honouring him.

I was quite shocked and very thankful when I received the sword, because I knew my instructors and my friends really believed in me and were supporting me throughout this journey.

The sword has my dad's name engraved on it; it was a small request I asked if they could do to honour him."

LTA Tang signed on in April 2021, shortly before he was about to finish his National Service. He was a Platoon Commander in 40th Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment, before being posted to OCS as a Section Instructor.

How have you changed through your experience in RMAS?

"The main thing I learned is that caring for soldiers is not always about being comfortable. One question the commandant of Sandhurst asked was: 'Do you care?'

Prior to Sandhurst, I thought caring would mean that I do what's best for the soldiers to be comfortable, but sometimes it can also mean making the unpopular decisions so they can improve.

For example, giving more physical training will make them fitter, but they wouldn't like it. So going through Sandhurst, I learned caring for soldiers is not always about being comfortable."

Do you have a message you'd like to share with others?

"I've been very privileged and honoured to have this experience. I'm like the most ordinary person – a normal Singaporean. My dad was a taxi driver, my mom did F&B, I studied in Polytechnic and I'm still pursuing a part-time degree in Kaplan.

LTA Tang takes pride in knowing that, despite coming from a modest background, he was able to excel through hard work and the support of his loved ones.

As long as you work hard and are faithful to whatever task you are given and excel at it, there'll be doors open to you. I hope my story can motivate and encourage people that if you work hard for something, you'll eventually reap the harvest."

To end this interview on a lighter note – what food did you eat there and what's your favourite food you missed most from home?

"Potatoes. I've never eaten so many potatoes in my life, that's for sure! Some meals had fried and mashed potatoes together.

LTA Tang (left) and his late father (right). His parents were both been very supportive of his decision to sign on, and encouraged him to focus on doing the best he can to excel in the SAF and at RMAS.

My favourite food I missed was bak chor mee, 'extra chilli extra vinegar', because it means a lot to me.

My dad was a taxi driver working night shifts, and sometimes he'll drive me around for supper. My dad and I love bak chor mee, 'extra chilli extra vinegar', that's the recipe."

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