Despite not having a university degree, Brigadier-General (BG) (NS) Lam Shiu Tong worked his way up to become a one-star general.
He did so poorly in his A-levels that going to university was out of the question. But despite not having a university degree, BG (NS) Lam worked his way up to become a one-star general.
"I didn't go in looking at my own background, feeling defeated or inferior," recalled the 51-year-old Commando who retired in 2014. He had signed on in 1985 while serving his full-time national service.
In his 29-year career with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), he helmed heavy-weight appointments that included Chief Commando Officer, and Commander of the Special Operations Task Force.
One might think that BG (NS) Lam was blessed with great athleticism which allowed him to progress far as a career soldier. This was not quite the case. Because of his weakness in swimming, he almost did not make the cut to be a Commando.
He reminisced about drown-proofing training, in which he was thrown into a 4m-deep pool with his hands and legs tied: "I was struggling to the point that I had to use my chin to 'hook' onto the edge of the pool, just to keep myself afloat.
"Then my instructor came over. I thought he was going to help me, but he kicked me back into the pool. I felt very low then because I was the weakest."
But he didn't give up.
During weekends, he would train on his own in a public pool, with his legs tied and hands clasped behind his back. "This was how much I wanted to pass the course," he said. He made it, and earned a place in the SAF's elite team of soldiers.
Proving his mettle
That was only the start. Through the years, BG (NS) Lam had to tackle challenging assignments, some of which were not directly related to the military.
During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003, he was tasked to come up with a plan to quarantine 1,500 doctors and nurses within 12 hours. A nurse from the Institute of Mental Health had come into contact with a patient who was suspected to be infected.
As a special tactics soldier, he had no experience in handling a crisis of this nature. But he and his team used their common sense, and turned various hotels into a quarantine zone.
"A lot of decisions had to be made on the ground, nobody was going to tell us what to do," he said.
His stellar work performance won him another shot at upgrading himself. In 2007, he obtained a Master's degree in sports management from Sheffield Hallam University. Postgraduate studies usually require a Bachelor's degree, but the university waived the pre-requisite, taking into account his military accomplishments.
BG (NS) Lam was quick to add that what he had achieved would not have been possible without the support of his colleagues and men. "In each of my appointments, I had to prove myself, together with the team. It was never an individual's job."
After retiring, BG (NS) Lam, an avid cyclist, set up Culture Storck, a German brand bicycle shop at Thong Soon Avenue, with his wife, and 1st Sergeant (Ret) Jack Tan, an ex-Commando Regular.
He had to endure the rough and tumble of running a business, such as attending to the needs of customers and promoting his products. But he embraced the struggle.
"From where I was in the Army to a salesman -- it was a humbling experience. But if you can do sales, you can do anything," he said.
These days, he chooses to take a back seat, leaving the day-to-day running of the shop to his partners. BG (NS) Lam is now Senior Director, Venue Management, at the Singapore Sports Hub.
Eventually, he hopes to make Culture Storck the go-to bicycle shop for SAF personnel, especially the younger Full-time National Servicemen. The shop offers a bike servicing discount for SAF personnel.
"During my younger days, I couldn't afford expensive bicycles. When I brought my bike for servicing, some shop owners looked down on me," BG (NS) Lam recalled. "But not here -- we welcome everyone regardless of their background or the bicycle they ride."
The man clearly has a soft spot for the underdogs.
"A lot of decisions had to be made on the ground, nobody was going to tell us what to do."
- BG (NS) Lam on his experience in heading the SAF team that helped to handle the SARS crisis in 2003