Military collector

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01 Nov 2017 | PEOPLE
Melayu 华文

Military collector

// STORY Thrina Tham
// PHOTO Chai Sian Liang

English Melayu

A lover of war memorabilia, Captain (CPT) (NS) Alvin Lee hopes to educate others through preserving history.

When we rang the doorbell of primary school teacher CPT (NS) Lee's house, we were greeted by a first generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier, dressed from top to toe in his Temasek Green uniform.

Even for someone who regularly sees soldiers at work, it was a sight to behold.

Yet we would not expect anything less from the avid military collector, whose collection is worth more than $80,000 and dates back to World War I (WWI).

Arsenal of gems

It's easy to mistake the 36-year-old's humble HDB flat for a museum of sorts. He and his wife share an evident passion for collecting.

The hall is flanked by CPT (NS) Lee's framed movie props such as collectibles from Star Wars and The Simpsons. Meanwhile, Mrs Michelle Lee's weaknesses are travel magnets, snow globes and Precious Moments figurines.

The guest bedroom is where the military collection has a space of its own.

The wardrobe is filled with uniforms of various nationalities, arranged meticulously by era. Stacked-up Toyogo boxes cover every inch of wall space. The bigger ones contain everything from field packs to replicas of weaponry; while medals, insignias and personal effects spill out of the smaller containers.

In the master bedroom, an array of helmets is crammed into a 6-foot-tall display cabinet, while another two uniforms are showcased crisply on mannequins.

Armed with knowledge

CPT (NS) Lee's love of all things military started small -- with his hobby of collecting plastic WWII figurines. The then-16-year-old purchased his first collectible online for US$25 (about $36): a real German WWII helmet. Or so he thought.

CPT (NS) Lee eventually found out that it was a Spanish WWII helmet that resembled the German one. Still, his military interest had been ignited.

As his collection grew, so did his knowledge of military gear.

Today, the military buff can tell you that the weapons in Star Wars were modelled after WWII weapons but made to look futuristic; and that our Temasek Green uniforms were of British military origin but later influenced by the United States Army designs.

For CPT (NS) Lee, his most valuable items -- both in sentiment and in price -- are those from the SAF.

"I have collected many WWI and WWII items but that's just for collection; those soldiers did not fight for our country.

"The SAF items are very dear to me and there are no replicas available so they are hard to get. Some of the servicemen wrote their names and IC numbers inside the items so every piece has a bit of history."

To play a part in showcasing Singapore's history, he has loaned his WWII items to galleries like Reflections at Bukit Chandu, and the Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies exhibition.

One for the nation

As Manpower Officer of 391st Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers, CPT (NS) Lee oversees the turnout and bearing of his men. His role also includes accounting for manpower during mobilisations, and planning cohesion and other activities for the men.

Still, CPT (NS) Lee feels that his National Service (NS) does not end with In-Camp Training (ICT).

As Head of National Education & Social Studies at a primary school, CPT (NS) Lee has encouraged his male colleagues to wear their NS attire to work on Total Defence Day, since 2011. "This is important because you let the children see that their teachers are not just teachers; they also have a role to play (in national defence)."

Though some felt shy, every teacher turned up in uniform. The school has kept up with the practice ever since.

"The children went 'whoo' and 'ahh' and clapped; the wow factor was there. They also asked their teachers to tell them more about what they did in NS," recounted CPT (NS) Lee with pride.

He has also brought pieces of his collection to school as part of social studies classes. "I bring my uniform and equipment to let them have a hands-on (lesson). They can compare the old and the modern SAF items and observe, for example, that the new helmet is lighter."

The collector said he didn't mind others handling his old items because they were made to be resilient. "It's the best way to augment the learning experience -- when they touch and try on the items, they can feel and learn even more."