They call me Papa Jon

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01 Apr 2019 | PEOPLE

They call me Papa Jon

// STORY Chia Chong Jin


// PHOTOS Tan Yong Quan & courtesy of LTA (NS) Wong

English Melayu

Rugby player and Southeast Asian (SEA) Games medallist LTA (NS) Jonathan Wong Hong Jia opens up about his transition from life in Papua New Guinea to Singapore. 

"Is that really your name?" This was the question everyone asked Lieutenant (LTA) (NS) Wong at the start of Basic Military Training. He didn't exactly look like a typical Chinese boy with the name "J W Hong" (there was a spelling error on his name tag).

"That went on for quite some time, until I received my new uniform with only 'Jonathan' printed on it," he recalled with a laugh.

Born in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where his Singaporean father was based for business for many years, LTA (NS) Wong grew up overseas but returned to Singapore in 2013 to serve National Service (NS).

"My friends couldn't pronounce 'Papua' properly, so they nicknamed me 'Papa Jon' as it was easier to pronounce and catchy. Now, almost everyone calls me that."

Life in PNG was slow-paced and relaxed. Most of the time, LTA (NS) Wong would either be spear diving at the beach or helping with his mother's gardening work in the jungle.

The Crossover

When he moved to Singapore with his family in 2013, he expected the lifestyle to be more hectic than in PNG, so he embraced the change with a positive attitude.

He visited East Coast Park often, as that reminded him of his hometown. 

"Walking along the beach made me feel as though I was in PNG, and it also brought me closer to Singapore," said the 26-year-old fitness junkie.

After spending about four months in Singapore, he enlisted for NS. "My dad got my brother and me to watch the movie Army Daze when we were younger," said LTA (NS) Wong. "The movie gave a comedic perspective of how NS can be, and it got me thinking: what would it really be like when I serve NS?"

Initially, he found it hard to adapt to military regimentation, but the outdoor skills he picked up in PNG made it easier for him to adjust to life in NS. 

After BMT, he was selected for Specialist Cadet School (SCS). There, he emerged among the top cadets in his cohort, and was selected to "cross over" to Officer Cadet School (OCS).

He admitted that he was initially worried about fitting in and performing well. However, his section mates welcomed him with open arms. 

"Their warm attitude really took the pressure off me. The bonds that I built with them were the best and I wouldn't trade anything in the world for the time we spent together."

After commissioning as an officer, LTA (NS) Wong was posted to Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) in Pulau Tekong, where he served his remaining full-time NS days as a Platoon Commander (PC).

Tackling the S'pore Rugby Scene

Back in PNG, LTA (NS) Wong spent his weekends playing competitive rugby league, one of the country's most popular sports.

Fast forward to 2014, his OCS platoon mate, Max Ducourneau, happened to be playing for the team that represented Singapore at the 2013 HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens. At the time, the team was preparing for the 2015 SEA Games.

"(Ducourneau) knew I played rugby league, so he invited me down for a training session with the team," said LTA (NS) Wong. 

Rugby league features different rules and gameplay from rugby union that is played in Singapore.

It was two years later that he decided to take the sport more seriously.

During that same year, Mr Inoke Afeaki (then-Technical Director of the Singapore Rugby Union) gave him a call and asked him to try out for the national team.

"Since I was unfamiliar with the rules of rugby union, I had to learn the mechanics of the game by watching international matches on YouTube," said LTA (NS) Wong.

He managed to clear the trials and was recruited into the national team. LTA (NS) Wong has since represented Singapore on numerous occasions, most notably clinching the Silver medal during the 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

He will be representing Singapore in the upcoming 30th SEA Games, which will be held in the Philippines later this year. "Representing Singapore is an honour, and this year, my teammates and I will be striving for the Gold medal."

From NS to the Working World 

Currently working as a personal trainer, LTA (NS) Wong ensures that his clients lead a healthy lifestyle and helps them to achieve their fitness and health goals. He also ensures that their workouts are safe for them.

"One of our Singapore Armed Forces core values is 'Care for Soldiers'. In BMT, SCS and OCS, my commanders constantly looked out for my buddies and me throughout our trainings and exercises," said LTA (NS) Wong. "They ensured we were safe, even though the exercises were physically and mentally demanding at times.

"As a PC in BMTC, I wanted to instil the same mindset in my men, and made sure they knew that safety is of utmost importance in anything we do, because at the end of the day, all of us have loved ones waiting for us back at home." 

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