He used to navigate the high seas, now this former naval officer navigates the streets of Singapore — with a group of tourists on his tail.
Captain (CPT) (NS) Toh Thiam Wei was a naval officer with the Republic of Singapore Navy for 11 years, spending most of his time sailing as the Navigation Officer of frigate RSS Tenacious. In 2011, he left the force to travel the world with his wife — a freelance video editor — and their three-month backpacking trip turned into three years of travelling.
By the time the couple returned, CPT (NS) Toh had a newfound interest for discovering a different side of Singapore and sharing it with tourists.
Despite the financial uncertainty, he took the leap in 2013 to do free walking tours where tourists can tip as they wish.
"I told my wife: I don't think there will be a lot of money coming in but I want to see if I could do this for a year," recalled CPT (NS) Toh.
It turned out to be a formula that worked. CPT (NS) Toh started as the only guide doing three tours a week; today he has seven freelance guides in his company — all wearing distinctive floral-print shirts — doing six free tours a week, on top of private tours.
His tour company Indie Singapore is ranked No. 1 on TripAdvisor's list of Singapore tours and holds the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, which it has earned annually for the past four years.
Family on the streets
From PIONEER's short time with CPT (NS) Toh after his best-known tour, "Our Original Chinatown Walk", his familiarity with the place and its people was apparent.
The 38-year-old was instantly recognised by shop owners and cleaners alike, exchanging friendly greetings with them like "Hi Aunty" and "ho seh bo?" (Hokkien for "How are you?").
"We try to engage with the local community along our tour route," said CPT (NS) Toh, whose tours include tourist spots like Kampong Glam and Little India as well as unusual places like the Singapore City Gallery and Huggs-Epigram coffee bookstore.
"We've seen stall owners handing out bottles of water to our guests when it gets hot. It feels like a big family out on the streets."
The tourists he has met range from former Singaporeans who have migrated overseas to groups from schools and the Singapore Armed Forces who engage him for private tours.
Most recently, he conducted a private tour for an Australian lady, tracing the places her grandfather went when he served in the military here.
"We read through his war diary— it was over 150 pages of handwritten notes — and we came up with (a tour) for her," CPT (NS) Toh, a self-proclaimed military history buff, recalled excitedly. "It was a full day out but I was happy to do it. It was something out of the ordinary."
Such adventures are not far from CPT (NS) Toh's days in active service. When he was first posted to RSS Tenacious as her Navigation Officer in 2006, it was just a week to her big deployment for Exercise Singsiam in Thailand.
"I was just into the job…and I had to plan the final details including our journey all the way to Thailand… I had to start liaising with the Thai Navy officers and make sure that everything went well."
CPT (NS) Toh recalls sleeping very little every night during that deployment. But he notes that overcoming the challenge was all part of growing. "It was tough but when you look back, there's a huge sense of satisfaction."
During one of his In-Camp Training (ICT) sessions, he was roped in as the Task Group Principal Warfare Officer for a three-week deployment for Operation Blue Sapphire, as part of counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. He now serves as a Bridge Watchkeeper with a missile corvette squadron.
Ask CPT (NS) Toh if there is a part of Singapore he has a soft spot for and he names his old workplaces: the naval bases located in Changi and Tuas.
"They were ‘home' for a good part of my life, with some of my best comrades-in-arms," he said.
"Every time we go into the base, we'll complain that it's so far away but once we see the ships there, we see how majestic (they look).
"After finishing each ICT, I miss (being back on board) the ships."