Diving Into a Different Passion
// Story by Benita Teo
// Photos by Chua Soon Lye & courtesy of RSN
This SAF Scholarship recipient is living out his dream as a naval diver. But it wasn't what he always imagined himself doing.
Becoming a naval diver was not the most obvious career choice for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Scholarship recipient 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Poon Cheng Jun. The 19-year-old National University of Singapore (NUS) High School alumni was passionate about biology, and always imagined working in a related field.
However, after attending a diving course organised by the Republic of Singapore's (RSN's) Naval Diving Unit (NDU) at 16, he discovered a newfound passion for defence and the military. Joining the NDU became his goal.
When he received his enlistment letter three years later, informing that he would be serving his National Service in NDU, it was a dream come true! "I remembered thinking, 'Wow, NDU! Now I don't have to worry that I won't be able to become a naval diver after I sign on because I'm already here!" he said excitedly. He is currently undergoing the Combat Diver Course (CDC) and will move on to Officer Cadet School in October.
3SG Poon is also the first naval diver to be awarded this prestigious scholarship. "I'm grateful to receive this scholarship because so many qualified people apply every year. Having an SAF Scholar from NDU shows that we're not just about (having) the brawn – we have the brains too. Especially with the world becoming more complex now. It's not just about the physical capacity, but also the mental fortitude and taking the skills you have and applying them differently to make things better," he said.
Find out more about 3SG Poon and his journey to becoming a naval diver!
1) His NDU journey started very early
3SG Poon had his first taste of life as a naval diver when he was a Year 4 student at the NUS High School. He had signed up for the two-week diving course organised by the NDU as part of his co-curricular activity in National Cadet Corp (NCC) (Land).
During the course, he was very inspired by the commitment of his instructors, who would be up at 4.30am to complete their physical training before conducting classes for the trainees.
But it was the brotherhood shared among the divers that made him realise this was his calling: "The course was an eye-opener, not just in terms of diving skills, but also what it takes to be a good leader and team player. Naval divers always dive with a buddy, and no matter how good of a diver you are, there are many things you need to do together with your buddy. And you need that unspoken bond because you can't talk to each other underwater. You have to trust him. That level of camaraderie and trust is very important for working as a team, and is something I really appreciate."
2) He remembers his Hell Week experience "fondly"
3SG Poon counts Hell Week as one of the best and worst moments of his time at NDU. He recalled an incident on the first or second day, when the trainees were woken up at two in the morning and made to run 8km, holding on to two oars each to form a human chain.
"It was super, super painful because of the lack of sleep and hunger. In those moments, everything was pushing me to give up. But when I looked to my right and left, I saw everyone putting in their best. Why shouldn't I? By the time I crossed the line, everything was a blur. But I was very happy because I had pushed through my mental barrier and told myself I could do it. That moment set the tone for the rest of Hell Week and my CDC journey because I learnt that if you really push yourself, you'll find that there's a lot more left in you that you might not see yet."
3) He nearly became a doctor
Call him Dr Poon – if NDU hadn't come knocking. As a student, 3SG Poon had always been very interested in biology and participated actively in Biology Olympiad competitions. Becoming a medical doctor seemed the obvious choice. But the long road to being a doctor wore him down: "I heard a lot of horror stories about having to work till 4am and then getting up at 8am for lessons. There's also the six-year traineeship. I realised being a doctor wasn't quite my style!" Having a love for the outdoors, he also considered being a biology researcher and carrying out fieldwork.
But after speaking to his NCC seniors and NDU instructors who were regulars in the SAF, he realised that he would be better suited for a career in the military. But there was one more hurdle…
4) His parents weren't initially supportive of his career choice
3SG Poon admitted candidly that his parents had hoped he would become a doctor, and were shocked when he chose a career in the military instead. "My mother couldn't understand why I would forego a career in medicine for one that was deemed to be more high-risk, and wanted me to reconsider," he revealed. To prove how serious he was about his goal, he presented to his parents the path he would be taking in his career as a naval officer. They then understood that it was not a decision he had made on a whim, but one he had thought through carefully. Today, they are his biggest supporters.
"I really connected with the idea that you can be in a job where it's not just about your personal development, but can have a direct impact on your country's defence. The RSN is operational 24/7, and when you're out patrolling every day, you become aware that what you are doing really makes a difference."
5) He hopes to bring his passion for biology and the environment back to the RSN
3SG Poon has applied to the University of California in Berkeley in the United States (US) where he hopes to continue pursuing his interest in environmental biology. "I hope to be able to bring my knowledge back and help the Ministry of Defence and the SAF in its drive to become more eco-friendly. And with the exposure to new eco-friendly technologies in the US, perhaps we can introduce to Singapore those that would be most useful to us."