Not your average Singaporean Son
//Story by Benita Teo
//Photos by Ong Ji Xuan & courtesy of CPL Tan and ALTI
A childhood infection caused him to lose his right arm. But CPL Tan Kok Yew went against the grain by choosing to enlist, and has emerged an outstanding and respected soldier in his unit.
He's an avid sportsman who loves playing basketball and he's serving his National Service (NS) in the Singapore Army. But what makes Corporal (CPL) Tan Kok Yew different from the average Full-time National Serviceman is that he is an amputee who lost his right arm to an infection when he was just three years old.
Never one to bow down to difficulties, CPL Tan chose to serve NS and proved himself to be an extraordinary soldier by receiving two commander's coins and an Outstanding Soldier award!
Nothing holding him back
CPL Tan doesn't remember much about his medical condition back then, except that he had a wound that would not heal. He only knows that his parents had to make the hard decision to amputate his arm in order to save his life.
However, he has never thought of himself as being any different, and has always lived his life that way. He played badminton in primary school by teaching himself to serve with just one hand. In secondary school, he joined taekwondo as a co-curricular activity, but decided it wasn't for him and switched to the infocomm club.
He also discovered a love for basketball and began playing in secondary school, much to the surprise of his schoolmates: "People tend to be surprised when they first see me on the court. It's tough for me because you normally need two hands to play, but I just show them what I can do."
"I may only have one hand, but I can do what any normal person can do."
Just like a regular Singaporean Son
CPL Tan was given the option to be exempted from NS. But his family encouraged him to serve. His parents were protective, especially since he was the youngest of three siblings, but still wanted him to have the same experiences as his peers.
His father, a former national serviceman in the Army, had hoped his son would be able to share his experience. The biggest push came from his elder sister, Ms Zann Tan, whom CPL Tan is very close to.
"She told me it would be good for me to serve NS because when I come out to work, I will have something in common with my colleagues who are also national servicemen. Otherwise, I will be left out when they talk about their NS experiences," he said.
Eager to follow in his father's footsteps and prove that he was just a regular Singaporean guy, CPL Tan stepped up to the plate and enlisted in November 2019. He was assigned Physical Employment Standard (PES) E9 and posted to Basic Military Training Centre School V.
A sense of belonging
Watching CPL Tan at work in the Army Logistics Training Institute (ALTI), where he is an Admin Support Assistant (ASA), it's clear he is close to his superiors and peers.
Sensing his nerves as he posed for photos, they bantered and teased him good-naturedly, eliciting chuckles and yelps of "Aiyah, I feel very paiseh (embarrassed) lah!" from the shy 21-year-old.
But this was not always the case. He has a difficult time back in school and was the target of bullies.
"In primary school, students used to say things like, 'You can't do things with two hands (like everyone else), why even bother trying?' It got worse in secondary school, where they would completely ignore me, even when I tried to talk to them," he recounted.
Not wanting to worry his parents, he kept his struggles to himself and continued going to school, enduring the bullying all on his own.
It was only at ITE College Central, where he obtained his NITEC in Business Management, and later during Basic Military Training (BMT), that he finally found trusted friends.
"I was close to my bunkmates in BMT. When they heard about the bullying (I experienced), they were angry on my behalf. They also told me that they respected me for choosing to serve when I could have been exempted," he explained.
Serving with pride
Coming into ALTI with stellar recommendations from his Officer Commanding in BMT, he worked hard to meet his bosses' expectations.
His job in the Training Support Branch, where he helped to put up Approval of Requests for building safety and infrastructure, was fast paced and saw him having to liaise with multiple units and vendors. But he managed to excel in his work and form strong bonds with his colleagues.
"He's always the first to volunteer whenever there is something to be done, even if it's to carry things around, and he is very efficient with his work," said 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Felix Koh, 21, who is CPL Tan's Section Commander at the Training Support Branch and works with him on finance matters.
Fellow ASA Recruit (REC) Felix Lim, 21, agreed that CPL Tan often looks out for his peers: "It's very heart-warming to know that even though he is busy with his work, he still takes the time to do these things for us."
CPL Tan's dedication has not gone unnoticed: this year, he received the Combat Service and Support Command (CSSCOM) Commander's Coin and ALTI Commander's Coin, given to him by Commander CSSCOM Brigadier-General Terry Tan and ALTI Commander Senior Lieutenant Colonel (SLTC) Quek Yew Sing respectively. In July, he was also name Outstanding Soldier of the month by his unit.
"It's an honour to receive these awards. I'm happy that my commanders acknowledged my contributions to the unit, and I'm proud of what I've achieved in NS," he said.
"I chose to serve NS because I wanted to experience what many people go through during their two-year journey. Knowing that this is part of every Singaporean son's life, I have never regretted my decision to serve the nation with pride and glory."