She beat cancer, emerged among top GKS CSC graduands
//Story by Teo Jing Ting // Photos by Kenneth Lin & courtesy of ME5 Tao
Cancer survivor ME5 Alvina Tao recently became the top DIS graduate of her Goh Keng Swee Command and Staff College (GKS CSC) course.
She still remembers the day that her life came crashing down.
18 Oct 2021 was the day that Military Expert (ME) 5 Tao was diagnosed with stage 2 ovarian cancer.
This was about three months before she was supposed to attend the 53rd GKS CSC Command and Staff Course (CSC) in January 2022.
"I was very disappointed as I was really looking to attend the CSC – it is one of the pinnacle courses for all Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers to attend," recalled ME5 Tao, who was from the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) Ops Department.
Three days after she was diagnosed, she underwent an operation to remove the cancerous cells. After that, she went for 18 weekly chemotherapy sessions – each session lasted close to six hours and left her completely drained.
"I tried to hang on to the hope of attending the CSC, but the chemotherapy sessions were too intensive so I had no choice but to pull out."
During the chemo sessions, ME5 Tao lost all her hair and her eyebrows. Pain and nausea also set in and she wanted to give up after her 10th session.
Thankfully, her friends and family were there to encourage her. For instance, ME5 Tao's elder sister, Delfina, accompanied her for every single chemo session.
It was also during those sessions that she realised how much she wanted to return to work – another reason which kept her going.
"I love my country and I really wanted to wear my uniform again. I did not know how much I loved my uniform until I lost my entire identity," said ME5 Tao.
The moment she completed her 18th and final session, ME5 Tao immediately jumped back into work and looked for a chance to sign up for the 54th CSC.
During her first few days of work in April 2022, ME5 Tao bumped into former Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong. He knew how eagerly she wanted to take part in the 54th CSC, and encouraged her to take care of her health and prepare well for the course.
Said ME5 Tao: "This shows a lot about the spirit of the SAF, how much we care for one another and how much the senior leadership have our backs."
Entering the 54th CSC course in 2023 was a dream come true for ME5 Tao, but she still battled with the fear of the cancer returning.
The 40-year-old had to go through scans every three months to make sure that her cancer markers remained low. Each time she cleared a marker, her course mates would send congratulatory messages and give her fist bumps.
"Going back to CSC made me realise that the SAF is really a place of camaraderie where everyone is supporting one another in this journey," said ME5 Tao.
"There were others who had their own difficulties too, but we were all there for each other."
Learning to be a better leader
One memorable thing about the course was when she had to partner with a Navy personnel during her War-fighting Term.
It was a steep learning curve but her partner was very forthcoming in helping her out. She readily answered every single question ME5 Tao had – from details about maritime operations to how important they are to Singapore.
"I made friendships which transcended Services; now I have friends from not only DIS and the Army, but also the Navy as well as the Air Force."
During the course, she also had opportunities to volunteer at underprivileged children and boys' homes, as well as helping out with Meals-On-Wheels, a local meal delivery programme which provides food to homebound clients.
"As leaders, we have to stay grounded and be aware of what our leadership styles are. CSC showed me what kind of leader I wanted to be and how I wanted to develop myself as one," said ME5 Tao.
"What I took away from CSC was that as future leaders of the SAF, people must be at the core of who we are and why we serve."
Preparing officers for senior command
ME5 Tao was among the 232 leaders who graduated from the 54th CSC, at a ceremony held at the Istana on 2 Nov.
This batch of graduands comprised 133 Regular officers, 36 National Service (NS) officers, 40 military experts and four warrant officers from the SAF. In addition, there was one Singapore Police Force officer as well as 18 international officers from 11 countries.
These courses are the highest level of formal military education offered in Singapore for Regular, NS and international officers.
From overcoming cancer to becoming the top DIS graduand, ME5 Tao has come one full circle.
"It's a very good comeback from cancer and a huge motivation for me. I'm very grateful and honoured to be allowed to take the CSC and it shows that the SAF will never leave you behind," said ME5 Tao, who will be assuming the appointment of a Branch Head in the Joint Intelligence Command in DIS.
"I'm never alone and I'm ready to serve again."