“…food eaten in secret is delicious!”Proverbs 9:17b
Singaporeans take their food seriously. We love dishes from every corner of the world, argue hotly about our favourite makan spots, and even talk about food while eating. But I think people in the army take it to a whole new level. I mean, it’s only logical–shut a number of young men who are normally super serious about sustenance in camp, away from their favourite dishes, 5 days a week–and you get a bunch of food maniacs.
Gone are the days of our fathers, when camp fare was prepared by other NSFs. Today, professional caterers make the meals, but that doesn’t stop us from ruthlessly scrutinizing (and complaining) about the food. People memorise common meals served in the cookhouse, and give them affectionate nicknames. To describe today’s lunch to the platoon, you can just say something like “the tough pasta with peas,” “the super-chewy porkchop,” “the Taiwan sausage with minced pork, boiled egg and rice,” and people often know exactly what you’re talking about, remember what it tastes like, and whether they should look forward to eating or not.
Same with the outfield rations that come in sealed green packets. Servicemen who sometimes forget the most basic things have a detailed taste-memory of every pack they’ve ever had, and get in heated arguments on which tastes the most tolerable. There’s the “Moon Dhall Dumpling” squad, the “Cheesy Potato Stew” apologists, and the “Black Pepper Chicken Frank Noodle” gang, among others — I for one, am a die-hard “Tomato Masak Pasta With Chicken” supremacist. Many don’t just know their own favourites by name, but their friends’ favourites too, which helps in the rush of ration pack swaps that always happen before going out into the field.
And speaking of outfields, that’s where the most interesting shenanigans take place, because unauthorised food is often strictly prohibited. Some units threaten offenders with extras for the sin of a single piece of candy. And yet, many choose to carry on committing edible crimes. One can understand why –most servicemen hate combat rations, and the sweaty, sleepless grind of missions leaves everyone longing for some sweeter fare.
A clever ploy I’ve seen is to check the type of snack issued together with the combat ration–a pack of three Oreos, for example–then go to the supermarket to buy a large number of the exact same product, and bring those out for the exercise. This way, the soldier can enjoy unlimited sugary cookies in the field without worrying the wrappers will give him away if his trash is examined–Oreos were issued, after all.
But, to some experienced smugglers, this kind of ruse is boring and unimaginative. To them, outfield snack sneakery is more than just a means to have better food–it’s a chance to earn undying glory with your mates in a game of “Who Can Get The Most Ridiculous Item Past The Commanders?” I’ve heard one cheeky cadet boast about how his section managed to bring a literal Haidilao self-heating hotpot out into the jungle in a field pack, a feat only slightly funnier than how confused their sergeant would have been had he managed to catch them in the act.
Although most commanders frown on this sort of illegal activity, plenty are somewhat sympathetic–they can remember their own days as cadets, after all. Some recall their men’s most outrageous food exploits with amusement, or even respect. One of my sergeants told our section, with a kind of awe, how a previous batch of cadets pulled off a stunt he couldn’t stop. “I knew they were going to bring food,” he told us, “so before we went out I thoroughly checked everything they had. Couldn’t find anything. We go outfield, I sneak up on their rest area after a mission, and what do I see? The buggers are passing around slices of white bread with tuna spread!”
In the end, he was so curious to know how his cadets had pulled off the job, he simply asked them–they proudly showed how they packed slices of bread and tuna cans into ziplock bags before folding them into their spare uniform packs, making them completely invisible from the outside. “Best team work I had ever seen…” my sergeant told us, shaking his head.
This kind of mischief is not limited to the army–our blue-clad comrades in the SPF aren’t above it either. I spoke to a fellow former homeschooler, and self-proclaimed “gummy bear addict,” my good friend SC/SGT(1) Noel Lim, about his experience smuggling snacks into the Home Team Academy, which enforces a strict ban on outside food.
“My big attempt required meticulous preparation,” he told me.
“I stuffed 20 packs of gummy bears into the sleeves of my admin tees, and the pockets of my PT shorts, before rolling them tightly into a vacuum-sealed plastic bag–I made sure it was sealed so tight that you couldn’t feel the gummies hidden inside. I also taped bags of Skittles and a Hershey bar to the inside of my raincoat.”
“Just a few days after booking in, the sergeants conducted a camp-wide bunk raid. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken any caution with hiding my contraband, and just left it scattered in my locker. It was quite harrowing to see a sergeant open it, dig everything out, and wave a half-full bag of gummies above his head, while yelling in my face… None of them could believe I snuck all of it in one book-in!”
“I was hauled to the OC’s office and chewed out for half an hour, with others from my company who were caught with illegal items (none of which were comparable to my trove of candy). I thought they’d confine me that weekend, however, the OC had mercy, and decided to give my squad a late book out instead. For the rest of my basic training, I didn’t bring in any illegal food.”
Looking back at the whole experience, I asked, would you say it was worth it?
“At the time, I would say no…but now? Definitely.”
Anybody who has known me in the army will probably tell you I’m a huge stickler for following the rules, doing things by the book, and being a good boy in general. That being said, I’m going to break character and say that I highly recommend sneaking food somewhere during NS. It doesn’t really matter where or what, it’s just that ill-gotten food tastes better for some reason.
I’ll never forget my own biggest “heist”–after weeks of premeditation, I snuck two packs of Korean potato noodles and a can of corned beef outfield. After dodging a surprise inspection by hiding “the goods” under a tree root, my section and I sat down to enjoy a hot, tasty, forbidden supper in the dark. We passed the steaming mess tin around the fire, resting our sore feet and cracking jokes between mouthfuls of delicious noodles and meat.
Looking back, I’ve certainly had classier meals, with more than one fork between nine people, probably with less forest soil accidentally dropped in, but the experience was unbeatable. It’s the sort of thing you can look back on years later and laugh wistfully about times gone by. It’s the kind of memory that makes all the pain and suffering of the army almost worth it. I can’t guarantee that you won’t get in trouble along the way. But after all, isn’t that what makes it so exciting?
Aaron is resident writer for the Homeschool Alumni. He authors a column, “Tales From Two Years,” about his experiences in National Service, where he has about 270 days left. When he’s not in camp, he enjoys cooking, playing music, and petting cats.