Soon after arriving at Officer Cadet School, I made the shocking discovery that officer cadets did not do guard duty, unlike almost everybody else in the army cleared to carry a rifle. While it’s natural to envy them for getting to enjoy training, going outfield, being harassed by instructors for no reason, and other normal parts of life at OCS while other people do duty, I don’t regret the time I spent on guard when I was a trooper, and as a specialist cadet. In fact, I feel my fellow OCTs missed out on some very interesting experiences.
Before duty even officially starts, the jockeying for favourable shifts begins, with everyone calling dibs on their preferred time slot and role. I spoke to my former platoon mate, CPL Jeramie, a gun layer in an artillery battalion, to learn the factors he considers before making a decision.
“Most important for me is picking the right role, because I don’t want to prowl.” Prowling is one of two main roles guards get to choose from, with the other being Sentry. “Next, I try to avoid the last shift that ends in the morning, because it’s very tiring to do duty then immediately carry on with the day without any break. Then lastly, I try to get a good buddy for my shift.” In the long, quiet hours of the night, having an interesting person beside you is crucial.
Jeramie likes standing sentry, but I’ve always preferred prowling, which involves patrolling around the camp. While it’s a lot of walking–prowling at one of my old camps will have you clocking more than a dozen kilometers on a typical night–I vastly prefer it to the sentry’s job, which is to stand guard. Prowling may be more tiring, but I’ll take the exercise and activity over standing there and trying to stay awake any day (or night).
When I was a trooper, I didn’t guard my own camp. Instead, when we had duty, we were tasked to an old and mostly abandoned camp—rumors said it was one of the most haunted camps in Singapore.
It looks benign enough during the day– old, boarded-up multi-storey barracks with faded, white paint coming off in dirty flakes, long winding roads shaded by the dense branches of tall trees, and a quaint museum the size of a small house hidden behind hedges in a depression in the ground. But at night, everything changes. The windows of the abandoned barracks turn into dark recesses, the trees covering the road blot out the stars, low hanging branches reach out like monstrous arms, and going down the stairs into the shadowy hollow that houses the museum feels like going down into a burial crypt.
My least favourite part was when we would have to enter one of those abandoned barracks and go down into its basement to reach a checkpoint on our route. The stairs and the checkpoint were lit by dingy, faintly buzzing white fluorescent lamps, but the light never reached far into the dark hallways and rooms around us. That place always gave me a tingly feeling on the back of my neck, so we’d go down, check the place, then beat it the hell back up the stairs as fast as we could.
Another really eerie sight at night was the hundreds of lockers piled up on some parade squares in that camp, man-sized metal rectangles stacked in a rusting, jumbled mess three or four meters high. It’s hard to explain why, but there was something very surreal and unsettling about those enormous piles, ominously illuminated by the yellow glow of the streetlamps around the barracks. It spoke of decay, being abandoned and forgotten.
While some people just went through the motions, I took duty very seriously, maybe even a little too much sometimes. Once, I spent ten minutes scouring an overgrown grass patch because I thought I saw a drone land there. In hindsight, it was probably a firefly. Another time, my buddy and I were prowling along the fenceline when we saw a blue Subaru parked on the road outside the camp, idling there under a streetlamp. Talk about a stereotypical suspicious scenario! I stopped to radio it in, and we stood there, giving the car hard and professional stares through the fence.
Then, something unexpected happened–the driver rolled down the window, leaned out, and asked, “Do I need to move?” That wasn’t supposed to happen…this was a suspicious scenario! He was supposed to speed off into the night, get out of the car and flee on foot, or jump out and start a fight, not ask us what to do…so we just stood there awkwardly until he drove off. He seemed worried, maybe he saw us talking into our radios and thought we were calling in an airstrike or something.
Probably the worst regular event of any duty was the turn out, which happened at random times on random nights to test our speed and readiness. An alarm would ring, and all guards sleeping off duty would jump out of bed, throw on vests and helmets, grab batons, shields, and draw rifles, then form up at the gate. Naturally, we all hated it, and tried our best to avoid it by being out on patrol, or trying to suss out when it would happen.
Rumors were always flying about the turn out, and successfully predicting one to warn everyone in advance was considered a real achievement. One night, I sauntered into the duty room to find the sergeants putting on their vests and helmets, but didn’t think anything of it, not even when one of them fixed me with an exasperated stare and said, “Can’t you guess what’s coming?” No, I couldn’t, it was probably too late at night for such higher order thinking, so I wandered out again. My section mate was outside, playing with the resident cat.
“Eh, the sergeants everything on already, does that mean got turn out?” I wondered aloud.
“Eh, maybe leh,” he replied. We were still trying to process the information when the siren began to wail.
As a sort of consolation prize for doing duty, when not on their shift, guards were allowed to order food in, a rare treat for foodie Singaporeans forced to eat cookhouse meals five days a week (a struggle I write about here). The resident security troopers, NSFs stationed to guard that one camp for their two years of service, knew how to enjoy themselves with food. One morning, I awoke to find a section of STs outside the bunk frying eggs in a small electric pan; another time we found boxes of donuts left on a table, and a receipt for them totalling an eye-popping $90—unable to finish them all, the STs generously donated the leftovers to us. We also made full use of the opportunities to order in—I’ve eaten many burgers in the middle of the night on the wooden table outside our bunk, hovering in the zone between asleep and awake, as the hours of darkness and quiet slowly roll by.
Many people looked forward to the food, but I think my favourite part of guard duty was the conversation. When you’re prowling around, there’s nothing to do but talk to your buddy, and the walking, quiet and privacy often makes for very interesting exchanges. We might swap stories about our different educational backgrounds, talk about family, or compare notes on our platoon mates and commanders—one time, I helped my prowling partner talk through his upcoming medical school interviews (ironically, while he got in, my own applications were rejected).
And despite the vast gulf between the sergeants and us privates, that gap feels narrowest when it’s 1am on duty and you get to talking. Off duty troopers and sergeants order food and eat together, and as the banter starts flying between bites, it’s easy to forget for a little moment who the commanders are. I vividly remember the conversation I had with a sergeant one night while we were on sentry, just the two of us, sitting on chairs at the guardroom watching the gate. We talked about our NS lives, how our army compared to other countries, and some choice tea about the other sergeants, the details of which he made me promise to never reveal (and I never have). In that moment, we weren’t commander and subordinate—just two young men brought together because the country had decided we should stand guard over an empty camp in the middle of the night.
But by about 4:30am, all conversation stops. Your brain and body have been awake for too long now, and slowly, the talk peters out. It’s all you can do now to keep your eyes open and mind alert—if you’re lucky, you’ll manage that, but if you’re a little more tired, it quickly becomes a gruelling battle to stay on your feet.
I remember watching my buddy valiantly struggle to keep awake as we were standing sentry one night. We tried making conversation to stay alert, but he kept nodding off while I was talking, or in between his own sentences, and I would have to give him a nudge. The poor fellow would then jerk awake, look around blearily, adjust his glasses…and fall asleep again five minutes later. He really was trying his best—sometimes, he would get up and pace restlessly around, muttering to himself: “how can they make us do this,” and “this isn’t human.” I really felt bad for him. He didn’t enjoy army life, and would frequently bring up his Operationally Ready Date, eagerly counting down the days—but that day hadn’t come yet, and until then, he would have to continue his losing battle against sleep.
Slowly, the hours crawl by, and almost without you noticing it, light begins creeping over the tops of the trees, chasing away the shadows, turning shades of blue and black to pink and orange. Morning has arrived, and the dark and scary camp becomes a benign collection of buildings again. Our group of troopers and sergeants, rumpled and bleary from a long night, hand over duty to the next detail, then board the bus to head back to our own camp, back to daily life and training.
It’s been a long time since I last did guard duty, but I still remember it all very vividly. And sometimes, when I’m up late at night, I think about the young soldiers also awake at camps all around Singapore, doing what I did, patrolling dozens of kilometres a night, standing watch at lonely gates and fence lines, fighting to stay awake and alert. Every day and night of the year, weekends and public holidays, Christmases and Chinese New Years, somebody with their own life, hobbies and family puts that all on hold to serve his turn on guard, standing vigilant through the thousands of nights nothing happens, waiting for the one moment where something does, ready to face the danger. That man stands out there so the rest of us don’t have to. Tonight, be grateful for him.
Aaron was resident writer for the Homeschool Alumni in 2021-2022. His column Tales From Two Years recorded his experiences in National Service. He is now based in the USA.