BMT, or Basic Military Training, is the 2-4 month phase at the beginning of NS life where civilians are molded into soldiers. Needless to say, the transition into military life can be very daunting, and in my role as a BMT platoon commander, I’ve seen my fair share of issues and problems recruits commonly encounter. With that knowledge, I’ve written a simple guide that can help prepare you for enlistment day. This guide does not tell you how to arrange your locker, or how many clothes hangers to bring; instead, it deals with bigger picture things that can help you now, before you even cut your hair. Are you ready? Let’s go.
There’s 5 different types of BMT intake you could be enlisted into, depending on your medical and physical fitness: standard 9-week BMT, PTP, BP, School V, and Mono.
Enhanced BMT: for recruits who can pass their pre-enlistment IPPT physical test. For 9 weeks on Tekong island, you’ll learn to throw grenades, handle the SAR-21 rifle, fight in jungle and urban terrain, march long distances, and other skills you’ll need to assimilate into army life. Upon graduation, you’ll be posted to different units depending on your BMT performance, educational level, security clearance and other factors, with the top grade going to command schools.
PTP: stands for Physical Training Phase, for recruits unable to pass their pre-enlistment IPPT physical test. Their programme consists of the standard 9 week BMT, with 8 weeks of physical training added on at the beginning intended to train recruits up to IPPT pass standard. These 8 weeks are added on to the normal 1 year and 10 months of NS, so avoiding that provides an incentive to pass the pre-enlistment IPPT.
BP: for recruits with a BMI above 24, similar concept to PTP, but this time with 10 weeks of additional physical training, intended to help recruits lose weight, instead of just 8.
School V: for recruits with a medical PES level of C and below.
Mono: refers to an intake run by a specific army unit instead of being directly under the Basic Military Training Center. While recruits in other intakes can be posted to any unit with openings after graduation, most mono recruits will continue on in the unit. For example, 1st Singapore Infantry Regiment will take a batch through BMT, then continue training the same recruits to be troopers in 1SIR after graduation. Those sent to command school will later return to 1SIR to be sergeants and officers. Generally, they have a PTP intake, then combine with a standard BMT intake 8 weeks later to form a full cohort. Mono BMT has a reputation for being stricter and more difficult than other types because they are run by a fighting battalion rather than BMTC.
Generally, your life in BMT will revolve around a few important activities known as “high-keys,” such as:
-Route Marches that progressively get longer, up to 24km
-Hand Grenade Throwing
-SAR-21 Live Firing
-Battle Inoculation Course
-Close Quarter Battle Training
-and other “lower-key” lessons, PT and training.
One of the scarier parts of army life is physical training, but you shouldn’t stress out about it. SAF PT is progressive, meaning it will increase incrementally in difficulty, so you will be gradually brought up to the level required. That being said, it is extremely beneficial to go in with a decent level of fitness. This is absolutely key if you want to go to command school, or just want to have an easier time. Focus your efforts in 3 exercises —pushups, situps, and the 2.4km run, the stations that make up the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). Bodyweight exercises and cardio are key, not gymming and building muscle.
To earn the IPPT gold award, you need 85 points, which is most easily achieved with 60 pushups, 60 situps, and a 11:30 run for the under 22 age group. Getting gold in BMT is one of the most surefire ways to put yourself into contention for command school, so you should absolutely go for it.
Additionally, for pre-enlistees returning from overseas, if you come back a few months before enlistment, I would recommend spending as much time as possible exercising outside under the sun, rather than in an air-conditioned gym. Singapore has extremely harsh heat and humidity, and you must give your body time to acclimate. If not, you could suffer reduced performance, discomfort, or perhaps even heat injury. So, spending time out in the Singapore sun prior to enlistment can be extremely helpful.
If you’re reading this a few years before enlistment, it’s extremely helpful to start getting active now. I’ve seen recruits with potential wasted in the early stages due to injury or poor conditioning; to avoid this, make a habit of an active lifestyle. Play sports, go jogging, get outside, anything to get your body moving, it doesn’t have to be intense at all. Training the many tiny muscles across the body that support your knees, back and joints can’t be done overnight, so start early to avoid pain later.
Next, I think it’s useful to set some expectations in key areas so as to minimize “culture shock” when you enter the military. Here are the first 3 that came to my mind.
Nothing Is Clean
Or at least, not to the degree you’re probably used to. For example, toilets on Tekong can sometimes be nightmarish (read more about it here); you’ll have to get used to re-wearing sweaty clothes and going to the cookhouse right after PT without a shower; sometimes you do PT shirtless in training shed covered with fresh hair clippings. I remember being particularly stunned that wiping the bunk floor with a wet tissue made it completely black. Field camp takes everything to the next level, you’ll be kneeling, sitting and crawling through dirt every day in rancid uniforms, unless it’s raining, in which case everything will be muddy too. Everyone gets used to it eventually.
Food is Not Great
Massive strides have been made in the quality of cookhouse and ration food in the past decades, but they still leave much to be desired (read more about that here). Go in with low expectations so you will be pleasantly surprised. In particular, you might miss having sugar, so bring in isotonic drink mixes (100plus or Pocari Sweat packets), or candy if your commanders allow it. Dried mangoes are another great, if expensive snack for sugar cravings; also, since few can say no to them, they’re great for making friends.
Not Everyone Is Nice
You will meet all kinds of people in NS, including some who will not treat you as nicely as you’d like. Don’t be shocked when it happens. Know your rights, don’t be a pushover, and actively make as many friends as you can so you will have people standing with you. Also, assume that there are no truly “nice” commanders—no matter how “nice” they may seem most of the time, don’t be surprised when they start screaming at you, or when they go right back to normal after. To them, being mean when they have to be is just part of the job, and it’s nothing personal. Don’t dwell on it or feel hurt if your favourite sergeant or officer shouts at you, it happens to everyone.
Mental Prep for Homeschoolers
Lastly, here are a few pointers I think will be particularly useful for enlistees from a homeschooled background, as I was. It’s impossible to put homeschoolers in a box because of how broad the category is, but as a generalization, I find they have unique strengths (and weaknesses) that can set them apart. I think it’s important not to be afraid or ashamed of your educational background going in. Just own it, be prepared to explain what homeschooling is, and why you did it—if you’re a decent, useful person who can be counted on, nobody will hold it against you.
You Might Be More Interested
One thing I found out very quickly in the army was that I seemed to be more motivated to do a good job than most other people were. If I was given a task, I always tried to do it to the best of my ability, while many others seemed perfectly content to do the minimum, and scrape through by hook or by crook. I wonder if this was because of the difference in our educational backgrounds, if living in the school system and dealing with teachers who might not always have their best interests at heart had made them more cynical. Don’t look down on them for it, and adapt to their mindset. Be careful about saying things that might create work for others, and if you’re appointed the IC, it’s more effective to motivate people by promising a task can be done quickly, rather than appealing to a sense of duty or excellence.
Make Friends With Everybody
Us homeschoolers can be a little more sheltered than others, so when I enlisted, I wasn’t used to the diversity I found in the army at first. I tried finding friends like me in beliefs and lifestyle, but over time, I realised that was the wrong approach. The struggles you face in NS life are too tough to allow you the luxury of picking and choosing your allies. Just because somebody is covered in tattoos, or chain smokes, or comes to bunk every week boasting about how he cheated on his girlfriend, doesn’t mean he won’t help you when you need it. You don’t have to accept their behaviour, adopt their beliefs, or bring them into your inner circle, just don’t avoid connecting with someone because you disapprove of their lifestyle. You will meet all sorts of interesting people this way, who can make your NS life a more enriching and fun experience.
If You’re Yelled At, Don’t Dwell On It
Don’t automatically take anything negative your commanders say to heart. I think as homeschoolers we’re used to mostly being reprimanded by people who care about us (ie: parents), so its natural to apply the same mindset to the army, and treat everything they say with seriousness. However, this isn’t helpful. You will regularly be scolded with extreme terms for minor things that might not even be your fault, so if you take it seriously you’ll feel hurt and spend a lot of unnecessary time dwelling on it. Don’t waste your time. If you messed up, take the scolding, learn the lesson and move on. If the platoon is being punished together, don’t fume about “unfairness,” just do the pushups and carry on with life. After all, getting whacked together for stupid stuff makes for some of the funniest stories, and it’s a good way to bond with your comrades.
Love it or hate it, BMT lives on in the memory of every National Serviceman. It’s a time of great change, new experiences, and marks the start of a different life. Yes, sometimes you will be tired, miserable and homesick, but those times will pass. Hopefully, this guide has given you a birds-eye perspective of the process so you can go in a little more prepared, and a little more ready to become a soldier.
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.