In this episode of The Socially Awkward Podcast, Emma talks with Shou En, formerly a sergeant in the Singapore Armed Forces, about his unique experience of going through Basic Military Training twice, how homeschooling prepared him to be a Sergeant, and the essential skills new enlistees need so they can survive and thrive.
Leading Myself, Leading My Men
Emma: What was the training like? What can you expect from training in NS?
Shou En: It really varies by vocation. I only speak for the infanteers; you need a lot of endurance, most of the training is just about being able to go through the training without breaking down, and being able to endure physical discomfort for an extended period of time.
Emma: What kind of discomfort? Is it muscle pain or are your socks wet all the time?
Shou En: I would say both kinds. Definitely both kinds.
Emma: Were there any sort of expectations versus reality situations that you had in the army?
Shou En: The food. The food wasn’t as bad as I heard it was, but it could be just because I’m not very picky.
Emma: I’ve heard a lot of my friends talk about chicken in the army that the drumsticks they serve are always the same size. Were they the same size?
Shou En: Actually, now that you mentioned, most of the drumsticks in Tekong, I remember them being around the same size.
Emma: That is…that is not weird at all.
Shou En: Mutant chickens.
Emma: Any advice for people who are training to go into NS, like if you had to design a training plan for somebody who’s going into NS? What would you tell them to do?
Shou En: There’s not a lot you need to do to prepare to go into NS. But I would say making sure that you’re reasonably fit is quite important, because fitness gives you a decent amount of street cred. Yeah, I would say, and I mean, if you’re aiming to go to command school, like becoming a sergeant officer, it is definitely easier for people to see you as a kind of role model if I can use that word. If you’re already like, kind of fit.
Emma: When you say street cred, what do you mean? Is it something that the people around you aspire to achieve or is it just like, ‘woah, look at that guy, he’s so buff.’?
Shou En: Okay, I’m not very buff and I have never been, but I would guess I’ll guess a bit. A bit of both. I guess it depends who you’re with, but I remember with my – I call them affectionately my gangster batch – with the gangster batch, they were very impressed by my 2.4 run timings. So that gave me some respect from them. When you’re able to outrun them.
Emma: I think it just shows them that you’re not just talking all the time, you actually know what you’re doing. When you can outrun them.
Shou En: Yeah, I think so. You’ve got to like, I mean, in order to command them you have to be able to keep up.
Emma: How would you prepare somebody mentally for the journey that is NS?
Shou En: A few important things to keep in mind. If you’re a careless person like me, who’s always losing his phone and his stuff like that. You have to be more organized. Keep track of your personal belongings. If you’re the sort of person who can’t get up in the morning, you’ve got to start waking up on time when your alarm rings.
Emma: So, mom’s 6am go for a run?
Shou En: Yes. Well, it was actually all part of the plan to prepare me.
Emma: How has NS changed you, as a person?
Shou En: That is quite a good question. I think maybe becoming more assertive and learning how to say no. I guess it really depends on your personality but I went to NS as someone who really didn’t like confrontation.
So, I wanted to get along well with everybody. I didn’t want to be enemies with anybody and it was very hard for me to say no. My automatic response, if someone asked me for help, was to say yes. In NS I learned how to like to refuse people and how to, I guess, stand up for myself and how to order people around in school.
Emma: What was it like having to suddenly be plunged into an environment where you were around all of these people?
Shou En: I think I didn’t have much trouble until after I graduated as a sergeant. When you start your role as a commander, there are some office politics that come into play and I was very unused to that.
Emma: If you had the opportunity to change something about your experience, what would it be?
Shou En: I think I would’ve changed the way I related to certain batches of soldiers, because I think when you’re training people, it’s good to – I realized very early on, it’s good to start out more strict. I mean, if you’re in the role of the commander, you have to be more strict at first. Then later on, you can be nicer to your soldiers, after you gain the initial respect again.
So it’s all part of the man management skills, rather than starting out nice, then they learn to push the boundaries of you afterwards.
Emma: How would you say NS has changed your worldview?
Shou En: I think it was good in making me more open minded because I learnt that, no matter where you come from, whether you come from JC, Poly, whether you finish or drop out of school, whether you’re homeschooled, you usually tend to hang around with people from the same background, the same situations.
So NS is good at that. My route allowed me to interact with a lot of different people. So it kind of broadened my horizons, I learned not to judge people for certain things and I realized that appearances are deceiving.
Emma: How did your face play into the NS experience?
Shou En: I think I learned to trust God much more in the army. I would say I didn’t have many, like very personal experiences with God, but in the army I did.
Okay, so imagine like, six or seven really hungry and tired, exhausted eighteen, nineteen year olds, totally lost in like the middle of this big forest. We were doing this navigation exercise and there were several requirements we had to meet. Like, for example, you can’t lose any of your equipment, if not it’s an automatic failure.
So, we were really careful about equipment. We were making our way through the forest and we were getting quite lost. Suddenly one of my friends exclaimed, “Guys, I am so sorry. I’m like missing my pacer.”, which is the equipment that you click on to measure how far you travel. At that moment, I could see everybody’s faces. We were so devastated because we knew the chances of finding this piece again was almost zero, because the place is so big and it could’ve fallen anywhere.
So, what happened was that we backtracked. We tried to backtrack, we weren’t even sure if we were going in the correct direction. We backtracked for like half an hour and we were so desperate I remember like some of us were close to tears already.
I just kept praying to God the whole time, “Dear God, please help me. Please help us find the pacer, like just please help us find it.”, I just kept repeating that over and over again in my head.
So, we went across like streams, we cross like logs the thick foliage in the forest and then at the end of like half an hour we decided I think that’s it, like we can’t find it we’re gonna give up and go back and my buddy was so devastated he said, “I’m so sorry guys. It’s because of me that you all fail.”, then I prayed extra hard to God again. I was like “Dear god help us find it now please.” just then the girl in my section was like, she said, “Guys what’s that shiny thing in like the water over there.” we all turned and looked, it was the pacer. What was even more reckless was that just this small stream of water there that was flowing, it had fallen and gotten lodged in like the mud at the side of the stream. Fallen like maybe an inch or two like closer to the middle it would’ve definitely been carried away by the current.
So I feel like it was really one of the times where I experienced a miraculous answer to prayer. I was so emotional after that, you know, that I felt I had to witness what had just happened. I grabbed my buddy and I told him, “Buddy, you know this happened because I prayed to my God” and he was like, “okay, okay, bro.” So that was one story, one experience which I’ll never forget, which really proved to me that God was working in my life and watching over me.
Emma: I think it’s times like that when you really have nobody in that sense to rely on but God, that you’re just forced to be “Okay, you know what if there’s someone out there listening, please”, and I think God really just did come through in that situation. That’s so amazing.
Shou En: Yes, still when I think about it right now, I still feel emotional. I guess you can talk about how doctrine is important, but ultimately personal experience with God is very important for your personal conviction and in witnessing to others.
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