I revisited my first journey to Pulau Tekong last Friday. It is a journey that many a Singaporean son makes at the start of National Service, one that I made some three decades ago, when the island was already cleared of its previous inhabitants and made the home of Singapore’s largest Basic Military Training (BMT) complex. 31 years and three months since, it was time for my son to make his own journey. This first journey, is often accompanied by a a reluctance and a mix of emotions brought about by the fear of the relative unknown, the loss of two years of one’s prime and of life as one had known. While boys these days may be much better prepared for this and with family members now allowed to make part of the journey, it does not in anyway lessen the dread that comes with it.
My son’s journey began at noon, with a bus ride from Pasir Ris Bus Interchange. By contrast, my had begun in the militaristic setting of Dempsey Road where the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) was then based. That involved a trudge up the incline of the road that I was already very familiar with from the many occasions I needed to visit CMPB since I turned 12 to obtain an exit permit necessary to leave the country, and to have my passport extended. At the top, the induction into military life would be swift – civilian identification needed first to be surrendered and in no time I found myself lifting my right hand to take the Oath of Allegiance. Goodbyes – for those who family members had gathered – were quickly waved as enlistees were being rushed up a 3-tonner Bedford truck for what was to be a long and uncomfortable ride.
The first stop, Keat Hong Camp, was where enlistees was kitted up and given their first taste of the then infamously bad army food. We were then back on the 3-tonner for the road trip across the island that ended on the beach at Changi. There we would wait for the Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) for the final part of the trip and it would only be late in the afternoon that we found ourselves being marched in the then still rustic settings to what would serve as home for much of the three months to come – the Infantry Training Depot’s (ITD) rather sinister looking Camp 1.
The island has much less of a rustic feel these days – at least at the landing point at which enlistees and their family members find themselves after a much more comfortable ride from Changi on a civilian operated catamaran ferry. From the new and sheltered jetty at Tekong, the immense Ladang Camp complex comes into sight. It is where the bulk of the enlistees will be based at during their stint in BMT- some would however find themselves based inland at a second camp complex at Rocky Hill. This transformation came as quite a surprise to me, even if I may have had glimpses of the island from the air and from the boat when I visited Beting Bronok and Pengerang in more recent times .
With there no longer being a need to make the long detour to the Keat Hong with kits now being issued on the island, the journey is also a lot more efficient. In a matter of four hours from boarding the bus at Pasir Ris, family members would have been briefed on what their sons, grandsons or brothers would go through, get a glimpse of how they would sleep, be told about when to expect them home, witness the taking of the Oath, have a taste of the much improved and now catered army food with the enlistees and also wave their goodbyes.