Revisiting Tekong

13 01 2017

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.


In photographs

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

The journey now begins at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.

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No longer does it involve a long and uncomfortable ride on a 3-tonner. Enlistees (and accompanying family members) are now transported in air-conditioned comfort directly to the SAF Ferry Terminal at Changi Beach.

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The wait to board the ferry is also sheltered. Back then, the wait (and ride across) would have involved standing exposed to the elements.

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The jetty. Tides are no longer a consideration. Previously boarding would have been up the ramp of a beached RPL that was only able to land at the higher tides. This consideration resulted in several shortened weekends – when unfavourable tide times could translate into having to head back to camp on a Sunday morning.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days where previously Ramp Powered Lighters - which could only beach at high tide - were used.

Civilian operated catamaran ferries are used these days.

Boarding the ferry,

Boarding the ferry,

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The first view of Tekong is no longer over the bulwark of the sun baked deck of the RPL but from the air-conditioned passenger cabin of the catamaran ferry.

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A first view through a ferry porthole.

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Arriving at Tekong.

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The well sheltered jetty at Tekong.

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The view of Ladang Camp from the jetty – almost paradise?

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The welcome at the end of the jetty.

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An briefing on Basic Military Training, aimed at providing assurance to family members.

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Family members are taken on a bus tour, whilst enlistees are being in-processed.

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A view of the Parade Square at Ladang Campfrom the bus.

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A tour of a show bunk. Bed frames are a lot sturdier and mattresses much thicker (we had 2 inch mattresses supported – if you can call it that – by soft bed springs, or the little that was left of the springs).

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Bunks are also a lot more airy.

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Enlistees rejoining family members for a meal after taking the oath.

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Queuing at the cookhouse.

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Falling in.

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Ke-kanan pusing – a first march and a last look.






A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

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The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.

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As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.





Eternal Spring 恆春

10 05 2010

It was on a cold early April morning that I found myself in southern Taiwan, arriving by a red eyed chartered flight from Singapore. There was still a 100 kilometre journey to make, and sitting on the back of a long opened 13 ton truck wouldn’t have been the means most of us would have chosen to do it with had we realised that discomfort that the two hour journey would bring. But there wasn’t much of a choice for us, being part of a support group for a military exercise that lay some 2 months ahead. And so, at the break of dawn, having been kept wide awake by the continuous stream of the more than chilly April air perched on the back of the speeding 13 tonner, we were relieved to see the truck make the turn into the dirt track that served as the roadway into the army camp that was reserved for our use. In the half light of dawn, the sound of teeth chattering was broken by the excited howl of one of my companions announcing that he had spotted a horse. A few chuckles quickly followed as a quick scan of the open field that lay to the left of the track revealed a couple of cows and nothing much else.

Sorting the stores out, camp near Hengchun Taiwan, 1987.

Having been used to the relative comfort of the army bunks we had in Singapore, where at its worst, the creaky springs of the beds would sag at anything that weighed a little more than a feather, seeing where we were to spend the next few months came as a rude shock. What I saw reminded me of the scenes of the prisoner of war camps on the Burma railway that I had seen in the movies. Lined up against the opposite sides of the walls in the long bunk were two rows of double decked wooden platforms which served as beds. On this we were to be allocated a one metre wide space on which to sleep on and store our belongings. This didn’t seem so bad when I got to see the state that the toilets were in! We had a few weeks before the stores we were sent to maintain were to arrive by ship, giving us some time to get the place set up.

With nothing much to keep us occupied, with civilisation nowhere in sight as well as being confined to camp seven days a week with only an evening out, the “gift shop” which seemed worth visiting for the two beauties – the fair skinned local girls who manned the shop, became a focal point. In reality, there wasn’t really much on offer, save the instant noodles, Taiwanese style, sealed in a styrofoam bowl which were displayed in the glass counter, which could be filled at the hot water dispenser at the end of the counter. This was a novelty to many of us then – it wasn’t until later that the idea caught on in Singapore.

South Gate, Hengchun, April 1987.

We were allowed a three hours out once a week on Thursday evenings, when the night market came to town. Town we were to discover was Hengchun (恆春), which serves as the gateway to what must be one of the prettiest parts of Taiwan – the Kenting National Park. A walled town, Hengchun has most of its walls and gates still intact, and the area we often ended up in was close to the south gate. Apart from the night market, the town wasn’t notable for much except for the delicious street food and refreshing chilled red tea. The first evening I was there, I managed to get the essential sleeping bag which made the wooden platform I slept on a little more comfortable, visit to a mantou (steamed bun) shop, and fill my stomach with a hearty bowl of spicy beef noodles.

The night market always provided the locals as well as us with some form of entertainment. What would almost always greet the visitor was the pungent smell of fermented beancurd being toasted over the fire, and the greasy smell of Taiwanese sausages being grilled. There were always lots of stalls with nothing that seemed worth buying. Entertainment could usually be found at the corners of the market area – medicine and ointment vendors would always be ready to provide a show in an attempt to convince an eager audience of the positive effects of the medicines they were attempting to sell. There were those that placed red hot pieces of metal bare skin on various parts of the body and those that would attempt to inflict wounds using knives and chains to prove the protective benefits of their ointments. There were of course those that tried to draw the attention of a mainly male audience with skimpily dressed women who sometimes showed little bits of flesh that would make a gentleman blush!