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Pioneer NSmen relive fond memories

Heritage Board documenting milestones in Singapore history
The Straits Times - February 1, 2013
By: Melody Zaccheus
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Pioneer NSmen relive fond memories A gathering of the pioneer batch of national service recruits and their trainers at Taman Jurong Green(above). The session was organised by the NHB so the men could share their recollections. -- ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN

WEARING starched shirts and polished shoes, eight of Singapore's first national servicemen trainers made sure they were smartly attired at a National Heritage Board (NHB) event yesterday to document their experiences.

"We've come very far," said Mr Ong Hui Pheng, 74, a former senior warrant officer. "It was a concern then that, as the initial batch, we would fail."

The gathering was held at Taman Jurong Green, the former site of the third Singapore Infantry Regiment.

It was one of the two new battalions established following the introduction of the National Service Act in 1967.

The event - for trainers and the first batch of recruits - was part of the NHB's efforts to document milestones in Singapore's post-independence history through first-person accounts.

An eight-minute documentary will be uploaded on NHB's yesterday.sg YouTube channel next month. Three other episodes are in the works.

Mr Ong recounted how he had to use dialects such as Hokkien and Teochew to get through to new recruits who were lowly educated and somewhat unruly in the beginning.

"I taught them how to sing the national anthem - and to stand up straight while doing so. I also tried to inculcate a sense of nationhood among them."

He said the idea of national service had initially met with resistance from the Chinese community, which has a saying that a good son would not join the army.

The Government organised a radio and television campaign to emphasise the role of a citizen soldier.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye also turned up at send-off parties and dinners for the early intakes of recruits.

By the end of the first registration and recruitment exercise in 1967, more than 9,000 young men had been registered.

Some of those men, now mostly in their 60s, said they look back fondly on their time together as recruits.

Despite their initial sense of trepidation, they went on to form life-long friendships, having slept in graveyards, trained in rubber plantations and plucked papayas from plantations - without the knowledge of owners - together.

"We started the blanket party," said Mr Tan Weng Leong, 63, laughing, referring to a playful form of hazing where someone is wrapped under a blanket while a group of people pummel him.

melodyz@sph.com.sg

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