National Service: The Rite of Passage for our Singaporean Sons
31 Jan 2016


National Service: The Rite of Passage for our Singaporean Sons

“And there’s nothing more memorable than ‘suffering’ with others in the middle of the jungle, soaking in our personal ‘pools of sweat’”


For Singaporean boys turning 18, many feel worried and apprehensive as their National Service (NS) enlistment dates creep closer and closer. Most of these boys have no clue of what to expect in the two years and these uncertainties are magnified in Singaporeans who have lived overseas for most parts of their lives.

Koh Wei-Shao and Emmanuel Lee are two Singaporeans who spent almost their entire childhoods overseas. When they turned 18, they knew it was time to head  home and fulfill their National Service (NS) commitment, a rite of passage for all Singaporean males.

Wei-Shao and Emmanuel, who enlisted in February 2011 and December 2012 respectively, share their experiences and thoughts about serving NS as returned Singaporeans.

Wei-Shao (back row, third from right) with his Platoon at the Basic Military Training (BMT) Passing-Out Parade (POP).

“There was the longing to return and get back to my roots.”

“While I would always hear about how great a place Singapore is, or how lucky I am to be a citizen, these feelings were not real to me, having spent most of my life overseas,” said Wei-Shao, who turned 23 last year. Despite spending more than 17 years in Texas, USA, he had to come to terms with returning home to serve. “With these feelings and a growing curiosity for Singapore, I returned for NS to find out the kind of place Singapore is, for myself.”

Like Wei-Shao, 21-year-old Emmanuel relocated to the States when he was younger, and eventually made the same decision to return to Singapore for NS. “I wanted to experience something that I wouldn’t normally experience in everyday circumstances. I was curious to what NS entailed and I anticipated the experience greatly,” he said.

The decision to return was made easier by the fact that Emmanuel had visited Singapore often when he was younger, and he was able to identify with Singapore as home. “Things didn’t catch me off-guard or strike me as particularly peculiar,” he admitted. “I would say though, the hardest thing to adjust to was the weather, especially when the physical training made it much more challenging.”

Groups of overseas Singaporeans at the Changi Ferry Terminal waiting to board the SAF Ferry to Pulau Tekong for the NS Familiarisation Visit

"Adapting well in this new environment requires just that – adapting"

For these boys, settling in was not without initial difficulties. The hot and humid weather, living arrangements, and even Singlish were just some of the unexpected challenges that took some time getting used to. “Apart from being placed in an environment halfway across the world, I was also enlisting into the Army. These two facts alone would have been more than enough to make most people uncomfortable,” Wei-Shao remarked.

“One thing I learnt was to be open to change, but at the same time to be cognisant of our constants. Things are very different from what you are used to,” said Emmanuel. Fortunately, some of Emmanuel’s batch mates had also been living overseas prior to their NS enlistment. With shared struggles and an understanding of each other’s situations, they were able to support each other, and create for themselves a positive NS experience.

Wei-Shao (front row, third from left) at the Specialist Cadet Graduation Parade, where he was promoted to the rank of Specialist.

“Yes, we have to sacrifice an amount of personal freedom, but I believe that the sustained stability for our nation is worth it.”

The lessons learnt and friendships gained from the journey, however, were far greater than these stumbling blocks faced by the boys. “I’ve learned a lot about responsibility. Knowing that a task had to be completed no matter what required both individual and group responsibility,” Emmanuel acknowledged. “That was a very apt lesson for me, and I have carried it with me ever since I left the Army.”

For the first year of enlistment, Wei-Shao lived with his relatives in Singapore while his parents remained in Texas. Despite feeling lonely, these feelings changed after spending two years in NS. “It’s great to bump into your batch mates on the streets of Singapore and catch up with each other no matter how busy you are,” he said.

“We still reminisce about our times in the army and it brings back memories,” Emmanuel added. “Sometimes, we have a good chuckle or two about some of the inside jokes we shared during our service. Some of the most memorable times in NS were really just the simple moments.”

“And there’s nothing more memorable than ‘suffering’ with others in the middle of the jungle, soaking in our personal ‘pools of sweat’,” quipped Wei-Shao.

Young Singaporean teenagers at Pulau Tekong as part of the NS Familiarisation visits, held in collaboration with MINDEF.

The Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) organises regular NS Familiarisation trips for Singaporean teenagers to get a sneak peak of life at the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) at Pulau Tekong. These trips are held in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), and are open to Singaporean citizens, both males and females, between ages 15 to 18.

Stay tuned for the next NS Familiarisation Visit happening later this year! 


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.