When we hear of National Service (NS), it is often assumed that it relates to the time spent with the army or the SAF, but that’s not always the case. “Growing up, my father always talked about the SAF and his time there, so I always thought that I would be joining the SAF. So when I received my enlistment letter and found out that I was to join the SCDF, I was definitely surprised!” Such was SGT (Sergeant) Raphael Tan’s initial response when the enlistment letter indicated that he was to join the Singapore Civil Defence Force for two years of NS. In this second issue of ‘NS through the Lens of an Overseas Singaporean’, we met up with Raphael Tan, a Singaporean who lived abroad and came back home to serve NS in the SCDF.
Since his birth, Raphael has had to adapt to both Western and Asian cultures due to his parents’ commitments in missionary work and overseas businesses. “I was born in Cardiff, Wales and spent a couple of years growing up in the UK and in Sweden before coming back to Singapore for pre-school. Following that, we left for Bangkok, Thailand in which I spent 13 years there.”
When it was time to return for his NS stint and not knowing what to expect, a nervous Raphael went on to find out as much as he could about the Singapore Civil Defence Force. “Despite being a little worried, when I found out that they train fire-fighters, I was actually quite excited about it,” revealed the young sergeant. For those unfamiliar with the SCDF, this uniformed organisation belongs to the Ministry of Home Affairs and plays a critical role in Singapore by providing fire-fighting, rescue and emergency ambulance services. They also oversee the implementation of fire safety and civil defence shelter matters.
SGT Raphael Tan (left) demonstrating a training drill with two of his trainees
When enlistment day arrived, a sense of uncertainty could be felt among the new recruits, “I was quite nervous but I wasn’t the only one because on the first day, you see many other nervous boys as well.” He was quick to reassure though, saying, “The instructors were quite kind and understanding as they were once in our shoes as well, so it wasn’t too bad actually.”
What helped Raphael was that his overseas experience allowed him the opportunity to meet different people from diverse backgrounds. This made interacting with others in the SCDF much easier for him, especially when certain situations force you out of your comfort zone. “We had a training stint at Outward Bound in Sabah,” recalls Raphael, “and did hiking treks into dense jungles. A lot of us were placed out of our comfort zones and because of that, you could really see what people were really like. It was a real eye-opening experience where we learnt a lot about ourselves and of each other.”
Following his basic training phase, Raphael is now a Fire and Rescue Specialist trainer. “I’m in the fire-fighting branch, so I instruct trainees on how to fight different kinds of fire.” Fires like flashovers and backdrafts are just some of the many thermal accidents that fire-fighters encounter and have to deal with. One of the ways to do that efficiently is to ensure that they are well-versed in their drills, in which our trainer/resident expert and his team will give you a sneak preview of in our video.
Having almost completed his two-year NS stint, Raphael now looks forward to becoming a Physical Therapist in the field of Sports Sciences and will take the skills that he has learnt from the SCDF with him wherever he goes. He reflects, “There are many things that I’ve gained from the SCDF and a lot of what I’ve learnt can be used in most emergency situations in our daily lives. I’ll bring along all these knowledge with me and touch wood, if I need to draw upon them one day, at least I’ll be mentally well-equipped.”
While there are some who might still feel that NS is a hindrance, both to their career and study plans, to Raphael, NS is an opportunity to continue learning new life skills in an environment that is unlike any other. “You’re going to go through a lot of new experiences so take it all in and you’ll learn a lot of new things. Embrace it because a lot of what you will experience here, you won’t get a chance to do so outside of NS. Once you leave, you might just miss the time you’ve spent here.”
By Clement Wan.
Video by Evon Kua and Ian Tan.
The first part of 'NS through the Lens of an Overseas Singaporean' can be found here and it features 2LT Sherman Pay, a ROS Commander with the Republic of Singapore Air Force.