Covid-19: S'porean sons enlist into the SAF from a safe distance

Portrait Mode: Enlistees reported to Selarang Camp, where they had to say goodbye to their parents who were not invited to Pulau Tekong. Here's what they would have seen.

Andrew Koay | April 01, 2020, 07:19 PM

There comes a time in every Singaporean son's life that he must pack his bag, shave his head, and give two years of his life to the nation.

For many, that journey starts at Pulau Tekong, which houses the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC).

This year, with Singapore — and the rest of the world — in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic, enlistment had to be tweaked.

What is normally a significant moment for Singaporean families — watching their enlisting son officially enter National Service — had to be forgone in the interests of health.

Today (Apr. 1), instead of meeting at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange and boarding the ferry to Pulau Tekong with their sons, parents had to say their goodbyes at Selarang Camp.

Poignant farewells

Final family portraits before enlistment. Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Sending his son off with a pat on the back. Image by Andrew Koay

A makeshift drop-off point was the setting for poignant well-wishes and family photos.

Temperatures were taken and identifying stickers were handed out by soldiers who were facilitating the enlistments.

Normally, parents are taken on a tour of BMTC. They are shown the bunks, the training areas, and even get to taste the cookhouse food.

Today they had to settle for an information booklet and one final hug before driving off.

One mother —  56-year-old Jennifer Sy — told reporters that while she was worried about the Covid-19 situation in Singapore, she also trusted the SAF to look after her son.

"I just ask him to bring sanitisers and masks, that's all."

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Once at Selarang Camp, enlistees were ushered onto buses.

Sargeants stood at the entrance of the bus and monitored the queues to ensure that a safe distance was kept at all times.

Enlistees were made to stand one metre apart when boarding the bus. Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Health precautions

Inside the bus, seating was staggered to minimise the risk of transmission and only half of the bus' capacity was used.

These precautions were observed throughout the enlistment exercise, from the seating on the ferry to meals at the cookhouse.

For example, lectures which are normally held in an auditorium and attended en masse will instead have their content taught through LEARNet, the SAF's online training portal.

LEARNet will be accessible by recruits in their bunks through tablets.

Fundamental skills such as the technical handling of the SAR-21 (the SAF's assault rife of choice) will at least partly be taught through LEARNet as well.

But not everything can be learned or trained through screens.

Physical training and exercises will be conducted at section level (about 16 recruits) rather than by platoon (made up of four sections) or company (made up of four platoons).

In order to minimise the gathering of crowds, BMTC implemented the staggering of activities. This includes:

  • Mealtimes
  • Book-in book-out timings
  • Report sick timings
  • Individual physical proficiency test (IPPT)

Additionally, non-essential activities like recruit's night have been cancelled and temperatures are taken twice a day.

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

"With my life!" Image by Andrew Koay

Replicating the experience for parents

An integral part of the parent's tour of Pulau Tekong comes when they watch their son take the Oath of Allegiance.

In order to replicate that experience for families, BMTC filmed the ceremony. A video will be made, which recruits will then be able to send to their parents via WhatsApp.

A letter by Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis Oh — the commanding officer of BMTC School One — to parents of today's enlistees will also be disseminated through recruits and their smartphones.

Image by Andrew Koay

On Wednesdays BMTC's cookhouse serves western food. Image by Andrew Koay

"Ah boy, come!" A cookhouse aunty hands out dessert. Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Enlistees were staggered during mealtimes. Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Addressing the media in between oath-taking ceremonies Oh said that a raft of precautions had been taken in line with army advisory and government guidelines.

"The BMT enlistment is crucial for the build-up of operational units. We have to carry on with the enhanced measures in place."

Acknowledging the concerns of parents, Oh assured them that the welfare and wellbeing of soldiers were the SAF's "top priority".

"These measures — enhanced measures — are important and necessary for us to ensure the operational readiness of the SAF and at the same time also to safeguard the wellbeing of our soldiers."

No need to hoard toilet paper here. Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Portrait Mode is a photo essay series documenting the lives and experiences of people and things in Singapore, seen through the lenses of our young photographers at Mothership.

Top image by Andrew Koay