2-week call-ups 'nothing' compared to time spent on games, social media: Aussie volunteer serving in SAF

Stories of Us: Australia-born Michael Ryan explains his motivation behind joining the SAF Volunteer Corps, and why he thinks volunteering for a good cause isn't as difficult as one might imagine.

Jason Fan | April 27, 2021, 11:24 AM

The Singapore Armed Forces Volunteer Corp (SAFVC) was formed seven years ago, in 2014.

But I've never personally met anyone who was part of the volunteer-only force, until several weeks ago, when I came face-to face with Australian national Michael Ryan, who has served in the SAFVC for six years.

The 43-year-old turned up to our meeting at his cafe clad in an army-green polo shirt and a camouflage-patterned mask, keeping his zeal for the armed forces not at all subtle.

Given how some Singaporeans would rather not serve National Service (NS) if given the choice, my immediate question to him was this: why would you volunteer to be part of Singapore's armed forces?

A childhood trip to Singapore left a deep impression

Ryan's first exposure to Singapore was during a family trip way back in 1981, when he was still a toddler.

Despite having few concrete memories of his time here, Ryan said that the trip left a deep impression on him, given that it was his first trip out of Australia.

What he did remember, however, was losing his childhood toy during the trip, a plushy monkey named "Jimmy Monkey", named after a nursery rhyme that his mother used to sing to him.

Ryan recalled leaving his treasured toy at his hotel in Singapore, and being devastated when he realised its absence in Australia.

The hotel staff eventually found it, and posted it back to Australia to reunite the two.

"My story is, he likes Singapore so much, he absconded," he joked.

The legendary Jimmy Monkey that didn't want to leave Singapore. Image courtesy of Michael Ryan.

Returning to Singapore felt like coming home

In a strange parallel, Ryan would come to love Singapore as much as Jimmy Monkey did.

As Ryan grew up, he felt a strange, almost unexplainable connection to Asian culture, leading him to eventually spend two years in Japan, taking a course in Japanese language and culture in the process.

After he completed his studies, he felt that it was only natural for him to remain in Asia.

However, despite his reasonable fluency in Japanese, moving to Japan permanently would have been a "monumental task", given the cultural barrier that he faced as a foreigner.

For Ryan, Singapore was the perfect choice. The language barrier would be virtually non-existent, and he already had a strong, but fleeting connection to the city through his childhood trip.

And so in 2004, he moved to Singapore, determined to see how Singapore had changed since his first visit.

When he first landed in Singapore, Ryan described feeling a strange blend of both excitement and familiarity, although he couldn't quite explain why.

"It just felt like coming home," he said simply.

However, starting his new life in Singapore wasn't easy.

He arrived at the tail end of the SARS epidemic, an unfortunate time for anyone hoping to find a job.

After a gruelling 18-month job search, he managed to snag a job in the teaching industry.

A stable job was certainly welcome during those trying times, but Ryan always felt the need to move on to new challenges.

After a few years, he started his own cafe business in 2011, naming the establishment Jimmy Monkey Cafe, after the childhood toy that he once left behind in Singapore.

During his time in Singapore, he also met his future wife, a Singaporean, and the couple married in 2010.

He wanted to give back to Singapore

While Ryan was happily settled into Singapore, he felt the need to give back to the country, as he felt that he had received a lot from Singapore, and the people around him.

Ryan praised Singapore for its many initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has allowed his small business to survive during the previous year, as he might not have been able to hold on his staff, which comprises more than 30 Singaporeans, if he was left to his own devices.

He also said that as a foreigner, the security and safety he receives while in Singapore is unparalleled, allowing him to both raise a family and form strong friendships in a welcoming environment.

"It (Singapore) provided me a welcome home when it didn't need to. It allowed me the safe passage of entry, a secure environment, a community that really adopted me, even though I was a very strange ang moh."

And while he considered several initiatives, such as setting up food drives, it was being in the armed forces that caught his attention.

His male friends in Singapore all had a common connection, having served their National Service. Ryan figured that he'd have an opportunity to share that connection, while giving back to Singapore at the same time, through volunteering in the armed forces.

"A lot of these guys, whom I consider blood to me, have gone through that rite of service: National Service. And I've always felt a disconnect, a sense of not belonging here, even when I'm a PR," he said.

The decision to join the SAFVC was made in 30 minutes

And so, when the right opportunity came by, Ryan didn't hesitate at all.

While reading an article about the SAFVC in 2014, Ryan was immediately intrigued by the idea of joining the all-volunteer force.

He described his feelings as similar to hearing a foreign language for the first time, but understanding it completely.

"It didn't make sense. But it just did. It just connected at all the right levels," he said.

Ryan began searching for information online, and quickly found an application form.

After a grand total of around 30 minutes, he was all but ready to hit the "send" button, hesitating only to ask his wife for her opinion first.

As it turns out, she was immediately supportive of his decision to join the SAFVC, and according to Ryan, not at all surprised.

With newfound confidence that he would not be exiled to the living room couch for his decision, he submitted his application to the SAFVC.

Ryan said that the process to join the SAFVC "wasn't a walk in the park", as he had to undergo a full medical check-up and sit through a panel interview with several high-ranking officers within the SAF, which he admitted was "quite intimidating".

He eventually passed all the pre-requisites, and snagged a place in the second batch of SAFVC enlistees, securing his spot as one of the pioneer SAFVC personnel in Singapore.

SAFVC training

To start off his SAFVC experience, Ryan had to go for a two-week basic training course, where he was introduced to army staples like the SAR-21 rifle, and the Standard Obstacle Course (SOC).

Ryan undergoing training as a volunteer with the SAFVC. Image via MINDEF.

For Ryan, the physical portion of his training was not that daunting, given that he goes hiking and cycling reasonably often, and also spent many years learning karate (he has two black belts, by the way).

What was truly hard to adjust to was getting up at the crack of dawn, as Ryan was, in his own words, not a morning person.

Regimentation in the armed forces was also a new experience for Ryan, but he eventually adjusted to the tight schedule.

In fact, his inner competitive spirit kicked in during his training, and he soon found himself pushing himself for various tasks, such as ensuring that he could strip a rifle within 10 seconds.

After another week of qualification training, he became an auxiliary security trooper, and a fully-fledged member of the SAFVC.

He was part of the 2019 NDP marching contingent

Ryan took his new role as a security trooper very seriously.

During his first sentry duty, he recalled that he kept still like a statue, not even daring to wiggle his toes.

And while he has considerably more experience now, given that he has been in the SAFVC for six years now, he remains vigilant during every task he is given.

He emphasised the importance of being professional, and said that it was vital that he remained alert at all times, even for routine assignments.

In fact, he revealed that before every deployment in the SAFVC, volunteers are given a refresher training course, in order to ensure that they are all up to date with their training.

The highlight of Ryan's SAFVC experience was when he was a part of the marching contingent in the 2019 National Day Parade (NDP), the first time that SAFVC personnel were part of the event.

He spent a gruelling 16 weeks preparing for it, taking time out of his busy schedule to attend rehearsals in the hot sun.

Ryan (third from right) was part of the SAFVC contingent during the 2019 NDP. Image via MINDEF.

It was not only a memorable experience for Ryan, but also an opportunity for him to become a role model for his two children, who were always excited to see him don his green uniform.

Ryan said that his kids would often march around the house proudly, wearing his boots.

In fact, he hopes that his children will follow in his footsteps, and play an integral part in Singapore's defence.

"My son will serve in due course, and I hope that my daughter will serve, and choose to sign on," he said proudly.

Ryan (second from right) with SAF personnel at NDP 2019. Image via MINDEF.

It's not difficult to find time to volunteer

Looking at childhood photographs of his trip in Singapore, Ryan still marvels at how much has changed since then.

He said that the infrastructure and organisation that led to this rapid development is a trait unique to Singapore, and is something that is worth defending.

"It's so safe, so secure, it's almost dull and boring, in a way, but that's a good boring to have," he joked.

And although volunteering his time to join the SAFVC may appear to be an extra burden for him, Ryan does not see it that way.

In fact, when I asked him how he manages to find the time to volunteer, he was quick to assure me that anyone could do the same, if they were motivated to do so.

He said that he only spends approximately two weeks a year doing his SAFVC duties, which is "nothing", compared to the many mundane things we choose to do on a daily basis instead.

Ryan jokingly told me to check my phone's analytics, and see how much time I've spent on pretty meaningless pursuits, such as Candy Crush or Instagram.

He said that I can easily find two weeks of spare time if I made an attempt to, and finding a worthy cause to contribute my time to isn't as difficult as one might imagine.

Ryan himself hopes to continue serving in the SAFVC, until he has served for at least a decade, and intends to continue giving back to his society as much as he can, no matter where he calls home.

"Home is where I've made my life."

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top image via MINDEF and Michael Ryan.