Private, 5 Singapore Infantry Regiment, Exercise Bersatu Padu 1970

The 1960s, when absurdly wide hems were fashionable and the world madly idolised the Beatles, was a turbulent period in the history of Singapore.

Independence in 1965 was achieved in a background of internal turmoil and regional uncertainty.  The massive 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire savaged the squatter settlements while riots in 1964 and 1969 crippled the country with violence and social upheaval. Externally, the Konfrontasi, the Communist presence in Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War immersed the region in uncertainty.

While the 1960s may be synonymous with strife and poverty, it was also a period of change. The Women’s Charter was passed by Parliament in 1961. In the same year, the Economic Development Board was established to boost foreign investment while the Housing Development Board, embarked on its quest to provide affordable quality homes to Singaporeans. On 17 Aug 67, Singapore’s first cohort of full-time national servicemen were enlisted.

At the time of her independence, Singapore’s Army comprised only two regular infantry battalions – the First and Second Battalions, Singapore Infantry Regiment (SIR).

Given the conditions of a fragmented multi-ethnic, multi-religious and migrant society that saw military duties as lowly, the challenge was to boost the public’s confidence in the upcoming National Service army. Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Shefi, who was an instructor in a company commanders course, was sent as an adviser. “We discovered that there was psychological resistance to conscription in Singapore,” he relates. “Of 10 professions, that of soldier was ranked last. In first place was the artist, followed by the philosopher, the teacher and the merchant, and the thief was in ninth place”.

 

Many of the first generation of Singapore conscripts were lowly-educated, but these men were of tough, hardy stock, eager to learn and perform well. They also saw conscription as a desparate means to overcome unemployment. Trained by local instructors who themselves were trained in the early years by Israeli advisors; they made up the core of the armed forces. Those trained by the Israelis went through brutal training, an ex-SAF Warrent Officer accounted to me as to how some punishments were meted out, “He told me to open my mouth and then spat into it.” For good measure, he was then told to swallow the spittle”. The men were also soulfully reminded, “When we Israelis go for training in our country, we don’t expect to return alive.”

Training was extremely hard, and always in the hot boiling sun, the conscripts were always cussed and yelled at; often into the face. Physical fitness and discipline was of paramount concern and the men were always speed running to touch faraway trees or doing endless push-ups as punishment. Casevac saw men evacuating their comrades on their backs running at break-neck speed from hillock to hillock, and after a brief rest and switchover, racing  back where they came from.

Casevac in progress

There was no fancy uniform, gear or weapons. The Temasek Green uniform – possibly Israeli-inpired – was worn with the blouse tucked in at the waist resulting in skin chaffing. It was only with the 3rd version of the Temasek Green US-style ‘bushjacket’ uniform that a certain degree of comfort was attained. The canvas load bearing harness – popularly nicknamed ‘sotong’ (colloquial Malay word for squid) or ‘bra’ was for many conscripts a handed-me-down affair. It was impregnated with the dirt, sweat stains and who knows what else of countless conscripts of past cohorts. Six ammo pouches to take 20 round AR-15 magazines were attached to the web-belt as were the US style canteen holder, nylon toggle rope and bayonet. The US M1 helmet had a camo cover of green and brown mottled sploches over a light sand coloured background, a strange choice for tropical fighting and concealment. In the mid 70s, this pattern was switched to a ‘fern leaf’ camo pattern of dark green and brown stripes. A wide black rubber band to attach foilage and other bits of camoflage was often worn around the helmet to further hold the cover in place.

In a multi-racial society like Singapore, communication was always a problem. Commented Ee Cheng Huat who was was then a section commander in 1 Singapore Infantry Regiment, ““Well, as a Corporal you would have a 8 to 10 men section and you’ll conduct training and things like that. Language was a problem and we had to speak in dialect and even in Bahasa Melayu. But then you’ll get to see them achieve the expected standards. So in a sense you trained them and after that you will see how your time in the Army was quite enriching. You see that these are all your men; you treat them well and they’ll do well.”

Recounted  Col (Ret) John Morrice: “They (the soldiers in 2 Singapore Infantry Brigade) were very good boys. Of course, they were mostly gangsters, with tattoos and all that … but when you tell them to do something they will really do it. They will grumble … speak Hokkien (a Southern Chinese dialect)… they will grumble… but when the time comes to do it, they will do it and perform well.”

“… the officer’s life is not just training, training and training. Men’s welfare is also very important. You look after them properly, they will serve you better. “

“In Sabah [during the Confrontation], when I used to do patrols and I came back, there used to be a platoon, an escort platoon. They would escort me and four men back. When we came out from enemy territory, they were so happy to see us. They prepared coffee… cooked something… noodles… whatever it is. They will make sure we have food. Because for four days, we could not carry anything other than can rations, which we just open and ate directly from. We could not cookfor four days. So, I was very taken up by the spirit the men showed.”

Col (Ret) John Morrice

Ee Cheng Huat, Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute, Live Firing Area

“Being the first batch of NS enlistees, we didn’t know what to expect. Unlike today, many have elder brothers to relate to. We didn’t know what NS was about, we went in “blind”. As we didn’t know what the Army will turn out to be, we were expecting the worse. We were not highly educated; many did not go to primary school and could not speak English. But they were really tough. First you didn’t know what to expect. Then finally you get there and you see your platoon mates and you see they were really tough guys. So you needed to be just as tough.”

Ee Cheng Huat (enlisted 1967)

Yong Shao Chong - Best Shot, BMT Company's marksmanship competition 1968

“I think NS (National Service) is good, really, really good. At 18, NS really helps one to become a man, to become independent. I think it really helps looking after the person next to you. And I think after all these years, it is still the same if we go to war. You have to look after each other to stay alive. I think that is very important. I will never renounce NS, I think it is a really good thing, I am proud of it. That’s why I encourage my son to look forward to NS; and he is looking forward to it. I will never encourage people to escape. Don’t be selfish about it. Just do NS”

 Yong Shao Chong (enlisted 1967)

Gunga parachuting during National Day Parade at the Padang. Selected for the Airborne, Ranger and Pathfinder Courses conducted in the United States; he was subsequently appointed as Platoon Sergeant in the Commandos Parachute Wing in 1975.

“I guess one of the strong things about our generation was no matter what punishment the instructors gave, even if we knew who did it, we would never admit it and point the guy out. And that was how close we were. We were very strong in that area. We would rather get the punishment together.”

When I pick up my weapon, I know it is for my family. Similarly, every one of us, when we pick up our weapon, it’s for everyone in our families. And ultimately it’s for the nation.”

Gungadaran (enlisted 1969)

Woon Seng Chwee and buddies. Note theTemasek Green uniform, canvas SBO (Skeleton-Battle-Order) and magazine pouches and M1 camo-mottled helmet covers.

We were quite happy most of the time. Yes training was tough, but we could take it because we were young. Everybody was tough. As long as we were happy … we went out together, we trained together … even if training was so tough until we wanted to give up, we were still happy to die together.”

Woon Seng Chwee (enlisted 1967)

Exercise Bersatu Padu, 1970

by Derek Lim

Every year, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is involved in numerous military exercises with other armed forces. These exercises give the SAF the opportunity to evaluate her fighting capabilities and learn from its counterparts. It was thirty six years ago that the SAF took part in its first ever large-scale multi-lateral exercise. This was Exercise Bersatu Padu, held from April to June 1970.

In June 1968, during the Five Power Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur (involving Singapore, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), it was agreed that a military exercise involving all five countries would be held in West Malaysia. In view of the eventual British pullout from Singapore in 1971, this exercise would demonstrate the concept of military support for Malaysia and Singapore in the event of an attack by foreign forces on their territories. The exercise was to be called Bersatu Padu, meaning “Solid Unity” in Malay and bring together 25,000 soldiers, 200 aircraft and 50 ships.

In 1970, the SAF was still a fledgling force. It had started out after Singapore’s independence with only two infantry battalions – 1 SIR and 2 SIR. Its navy and air force was still in its infancy, with much of its equipment only purchased in recent years. With National Service being introduced in 1967, it started to grow rapidly, with national servicemen making up the bulk of its fighting men. Exercise Bersatu Padu was to be a big test for the SAF – would its men rise to the occasion and prove that the SAF had the makings of a credible fighting force? It was also an opportunity to evaluate the capabilities of its men, the effectiveness of training and learn from its experienced counterparts.

5 SIR was chosen to take part in this exercise. It consisted of 900 men, made up mostly of national servicemen, with the senior commanders and non-commissioned officers being regulars . Training for Bersatu Padu took place in late 1969, when the Commanding Officer and company commanders attended a six-week Jungle Warfare Course in Johore. This was followed by a series of training exercises, including heliborne assault training, for the other officers and men. All these were done to prepare the battalion for the tough challenge ahead.

The scenario for Exercise Bersatu Padu was this: Ganasia, a fictitious country between Thailand and Malaysia, had begun infiltrating into Trengganu and managed to control a swathe of territory in the West Malaysian State. The aim of the five powers was to stop the growing aggression of the Ganasians and to regain the lost territory. The exercise began on 5 April 1970 with the deployment of the participating ANZUK(1), Malaysian and Singaporean troops. A six-week training phase was then conducted, with 5 SIR receiving jungle training in Kota Tinggi, Johore. 5 SIR, along with some British units(2), formed the 19th Brigade. An exercise, Spring Handicap, was held at the end of the training phase where 5 SIR successfully attacked and captured a 400m high enemy-held hill.

The main exercise in Bersatu Padu was Exercise Granada. This exercise called for the capture of Penarek Airfield, followed by operations against enemy bases by the 4th Brigade (consisting of Malaysian and ANZ(3) troops) and 19th Brigade. On 13 June, Penarek Airfield was successfully captured and the airlifting of 19th Brigade took place. By 20 June, four enemy bases had been taken over by 19th Brigade. On 28 June, 5 SIR took part in the final assault on the enemy stronghold, where the role of Ganasian defenders was played by the British Royal Marine Commandos. The assault was a success, with equal losses on both sides (the British unit had 102 “killed in action” while 5 SIR had 105 “killed/wounded in action”). This was a remarkable achievement for 5 SIR, for it had come up evens against a more experienced unit (the Marine Commandos were to have a distinguished stint in the Falklands War later on). There were also air and sea exercises held in Butterworth and the South China Sea but Singapore’s involvement was minimal and provided mainly administrative support.

The successes of 5 SIR in Bersatu Padu meant that the SAF had passed its first test with flying colours. What made it more remarkable was that 5 SIR was a young national service battalion, made up of young men with no experience in warfare. It had shown that if led by the right people and trained the right way, an armed forces based on the principle of citizen soldiery can hold its own against any other military force.

Footnotes:

(1) ANZUK stands for Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom.
(2) The British units in 19th Brigade were the 2nd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, Light Infantry Regiment.
(3) ANZ stands for Australia and New Zealand.

References:

1. The Singapore Armed Forces Commemorative Book, 1981
2. SAF and 30 years of National Service, Mickey Chiang

Sources

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