Retired colonel Lau Kee Siong was one of the first people to be in charge of whipping Singapore’s army recruits into shape during the late 1960s. But even as he taught them the drills and how to shoot a weapon, he also learnt from them the lessons of life.

When retired colonel Lau Kee Siong was a young corporal in the Singapore Armed Forces back in the 1960s, part of his job was to weed out the weaker soldiers from his unit.

The ones he eliminated were those considered less competent. For instance, those who had poor eyesight or physically weak.

But Mr Lau, then just a strapping young man of 20, later realised that the same men he had cut from his section were posted to artillery units that supported his section in live-firing exercises. During such exercises, the artillery units were meant to “soften up the enemy’s position” by bombing and firing the targets from afar. After the shelling, Mr Lau and his team had to charge up the hill to finish the job with their rifles and bayonet.

Mr Lau was commander of the Tiger Company in the 3rd Brigade in 1971. He trained corporals. Image source: Mr Lau Kee Siong

The role of the artillery units was pivotal. If they were accurate, there would be fewer enemies left to fight. But if they misaim, the artillery shells could end up hitting friendly troops.

“So when we heard during lunch that the artillery guys were the people we discarded, we couldn’t eat our lunch,” said Mr Lau, 70, with a grin.

“The irony is that in an actual war, the ones we ‘discarded’ may be the ones to help save our lives by firing accurately on the enemy.”

The incident taught him one simple lesson: Every single person matters, especially given Singapore’s tiny size.

The importance of having good men in the army was something Mr Lau quickly understood. After all, he was one of the pioneer leaders tasked to train the first few batches of National Servicemen at Taman Jurong soon after Singapore became independent.

He enlisted in 1967, responding to an army recruitment advertisement in the papers that offered $300 a month to those who had A-Level qualifications. That sum was big money in those days – a teacher then was only paid $180.

National Service, or NS, was borne out of the need for Singapore to protect its own borders. Stung by the realisation that the British could not and did not want to protect Singapore any further – almost all British troops had withdrawn from the island by 1971 – the government decided that conscripting men was the fastest and most efficient way of building a defence force.

For Singaporeans, soldiering was not a natural way of life. Many had no idea what to expect and few had any inkling how hard the regimentation and discipline was going to be, he recalled.

“There were mummy’s-boy types and you can hear them crying at night because they missed their families,” he said.

Many of the conscripts were poorly educated, having been brought up on the streets instead of in the classroom. Mr Lau’s section comprised mainly those who only had up to a Primary Six education. Some were gangsters and had no respect for rules. At least two were imprisoned by the authorities for stabbing incidents while under his charge.

He quickly learnt that commanding respect from such an unruly bunch of men required more than just the rank on his shoulders. Respect, he quickly found out, had to be earned. And the only way to gain the respect of his men was for him to lead by example, said Mr Lau.

Once, during watermanship training, his recruits’ boat capsized and Mr Lau, a certified lifeguard, dove into the dark and murky water in Jurong River to save his recruits.

There were no cheers or high-fives, but Mr Lau knew that he had started to win them over.

“This corporal can [do],” they whispered among themselves.

Indeed, he did. Over the years, Mr Lau excelled in the army and rose up its ranks. He was given the title of “best recruit” in 1967 and was the top student at the Singapore Command and Staff College in 1980. When he retired at 1999 after serving for 32 years, he was the assistant chief of general staff (logistics), second only to the chief of army and in charge of several thousand personnel.

But if there was one thing that he remembers most from his years of service, it was the 1968 National Day Parade.

That day, as the people of a young nation stood at the Padang to celebrate their country’s birthday, a storm broke. The rain came thick and heavy, blanketing the entire contingent of soldiers, policemen and civilians, both men and women.

Mr Lau rose through the army’s ranks to become Assistant Chief of General Staff (Logistics). He has since retired but is the vice president of the SAF Veterans League. Image source: Mr Lau Kee Siong

As he stood in the middle of the Padang, Mr Lau’s eyes were fixed on then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his entire cabinet. Statues in the rain, the leaders of the newly established Republic of Singapore sat on the steps of City Hall on rattan chairs, resolute in their belief that Singapore could weather any storm.

Like Mr Lau, they, too, led by example.

“They were sitting upright, not moving. They were not trying to avoid the rain and they did not use any umbrellas,” he said.

“That sight meant a lot to me. Them sitting there despite the heavy rain gave an aura of dignity to the national celebration and showed me that our leaders have the resolve and spirit to lead the budding new nation.”

Written by: Jack Tan

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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