‘PM Lee, my army buddy’: What it was like doing NS with the man who became Prime Minister

‘PM Lee, my army buddy’: What it was like doing NS with the man who became Prime Minister

From leading by example to enjoying soup kambing together, here’s what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s army buddies remember most about him.

PM Lee at NS50 dinner
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a group photo with guests at the NS50 dinner reception on Oct 30. (Photo: MINDEF)

SINGAPORE: It was the soup kambing at Chong Pang Village that 65-year-old retired Lieutenant Colonel Tan Seng Poh remembers as being the best in Singapore.

He also remembers having it for supper on many occasions with his army buddies in the wee hours of the morning, after completing their training for the day. 

But he had no inkling then that one particular army buddy, who he bonded with over the mutton soup dish, would one day become the Prime Minister of Singapore.

Mr Tan, who served in the Singapore Artillery, was in the same artillery formation as Mr Lee Hsien Loong. In 1975, the two also served together in the same unit.

“It was very impromptu,” said Mr Tan. “After showering after training, I would pop into his room to chit chat, and sometimes, if we were hungry, we would go out to Chong Pang Village to eat the soup kambing.”

“He loves soup kambing, and this was the best. I remember we were all in shorts and our PT kit, and it was a very relaxed mood. We showed him which stall to eat, and he enjoyed it very much,” he recalled.

On Monday (Oct 30), the former commander of the Artillery Training Institute got the chance to meet and reminisce with Mr Lee at the NS50 dinner reception held at the Marina Bay floating platform. The reception, which caps a year of events to mark 50 years of National Service, was attended by about 1,500 guests.

"I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER HIS HEARTY LAUGHTER"

Even though it was known that Mr Lee was the son of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, he behaved "like one of us", said Mr Tan. 

“He extended his friendship to us as fellow gunners, and he was very comfortable with us,” he added. “I will always remember his hearty laughter. It always made us feel very comfortable with him.”

And despite having gone their separate ways, Mr Tan said the Prime Minister is still “very much the same”.

“The last time I saw him was at a dinner two years ago,” he recalled. “He walked up to me specially and called out to me.”

“He made every effort to remember names, and even after many years, he can still call you by your name,” he told Channel NewsAsia. “That speaks quite a fair bit about him.”

mr tan and wife with PM lee
Mr Tan Seng Poh and his wife meeting the Prime Minister at an SG50 dinner in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Tan Seng Poh)

Mr Choy Kin Chong, another retired lieutenant colonel who was also in the Singapore Artillery, has similar memories of the Prime Minister.

“After I left the army, on one or two occasions when I met him, he used to tell the guys there that 'KC was my army buddy'”, he said.

“All of us officers, we consider each other buddies. And even now, I can walk up to him and say: 'PM, my army buddy'”.

In his time in the army, the 66-year-old served as a defence attache overseas, and said he had “several touchpoints” with Mr Lee. For one, they were both in the Officer Cadet School together, and when Mr Lee was commanding officer of the 23rd Singapore Artillery (SA) battalion, he had handed over the unit to Mr Choy.  

Like Mr Tan, he also has fond memories of Mr Lee - in particular, his leadership by example.  

“At that time, recruits were asked to cut grass and we would normally give them about an hour to do it,” he said. “Most of the officers would have gone to the mess to have a drink, but he stayed on throughout with the recruits.”

“When I was taking over from him at 23SA, he also handed me his personal lantern, which had an FM radio as part of the system,” Mr Choy added. “He went, please have this, I don’t need it anymore.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have it anymore, otherwise it would have gone to the army museum!”

BUDDIES FOR LIFE

Both Mr Tan and Mr Choy cite the strong esprit de corps and camaraderie of the men as a catalyst in forging lifelong friendships in the army.

“The artillery was the oldest arm in the Singapore army, so we had a very strong identity right from the get-go,” said Mr Tan. “This has not diminished over time.”

“I will always remember, once a gunner, always a gunner.”

He added that the shared experiences of training and army life has made them a “brotherhood”, and till today, the gunners try to keep in touch.

Mr Choy, in particular, said he started a regular gathering called the Gunners RV, where everyone meets at the artillery headquarters in Khatib camp to keep in touch and renew friendships. This happens about once a quarter.

“I easily have about 20 to 30 of my own group of buddies who I’m closer to,” he said. “Some of us go fishing together or we have golf games.”

He said that some years ago, Mr Lee had come back to join them for the gathering. And now, he plans to invite the Prime Minister to join them again. “But we have not invited him yet, so we will probably have to sound out the artillery chief to make the move!”

In his speech at the dinner, Mr Lee said National Service has become a national institution and a rite of passage for Singaporean males, regardless of race religion or social background. 

"NS is where boys grow up to become men, forging bonds that last for life, through blood, sweat and tears," said Mr Lee. "That is why years after ORD, many of us still make time to meet up with our NS buddies and feel joyful when we bump into old comrades."

"And tonight, I am happy to be meeting some of my old artillery comrades as we say - once a gunner, always a gunner!"

Source: CNA/lc

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