SINGAPORE: On Wednesday (Apr 1), a large makeshift parking lot in Selarang Camp became an unlikely scene for goodbyes.
Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen wearing luminous vests hurried around stationary cars carrying "thermometer guns" to check passengers as they alighted.
For some of those alighting, it was the first day of their two-year, full-time national service. These Singaporean sons would soon be bussed then ferried to the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) on Pulau Tekong. Typically, their families came with them, took a tour of the camp and sat with them for a meal.
But like with almost every other aspect of life in Singapore, the outbreak of COVID-19 has turned enlistment day into a sterile affair.
At the parking lot, some parents hugged their sons while others made do with a quick chat and a wave. Then, they turned back to their cars and their sons disappeared into the camp.
SAF has barred guests on enlistment day to prevent large crowds as part of its stepped up measures against the spread of the coronavirus.
BMTC will also enlist smaller batches of recruits at one time, operate buses and ferries at a reduced capacity, and conduct training in smaller groups.
BMTC School 1 Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Dennis Oh, who is responsible for recruits’ safety, said BMT has to go on with these enhanced measures.
“BMT enlistment is crucial for the build-up of operational units,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “To the public, especially the parents, I just want to assure that the welfare as well as the well-being of our soldiers are our top priority.”
PARENTS LEAVE EARLIER
Freelance artist Jennifar Sy, 56, said she was worried about her son enlisting during COVID-19 and asked him to take extra care in camp.
“I asked him to bring sanitisers and masks,” she said with a laugh. “I think they will do everything to keep our children safe.”
Ms Sy said she would have preferred to visit Pulau Tekong with her son, but anticipated that this would happen after the number of guests was steadily reduced from four to two.
“I can accept it,” she said. “I told him to take care and SMS me whenever he has the time, tell me what’s going on there.”
Traditionally, parents and their sons would report directly to the SAF ferry terminal in Changi to leave for Tekong together. Parents would go for a tour of BMTC, listen to a commander’s address and share a chicken cutlet meal with their sons.
Then the parents would crowd the parade square as their sons formed neat rows in the sun, waving to them and bidding farewell.
But on Monday, the parking lot was the farthest parents could go. There was no Western fare nor commander’s talk; they would get an electronic letter from him forwarded via WhatsApp that night.
READ: MINDEF defers all 'non-operations-essential' in-camp training, waives IPPT requirement for affected NSmen
Every step of the way, commanders told recruits to maintain a safe distance from each other, ushering them to waiting buses that could only be filled halfway. Some seats were blocked off with pieces of paper that said “do not occupy”.
It was the same on the ferry, which only took 100 passengers instead of the usual 200. Recruits stretched their hands out for a blob of sanitiser before boarding.
Normally, the ferry trip would be a noisy one filled with the chatter of parents and sons. This time it was silent, as recruits watched a video of a young woman giving ferry safety tips, then an old clip of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stressing the importance of defending Singapore.
On Pulau Tekong, the recruits were registered before entering a large auditorium to take their oaths – a solemn occasion where they pledge to protect the county with their lives.
The auditorium would usually be packed, with parents surrounding their sons as they stood and raised their right palms. The parents would also stand, eager to take a video or two.
Now, the auditorium was occupied only in the middle, with 40 recruits – down from the usual 100 to 150 – standing in alternate rows. Parents would be sent a video of the ceremony.
Recruits then went for lunch at staggered meal times before checking their equipment at the training shed - one person to a table compared to the previous two.
Over the next few weeks, recruits would participate in physical activities like group runs and the individual physical proficiency test at the section level of 16 soldiers, down from the usual platoon of 64 soldiers.
Lessons on rifle technical handling and giving cardiopulmonary resuscitation will be uploaded online, so recruits don’t need to gather in large groups. Likewise, practical sessions are conducted in smaller groups with no physical contact.
TRAINING RIGOUR INTACT
Despite the measures, LTC Oh said training intensity remains the same as it still proceeds as usual albeit in smaller groups.
“Our objectives as well as standards are not compromised in any way,” he said. “These enhanced measures are important and necessary for us to ensure the operational readiness of SAF, and at the same time, also to safeguard the well-being of our soldiers.”
Still, BMTC Commander Colonel Pang Lead Shuan had said on Monday that the enhanced measures could “dilute the NS experience”.
BMTC has also called off large social gatherings like the recruits’ night – usually to celebrate the tail end of their stint on the island – and reduced the number of guests at their graduation parade, a milestone for any full-time national serviceman.
“There will be some inconvenience,” LTC Oh said.
“But as we are a national institution, my ground commanders lead by example. And we endeavour to continue to ensure a meaningful and memorable experience for all recruits that come through BMT.”