What I took away from two years in the military

What I took away from two years in the military

Before moving to London for uni, from the tender ages of 18 to 20, I served for a year and ten months in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). For Singaporean male citizens, compulsory and full-time National Service is a rite of passage. After school and usually before university, all able-bodied males are drafted into the service – this could be in the military (SAF) or the civil service (the police or Civil Defence Force i.e. emergency services).

To provide some context, conscription has been in force in Singapore since 1967, two years after the Republic became independent. With a small population of just a few million people, the National Service Act was passed to build up a large enough reserve military to supplement a very small regular force. After two years full-time, servicemen ‘graduate’ and become known as ‘operationally ready’, joining the masses in the reserves. This is the status I currently hold, having been declared operationally ready at the end of my stint in 2012.

While National Service has come to be accepted as a part of the Singaporean way of life, there are still times when it is seen as a contentious topic. On one side of the spectrum, you have the supporters of NS who believe in the value of mandatory military training and see no alternative to conscription in terms of drumming up the numbers and resources for national defense. On the other hand, dissenters make the claim that NS is a waste of time and a huge strain on the national budget, while at the same time presenting a huge opportunity cost for many young men who could be off to work or university after school, but instead have to spend two years of their young lives preparing for the possibility of armed conflict in a relatively peaceful region. There are also a number of training deaths that happen from time to time which has added fuel to the debate.

I’m not going to discuss those views in this post. What I want to do is instead flesh out some of the key lessons and takeaways that I learned from my own experience in the military, and how I apply those to my daily life even here in London. I’ve certainly picked up a few very useful things from two memorable two in service, and some hard truths that would later shape some of my views.

To give you an idea of what my National Service ‘journey’ was like, here’s a brief timeline…

February to April 2011
Basic Military Training
Rank: Recruit.
Enlisted into the SAF, and got shipped off to Pulau Tekong (offshore island where Basic Military Training happens), together with a whole bunch of other young men. Swore an oath of allegiance to the SAF. Had my head shaved. In the course of two months, got assimilated to the army setting and learned basic soldiering and infantry skills.
April to December 2011
Officer Cadet School/Air Force Training Command
Rank: Officer Cadet Trainee.
Graduated from BMT and somehow emerged in the top percentile of my cohort and got posted to Officer Cadet School, where you get trained to become a junior commander. Got streamed to the Air Force where I trained to be proficient in operating an anti-air missile defence system, alongside officer and leadership training. Commissioned as an officer in January 2012
January to December 2012
Served as a Fire Control Officer in 163 Squadron as part of the Republic of Singapore Air Force
Rank: 2nd Lieutenant.
Got posted back to the unit which specialises in the weapon system I was trained in. 163 Squadron handles a long range missile defense system which is deployed in wartime to secure Singaporean airspace from enemy fighter planes. In peacetime, the Squadron is engaged in 24/7 air surveillance operations, which is what I was mainly involved in during these 11 months in active service. Lots of crazy hours and staying up at wee hours of the morning to prevent the a 9/11 type of situation from happening on Singaporean soil (or air in this case). As a Lieutenant, I also had the opportunity to lead men during shifts and missions. Finished my service on 8 December 2012 as a reservist Lieutenant.

And now, on to my takeaways from my former military life.

1. Working out in the morning and earning your breakfast

Exercising or engaging in some form of semi-strenuous physical activity first thing after getting up in the morning is something I’ve tried to retain from my days in service.

Back in the day, we would get up at 5.30 and either have a morning run, circuit training, or ‘5BX’ (5 Basic Exercises) at around 5.45, which would be the first activity of the day after roll call.


Shuttle Run Sprints

A lanky 19 year old me doing some shuttle run sprints, circa 2011. Photo: TJ Goh


The benefits of this are plenty – working out first thing in the morning has been proven to increase the quality of sleep, boost metabolism, increase focus throughout the day, and many more.

Most importantly, for me, having a workout first thing in the morning while fasted gets me mentally ready and pumped for the day. Exercise makes your body release endorphins which puts you in a good mood. If it’s part of your everyday routine, it also instills discipline and makes you stick to a schedule, which will probably lead to you being more productive and accomplishing more throughout the day.

Nowadays, this has translated to a quick gym session or run before work. Try it – beat the sun and get up early, plug into your favourite playlist and hit the weights/treadmill/track. Keep this up for a couple of weeks and you should start seeing some positive changes to your life.

2. A ‘things could always be worse’ mentality and looking for the silver lining


Out in the field, you really come to appreciate and be grateful for the simplest things. I remember how we dug little pits or foxholes in basic training and had to hold our positions in there during the night, for about a week. It rained heavily every other day and we would be swimming in our foxholes, feeling extremely wet and miserable. When we did have a dry night, we considered that a godsend.

Getting the chance to have a quick shower after missions or in between trainings was also a luxury. Or having fresh rations instead of our vacuum-packed combat rations (which didn’t taste that bad, all things considered). Or not getting shouted at and being treated like the lowest form of life by our instructors.

Nowadays, whenever I’m having a tough time or think I’m struggling, I look back on those days in the field and count my blessings. It will rarely ever get as bad as that. And that attitude helps me get through stuff.

3. Don’t put off something that can be done now, for later


Weekends were precious back then, and weekends are precious now. This is why the first thing I do when I get back home after work on a Friday is put all my clothes in the wash, so I have them clean and ready for ironing by Saturday morning. This is something I cultivated from my time in service. I get those chores done as soon as I can so I have as much of the weekend for doing things that really matter.

The spirit of doing everything efficiently and ‘sooner rather than later’ was drilled into me from my earliest days in basic training. Doing anything slow or dawdling was definitely not tolerated by our instructors, and this helped me shape some really good habits. At any given point in time, we could be given an order to mobilise in full battle order (i.e. full combat uniform and gear, including weapon and field pack), and this would have to be done in a matter of minutes with no exceptions.

In some ways this sense of urgency and being action-oriented in general has trickled down to how I like to get things done quickly, and be more productive on a day-to-day basis.

4. If you’re going to eat shit, don’t nibble

Barbed wire

I didn’t coin the phrase (it was probably made famous by Ben Horowitz in his book ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things’, which I have read and highly recommend for all managers and aspiring leaders), but I did learn this very important lesson in the Force. It basically means that if you’re faced with a struggle or difficult situation, it’s best to deal with it in its entirety rather than to dwell on it and face it in a half-hearted way. I was presented with many such situations during my service where I learnt to deal with my troubles face-forward and head on. Sometimes, just jumping right into the thick of it, and taking action as soon as you can, is a much better way of achieving a solution, rather than deliberating extensively. Prolonging a painful process only makes it worse. Get it over with.


5. Nothing is more important than having quality relationships

Graduating from Air Force Training Command as officers

This might seem obvious but in the context of the military, this becomes even more relevant. When things got tough and even unbearable (and quite often, they were), it really was the camaraderie and friendship I shared with the men I served with that got me through.

We went through some incredibly difficult situations in training and on missions, and having solid friends who had your back really made a difference.

For me, having the right people with you and having those great relationships should always take precedence over anything else. Ultimately, you want to work with people you can depend on and have that culture of mutual trust and respect in the workplace (or any other social situation).

6. Saluting the rank, not the person 

Salute the rank

I echo what Major Richard Winters says to Captain Sobel in the classic HBO series, Band of Brothers. You can show respect to the role held by someone, and not the person who holds the rank, i.e. remaining professional and not letting your personal feelings and beliefs get in the way of getting a job done. This mantra has enabled me to keep a cool head and not overstep or let my emotions get in the way. I’ve applied this in the military, at uni, and at work, on numerous occasions.

7. There is value to be found in doing things to the best of your ability

End of Basic Military Training

You can choose to take the path of least resistance and find the easy way out, but if you’re faced with a task that you have to do anyway (under orders or direction from your boss), you might as well do it well.

You can choose to be lacklustre and just get by at your job. But if you strive for excellence and take pride in your tasks, you might intrinsically benefit from the process or in the output that you create. There were loads of menial tasks and seemingly meaningless little things we had to do in the military, but we learnt a great deal from doing them well. If you have to be doing something anyway, why not attempt to do it well and extract as much value as you can by trying to learn from the experience?


Editor, The London Express
Writer, musician, entrepreneur, and naturalised Londoner.


Leave a Reply