"NS does change people for the better": 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan
"It's really going to take you a lot of effort to get through this"
In his pre-enlistment days, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan was a student of Temasek Junior College and a member of the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), where he became acquainted with the rigour and discipline of marching.
Having a brother who had already served National Service (NS), 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan's family was supportive of him going through NS, though in his words, "mothers being mothers", there was still an understandable element of anxiety.
To prepare for his Army life, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan took up swimming upon the advice of his elder brother. According to him, because he was already actively involved in other sports, he was physically fit enough when it came time for his enlistment.
Still, the initial impression and thoughts he held about his transition into Army life revealed a mixture of uncertainty and fear:
"My thoughts were that this [NS] is going to be tough, [there is] going to be vigorous training. It's really going to take you a lot of effort to get through this"
The tale of two Chandras and one Ang
While undergoing Basic Military Training (BMT) at the Infantry Training Depot (ITD) in Sembawang Naval Base, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan came to be acquainted with two 'Chandras' – one was his bunk mate, whom he still keeps in contact with till this day, and the other was Sergeant Chandra, the "toughest one among the lot [of instructors]". According to 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan, Sergeant Chandra was "the one who is rushing us, got us moving, who expected a lot of discipline".
The joy of passing out of BMT was dampened by the fact that 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan was to undergo his next phase of training as a Specialist at the School of Infantry Specialists (SISL) in the same camp again! Though faced with the prospect of bring reacquainted with Sergeant Chandra, fortunately this time round, the Sergeant was attached to another platoon.
Training at SISL was memorable, and 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan remembers one particular four day training exercise carried out at Mandai reservoir. Because it was a patrolling field camp, water was rationed out, so the thirsty trainees had to "sneak out at night and go to the reservoir and get water to drink." Training was "very tough", but the trainees bonded well together through shared suffering:
"Within the section, we suffered together. When there’s water, we share... when there's food, we share among everybody. Even if someone has a little bit of water, he actually shares the cup. You know those water bottles with screw caps? We would pour the water into the screw cap and share it. So we were very close... it [the field camp experience] built up unity within everybody."
Upon graduating from SISL, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan was posted to Nee Soon Camp as an instructor. It was there that 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan modelled the leadership style of Corporal Ang, a caring and respected Section Commander he met while in his trainee days at ITD:
"This guy was probably the one who kept the morale of the team up... we would have a tough day in the day, and in the night he would actually come into our bunks and have a nice friendly chat with us. He’s a guy who actually pats you on your back and asked you to keep going... for those who were weak in IPPT, he would take time out and he would train us through the night."
Handling 'Hokkien pengs', soldiers who were primarily proficient in the Hokkien language and who were known to be notoriously difficult to handle, was a task in which 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan gained invaluable experience:
"I learnt a lot of things like how to communicate with them, how to get them to do whatever you want them to do because they have their own way of doing things. But you got to turn them around and make them do what you want them to do. It was a good experience."
Uniform changes and protecting Changi Airport
Though there are plenty of memorable moments in 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan’s service in the Army, there are two events of significance captured in this story. The first has to do with the change in Army uniform. During his BMT, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan wore the old Temasek green uniforms, but when he was posted to Nee Soon Camp, the uniform underwent a change into camouflage ones. Because the new uniforms were "a lot more comfortable", it was a clearly preferred over the Temasek Green ones worn previously.
"We were really thankful that the camouflage green camouflages, [so] we don’t have to stick ourselves with camouflage. So in training, we don’t have to cover ourselves with bushes, the uniform does the job. And of course the new uniform, you don’t have to polish your boots to shine. The old one, you have to make it shine everyday."
Secondly, fast forwarding in time to his reservist days, one exercise that stands out was 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan’s participation in the protection of installations in 2001, when the Army was called upon to protect and patrol Changi Airport to deter any potential terrorist threat.
As a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of a National Service battalion, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan made sure his men knew the seriousness and gravity of the duty they were to undertake:
"When I had my prep talk before they [the men] left for duty, I told them this is no ‘masah masah’ training. This is for real; these are live rounds you are bringing. If it comes [to the point] that you have to load and shoot, there is no two ways about it."
1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan also knew that the morale of the men had to be looked after if they were to perform their duties efficiently and with motivation.
"I always insist... instructors, sergeants, all the way up to OC to go down and talk to the people while they are doing their duties because nothing is stopping you from moving about. So [the men] will feel good, there's somebody coming down there to look after them. Of course, we're also checking on them to make sure that they are not sleeping but the most important thing is to talk to them, show that we are also out there for them... you just have to make sure that they are properly taken care of."
NSman of the Year 2002
1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan's positive contributions to the NS experience for his men meant that his NSman of the Year 2002 was a deserving honour indeed. Reflecting upon the role of NS in Singapore, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan recalls with conviction of the fact that NS does change people for the better:
"I would simply say for hardcore gangsters, none of them are gangsters today and none of them have gone to prison. NS does change people for the better. In the old days, there were many stories that said NS makes you [pick up] smoking, NS makes you [pick up] drinking. NS does not do that, it's the people that do it. It does change people for the better, makes them become more mature. In that sense it is really beneficial, besides building a sense of nationality and loyalty to [Singapore]."
Today a Regional Warehousing and Distribution Manager with Novartis Pharmaceuticals, 1WO (Vol) Kalaiarasan credits the Army for having instilled in him leadership and organizational skills that have stood him in good stead in the workplace.
"As an RSM in the Army, I have learned to think on my feet and have a 'helicopter view' while not losing focus on the details. [I have learnt to] effectively manage people and delegate work to empower, developing their growth; to be able to communicate effectively with all levels of the management with ease, to speak publicly with confidence. [There is] self motivation and the discipline to expect only the best. All these qualities have helped me grow in my career and is still helping me grow even more."