Following a bus tour of the SAFTI MI grounds where officer cadets are trained, one of my BMT instructors (an officer himself) asked if we saw any cadets waving to us during the tour.
He leaned forward, jabbed a finger at us, and smiled wryly. “When I was a cadet, I used to wave at visitors all the time!” Shaking his head, he continued, “Everyone thought I was just being friendly, but I was actually trying to tell them that coming to OCS was a mistake! I tried to warn them and shoo them away, but they came anyway.”
Coming after a deluge of horror stories about the relentless rigours of training to be an officer – a senior remarked, ominously, that my biceps would double in size after OCS – his remarks were hardly comforting for someone who vaguely wanted to be an officer, and now, wasn’t so sure anymore. After all, going to OCS means 9 months of little free time and almost constant physical exhaustion. The knowledge that I could be having a much easier life bites at me as I anticipate the tough days ahead.
I can easily come up with reasons for why being an officer is not such a good idea. During the first few weeks of BMT, there was a ‘stand-by area’, which involved us recruits standing at attention outside our bunks interminably, waiting for them to be inspected before mistakes were inevitably found and punished with 20 push-ups. As I stood unmoving, tingles dancing in my sole, the sheer pointlessness of it all dawned on me. I thought of everything I could have been doing, and decided I did not want to be involved in the army any more than was absolutely necessary.
But a few weeks later, I still indicated my interest in coming to OCS. Recently, my roommate in OCS asked me why I want to be an officer. Exhausted after the just concluded physical training session, and unsure of what to say too, I replied tersely with the first thing that came to mind.
“Because I can”.
This enigmatic answer is not all that satisfactory – there are plenty of things we can do but shouldn’t and don’t – but it is the response I feel the most strongly about. The declaration that “I can” is reassuring and uplifting. And unlike my hope that I’ll be able to emerge from OCS stronger, wiser, and a better leader, or the promise of being able to touch many lives as an officer, proving to myself that “I can” is something I have a great amount of personal control over. I really don’t know if marching around with heavy loads, digging holes in the ground, or learning how to shoot a multitude of guns will make me a better person, and neither am I sure about what’s life really like as an officer. But I do have the confidence that I, like thousands before me, will be able to complete this course if I put my heart to it, and that I’ll be genuinely proud of myself for each hurdle leapt (or lurched) across. In focusing on overcoming each obstacle as they come, I rely on nothing but my tenacity – not the vagaries of an uncertain future, nor the nebulous, deferential remarks about how training is dictated by ‘Higher HQ’s intentions’.
Isn’t this a compelling vision of a life well led? To not constantly worry about self-improvement or personal gratification in everything we do, to not conjure fanciful visions of the distant future and gaze wistfully at them – but to instead immerse ourselves in the thrill of the unfamiliar and difficult, and challenge ourselves with opportunities that catapult us out of our comfort zones. There is nothing like grabbing a daunting experience by the collar, shaking it vigorously, and emerging with the quiet, proud knowledge that you’re not the kind of person who shirks from difficult times.
I suppose I chose to enter OCS partly as a matter of principle. The way I see it, people who believe in doing their best and being their best don’t exercise their conviction for excellence selectively. For NSFs, serving in the army is our entire lives for these 2 years. The decisions we make in it are not just the results of our character but a reflection of who we are. Those who strive to maximise their potential will seek out opportunities for personal improvement. And those who yearn to live a life with no regrets will not let opportunities pass them by. They experience life to the fullest, even if the full spectrum of experiences includes ones with sweat, sore muscles, and mournful mornings in existential crises.
A few days ago, while performing a casualty evacuation exercise with my section mates in OCS, I limped past a tour bus that had stopped momentarily in front of the OCS HQ. In less than a month, the roles had reversed, and I was now on the other side of the looking glass. The weight of a loaded stretcher upon me, I strained my head from my sunken shoulders – much like a turtle – to look up at the people on the tour bus. My face was contorted with exertion, and a curtain of sweat was dripping from my drenched helmet, but I managed to catch a glimpse of our spectators. Seeing their expressions which verged on shock, admiration, and relief from not being one of us, I imagined their tour guide explaining how officers make no compromises in their training, and are well-prepared to defend Singapore. I felt a surge of pride. For a moment, I realised my motivation for coming to OCS, and why I must push myself to excel. I can, and so I will.