Saturday, April 01, 2000


There was this trooper in my company by the name of Tang Tat Fong, who was given the nickname "John", for he was abysmally unremarkable, and had a stutter that was exacerbated by stress.

Once, when his platoon (3rd) was being unreasonably punished by their maniac sergeant, SGT Vannan, through a series of individual verbal grilling, John landed his mates into deeper shit by not being able to answer his sergeant's persuasive questions coherently.

On second thought, John's exploits weren't unremarkable, for they are the ones I remember most, and although the description "fondly remembered" comes to mind, to say it is so is to be rather perverse.

John was a walking catastrophe. If anything were to go wrong, it seemed he was always involved. The funniest incident occurred one night during a battalion exercise. Most of the able-bodied troopers had dismounted from their APCs to attack an objective somewhere in the small Singapore jungle.

The sick and injured were tasked to remain with their vehicles to guide the drivers (who are effectively blind save for the tiny periscopes, which are muddied anyway) who manoeuvre them to rendezvous with the troopers after an objective was captured. John was, not surprisingly, one of the sick troopers, and had to guide his section's APC as a "vehicle commander".

This task involves little more than telling the driver to turn left, right, go straight or in reverse, all through the intercom system. Its only a little harder at night, for the driver is blinder than usual then. A bit risky considering rough terrain and an eleven tonne hunk of metal hurtling downhill at 60km/h. There was a ditch on the right side of the dirt track the APCs were travelling on, and John's APC was heading into that ditch.

Normally, the danger is averted through a sharp yell of "DRIVER! HARD LEFT!" or "DRIVER! STOP!" But according to the driver's recollection of the event later, the transcript of communications in the intercom system went something like "DDDD D DRIVER! L L L L L L L L L L ..." followed by a loud crash, for the APC had gone into the ditch, followed by a pause of about 20 seconds, then followed by John's ultimately futile instruction, "LLLEFT!"

I was behind John's APC on my reconnaissance bike, and informed commanders in a flurry of frantic radio transmissions. The Encik (as the company sergeant major is addressed) came to the scene to find the occupants of the APC shaken but unhurt, a sigh of relief was followed by a comment to John, more out of resignation than anger, that "is there ANYTHING you CAN do?"

Encik said this because a few nights prior to this accident, John was involved in another hilarious snafu, this time, on foot. Our company was tasked to do a recce patrol, which entails basically walking the whole night in a dark jungle, which would be darker if not for the lights from nearby HDB estates. We kept a minimum of 5 metres from each other (any closer and we'd cop a scolding for having a "cluster fuck").

Tang, being the designated MG-Gunner (a tautology - MG stands for Machine Gun), had a heavier weapon to lug, and within an hour of the exercise, had lagged so far behind that his platoon mates had to keep dragging him back near the front. After about four hours, he disappeared again.

At this time, we had been patrolling near one of the training camps which had a high barbed wire fence running at least four kilometres. Normally, the section commander would do a head count every few hours. This time, I think he waited too long. Tang was lost again.

Getting worried, and disregarding recce etiquette (i.e. keep as quiet as possible), the platoon shouted for him to hurry up. No reply. "JOHN TANG!" No reply.

They backtracked several hundred metres and shouted again. There was a faint and tired "coming coming coming". The other troopers cursed under their collective breaths and rehearsed the abuse they were going to heap on Tang when he caught up. He did catch up. Only on the opposite side of the high fence.

The bankrupt look on his face at that instant of realisation, I will remember for the rest of my life.

John was a slightly-built man, shorter even than I, and was saddled with bad eyesight (that's why the MG-gunner role) and prone to occasional asthma attacks. (On the night of his fence fiasco, he later collapsed with asthma and was left lying at the side of a road as the rest of the company moved on, having thought that he was only just lagging behind. Thankfully, an alert sergeant went back to retrieve him).

His plastic-frame (and this was years before they became fashionable) glasses were perpetually broken and held together with scotch tape. He seemed to break or damage everything he touched (I never let him near my recce bike, for the one time he was assigned to partner me in a listening post, we crashed four times in an hour).

He'd draw his MG from the armskote to mount on the APC, and come back to the armskote (where I was in charge, amongst my many other responsibilities) a few minutes later with a broken machine gun, stuttering his way through an explanation about it having fallen over the side of the vehicle. It is not often someone BREAKS a machine gun.

At the end of full-time NS, we had a ROD party at the Neptune restaurant, where being real troopers, we drank to excess and molested each other's dates. John had no date, but he did drink to excess. So much that we had to carry him home.

At his flat in Toa Payoh, he looked at my buddy and I and as tears rolled down his face and fogged up his glasses, told us that he didn't know what to do after ROD. Unlike the bulk of us, who were either going to university, a job, or jail, he said he had no prospects at all. I was slightly impatient dealing with his sobbing, as we always dealt with sissies harshly.

I said something to the effect of, "sure you can do something lah, we armoured troopers man, anything can do".

This was my feeble attempt to "boost his morale", as they say in NS-parlance.

He gave me his bankrupt look.

This time I asked, "what are you good at? What do you like doing?"

"I like to play the piano".

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