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Doing the Write Thing: Nicholas U Jin and Matthew Chew

Every year, thousands of boys turn up at the eastern end of Singapore, looking anxious as they make their boat ride of a lifetime: the ferry service that will take them to Pulau Tekong to start Basic Military Training or BMT, as they kick off their National Service (NS) commitment to defend the country.

But what is BMT really like? Is it just like Ah Boys to Men? Is the food as bad as they say? Will sergeants really torture you to within an inch of your life? 

All these questions are now answered in Fall In! The Unofficial Guide to Basic Military Training. Written by Matthew Chew and Nicholas U Jin, the book what you really wanted to know about BMT and offers tips on how to make a smooth transition from civilian to army recruit. 

This is a must-have for anyone entering NS, their parents, their friends and those who like a good read.  Here, the authors share their experiences as soldiers and authors. 


Tell us what inspired you to write Fall In! 
M: Nicholas and I still remember the conversation we had before we enlisted. It was filled with uncertainty—we had no idea what to expect in the months to come. After we had grown accustomed to National Service and all of its quirks, we had the chance to meet up again. The only thing we could talk about was the army. It was then we realised that even though we wore the same uniform, we had vastly different experiences—Nicholas was in OCS (Officer Cadet School) while I was a vehicle technician. 

N: National Service is the white elephant in the room for many Singaporean families, and given that it's two years of what many would consider the "prime" of adolescence, everyone is understandably anxious. It surprised me that there was limited literature on the subject from third parties. I think it's great the Ministry of Defence has done a lot of work to reassure everyone concerned, but information from a personal point of view is, I believe, something that gives an interesting new perspective!

M: We wanted to initiate a conversation about the other parts of the army that are not covered in official Mindef releases, with a lighter flavour and a different focus on the little things. For example, things like the cookhouse food or the importance of bringing in Febreze may not be covered in the stories of the NS experience, but they still greatly define what all males have to grow accustomed to.

N: Matthew and I view Fall In! as part of our "contribution" to the National Service experience, and hopefully, we've shown that there are many ways to contribute—even if one is not in active service.

How do you ensure that you have covered everything that we need to know in this handbook?
M: We wrote Fall In! as we went through National Service ourselves, combining our experiences by talking to as many people as possible.

N: When we began, the writing was very much was based on our anecdotal experience. Matthew and I would spend weekends in front of a computer and brainstorm content before furiously putting it into a document. Undoubtedly, that left lots of gaps. As we looked to fill those gaps, we met many people along the way: our military superiors in-camp, who were an immense help to us in terms of giving us the expert subject matter content; as well as our peers, who would inject humour and give us shared insight into their hopes, concerns and fears. 

M: We saw this gradual transition ... So many things have changed: in the past firing ranges were manually operated, with soldiers coordinating to hoist up targets from a deep trench dug at the end of the firing range. But everyone remembers their first day, their army buddy, their slow transition into the regimentation and discipline expected of soldiers. We wanted to preserve this spirit of National Service while imbuing it with our very own experiences during our time in the army.

N: While much of the information on National Service can be found in one way or another; it really boils down to what is relevant to a recruit. That's why we spent a lot of time putting ourselves in that position and interviewing recruits and pre-enlistees we could find; before we decided to choose the relevant issues to address.

If you had to choose, what is the number one thing a recruit needs to know before going into BMT? 
M: The number one thing a recruit needs to know is that anything is surmountable as long as you rely on your fellow soldiers. I'm not going to sugarcoat it: there will be many difficulties and challenges that you'll face. It's not only a test of physical stamina but also mental endurance. 

N: You will be challenged in ways you have never been. But you don't have to go through it alone. Go in knowing that many of the fantastic people you will meet, as Matthew and I have, share the same hopes and fears as you do, and be open-minded about interacting with everyone. You'd be surprised how interesting the conversations can get during a six-hour-long march. Besides, one of the greatest things you get out of National Service is the friends that you make.

In your opinion, what are some essential items that recruits need to have to survive BMT?
M: Read the book to find out! But if you really must know—bring a portable charger to ensure you have sufficient battery power to communicate with your friends on the outside world at night.

N: In NS and the military in general, time is king. The importance of a watch can hardly be overstated. But don't bring a fancy one—something durable and reliable will do. Many opt for the classic Casio. 
Also, 3-in-1 shampoo is your best friend. The queue for the shower at the end of the day can be long—and you don't have much free time before it's lights out. You'll wanna get in and out, quick. So don't bring your usual conditioner, shampoo and body wash set. You won't be sporting luscious locks during recruit season anyway!

What was the most interesting thing you encountered during BMT or NS? 
M: Where do I start? So many fascinating experiences defined my National Service, but the most interesting thing to ever happen to me was the first day. It's a surreal experience—giving up your IC, saying goodbye to your parents at the cookhouse, seeing where you will be spending your next few months. The juxtaposition of regular civilian life against the new army experience will always be one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I can never forget my first day. Everything from queuing up to take the bus to the SAF ferry terminal to sleeping in my bed on the first night will remain ingrained in my memory

N: Officer cadets will all remember Exercise Scorpion, which is essentially a trench digging exercise where you stay awake for three days. Many people will share stories of hallucinating during that period, but my story is a little different.
As we finished up the exercise and were ready to leave, I realised that I had left my shovel inside the trench. Panicking, I rushed down to retrieve it and was ready to leave when I felt a strange feeling wash over myself. The next thing I knew, I heard shouting and saw a light in front of me. It turned out that I was so exhausted, I had fallen asleep within that split second, while the whole platoon was already lined up and ready to go. Lucky thing that my friend found me, instead of the officer-in-charge!

What's the biggest lesson you learnt in BMT/NS? 
M: This world is filled with such a colourful palette of people. Each and every one of the people you meet carry their own story. They face their own challenges and demons and champion their own ideals and strengths. NS gave me so much perspective, seeing the world through different lenses. The people I met have shaped my world view, and given me a renewed perspective on everything that I do. 

N: The most enlightening experience I would say is learning lessons from interacting with a diverse group of people, with different likes and dislikes, cultural backgrounds, motivations and aspirations. At the end of the day, we are not so different, and being able to help and collaborate with one another in the face of adversity was probably the biggest take-away for me. Those bonds and experiences are what endure. The military training itself, of course, does encourage one to be disciplined and accountable—but for me, it was all about the people.

Get Fall In! here.

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