From culture shock to cultural exchange in national service


Even though Mr Max West has lived in Singapore all his life, he stuck out when he enlisted in the army in March 2013.

The half-American, half-Singaporean Chinese was one of just two “ang mohs” in his batch at the Naval Diving Unit.

To make things worse, he knew little Singlish or Hokkien slang, having attended only international schools here.

Mr West, 23, told The New Paper: “I experienced severe culture shock, which was even more striking because it was taking place in my home country, and I am a Singaporean.”

But he thrived at Basic Military Training (BMT), going on to attend Officer Cadet School.

He served as platoon commander at the Naval Diving Unit and said he extended his service by six months to be a training coordination officer.

He ended his full-time service as a full lieutenant.

In June, he published a book, How To Forge A Frogman: A Recruit’s Account of Basic Training in Singapore’s Naval Diving Unit, under Marshall Cavendish, consisting of his journal entries during his BMT days.

Mr West always knew he had to serve national service (NS).

But he dreaded it for much of his teenage years, fearing he would lag behind his foreign peers at Singapore American School, who could head to college right after graduation.

Even after Mr West decided to enlist with a positive mindset, he discovered that NS presented challenges beyond the rigorous training.

He said: “I had been isolated from authentic Singaporean culture without realising it, and I was suddenly thrust into it for the first time. I found myself overwhelmed.”

When leading his batch as class in-charge during their first week of BMT, Mr West’s pronunciation of the Malay drill commands was so poor that everyone burst out into laughter.

He recalled worrying he was not being an effective leader.


But Mr West’s fellow recruits were curious about his background, which helped him get to know people.

He said NS eventually helped him break out of his “international school bubble”.

Prior to that, the most “authentically Singaporean” experience he had was occasionally eating at hawker centres.

But NS allowed him to learn about his fellow recruits’ educational experiences and social circles, and he now considers some of them his closest friends.

Mr West said: “Having seen a lot more of Singapore physically and culturally, I feel comfortable now calling myself a Singaporean, while before enlisting I did not necessarily have the exposure or knowledge.

“They tell us all the time in training that one of the most important qualities in the Singapore Armed Forces is loyalty to country, and that is something that is drilled into us.”

Now a junior at Princeton University in the United States, Mr West often gets asked if he would return to serve should war break out in Singapore.

His answer is an unequivocal yes.

“Singapore is my home, and the Singapore military is the one that gave me the most meaningful experience of my life. To defend my country is an honour, and I will defend it without hesitation,” he said.

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean cited NS as one of the “important institutions, laws and regulations” that have helped “prevent conflict and keep all communities together”.

Mr Teo said: “Singaporeans of all races and faiths now live together in HDB precincts and blocks, not because this was a natural thing to do, but because we arranged for this to happen.

“We study together in national schools, eat together in food centres, serve national service together and work together in your companies.”


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