As cameras and mobilephones clicked away at some of the fittest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters you can find, a four-storey structure emblazoned with the words HMS Terror loomed above everyone.
This was not one of Her Majesty's Ships but a Hull Mock-up System whose namesake commemorates the real HMS Terror - a Royal Navy monitor armed with 15-inch guns. HMS Terror (warship) was sent to the then Colony of Singapore to protect the island while the Singapore naval base (now Sembawang Shipyard) and coastal fortifications were being built.
Today's HMS Terror (training aid) is a part of Sembawang Camp that has been fought over more often and more fiercely than other part of the historical military site that overlooks the Johor Strait (to add to the confusion, Sembawang Camp used to be known as Terror Barracks). The combatants belong to the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) crack Naval Diving Unit (NDU), who use the training aid to sharpen skills needed to board ships or structures at sea and then take over control of the target vessel/structure through force of arms.
Training for our combat divers takes place far beyond the fenceline of NDU.
The was plainly evident from the type and variety of qualification badges proudly worn by NDU divers on their Number 3 uniforms when the crack unit gave about 80 Singaporean community leaders a rare look at what goes on in their camp this Sunday morning.
The coveted Budweisers indicate the diver had trained with the United States Navy's elite Seal unit. Some wore badges earned from Australia's Special Air Service while others donned para wings earned during special forces training in South Africa.
Reading the salad bar of RSN regulars, one could tell who had been on real missions - the medal for Operation Flying Eagle (2004 Boxing Day quake/tsunami relief mission) being one that I always look out for. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find two NDU divers standing side by side in their No. 3 uniform with exactly the same combat skills badges and operational experience.
Show-and-tell at NDU helped civilians better understand how they earn their pay. The corporate video screened repeatedly as visitors waited for the event to get underway underlined the challenges NDU tadpoles (i.e. trainees) encounter on their journey to becoming full fledged frogmen. Even military novices among the visitors realised immediately that NDU is no ordinary SAF unit.
If walls could talk, one would probably learn of the hardship tadpoles of past batches had to endure during 120 hours of
Even so, it was an eye-opener to learn that NDU counts two Singaporean women among its elite group of combat divers.
It was tantalising to accidentally overhear that the RSN plans to stage a Navy Open House in April 2013.
It was reassuring to know that even with the tough physical and mental pressure that tadpoles have to endure, there are many full-time National Servicemen handpicked for the job who are determined to qualify as a combat diver.
These youngsters do so with full awareness that completion of Team Building Week marks the start of even more challenging training to come. And throughout their NS commitment, they will shoulder some of the most complex and demanding maritime security taskings the SAF is tasked to execute. Those who made it take the demanding regime in their stride and the esprit in the elite unit is something one has to see firsthand to appreciate.
But the real value of the visit came from helping citizens keep in touch with their citizens' armed forces.
It also gave the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF an opportunity to stay in touch with the community's viewpoints on defence and security matters. Questions fielded by Dr Mohammad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and National Development who hosted the visit, and MINDEF/SAF officials probably gave them a firsthand feel of things on the minds of Singaporeans.
One hopes such community relations will continue in other parts of the SAF as the effort to generate and sustain mindshare with Singaporeans is one with a long time horizon.
It is difficult to put a finger on the ROI from rostering dozens of NDU personnel for Sunday duty and for the assorted cost items involved in making such visits a success. But if one considers banking positive emotional capital as one measure of success, then this morning's visit most certainly helped MINDEF/SAF bank even more emotional credits.
From a personal standpoint, it was a pleasure revisiting a unit last seen in November 2007. The opportunity to walk the grounds of a camp that groomed successive cohorts of NDU divers whom I met during Ops Blue Orchid 1 and Ops Flying Eagle strengthened one's appreciation of what NDU divers have to go through to qualify for operational taskings.