Sunday, July 3, 2011

Singapore National Day Parade 2011: Combined Rehearsal 3 - Strengthening the Singapore Spirit

With combined rehearsals for this year's National Day Parade (NDP) barely at the halfway mark, it is likely some NDP participants are beginning to feel burnt out to some degree - and we don't mean just from the rays of the scorching afternoon sun.

University undergraduate Tan Ming Kwang, 22, certainly felt that way about the combined rehearsals (CR) when he was part of NDP 2009.

Despite calling the rehearsals a "chore", Ming Kwang and two of his Army buddies made time to spend this morning at Kallang to watch full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) from his former combat engineer battalion go through exactly what he did two years ago.

Linking NDP with commitment to defence: Third Sergeant Tan Ming Kwang (standing on ramp, second from left) and Third Sergeant Cai Wensheng (second from right) edge their M3G into position during an NDP practice on the Kalllang River in 2009. Two years later, Ming Kwang and Wensheng visited the same site to watch their former combat engineer unit prepare for this year's NDP. A single M3G in the water is called a rig. A raft is formed by fastening several rigs together.

His battalion's role for NDP 2009 was to ferry the Presidential Gun Salute (PGS) battery of 25-pounder guns aboard M3G ferries. At the time, these amphibious vehicles had never been used to carry the PGS battery to fire the 21-gun salute before. The tight rehearsal schedule and the battalion's immovable and non-negotiable commitment on Singapore's birthday added to the pressure for 35 SCE officers and men to get the PGS executed, safely and with a stately presence befitting the occasion.

It was a tall order. Safety guidelines and training templates had yet to be written and there was zero institutional memory to draw from.

And so Ming Kwang and his fellow combat engineers were made to rehearse their role over and over again as staff officers wrote safety guidelines and deployment procedures for the PGS item from scratch. The unit also worked with defence engineers to add enhancements such as lightning arrestors and additional lighting to the M3Gs so spectators could see the gun crews. Defence engineers also tested the vehicles to ensure they could take the strain of having guns fired while on the water as the M3Gs were not designed as floating gun platforms.

"We must have rehearsed our part more than 10 times," said Ming Kwang, who was then a full-time National Serviceman with the 35th Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers (35 SCE)."Looking back at my NDP experience, I treasure the memories. It's when I was going through the practices that it felt more like a chore."

With the training schedule imprinted in his memory, Ming Kwang and fellow Operationally Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) from his unit showed up bright and early at Kallang to catch the M3G crews swing into action. They had seen it all before, but watching combat engineers from his former unit gear up for CR3 brought back memories of their army days.

NDP 2011 marks the second time that 35 SCE has been tasked to ferry the PGS battery. As the NSFs who shouldered the responsibility in 2009 have all left the Singapore Armed Forces after completing their full-time NS, the unit has to raise and train a new batch of combat engineers for this role.

With more hours of rehearsals under their belt, the experienced NSmen felt they could deploy and form a ferry faster than the current batch of 35 SCE NSFs they watched on Saturday morning. They also recounted how NDP rehearsals claimed hours of work spent away from the public eye while in camp. These include washing the boat-like M3G vehicles, clearing sand and debris from the impellers of the ferries, as well as cleaning the paintwork to keep the vehicles in near showroom condition.

Gentle giants: An M3G amphibian from 35 SCE is guided through the tree line to its launch spot at the Kallang River. These large vehicles are surprisingly manoeuvrable in confined areas and even more nimble in water.

It is clear from this episode that an NSF's experience with NDP can create lifelong memories - both good and bad. The challenge for NDP Executive Committees (EXCO) is to keep the sum of memories positive as there are bound to be good days and bad days during the CRs.

Coaxing NSFs along as the show progresses from a fuzzy concept to a grand national event helps these young Singaporeans value their contribution to a national event that Singaporeans look forward to viewing every 9 August.

Allowing parents and friends of NDP participants to see firsthand how their loved ones are spending their time during CRs is an invaluable way of telling NSFs that their efforts are appreciated and that no one is taken for granted.

We saw this today when the 25,000-seat gallery at The Float at Marina Bay, the venue for NDP 2011, was nearly filled to capacity as loved ones of NDP participants caught them in action during CR3.

Third Sergeant Sim Qi Xian, now finds himself in the same boat as Ming Kwang was in 2009. The 22-year-old graduate from Ngee Ann Polytechnic maintains a positive attitude towards the demanding rehearsal timetable.

Sharing session: Third Sergeant Sim Qi Xian (seated centre, with cap) from Bravo Company, 35 SCE, listens as First Warrant Ong Kim Piao explains how the M3Gs should be manoeuvred in the water. As 3SG Sim and his fellow full-time National Servicemen are taking part in NDP for the first time, experience shared by SCE regulars helps transfer lessons learnt from NDP 2009 to the young combat engineers.

"I feel honoured because not everybody gets to do this," said the 22-year-old, who is trained to pilot the M3G when it is converted to a ferry.

Among the challenges are keeping the six-bay ferry rock steady as gunners from the 23rd Battalion, Singapore Artillery (23 SA), prepare to fire 21 rounds of blank ammunition to salute the President as he reviews the parade.

Then there are duties, same as those shouldered by the NDP 2009 M3G crews, that guarantee each CR is a long, day/night slog for the combat engineers.

Said 3SG Sim:"We have to prepare the rigs from washing to maintenance every week. The tedious part is washing it because the rigs are so big."

One hopes that when NDP 2011 is done, the present batch of NSF involved in the parade will takeaway their own storehouse of happy memories and forge friendships that outlast the duration of their full-time NS.

Reunion: Master Sergeant Francis Miranda from the Singapore Combat Engineers (centre) and First Sergeant Yu Weishen (white T) meet their former trainees Third Sergeant(NS) Tan Ming Kwang (black T, second from right) and Cai Wensheng (red T). Two years ago, MSG Miranda (then a First Sergeant) helped train Ming Kwang and Weisheng for their part in NDP 2009. Their NDP experience made such a lasting impression that the NSmen came back to watch their unit prepare for this year's parade.

Master Sergeant Francis Miranda, who was Ming Kwang's platoon sergeant in 2009, noted:"I was quite surprised to see them (his NDP 2009 NSFs) this morning. But back in 2009, I also had some ORD personnel drop by at Kallang to visit us."

Ming Kwang, his former trainee, said:"This morning's visit is an eye-opener for me because when I was in the Army I didn't have a chance to take pictures of my equipment. Now that it's over, I feel that NDP 2009 was a memorable experience and I really enjoyed it."

Acknowledgements: I thank the NDP 2011 EXCO for the access to CR3 for a behind-the-scenes look at NDP preparations and to the participants for making time to host these visits. The bonus was coming across ordinary Singaporeans, like NSmen from the NDP 2009 alumni, who were prepared to share their story in an unscripted engagement.

No comments: