Sunday, August 10, 2008

Essay - Experiences in National Service

This essay was written on 23rd November 2005, about a month before my Operationally-Ready Date (ORD). I served as an Armament Technician Specialist in the 6th Singapore Infantry Regiment, and am proud of it. This essay serves as a summary of my experiences in the unit.


Being an Armament Technician (Armt Tech) in 6SIR has been a truly rewarding and eye-opening experience.

Those two positive adjectives are used not only to describe the “ups” of my 1½ years in the unit, but also the “downs” as well. It was rewarding because of the people I meet and my interactions with them. It was eye-opening because I learnt a lot more about myself and the environment in which I worked in.

What does an Armt Tech do?
The job-scope of an Armt Tech is to maintain, service and administer the weapons in the unit. Sounds simple enough, but what sounds “simple enough” usually entails more than just that.

What are my strengths & weaknesses?
Throughout this journey, I discovered what my strengths and weaknesses are in terms of my character, in both the personal and professional sense. Here are some of them:

Strengths: Willingness to learn, ability to communicate, enthusiasm in doing, sensitive.

Weaknesses: Slow learning curve, ability to be misunderstood, prone to mistakes, cries easily.

As seen above, every strength has its own counterpart weakness. This enables me to see both sides of the fence and appreciate my life better, thus improving it in the future.

How do I grade myself?
I would grade myself in this job as 2 out of 5 stars overall. Although, in the end, I did not succeed, I persevered and learned with an open mind in this journey.


Let’s cut to the crux of the matter which is the recent Logistics Readiness Inspection (LRI) in October 2005.

I could have given a chronological journal of my journey from Basic Military Training to trainee days at the Ordnance Engineering Training Institute to the early relaxed days in 6SIR till now. But I believe that we are much more interested to know what happened in the run-up to LRI 2005.

I regard my observations as learning experiences of myself, of what I should have and not have done, and I shall learn from these, improve and better myself in the years ahead in the world out there.

Independence within a Team
During my student days in secondary school and polytechnic, I discovered that I maintained a quiet distance between myself and my peers. While I could communicate and interact with others well, it seemed that I was a tad too formal, a little too professional in the way I spoke and behaved. I could not joke or laugh together with them as they might have spoken a different language, or I simply could not connect with whatever they were saying. We were at different wavelengths, and producing different vibes.

During my four months as one of ten interns in a multi-national company, I discovered that I connected and communicated better with the permanent staff and upper management than with my own peers. What was more interesting was that the other nine interns were my classmates for the past two years!

I found it difficult to adapt to the “herd mentality” where everyone went for lunch as a group at the same time to the same place. I wanted to have lunch at my own time because I was hungry, and not wait for everyone else to be hungry first.

Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely comfortable eating in a group and working together as a group, as long as I get to do what I want to within acceptable means, and not just “follow the crowd.” It could be as simple as leaving work on time to get recharged for the next day, to as complicated as deciding where and when to eat for lunch.

Those traits, unfortunately, made their way down to the preparation of LRI 2005, and made me appear to be uncooperative and not a team player. Although I might have been a little too independent in the way I worked and behaved, I know that I have been cooperative and a team player, albeit in a different, quieter sense.

Perhaps I should loosen up, let my hair down, and speak more Mandarin.

Blurred Lines of Control
In any organization, there are levels of hierarchy and lines of control. In any job, we will have a boss, and we have to listen, understand, and achieve whatever the priorities of our boss. Those are the universal norms and I thoroughly accept them.

However, in the few months leading up to LRI, I did not feel like an Armament IC, and I did not feel like I was treated like one. I may be wrong, and I hope I’m wrong, but those are just my opinions and observations.

That was because apart from reporting to our immediate boss, we had a couple of other bosses to report to as well. Other bosses who had the ear of our immediate boss. Therefore, the lines of control were blurred and the system of hierarchy became more complex.

We did not feel in control. Plans were made, which we felt were acceptable, but they were quickly torn apart by the priorities of others. While we respect and acknowledge those different priorities, it became increasingly frustrating that we were not able to make our own decisions.

Soon, whatever influence we had was quickly diminished, and we became drones, blindly following the instructions of others.

Perhaps Armament Tech should be made a permanent position, rather than the current temporary one-and-a-half-year appointment. Or maybe let’s just wait for CMAT to arrive.

Motivations: Positive & Negative
In any job, we have our motivations. We want to do the job well because we are motivated by something. In any working environment, those motivations are usually career advancement and the accompanied pay raise.

However, those motivations do not apply to me as an NSF, because no matter how well I do the job, I will still be a 3SG and I will still receive the meager $556.50 net allowance every month. No career advancement, no pay raise, no positive motivation.

So because there is no obvious positive motivation for NSFs, negative motivations are frequently used in the army. Negative motivations like fear of being scolded severely, fear of being charged, fear of not being able to clear our leave. Those negative motivations are all based on one single aspect of humanity: FEAR. And any successful modern organizational manager or leader will tell us that fear simply does not work in today’s world. Fear may get the job done in the short-term, but the long-term effects to our subordinates are absolutely poisonous. Long-term effects include increased cases of skiving, medical leave, and demoralized workers, which causes more unhappy faces, and results in a murkier working environment.

So how can we solve this problem? First of all, we must remove fear from our vocabulary because it just gets us nowhere. Next, motivate our subordinates positively by appealing to their inner senses. Giving praise for a job done helps, no matter how small the job seems. Empathy towards our subordinates by sincerely asking how they are doing, without feeling as if a report is needed. Asking for feedback without being defensive when the feedback is not what we expect to hear. Delivering on promises of offs and leaves even when work is being sacrificed for the well-being of our subordinates. There are lots of ways to motivate NSFs positively, without resorting to fear. It’s just a matter of wanting to.

The only way I could motivate myself was to find meaning in what I did. There were times when this self-motivation worked and I quietly went about my job with nobody looking. The times when this self-motivation did not work was displayed for all to savour.

That was the only way because this job will not affect my career; it will not affect my small allowance. Any promises or hopes of clearing leave went down the drain because I knew whatever result was achieved, work does not stop with the end of LRI. In fact, there will be more work and I still have to teach and guide our two new armourers.

With absolutely nothing to gain in sight, coupled with a murky working environment and strong negative motivation factors, it was a classic example of how an employee can break down due to lack of positive motivation.

Learning is a continuous journey in our lives. I have learnt many lessons in my full 2 years and 4 months in National Service. However, the 4 months leading up to LRI 2005 were the highlights of those lessons. I will learn from them and improve in my future university and corporate life. It has been a worthwhile National Service experience.

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