Pulau Tekong looks harmless enough from a distance. Yet, to an army recruit, this Singapore island has got more bite than Dracula’s Castle, more creepy overkill than the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining.
It’s the kind of place your grandparents might make up ghost stories about, but I bet even my grandparents didn’t know that I’d tempt all the ghosts of Tekong by bedding down in a cemetery.
Welcome to Army Island
On the morning of 10 December, 2004, against all reason, I was on a ferry bound for the island to enlist in the army. Basic Military Training would only last for three months, yes, after which I’d be transferred to a less dreadful camp on the landside.
Yet the island loomed like a dark and ominous cloud as the ferry pulled in. What was in store for me?
The horrors began upon footfall. First up was the haircut, which reduced the dignity of an 18-year-old to that of a lowly recruit in T-minus two minutes.
It took me three days to look at myself in the mirror and — lo and behold! — I looked like a coconut, and a sad coconut at that. Without the hair, shampoo would roll off my skull like spit. Nights, too, were colder. I thought it couldn’t get worse.
Sleeping with the Dead
Over the next three months, I’d crawl through mud pools, march under rain and shine, suffer bronchitis and high fevers and, believe it or not, sleep in a Malay cemetery.
During a week-long field camp, my company was tasked to dig foxholes in the rubber plantation, or the former burial site of Tekong’s native Malay residents. After excavating old tombstones and broken vases, we tucked ourselves in and spent the night. It felt like we were literally digging our own graves.
Still, as rough as things were, I wouldn’t be the man I am today without that fateful trip. But you couldn’t pay me enough money to go back. Sir, no sir!
This Singlish safety motto, hammered into you during training: “You thought; I think; who confirm?”
Bring comfortable underwear and Snake Brand Prickly Heat Powder. Your sweat-soaked, sore-filled crotch will thank you.
Pulau Tekong is home to leopard cats, a critically endangered species of felines in Singapore.