Australia is everything Singapore is not. They have no shortage of land while we are land-scare. They have abundance natural resources while we have none of it. They are generous with handouts to their citizens while we are definitely less generous. Australia can afford to change five Prime Ministers in short span of five years but many of us here do not believe abrupt removal of Prime Minister one time too many will do us good. Given their sheer size and wealth aplenty, they can afford to shut away from the outside world and still survive while we will sink almost immediately once we shut our doors. Suffice to say, Australia is an ideal destination any immigrant would dream to settle on.
My first encounter with Australia was in 1982 and it was my first overseas trip. It was not a holiday trip for I can barely afford as a young adult. It was an army stint as a NS soldier. Australia was already a highly developed country while we were still playing catch up in the early 80s. Indeed, it was a honour that we were the first army battalion from Singapore to be sent there for more than a month training which subsequently becomes an annual training ground for combat units to present times. That was also my first time flying a commercial jet and best of all, with Singapore Airlines to Brisbane but boarding was via the cargo complex at the wee hours of the morning. Thanks to the Australia government, we can never have another great overseas training opportunity for our soldiers had that not been granted.
The training was very tough and the terrain was exceptionally challenging. In the day, it was hot which can hit more than 40 degree C and extremely cold at night. The entire training ground including our campsite is 4 times the size of Singapore in Shoalwater Bay, Queensland. Throughout our training, we can hardly see any human habitat in the vast area allotted to us - really, it was that huge. Kangaroos and wild horses were common sight when they ran past us from a distance - so surreal like in a movie. The cries of wild animals at night that sounded like wolves can be heard loud and near when we camped out. We can never have such experience in our mostly urbanised Singapore's terrain.
I still remember Australia currency then was stronger than US currency. It was more than two Singapore dollars to one Australia dollar. Now, one Australia dollar is traded for slightly lesser than one Singapore dollar. With our peanut NS pay, it was such a pain to us when we converted our currency to Australian currency then.
Due to the strong Australia currency, our commanders told us that our hard earned 3 days rest &relax (R&R) after more than a month of hard training was not at any hotel but an army barrack in Brisbane, Each platoon was allotted an open space where we will set up our basha using each of our togo rope to form a long rope. We had to bring our own safari beds too. We did not have the luxury of even the bunks at the army barrack but an open compound instead. Officers or soldiers, we slept together - it was really that budget. Our 3 days R&R were spent in Brisbane touring and sightseeing. Dream World impressed me the most and I even had my first picture taken with a nice Australian lady. As a greenhorn or 'mountain tortoise', we truly enjoyed the tour. I believe present troop training in Australia should now enjoy better amenities and facilities compared to us then.
We were given one day off in between our long training. We were ferried to Rockhampton town to spend our free time. A few of us were walking and checking out the town. A burly man suddenly came out from the bar to invite us in. We declined his invitation and he then hurled out verbal abuses at us. He even challenged us to a fight. We knew if we confront him, we will be outnumbered. We do not want any trouble. We just ignored him and walked away. This was my first encounter to be openly abused by someone for doing no wrong. This incident has etched deep in my memory to this day.
Photo contributed by army mate, Chua Kok Poi
In one of our training, our company had to be airlifted to simulate an attack. The Australia army loaned us few Chinook helicopters for the exercise. It is a twin-engine heavy lift helicopter which can easily take in a platoon of men. SAF did not have Chinook helicopters as only few advanced nations can afford then. We were still using the already phased-out UH1H helicopters. I am proud that we were among the first few in SAF to be airlifted by Chinook. If I can remember correctly, it was only in the 90s, Chinook helicopters were introduced to SAF. We were still far behind the Australia army in term of equipment and weaponry.
Photo taken by an army mate, Chua Kok Poi during the exercise
Even their combat rations were so much better than us. It came in few varieties. We can choose menu A to E and it was so good that most of us prefer to eat their combat rations when back to camp from field training than taking the cooked food in the cookhouse. For many of us, we will definitely remember the tasteless 'dog biscuits'. It was so hard that we used to joke that our 'dog biscuits' can knock one unconscious when hit by it. Our combat rations used to come in two types, Muslim or non-Muslim. Save for the meat, everything was the same. I am not sure if our combat rations have made vast changes compared to our times then. However, I do relish those experience.
When I was young, I used to harbour the hope of emigrating to countries like Australia, New Zealand or Europe. Perhaps I did not have much opportunity to realise the emigration dream then and it slowly fizzled out. It was during my working adulthood, I have come to realise how vulnerable our little red dot is. I used to assume our peace and stability is a given. This is my country, for better or for worse and I will defend our shores if I have to. My emigration dream has long gone. Singapore is my home and always will be. It is not a perfect place but I cannot ask for more.