Humour: How I went AWOL and almost got 18 months' detention

Humour: How I went AWOL and almost got 18 months' detention
END OF AN ERA: The closing ceremony for Brani Naval Base in 2000.

Just in time for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Day next month.

Last week, The New Paper reported that a guy had his sentence extended from three weeks of detention to 18 months for being absent without leave (AWOL) from the army to study medicine in the UK.

In other words, his punishment was increased by about 25 times.

Happy SAF Day!

When I read about this case, I suddenly flashed back to 10 years ago when classical pianist Melvyn Tan was fined $3,000 for defaulting on his national service (NS) to study music in the UK.

For many who did their NS and didn't get to go to the UK to study anything starting with the letter M, a $3,000 fine for a draft dodger was not fine.

Following the outcry, then Minister of Defence Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament: "Mindef does not consider it necessary at this time to seek a minimum mandatory jail sentence for Enlistment Act offences, as the circumstances of the cases vary widely.

"However, from now on, Mindef will ask the prosecutor to press for a jail sentence in serious cases of NS defaulters, and explain why we consider a jail sentence appropriate in a particular case." In the end, Tan never went to jail, unlike the AWOL guy.

This reminds me of the time I almost got 18 months' detention for going AWOL myself.

Oh yah, did I mention that I once almost got 18 months' detention for going AWOL?

It was when I was a medic at the Brani Medical Centre at Brani Naval Base on Pulau Brani.

It was so long ago that both Brani Medical Centre and Brani Naval Base don't exist any more.

Pulau Brani is still there but despite what the name sounds like, it's not the island where they grow briyani rice.

I was back on Brani to complete the last few months of my full-time national service after disrupting it to study journalism (which doesn't begin with M) in the US (not the UK).

I had only a few weeks left to stay out of trouble and failed.

As with everything else in life, it was because of a girl.

I had become infatuated with a female orderly at the medical centre, but my feelings weren't requited.


Feeling depressed and a little more self-destructive than usual one morning, instead of reporting for duty at the medical centre, i went to the base canteen and called the medical centre to tell my Encik that i was going awol. 

"Where are you?" he asked.

"At the canteen," I said.

"Having breakfast, is it?"

"No, I'm going AWOL."

"But you're on base, right?"


"Then just come to the medical centre. We can just say you're late."

"No, I want to go AWOL."

There was some confusion at the other end of the line.

A few minutes later, a vehicle from the medical centre was sent for me.

I figured I had been absent long enough to make my point and so I accepted the ride.

Also, it was a long way from the canteen to the medical centre and I didn't want to walk.

My Encik didn't know what to do with me. Neither did the officer sent to interrogate me about the incident later that day.

"On the one hand, it's not really AWOL since you're still on the base," he said. "On the other hand, it's technically AWOL since you're not at your post which is the medical centre." He wanted to know why I did it.

I was too embarrassed to admit I was trying to get the attention of a girl.

So I told him I wanted to see what detention was like and "test the system", which was partly true.

"Oh, in that case," he said, "I'll send you in for 18 months so that you can get the full experience."

That was when I panicked slightly. "Can't I just go for one week or so?"

"No," he said firmly. "Since you want to test the system, it's either the whole 18 months or nothing. Your choice."

"Oh, in that case," I said, trying to sound disappointed, "I choose nothing."

"Good," he said. Case closed.

And that, my friends, was how I almost got 18 months' detention for going AWOL.

And it wasn't because I went to medical school in Britain but because I didn't go to the medical centre on Brani.

I wonder whether I would've been given the choice to skip detention if I had gone AWOL after the Melvyn Tan case.

Someone should ask him to give a concert for SAF Day.

You know, for old times' sake.

This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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