National service does not start when one joins the queues of fresh recruits at Pasir Ris Bus Interchange.
Neither does it begin when one bids goodbye to family members.
Nor when one boards the ferry bound for Pulau Tekong, where most male Singaporeans will begin their basic military training.
No, boys only turn to men after they meet Madam Rose Sadiah, or any one of her 12 other colleagues.
On the island, they are known as the Tekong barbers.
But Madam Rose and her small team are actually hairstylists from her company, Rose Tekong Barber, which has an outlet in Choa Chu Kang.
Together, they have been responsible for the haircuts of tens of thousands of military personnel at the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) for the past 15 years.
RITE OF PASSAGE
"It is a rite of passage for every recruit who comes into Tekong," says Madam Rose.
Ask any Singaporean male above 18 and they will tell you the reality of NS truly sank in only when they sat in the barber's chair, ready for their haircut.
While most remain quiet and contemplative, some recruits joke with her and plead for a slightly longer cut.
Several also try to reason their way out of it, claiming that the bald haircut is "not fashionable".
She says: "I tell them the 'botak' (Malay for bald) style is very nice. Training is tough and the weather is hot, so being botak will help them keep cool.
"If they still complain, I tell them to go talk to their sergeant instead. No exceptions, if not I get in trouble too."
But occasionally, a difficult recruit will break down and start sobbing in front of her.
Madam Rose recalls: "Once, a new recruit came in with hair so long that it reached his waist. He was obviously quite proud of his hair and every time I moved to shave it, he moved his head away.
"Then he started crying."
An "encik" - a Warrant Officer - came to talk to him, telling him to stop.
He consented after that, but continued sobbing as Madam Rose cut all his hair off.
While "cutting botak" is her mainstay, it is not true that Madam Rose is a one-trick pony.
The veteran hairstylist has been cutting hair for more than three decades.
She opened her first barber shop in the 1990s after her husband died to support herself and her two children.
Back then, the shops in Bedok, Hougang and Choa Chu Kang bore her name, operating under the label Rose Merah Hair Stylist and Malay Barber.
In 2001, she was awarded a military tender to operate in Pulau Tekong.
It may guarantee an unending line of customers for her company, but taking on the job seemed like an impossible challenge at first, she says.
With nearly 30 companies - each has around 300 recruits - on Pulau Tekong to deal with, an army-like efficiency is necessary.
Madam Rose secret weapon is her personal pair of hair clippers, which she has modified herself to cut hair at a speedy pace.
And just as soldiers do with their firearms, she takes extreme care of her clippers, which are regularly cleaned and sharpened at a specialised service in Chinatown.
"Cutting hair in Tekong is not like cutting hair anywhere else. You will need to be fast," she says.
"I can cut someone 'botak' in 45 seconds."
She expertly cuts the hair of four recruits simultaneously in a training shed.
Her part-time staff can only do three at a time at most.
One company takes her 1½ hours.
At the brushing point, recruits help each other brush off hair from their bodies as other recruits "welcome them to the club", she says with a laugh.
She once worked non-stop and cut the hair of nearly 3,000 recruits from 10 companies.
Her only respite comes every weekend, when she heads to Johor Bahru to unwind.
"Saturdays are for my Thai massage in JB. On Sundays, I hit the gym to work out my arms," she says.
"It's tiring but I really like it. I treat all these recruits like my own children."
Collect the $2 haircut fee from the recruits before you start cutting as you will encounter problems telling apart one recruit from the next. Always carry spare clippers as equipment may break down when you need them most.
Speed is everything. A sergeant is always nearby to help you with difficult recruits who could delay the whole process.
This article was first published on Feb 21, 2016.
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