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In Oriente Primus – An Introduction to the Singapore Artillery

My first encounter with the Singapore Artillery began in March 1995, when I entered the gates of Khatib Camp. We were a group of privates who had just passed out of Basic Military Training (BMT) and the euphoria of our Passing Our Parade (POP) had given way to anxiety about our new units. As we moved into the gates of Khatib Camp, the sign that announced, “Once a Gunner, Always a Gunner,” resounded in our minds, and would remain so up till today.

Little did I know then that this would be the beginning of a very special relationship with a very unique organization? And it is now, nine years after I entered the gates of Khatib Camp that I have come to appreciate the saying “Once a Gunner, Always a Gunner.” And because of this, came the idea of a series on the Singapore Artillery and the role it plays in the SAF and in Singapore at large.

The Artillery formation is not the biggest or the most glamorous of formations in the SAF. The various SIR’s in the infantry easily outnumber the three active gun battalions in the artillery (20, 21 and 23 SA). And action fantasies are based around Commandos or Guardsmen. But while small, the Singapore Artillery is a deadly force on the battlefield. No infantry commander would ever dream of storming a hill without the support of the awesome firepower of the Singapore Artillery. Senior Warrant Officer, Yeo Lay King, Head of Weapon Training Wing, School of Artillery describes the purpose of the Artillery as, “ Making sure that all the infantry have to do is to collect the bones.”

As Chief of Artillery, Colonel Lim Chin notes, “We have the proud distinction of being the oldest formation in the SAF and we are proud of the valuable role that we play in the SAF.”

And not only does the Singapore Artillery have a valuable role to play in the SAF’s combat mission. It also has a valuable way of being a showcase of blending technology and people to obtain the best results. On a personal level the artillery seems to have a way of instilling a sense of family and togetherness in people who have been Gunners.

Manpower or the decline of it has been one of the major issues in Singapore over the past few years. Like the rest of society the artillery has had to adapt to this new reality. And it has done so with the use of technology. One only needs to look at the evolution from the M71, which required 12 gunners, to Primus, which not only requires a crew of four but it also removes the need for other functions – like the BRO.

The increased use of technology has also been a reflection of the changes in society. Today’s Gunners, like much of Singapore’s young, are better educated than their forefathers. They are more comfortable with technology. And the SAF and the Singapore Artillery has invested heavily in training today’s Gunners to be comfortable with the latest technology. As Senior Warrant Lau Peck Wah, Formation Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) says, “In the artillery today, it is less a question about the number of gunners we need but the quality of gunners. We need to train them better to do more than we used to.”

And so here lies the heart of what the artillery is about. People! As Colonel Lim Chin says, “ We are at heart, a people based organization. No matter how high-tech the weapons or techno-savvy we are, ultimately the gunners make the formation. Therefore Artillery puts a lot of emphasis on esprit de corps.”

Colonel Lim has summed up what many operationally ready NS men feel. In camp training is about the people. The comforts of a civilian’s job seem to lack the warmth of human friendships formed on the fields of Lentor or Sada Hill. Colonel Lim Chin notes, “The spirit of the artillery is stronger than before. In the few months since I've been back, everyone's been very committed. Since Gunners RV started, retired gunners have come back to share stories and experience, and this has certainly enhanced family bonding and camaraderie. With the rich tradition we have been blessed with, we were able to create a family over the past 100 years, a closely-knitted family where every gunner knows one another by name.”

Singaporeans are often called Kiasu. There are times when the adjective that best describes Singaporeans is ugly. But then again when I think of the friends that have shared the experience of being a Gunner – I could never have found a better group of people to share a year and a half year with. I admit to my foreign friends, “The average Singaporean may not be very nice, but when you meet a good one, you’ll never find a better person anywhere else.” And I have only the gunners of the Singapore Artillery to thank for allowing me to tell people that.

In the next article, I will look at HQ SA, the Heart of the Singapore Artillery. This is where the hard and software of the artillery lies and where the planning that makes the Singapore artillery what it is today takes place.

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