Jack Neo reminisces about army life

SINGAPORE - He was what some would call a "siao on" (madly enthusiastic) soldier. He signed on with the army after his O levels, at 17, and spent more than eight years in it. Even at 52 now, local movie director Jack Neo, who went to Officer Cadet School (OCS), says his days in green were "quite fun".

He told The New Paper in a recent interview: "I told my wife and sons that I really miss army life. "I miss the times when (my platoon mates and I) went through everything together, including the times when the instructors 'tortured' us.

"The fun of (army life) is in its discipline and (the) unity (shown by soldiers)."

Lieutenant Neo Chee Keong, as he was known back then, was a quartermaster for two to three years after OCS.

In 1980, he became platoon commander of the 1st Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment's Charlie Company at Guillemard Camp.

He trained the soldiers there for six months before transferring to the Music & Drama Company, where he spent the rest of his days in the army, before leaving in 1986 as a lieutenant.

Of his days as an instructor, Neo said he didn't especially "tekan" (bully) his charges.

There were times when he shouted at them, but it wasn't directed at the platoon as a whole.

Said Neo: "I think I told the soldiers to run across the parade square to 'kiss' a tree and run back.

"It was a tradition passed down from my instructors. When your instructors 'tekan' you in the past, you 'tekan' your soldiers later."

This form of punishment is included in Neo's latest movie, Ah Boys To Men Part 1, which is about a motley group of recruits doing their Basic Military Training.

The two-hour long movie opened yesterday and Part 2 will be released on Feb 7. Both movies cost $3 million to make.

It stars new faces like local YouTube personalities Tosh Zhang and Noah Yap, getai singer Wang Weiliang and aspiring actor Joshua Tan.

Apart from local celebrities like Irene Ang, Liu Qianyi and getai singer Wang Lei who had supporting roles in the film, Neo also roped in the directors of several local companies for guest appearances.

Neo said that his army stint was also a time when he was full of energy.

He was physically very fit and could carry a soldier up Peng Kang Hill, a steep hill in Pasir Laba, in less than 10 minutes, Neo recalled.

Neo also revealed that because he became an officer at only 18, some of the older but lower-ranked soldiers looked down on him.

And when he was in OCS, he was the youngest in his platoon as other trainees were polytechnic graduates and aged around 20.

However, they took care of him and treated him like their younger brother, he said.

Neo added that his English wasn't good then and sometimes he couldn't understand what the instructors said.

He also had to look up the meaning of some English words in his training manual in a dictionary.

Lightning accident

A tragedy mars the memory of his OCS days.

"One month before we passed out of OCS, we were taking part in our last defence exercise on Hill 265 in Marsiling. It was raining heavily and one of my platoon mates was struck dead by lightning," he said.

"That was why a big lightning rod was later installed on Hill 265."

Next year, the army tradition will continue in the Neo family when his 18-year-old son enlists.

He didn't want to reveal his son's name because he doesn't want the teen to have the pressure of being known as Jack Neo's son when he enlists.

Neo doesn't think his son will receive preferential treatment because "there are no benefits to begin with". Everyone's equal in the army, he maintained.

"My wife is nervous about him going into the army. I think most mothers are like that because they aren't familiar with national service," said Neo.

He added: "I told my wife it's okay. I did a lot of research for this movie. The army now is very different from before.

"Young teens have to go through the army to be men. I wouldn't think of telling my son to 'take cover' (to escape training or duties) when he's in the army.

"He and his friends are also quite excited to be enlisted after seeing some of the movie footage."

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