Clarence Tan is by all definitions of the word a Singaporean hero.
After all, we’re talking about someone who, among other exploits,
• was in the first batch of soldiers to be part of Singapore’s post-independent army,
• fought in the Konfrontasi,
• led the escort of the Laju hijackers,
• kept watch over Vietnamese refugees during Operation Thunderstorm, and
• was even used as the poster boy for army recruitment in the 1960’s.
Born in the final years of the Japanese Occupation and raised in the last days of British colonialism, Tan was at first a member of the Singapore Volunteer Corps before joining the military full-time to become a regular officer in 1963.
But before we can attribute his decision to join the army to any sense of patriotism, the now-78-year-old is quick to tell Mothership that he signed on simply because he loved the outdoors.
Starting the commandos
By 1969, a good four years into independence, Tan — having now attained the rank of Major — was tasked with establishing the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) elite Commando unit.
At the time, Tan was considered the most qualified solider for the job, having been through U.S. Ranger and airborne training, as well as having spent a significant time training with Malaysia’s commando equivalents.
Recalling the initial worries he had when starting the unit, Tan said:
“At that point of time, it was [stressful]. Because you got to start the unit from the very beginning and how to get these people? What sort of people do you need? And it’s not easy to recruit soldiers to join me.”
Other units had already been established and for Tan, their recruitment efforts must have seemed far more impressive to interested soldiers.
“See like the armour [unit] they can show them the tanks, and whatever they have. The artillery, the big guns. I got nothing. The only thing that I can tell them is that they join me to have an adventurous career.”
Tan can’t help but allow the corner of his mouth to curl up in a wily smile as he recalls his pitch to that first batch of recruits.
Tan with his commando stiletto knife. Stilettos are presented to every commando who finishes their training. Tan’s golden stiletto was presented to him when he retired from the SAF. Photo by Andrew Koay
If memory serves him right, he qualifies, Tan saw 10 officers and about 30 soldiers from other ranks joined up after that first recruitment drive — forming the first-ever batch of Singapore commandos.
“As I said, these are the people that — I don’t know why they want to join in — they just have an adventurous spirit.”
Best in the SAF
With that, Tan and his rag-tag group of commando recruits set about earning the unit a reputation for producing the best soldiers in the SAF.
“Whatever was given to us, we proved that we could do better than [the rest]. What makes us outstanding — I put it as we want to show ourselves. In terms of sports we excel in quite a number, beating every unit.”
However, physical fitness was not the only attribute that good soldiers needed — as was pointed out to Tan by a senior officer.
That year, the unit had just taken part in the SAF’s inter-unit shooting competition. It was the first time they were competing and they did not do well.
“One of the senior officers, he was sort of telling me, ‘you people can only run and do things, but cannot shoot. It’s no use’. And I proved it to them the next year. We trained really hard and we swept the board.
So that’s where commandos made a name for ourselves. By excelling in sporting events, military events.”
From there, interest in the unit grew. In what Tan describes as “drips and drabs”, more and more soldiers started to sign up to train under him and his commandos.