The Original Black Knight
By Nina Syahira
July 3, 2015
Vietnamese refugees on the shores of Singapore
Photo sourced from mothership.sg
When Saigon (South Vietnam) fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, thousands of South Vietnamese fled their homeland as refugees. Unfortunately, the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries refused them entry, including Singapore, where space was limited. However, Singapore couldn’t just stand idly by as many refugee boats ended up capsized or attacked by pirates in the open sea.
In early May 1975, a ship carrying 300 refugees was the first to arrive in Singapore waters. Seven more vessels followed suit within a day.
“We [Republic of Singapore Air Force] were the forward eyes to see how many numbers were coming in. We fed the information back to [the] command post here in Singapore and they will deploy the ships to intercept them and to see whether these guys are carrying any weapons or they really needed help to be replenished,” COL (Ret) Frank Singam told us in an interview at the SAF50 media launch in February.
Very quickly, Singapore soon received 8,355 refugees. Most of the ships they came in from were old and not in safe condition. The Ministry of Defence and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) worked together for an emergency operation to provide humanitarian relief. After 13 days, the refugees continued on to Subic Bay, Guam and Australia. This mission was called Operation Thunderstorm.
COL (Ret) Frank Singam posing with a photo of his younger self during his time in RSAF
Photo sourced from mindef.gov.sg
Being a part of such a historic mission is one of the many achievements in Mr Singam’s 32-year career in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). Upon joining the RSAF as a member of their pioneer batch in 1968, he was whisked away for training to the United Kingdom – a place that’s more than 10,000km away from home.
“You’re a Hindu and you go to a Christian-based country, right? It was culture shock in the highest order."
And this is just the day-to-day living, you know! Firstly, [you need] to assimilate the culture, to understand what the British are saying. They speak in very different ways. [Then] you've got to change your food style. I mean, Indians cannot eat beef mah! But beef is [out] there 50% of the time. [And then] you have to socialise a lot,” explained Mr Singam.
Despite the challenges so early in his time in the RSAF, Mr Singam has always been grateful for the opportunity.
“It was learning every day. It was heavy pressure on us lah. But I think the passion to want to fly kind of crept up on us lah, day by day. The desire to want to do this well, the resolution. The result was very strong."
COL (Ret) Frank Singam in RSAF uniform during younger days
Photo sourced from mindef.gov.sg
In just 5 years, Mr Singam grew from being a newbie pilot to becoming one of the chosen four of the first batch of The Black Knights. Initially known as Osprey Red, the team was, and still is, the official aerobatics team of the RSAF. The Black Knights have always been a true crowd-pleaser at airshows and occasionally, the National Day Parade. Mr Singam also had the unique advantage of building and training the team. Under his care, The Black Knights had used three different aircrafts; Hunter, F-5 and Skyhawk. The team had also grown from flying a four-aircraft formation to six.
“[It was] an honour lah, because the squadron commanders at the time, who were British, had to hand-pick the guys who can do this job. It was a different kind of flying, different from operational flying. It was a lot of faith in the leader [and] even people flying on your wing had to have faith in you because when you do manoeuvres, you've got to be in position.”
Even at home, he believes that the discipline of trustworthiness is crucial in raising a family.
“I think the biggest influence was to my two sons. The fact about resilience, the fact about adaptability, and the fact about having faith in what they want to do, going where their passion wants to take them. I think that was very, very clear in the way I raised my sons. They just do their thing and they're doing pretty well, I think."
COL (Ret) Frank Singam posing for a group photo at the SAF50 media launch in February
Throughout the interview, Mr Singam kept repeating how lucky he was to be a part of the SAF. He was especially happy and proud to see how much more advanced the SAF has become today.
“I’ve worked with many armed forces around the region, and for me I think we have done very well developing our capabilities. We have not stood still.”
Looking back at his storied career in the RSAF, Mr Singam has only this to say:
“I think anyone being in the SAF would be very proud to be a part of it. Not just because of its capabilities, but [also] what it makes you as a person at the end of the day. You’re a better planner, better manager, better leader. Whatever you've learned from the SAF, [it] serves you well after the service. Very transferable. So yeah, overall, I wouldn't do it any more different.”
Check out our previous SAF50 story with CPT (Ret) Shamsudin in ‘How Discipline Shapes Success’!
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