From green fatigues to a monk’s robes, Fred Cheong transitioned from a soldier to a spiritual warrior.
This Special Forces commando’s accomplishments include an agonizing US Navy SEAL course, commanding a seized Singapore Airlines plane, and molding and converting many batches of officer cadets into soldiers.
As a young man he was somewhat frail and never thought of being in the military having no inclination towards the profession. “I was not very strong, I couldn’t even swim,” he said. “Maybe I was thinking I wanted to be an air steward.”
But in December 1982, he enlisted in the National Service and eventually signed on as an officer cadet, after seeing his friends do the same. “Might as well,” he thought. “I thought (joining) the military could not be wrong.”
On Mar 26, 1991, Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 bound for Singapore was hijacked by four male Pakistani passengers shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur.
The plane that carried 114 passengers and 11 crew, landed at Changi Airport at nearly 10:30 pm. The hijackers, armed with knives, lighters and what looked like explosives, assaulted the pilot, attendants and passengers. Two stewards were pushed off the plane.
The hijackers, who wanted the plane re-fueled and flown to Sydney, made their demands very clear — To speak to former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and have the authorities release a number of people jailed in Pakistan.
When the negotiations stretched until the wee hours of the next morning, the hijackers lost patience and threatened to start killing if the demands were not met.
It was then that authorities gave the signal for the Special Operations Force (SOF) commandos to intercede and they were ordered to storm the plane and rescue the hostages. Drachom, by then a seasoned SOF trooper, was part of the team.
“When the time came, it was ‘just do it’,” he recalled. “There was no mental thought of will I go, will I not.”
In 2013, Drachom’s life in the military came to an end. He retired from the force and knew exactly what he wanted to do next.
Growing up in a Buddhist family, Drachom practised the religion since his younger days. When he studied at the Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Geylang, he became its vice-president and when he became a soldier, he would wake up at 4:00 every morning to pray before leaving for camp.
“The purpose of being a monk is to realise your potential, and in the process, help as many people as possible,” he said. “Make people around you happy.”
While Drachom said his Army colleagues were not surprised by his decision, they still could not believe that he would really do it. “Most people may feel it’s correct, but they’ll never take the step,” he said wisely. “It marked a very new beginning for me, the beginning of a spiritual life,” he added.
The rigidities and the demands of being a monk where the main objective is to eliminate from the mind all worldly distractions through constant prayer and meditation, was never a burden to Drachom.
For him, there were some parallels between being a monk and being in the military. “Both needed great amounts of discipline,” Drachom said. “One is awareness of the enemy and situation. The other is awareness of negative emotions that cause an unpleasant state of mind prevalent to all.”
“In the military, I destroyed the enemy outside. Now I destroy the enemy inside.”
When asked if he had any regrets, his response was, “My only regret is I only have one life to serve my country,” he lamented. “I wish I had one more to do it all over again.”
Self-examination while serving
No one ever becomes a soldier, fight for one’s country then comes home the same, at least, not in the emotional and psychological sense.
Most of them, if not all, return only physically, and are forever distorted psychologically. Drachom was lucky because his Buddhist training helped him cope and engage in introspection — the ability to examine one’s own thoughts and feelings.
Parallels between two worlds
Drachom’s statement that his becoming a monk was a “natural progression,” may be confusing to many who views his profession (as a soldier) as a business of killing people.
His move to monkhood from someone who helps mold young cadets to practise individual responsibility was actually just a continuation of what he was already doing when he was still a service man.
In his life as a soldier, he was taught that during skirmishes and aggressive encounters, one needs to train one’s mind to operate under duress, and that everything “was really surgical … so we just have to be very clear, shoot very straight, and let’s do it.”
This means strong focus and concentrated effort which is taught in Buddhism. And since he was already helping people during his stint as a service man, becoming a monk was just an extension of everything he did in the service since one of the goals of Buddhism is to help as many beings as possible to live in equanimity, harmony and loving kindness.