The hard truth of an army regular’s wife in an overseas base

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This article is written to share my experiences living in an overseas base thus far and I do hope it would be relevant to anyone considering accompanying your spouse if they have been offered an overseas post with the Singapore Armed Forces. The information I am sharing is personal and solely based on my experiences living in an Overseas Training Base. While writing this article, I wished I had access to a similar article before deciding to come up to Brunei with my husband.

Personally, if I had known of the actual circumstances here, I would have told my husband to reject the overseas posting. I do hope this article finds its way to an individual who is in my position years back and hopefully with the information within this article, makes an informed decision whether to accept or reject the opportunity to accompany your husband if he is posted to an Overseas Base.

When my husband broke the news of a potential overseas posting, we discussed about it and saw it as an interesting opportunity for the family. We would be able to build on the family’s savings nest, an opportunity for my kid to attend an international school and me living the life of a “Tai-Tai” for 2 years. It seemed like a good exposure for both the family.

Uncertainty of Accompanied Posting Term

When my husband initially flew up to Brunei, he was informed that he was required to fly up first. Subsequently, the family would join him after he has settled down after taking over his appointment. That seemed fair but the reality was unlike what I anticipated.

After flying up, I was shocked to learn that he had to apply for an accompanied posting and it was pending approval. Weeks passed and he was unable to get an answer on his family joining him. We argued every single night due to this uncertainty. There we so many questions left unanswered…“When do I pull my kid out from school”, “When do I submit my resignation letter from my job”, “When can I start advertising for the rental of my flat and sale of my car”…

After close to 2 month, my husband was finally able to tell me that the approval has been granted and that I would have to quickly make the arrangements to fly up. As my husband could not fly back due to his work commitments, it was left to me to settle many things by myself. From the packing up of the house, to settling with the housing agent on the house rental, sale of my car, stopping my kid from school, quitting my job… the scramble was horrible. Even to this day, I am amazed that I could accomplish the things I did within that short amount of time.

Over the past 2 years plus in Brunei, I have seen many of the spouses placed in a similar situation as me. I would have to count myself lucky as I know of army regulars, who was not granted the approval for accompanied posting. I must count my lucky stars as there was a possibility then that I had to contend with my husband being apart from the family for at least 2 years.

On the other hand, I also have seen the families with higher ranked husbands not required to go through such a circumstance. There is an embarkation leave accorded to your husband before he flies up and I have seen a case whereby the family flies up to Brunei with the husband. He subsequently cleared his embarkation leave while settling in Brunei with his family.

In contrast, I have seen husbands who fetch their family from the Brunei International Airport and have to be back in to Lakiun Camp the following day, while the wives settle the family down by themselves with the help of the other spouses who have been in Brunei for a much longer time.

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The reality on “migrating’ is that you are placed in a community of strangers, away from you loved ones back home and on a foreign land. You must adjust to this change. It would help if I had the help from my husband but the reality is that I had to do it mostly by myself without my husband. The frequency of you seeing your husband really depends on which base he is posted to. In my circumstance, my husband was posted to Lakiun Camp.

For spouses with husbands posted to this camp, be prepared to only see your husbands at best once a week. There are times you won’t be able to meet your husband up to a month depending on his work schedule. This separation is due to 4 reasons namely geography, schooling / extra curriculum of your kid/s, harsh conditions in Temburong and “manning”.

Let me explain this in further details.

1. Geography

Brunei Darussalam is broken into 2 separate land masses. There is the main land. This is where all the spouses live. Most of us stay within the camp premises called Jalan Aman Camp. In JAC as we commonly call it, it takes approximately 30 minutes to drive to Subok Jetty. From there, you will have to wait and take a water taxi to Temburong Town. The journey is approximately 45 minutes. From Temburong Jetty where u disembark, you will have to wait and take a mini bus from the jetty to Lakiun Camp. This journey will take approximately 30 mins. The total travel time is approximately 2 hours and this excludes the waiting time required in any leg of your journey. If you decide to accompany your husband in Temburong this is the journey you will have to make. It is especially tedious if you have small kids and a big bag to tag along. We are not allowed to drive to Lakiun Camp even though it would be more convenient as you are required to drive through Limbang, Sarawak, Malaysia. The only ones allowed to drive through Limbang is Commander Lakiun Camp and his family. To be honest this ban seems unfair and inconsistent with the base “policy”. Many new NOKs, would question this inconsistency but over time I guess you just get used to the inequality. In my article, I will cite some examples on the inequality of treatment just to mentally prepare future NOKs if they do decide to accompany their husbands in Brunei. This is to mentally prepare you on the inequality and disparity that you see here in Brunei within the Army base.

2. Schooling / ECA commitment

The kid/s are enrolled in either one of these 2 international schools, Jerudong International School or JIS for short and International School of Brunei or ISB. Do not be too alarmed with the school fees as the fees are borne by the SAF. The 2 international schools have an extensive curriculum to prepare your kids not only for their transition back to Singapore Schooling System but it also encourages experiential learning. Besides school, most of the NOKs enrol their children in many enrichment classes which are typically priced at a fraction of what it will cost back in Singapore. These enrichment classes are widely shared among the NOKs community. The problem is that most of the enrichment classes though good are held mostly during the weekend. If your kid/s are enrolled in any programme over the weekend, you are more likely inclined not to miss them than travelling in to Lakiun Camp to accompany your husband.

3. Harsh Conditions

If you do decide to accompany your husband in Lakiun Camp or if you are “forced” to attend a camp event as demanded by Commander Lakiun Camp, you will sleep in an airconditioned room with communal toilet facilities. The condition of the rooms or the facilities within the camp is very much in an undesirable condition for us NOKs.

This discomfort is amplified as our movement in/out of the camp premises is controlled to designated timings and location. Besides Commander Lakiun Camp, no one within the camp can drive their personal car permanently in Temburong. If you do need your car especially if you are taking a road trip to Kota Kinabalu, your husband is required to fill up a form and seek approval. You will realise throughout this article that there are many things in Brunei that requires approval and requires your husband to submit various kinds of forms to gain that approval. The frustration would be when you realise that only the “chosen” few are not subjected to this.

In some ways, your freedom is controlled by the SAF when you are here in Brunei. After you have gained the approval, you will still not be allowed to drive the car in to Temburong via Limbang. Your husband would have to arrange with a local to drive in the car for a fee of $100. I am somewhat uncomfortable with this process as it requires me to hand my car over to a stranger. Instead, I resorted to renting a vehicle, which requires a separate set of approvals. I initially wondered if there is a collaboration between the top SAF brass in Brunei and the locals to create a condition for this unnecessary expense and inconvenience and earn from these added services. I came to this assumption as these locals was able to gain entry into the camp premises to pick up and drop off the cars within JAC and Lakiun Camp.

4. “Manning”

I learned a new word here in Brunei called “Manning”. Lakiun Camp already has a ridiculous workload. As a spouse, we would grow to accept this. When there is heavy work commitments, practically the whole camp would be busy. Regardless of weekends or public holidays, the people in Lakiun Camp would work their assess off. This is in contrast to the work commitments in JAC.

If your husband works in Lakiun Camp, you would look enviously at the families with husbands working in JAC. They would be able to have lunches and dinners with the family or spend public holidays with their families. Having a Lakiun Camp husband around is a luxury for the family. Now to dwell deeper into this “Manning” demands. The NOKs with husbands working in Lakiun Camp generally finds it ridiculous when there are no training frames and yet our husbands are not allowed to leave the camp premises due to “manning”.

Not burdened enough with their workload during training frames, they must take turns leaving the camp even if they do not any work to do. It personally frustrates me when my husband tells me that he spends the entire day in the bunk, not doing any work when he could be using the time spending quality time with his kid. During some occasions, I am even shocked to learn that those without accompanying spouses are stuck in Temburong for up to 3 months without going out to Bandar as they gave way to those with families.

As a civilian, I am appalled with the lack of welfare for the soldiers who sacrificed themselves to serve the SAF in a foreign land. I have shared this observation to my husband and some of the NOKs and realise that they have given up hope on ever overturning this “policy” that seem to disfavour the lower ranks in Lakiun Camp. If your husband accepts a post in Lakiun Camp, you must be prepared to accept this fate.

Suppressed Freedom

Upon your arrival in Brunei, you will begin to find out that not only is your husband’s freedom suppressed and controlled but also your family’s too. There are various demands placed on you and your family and I will share it with you below.

1. Prata Session

The first thing you will find out is that you are required to attend the weekly prata session in JAC. The session is intended to strengthen NOK community. NOKs tend to form cliques and mingle within them. There will be much gossiping and exchange on information. These many cause disputes among individuals and cliques. Though these prata sessions were originally intended to be a social gathering, it has mutated to be a compulsory event in which there is attendance taking. If you do not attend, be prepared for your husband to be summoned by the Commander regarding your absence from the session.

I have always found it nonsensical that a NOK’s absence warrants the husband being reprimanded by his Commander. So if you find yourself posted be prepared to attend these sessions. During my time here, I have seen a heated argument among the NOKs during one of these prata sessions while resulted in one of them being sent back to Singapore as she was seen as a negative influence among the NOKs.

What I have learnt from that situation was that some of the influential NOKs with higher ranked husbands, contributed to her being sent back. The reality is that the NOKs here tend to assimilate their husbands’ rank and post and create a hierarchy within the NOK community in Brunei.

2. You!! Need To Perform Duty too

This was new for me when I first arrived. I was appalled that I am required to perform duty and attend events as directed by the commanders here. Once such event would be the annual JAC CNY event. All NOKs are required to perform usher duties. Within the NOKs, we will make the necessary arrangements to take care of each other kids. Not to worry though, by this time the kids would have adjusted to the NOKs within the camp premises and will entertain themselves with games.

When a VIP arrives, whether he/she is a Minister, Member of Parliament or High-ranking SAF commander, you may also be required to be present. The commanders in Brunei may also direct you to make the necessary arrangements for you to attend with your husband without your kids. There will also be unofficial events that you are required to support which is commonly swung by the “Queen Bee”.

You are required to support these events too. Normally failure to support these events without a valid reason would lead to your husband being summoned to be reprimanded by his commander.

3. The Queen Bee

The Queen Bee is the spouse of the highest-ranking officer in Brunei he is the Defence Attache or DA. She will be the one to impose her authority on the rest of the NOKs. It was made known to me that information regarding a soldier’s EOT date, postings and any events taking place within the camp premises are always divulged to those within her inner circle. We have even joked before that she is the actual commander in Brunei. We have seen before NOKs coming to her with subtle requests, which their husbands have failed to attain themselves, and getting those requests approved.

This is apparent in Lakiun Camp as the DA will impose himself on Commander Lakiun Camp and making him do to his will. I have heard from many of the regulars that the Commander Lakiun Camp is a puppet and will do everything that was told to him by the DA. This is because he has the intention to secure the Dy Commander post in JAC. In cases whereby a husband puts in a request that was rejected by Commander Lakiun Camp, an avenue the NOKs will take would be to go through the Queen Bee to get the required approval from DA.

An apparent example would be an incident that took place earlier this year which was shared by another NOK to me as I wasn’t involved in the event. JIS organised an International Friendship event in which every country will set up a booth promoting their country. The Queen Bee was the main organiser for Singapore’s country booth and she required the assistance of the other NOKs with children schooling in JIS to help with the event. One of the spouses requested an absence from the event as her husband has just completed his JCC course. Having not seen him a in a while, she wanted the family to spend time with him as he was able to go back to main land on that day. Shockingly, DA directed for an extra training for the entire training frame including the teams that passed which had the husband inside after a phone call from her. The husband was not allowed to leave Temburong.

When I heard this, I casually asked my husband whether this is a common occurrence and he told me that it has never happened before. This demonstrates the influence of the Queen Bee on all affairs in Brunei. For any NOKs in Brunei, it is unwise to offend the Queen Bee. Being part of her inner circle would be advantageous for you.

To Conclude

After reading this article and you are still determined to come up to Brunei, here is a few useful tips for you.

1. Never offend the Queen Bee. Always keep her close. If possible, get into her inner circle to your advantage. Mind what you say to her as I have seen this backfiring many times most often the ones who suffer would be your husband.

2. There are many things that you will see that you probably will not agree with. There is no need to question and request for these changes to be made as it will never happen especially if it’s not in their favour. If changes to be made, it is often in their the commanders’ favour. An example would be the accommodation in Brunei. The previous Dy Commander JAC was staying in a house within the camp premises. The present Dy Commander JAC is renting a bungalow although he is staying in the house alone. It was also made known to me that the DA is assigned a house within the Singapore High Commission grounds in Brunei and yet he is also renting a bungalow outside. The Government has always reiterated prudent spending and yet we have commanders here wasting tax payers’ money, living in luxury outside though they are allocated houses. All these disparity in treatment is very apparent here. Just be satisfied with what you have and do not question the authority here even if you do not agree personally.

3. Do find comfort in your kids. Treasure the time you have with your husbands when you do see them. Be the listening ear for him as he treads through the challenges at work. Among the NOKs with husbands working in Lakiun Camp, you will begin to understand the frustrations they face on the daily basis. You will soon realise that you will be closer as a family. I enjoy the time I can “gossip” with my husband as for once in our lives, we are in the same situation together.

4. Take the time to travel around East Malaysia as a family when the time permits. I do hope this article is useful and the examples I cited may not be consistent in other SAF overseas bases. All the cases are based on my first-hand experiences here. If you are dwelling on whether to move to another country due to a potential posting for your husband, the advice I can give you would be to research and find out for yourself the real circumstances taking place there. You will be shifting the whole family over and it is worth for you finding out more before deciding.

Mrs X