In The Force

How my National Service changed my views on lifesaving

A harrowing encounter turned SGT1 (NS) Muhammad Zainal Abidin from reluctant National Serviceman to passionate fire and rescue specialist at SCDF’s Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit.


Like many other Singaporean males, SGT1 (NS) Muhammad Zainal Abidin enlisted for National Service (NS) when he was 18. “Initially, I did not see the importance of serving NS — and I must admit that I was not the most enthusiastic in training,” says Zainal, 30, recalling his experience as a full-time National Serviceman (NSF) with SCDF.

But SGT1 (NS) Zainal then experienced a turning point that would shape a life-long passion. “One day, my fire station crew and I were instructed to help out during a suicide attempt,” he recounts. “When we arrived at the scene, we were tasked to set up the life pack as quickly as we could. As I was not very serious during my training, I struggled to keep up with my colleagues when handling the equipment. Yet there I was, caught in a situation where a life was at stake. Fortunately, it was a team effort and my personal shortcomings did not adversely affect the operations.”

Realising that he could have done more to support his team, SGT1 (NS) Zainal resolved to focus on his NS training and learn as much as possible from veteran SCDF career officers. “After the incident, I realised how self-centred and immature I was,” concedes SGT1 (NS) Zainal. “I decided to put in my utmost effort to do my best in NS. Ever since then, my passion for saving lives has continued to grow.”

After completing his full-time NS stint in 2014, SGT1 (NS) Zainal went on to work as a technician and obtained a diploma in aerospace engineering. He is currently pursuing a degree in psychology. Over the years, he has developed a passion for lifesaving, which led him to join the SCDF’s Civil Defence Auxiliary Unit (CDAU) as a fire and rescue specialist at Bishan Fire Station. “Joining the CDAU was a great milestone in my life. Lifesaving is a noble endeavour and I believe this is something that my son will be proud of,” asserts the father of a 6-year-old.


His son would certainly be able to regale friends with tales of his father’s heroic acts. On the evening of 20 March 2018, SGT1 (NS) Zainal and his crew were alerted to an oil storage tank fire at Pulau Busing. From where he stood, kilometres away from the island off Singapore’s southwestern coast, SGT1 (NS) Zainal could see raging fire and clouds of thick black smoke.

SCDF personnel fighting the oil storage tank fire at Pulau Busing.
SCDF personnel fighting the oil storage tank fire at Pulau Busing.

“The fire was burning on a massive scale when we approached the site in our fire engines onboard a vessel,” says SGT1 (NS) Zainal. “This reminded me of the stories that some SCDF career officers shared from their experience fighting a pumphouse fire at Pulau Bukom years ago. The Bukom pumphouse fire was so intense that one of our emergency appliances was partially burnt.” Bearing that in mind when setting up the ground monitor this time round, SGT1 (NS) Zainal was careful to maintain a safe distance from the raging fire and constantly check on the wind direction to ensure safety.

A total of 31 firefighting and support vehicles, 128 SCDF personnel and Company Emergency Response Team members along with the Police Coast Guard, Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, Republic of Singapore Navy and the National Environment Agency were involved in the highly challenging six-hour operation at Pulau Busing. “When the Pulau Busing fire was ultimately extinguished around midnight, my crew and I had to stay behind to monitor the site until 8am the next morning,” notes SGT1 (NS) Zainal. “As there were about five of us in my section, we took turns to monitor the site every two hours to ensure that the area remained safe. Such precautions are necessary because re-ignition can happen in oil storage tank fires.”

Despite the lack of sleep after the arduous firefighting mission, SGT1 (NS) Zainal managed to stay alert during the long hours of standby duty. “What I have learnt from my experiences as an NSF and a CDAU officer, is that we must never take Singapore’s safety for granted,” he cautions. “Every time I put on my firefighting bunker gear and lift the rescue equipment, I am carrying not just a heavy physical load but also the weight of responsibility.”

Today, SGT1 (NS) Zainal passionately imparts his rescue and firefighting knowledge and skills to NSFs at Bishan Fire Station. He always reminds them to take their NS seriously – they are, after all, young men entrusted with a noble mission of safeguarding the lives and property of others.


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Close Up

Finding positivity as an EMT instructor after a crushing injury

The glass is always half-full for SCDF (NSF) SGT Marc Loh, despite experiencing a torn hamstring that dashed his hopes of earning a taekwondo black belt.



As an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Instructor with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), SGT Marc Loh is responsible for ensuring that his trainees are prepared to handle medical emergencies in the real world, whether it’s a heart attack or respiratory failure. Judging by their success, it is clear that SGT Loh has aced this task. “I’ve seen my trainees do well for their tests and later win awards within the Force,” says the 24-year-old full-time National Serviceman.

SGT Loh knows how important emergency medical response is, having been on the receiving end of their care back in 2019. “It was a really tough day for me. I had to euthanise my beloved dog and after that, rushed to taekwondo training. It was the last session before my assessment to attain a black belt,” recalls SGT Loh.

Because he had arrived late, SGT Loh’s instructor told him to quickly warm up and get on the mat. After running several quick laps around the school, he attempted a high jump kick and immediately felt something go horribly wrong. “I fell to the floor and wasn’t able to stand up. The EMS team that conveyed me to the hospital went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and reassured me that everything would be okay.”

Doctors later discovered that he had torn his hamstring, possibly because he had not performed sufficient stretches before the intense physical exercise. “As it was a chronic tear, they advised me to hang up my taekwondo dobok (uniform) for good.” And just like that, his three-year journey practising the Korean martial art ended.

He had picked up the sport in 2016, as a student pursuing a diploma in Telematics & Media Technology at Nanyang Polytechnic. “I always had an interest in the martial art but initially shied away from it because of how expensive lessons were. I took the opportunity to learn it in polytechnic, where classes were subsidised.”

SGT Loh’s commitment to the sport is reflected in the strict diet and exercise regime he adopted to stay fit and improve his endurance. “People don’t realise how much of a cardio workout taekwondo is. Plus, we compete in categories determined by weight, so I had to lose four kilos.”

Despite these sacrifices, he prefers to look on the bright side of an unfortunate situation. Even though he can no longer practise taekwondo, he remains grateful for the lessons he gained from it, such as discipline and focus. “I can apply these to other areas of my life.”


SGT Loh tries to share this positive approach to life’s setbacks with his trainees, alongside the technical skills required to become an EMT. He says this opportunity to make a difference in their lives has given him a renewed sense of purpose.

This passion is reflected in his extensive efforts to teach his trainees and help them improve. “It’s one thing to operate medical equipment, such as a defibrillator, but another to teach someone else to use it,” he explains. “As a young trainee without any medical knowledge, I remember struggling to familiarise myself with the equipment. Now that I have the opportunity, I want to emulate my trainers who gave me plenty of support and guidance.” The dedicated instructor even went to the lengths of creating infographics and visual aids to better impart first aid knowledge and skills to his trainees.

This ability to communicate complex concepts in a manner that is easy to understand will undoubtedly come in handy in the next phase of SGT Loh’s life, as he prepares to study software engineering at the Singapore Institute of Technology. His Operationally Ready Date falls on 12 April 2023.

As he looks to an exciting new endeavour, he admits in retrospect, that it was a shame he came so close to achieving his black belt. But if these two years in the Force are anything to go by, his tenacity will soon lead him to excel in new passions. 


“As a trainer, there’s definitely pressure to ensure that our trainees are well prepared to handle real-world emergencies. But it’s all worth it when you realise that the life-saving skills you impart to them may prove useful even after they leave the Force. We also have a chance to build close ties with trainees, since our work isn’t just about regimentation. I find that they learn more effectively when I make the effort to get to know them better and understand their learning styles.”

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