Sunday, 19 May 2013

Response to LIFT and TRS: My own encounter with workplace bullying

A TRS reader posted an account of alleged office bullying in Singapore. It sounds legitimate enough (unless it was staged, which I doubt) due to their Singaporean accents.

LIFT did a piece on it, which I am responding to as this issue is close to my heart, having been a victim of severe workplace abuse myself. In my case, the abuse was verbal and psychological, and took place three years ago, over a period about two months on board one of the ships in the Republic of Singapore Navy.

It was quite a dilemma whether I should blog about my own experiences, given that I am still in active service. However, I felt that it would be timely to share my experiences, and to address some of the points that LIFT has brought up. Unlike LIFT, who managed to stand up to the bullies he encountered, I was the victim through-and-through, unable to stand up for myself, and nobody gave a damn about me at that time, even the bully's supervisor. In other words, my 40 plus or so colleagues pretty much stood by the sidelines, and all I had was some words of comfort from a few of them to take a bit of the sting off the abuse.

Disclaimer: This account is of genuine events which occurred in the past. I am not claiming that this is representative of the Singapore Navy in general. I am also not highlighting this incident to discourage others from signing on with the Navy. But sugarcoating reality does nobody any favours either.

To be fair to the organisation and my colleagues from other ships, I have encountered many wonderful people over my six years' service. I have been nurtured by wonderful supervisors who gave me constructive criticism and even f**ked me over on occasion, justifiably. I still respect them deeply, because they built me up, as opposed to those who tried to tear me apart just for their own selfish reasons. These are the people I would fight alongside gladly, if the 'button' were to be pressed.

To those in a position of authority: I will not respond to threats or demands to delete this post, as nothing operationally sensitive has been revealed.

With that, I leave you a quote from our first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew:

"If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try."

A brief introduction

It all started when I was posted to a different ship, after passing one of the prerequisite assessments towards my Bridge Watchkeeping Certificate (BWC). This certificate would allow me to take control of the ship as the Officer of the Watche (OOW). In ships, the vessel is not simply driven by one person, but by a team - there would be a helmsman to steer the ship and control the engines, a radar plotter, lookouts, and so on. The OOW is the one who calls the shots by giving conning orders and directing the bridge team to perform certain tasks for navigational safety, or mission objectives (e.g. "look out for a ship with Barney the Dinosaur painted on the funnel, that's the enemy")

"Blast him out of the water!"

In addition, I was supposed to take on the responsibility of Navigating Officer. Technically, I required a BWC for this appointment, but since we like to put the cart in front of the horse in the Navy, nobody thought too much about that. In any case, I would never take control of the ship without a BWC holder to supervise me. It's all common practice and entirely above-board.

Now allow me to explain how the 'old guard' navy officers are trained. My batch kind of straddles the 'old guard' treatment, as well as the more 'enlightened' era. We are expected to know EVERYTHING about our ships. "Where is _____ equipment in the Engine Room? Exact position??"

"What is the maximum output of our fire pumps?"

In addition, we are expected to know our waters inside out. A fair expectation perhaps? But we have literally tens (I might say over a hundred, but I can't be sure since I only take note of those which concern me due to my limited mental capacity) of navigational marks, and the details include colours, light characteristics (e.g. Six quick flashes + one long flash every 15 seconds), and of course, their names.

10-year series. Burn, drink, digest

Stuff like that. Of course just about nobody ever knows 100%, because it's practically impossible. Unless you are Kevin (not his real name).

You see, Kevin was directed by the CO to train me up in double quick time, as the ship needed me to get my BWC pronto. He knows his shit, that I gotta admit. I have to respect him solely for his ability even though he's such a motherf**ker. Unfortunately, Kevin and the rest of the officers had high expectations of me. Somehow, they assumed that just because we both hailed from Raffles Junior College, I could be a shit-hot Naval Officer just like him.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

Of course, I don't fault them for having high expectations. Just the method in which they 'trained' me.

Now, I always like to please my bosses. I don't do that for praise or a good ranking (I have never fared too well, and don't give a shit anyway, since my salary is based on a 'good honours' pay grade). I do it to avoid trouble. Of course, I always try to take care of my guys first and foremost, but let's assume that is my innate nature (no matter what I say here, it's one-sided so no need to dwell too much on it), and pleasing my superiors does not conflict with me being a good supervisor.

Of course, there are times I have been motivated to go above and beyond pleasing my bosses. That's when I served under great bosses. But the baseline is that I always try to please my superiors even if I hate their guts, and Kevin has always sat comfortably in #1 position in my book.

Nothing I did was ever right

I particularly like A Singaporean Son's blog tagline: "He who needs a pat on the back makes every man his judge".

I am not like that. Life in the Navy didn't start off rosy for me, and I settled for being f**ked over as infrequently as possible. I don't need praise, I much rather be left alone. I accept constructive criticism, even if it's harsh, as some of my bosses can attest. I will even take the traditional SAF f**king like a man, and indeed I had a reputation in that squadron of being nai gan (Hokkien for "resilient to f**king") on account of my surviving that ordeal under Kevin.
That I won't die from it, doesn't mean I like it.
I definitely could accept that I was regarded as not up to scratch, and worked on my shortcomings. There were days I stayed back to show that I was working hard. "Show" because even on the days I went home after work, the self-study and homework didn't cease anyway. Life was quite miserable then, as an endless cycle of do work, get f**ked, re-do, get f**ked again.

It was tiring, to say the least. And unlike LIFT, I did not have the luxury of fighting back, because I was 'wrong' (or "f**ked up", in their words), and Kevin's boss and compatriots were fully aware of what was going on, and tacitly approved. I could have gone to my Squadron CO then, but what good would that do?

Instead, I sought a second opinion from my former Navigation instructor, a retired LTC and former Deputy Squadron CO at the squadron I was serving at. I showed him some of my work and asked for a critique. It was a pilotage plan chartlet, basically a sketch of the chart with navigational details I would need to guide the OOW on how to drive the ship, with me conducting the navigation by using visual navigation marks and bearings taken from the ship's compass.

"OOW Sir, by headmark, Ship is on-track, distance to wheelover..."
My instructor's response? "I couldn't have asked for more." But the vindication was short-lived.

I can't remember Kevin's response, but he didn't even like that piece of work. It was at that turning point where I lost all respect for him as a person, even though I respected his ability as a Naval officer. I also lost all respect for his peers and superiors - guilt by association, and I make no apologies for that.

On that deployment, I remember a particular incident as I kept watch under his supervision. Literally non-stop verbal f**king for four hours. Actually, you gotta hand it to him, he had good stamina. If this ability had extended to his dick, he could have been a world-famous porn star, a male equivalent of Annabel Chong.

Mind you, I am an Officer. No doubt subordinate to him by appointment, but one does not simply chew another PERSON up in front of everybody else. Certainly not an officer in front of the guys. It's not about my delicate sensibilities. It's a matter of simple professionalism. One could make exceptions to this on occasions when there is immediate danger and the message needs to be hammered in there and then. But then I was the trainee, and as far as I remember, there was no danger involved, given our location at that time. In any case, I had since supervised trainee officers as the qualified OOW, and I never, ever had to raise my voice for more than a few seconds. By getting all riled-up, it does no favour to the trainee, neither does it help with navigating the ship safely. It puts the ship at risk, given that the rest of the Bridge Team is distracted by a madman shouting at someone else.

RSS Courageous. In this case, the actual OOW should have taken over before this happened. Would a good f**king on the bridge have prevented this?

These are just a few examples. I will not list everything, as this is a blog, and not a book.

What I did

Actually, there was precious little I could do. One of the options I seriously considered was breaking my LSA bond. That was a six-figure escape route we could not afford, given that our HDB flat was still within the five-year minimum occupation period.

Another option was to try to downgrade my PES status somehow, aka chao keng, except that strictly speaking, I may have managed to get an official diagnosis of clinical depression given my mental state at that time. Therefore not exactly chao keng.

When my dad heard of the whole story, he told me that he would sell their terrace house to fund my liquidated damages (cost of bond-breaking) if need be. They didn't have much cash then, but it was an option they considered preferable to having me experience a total mental breakdown. I had no idea how long more I could take, but hearing that gave me the strength to soldier on. Somewhat.
A free education - are you prepared to pay the price?

The useful information that came from going to HR to find out the price of breaking my bond and date of its expiry was that I could count down. Sure, I was ribbed for counting down when I had over 1200 days to complete the bond, but it sure helped back then.

I even prayed. I can best be described as a half-past-six Christian, no need to fudge or dither about terms and definitions. But I prayed like I had never prayed before, roping in the believers in my batch to form an informal prayer group during those 'dark days'. Bear with me, this blog is not about Christianity or God or evangelism and stuff.

In the end...

Somehow, I was delivered from that shithole. Call it what you want: prayers answered, or sheer coincidence, but I was posted to another ship within that squadron. The official word was that they recognised (after two bloody months?) that I was a poor fit for that ship, and decided that I should have a chance to start afresh.

The rest is history. Having learned nothing useful from Kevin and friends, I was pretty much a mess, professionally. But I have managed to become an officer that my subsequent COs could rely on to drive the ship safely and to execute tasks to the best of my abilities. I made mistakes here and there, and was guided when I went off-track. Overall, it was a great learning experience from then on.

My point?

There often may not be a simple solution to workplace abuse, or indeed any form of abuse. Of course, unless one is trapped by a scholarship bond of some sort, leaving the organisation is an easy enough solution if the abuse is bad enough.

But is easy to say as an outsider, not knowing the full picture and the victim's state of mind. For the TRS case, I too, would jump on the bandwagon and say that's plain wrong, that's not just abuse, but assault.

In my case, how? What would you have done, based on my version of the story anyway? Do leave your comments and let's have a discussion!



  1. Hi there Cpt S,

    Having read your post, I can only shake my head and think, that's soooooo SAF. Man, I feel for you.

    Ask any Singaporean male who has served NS and they will probably have a couple of stories about experiencing or witnessing bullying in the SAF. The amount that happens, the amount that people get away with because everyone just accepts that's the way it is.

    I must say, you must be grateful for your parents' support when things got really bad. When I experienced bullying in NS I received virtually no support whatsoever from my parents because their parents were faithful PAP supporters who believed that the system could do no wrong and it was somehow my fault for not coping. It drove such a wedge between my parents and I and I used to threaten them, that's it, you can have your beloved PAP if you love them so much, I am out of here the moment I ORD. They used to laugh at me, why would you want to leave Singapore when things are so good here? Where would you go? Where would be better than Singapore?

    Guess what? I was proven right. Even they admit to me now that they know Singapore has gone downhill and it is flooded by PRCs. Most of all, they've not been a part of my life since 1997. I guess there was a part of me that did say to myself, "choose now, it's your son or the PAP - you wanna choose the PAP? Fine, you've made your choice, your son will no longer be a part of your life."

    1. Yes LIFT, I am very grateful for that particular moment, even though they didn't actually sell their house for me. It's because I know they would have.

      My parents aren't quite like yours, they are in fact, ahead of the curve as far as traditional Singapore parents are, for people of my generation. However, I agree with almost none of their parenting methods.. This may or may not be fodder for subsequent blog posts, I shall decide at a later stage.

      One thing we sense is a certain amount of bitterness towards your parents. Correct us if we are mistaken.

      I know it's hard to let go and I am a bitter person myself in many ways, including towards my own parents for other reasons. I am still trying to let go.

      Even towards the Navy (I simply blamed the organisation for treating me like shit), I am beginning to let go somewhat. Or at least recognizing what good there is there.

      One thing, you seem to wave your successes (despite your parents?) in their faces. It's not about being "hao lian", but it seems as if you are rubbing it in: "I did so well even though I didn't follow what you prescribed for me".

      I've done that too, I should know. But parents, they may never admit it when they are wrong, even if they know it. My parents have admitted (somewhat), and I respect them all the more for that. But issues run deep, man, and I'm glad to not be living with them to endure some issues which my siblings have to face on a daily basis

  2.'s actually the first time I've heard of your story. I can only say that assholes exist almost anywhere, but the worst part is some of them actually think they are doing good....

  3. Hi bro.. It's not a story I go around telling everyone, though it might have seemed that way, to those I did tell.

    It's a painful part of my working life I have tried to put behind me. Thanks to your mentorship, amongst other people's, I have managed to become someone I could be proud of, in the professional arena.

    I guess different styles of 'stroking' for different folks. But I never understood why some people should just tear others down, when your favourite 'teaching' methods have totally shown no fruit.

    Like you said, "assholes" indeed.

  4. Thank you for your precious sharing.

    Your story has been very inspiring to wake me up from my disillusion in which I believed in a world where everyone ideally lives in harmony with each other and becomes interdependent to move forward together as one.

    I should stop hoping that such a fairy tale world exists even less so (or almost non-existent) at the work place.

    Going forward, I wish you and your family all the best.

  5. Dear CPT S,

    I like your comment: "Mind you, I am an Officer." I think as an officer, you are expected to lead the people under your charge, and when you feel that things are not going right, you are expected to stand up for your people and take care of them. How do your subordinates trust you to do that when you can't even seem to stand up for yourself at that time? You knew you had an avenue, which was "I could have gone to my Squadron CO then" (presumably your boss' boss?), but you chose to hide under the guise of "but what good would that do?". Have you done your part as a leader (officer) to correct something that you felt was wrong?

    You had a chance to start afresh, be thankful. Many people may not get the luxury that you got. "A poor fit for that ship", and "40 plus or so colleagues pretty much stood by the sidelines". Hard to comprehend that 40 plus or so people are so wrong, and you are so right.... Perhaps, it's worthwhile to look in the mirror and think about why no one spoke up for you?

    As a matured adult and prospective leader, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak to your "Kevin" and give him the very frank feedback. Resolve the issue like adults. I don't think any employer appreciates having an employee who does not have the moral courage to speak up and handle conflicts in a manner befitting of leaders, but rides on other opportunities to air grievances, and in the process, discredit your employer as well as perhaps, yourself.

    Finally, please dun use our very respectable First PM's quote to associate with your blog. His quote demonstrated a sense of resilience and a will to survive...

  6. Hi,

    Reading your experiences made me recall my RSN days. One thing I was unlike you, was that I was not a regular, but a NSF combat officer serving on board one of the naval ships. This was before 2000, because since then, my position has been converted to a regular post, rightfully. For us NSFs, there is an end in sight. For regulars, that end is very very far away. I have had friends who have since left the RSN, and ventured out on their own after serving out their bonds. Some of them struggled but most are able to find their own feet to do what they like in life. I wish for the same for you.

    Truth be told, I enjoyed my time in RSN (as a NSF). This was especially when you considered that all my other peers are in the Army, a place that I could have easily been sent to, but luckily avoided. The fact that I was a NSF in the RSN somehow made me different, because they have lower expectations of me, compared to those who are regulars. For others, it is their career, for me, it is a tour of duty, or so they thought. That however, did not stop me from doing my best. I passed my COC and BWC at my first attempt within 9 months after being deployed. I held both a ship appointment and a squadron appointment, and regulars have to report to me. For all the work that I was doing, one could easily mistake me as a regular. I was lucky, because around me then, were MOSTLY people who had a culture of respect (some POs dun respect us, because they think they have been longer than you, and also because of the close relationship they have with the CO and XO, think they are above junior officers like us, but I do not care). They trained us hard, whacked us hard but were reasonable in their requests (especially when compared to our midshipman tour....). Truth be told, I was expected to know everything then as well. I did not know how much I knew until I started to host visits and could answer the full array of questions that most visitors have. Many AOs, deployed with me on the same ship, struggled. Like it or not, people like to compare, and they were sometimes unfairly put down because I was used as a benchmark, and a NSF at that. I have the opportunity to berth ships, navigate in and out of harbour, under CO's watch of course. In the days leading up to ORD, I played both the role of OOW and NO when out at sea, day and night, open seas, international waters and tight channels.

    When it is about time for me to ORD, squadron and the officers on my ship asked me to consider signing on. My answer was "no", even though I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of duty, because I know that really, if I were stuck with the wrong group of people, my life could have turned out very differently. It was opportune to call time when everything was going well.

    In the private sector where I am now at, we always joke, we can choose our company, but we cannot choose our bosses. Many people do not leave the workplace because of work, but because of people.

    Am surprised that the LSA is still 6 years. During my time, PSC overseas scholarships were 8 years bond, and local scholarships, 6 years. I did not take up any because the bond period was too long for me (at 18 years old, I do not have a lot of visibility in what my future career looked like). Subsequently the PSC local scholarships were reduced to 4 years, and overseas scholarships, 6 years. Clearly, what PSC did had no bearing on the SAF scholarships.

    You are clearly in your early naval officer days, I hope you persevere for I have met a lot of nice officers during my time. A tough start to life, eases your experiences in future, because what does not kill you, make you stronger.

    Take care,
    ex-naval officer

    1. Hi Ivan, thanks for your comments and well wishes. You are obviously much more talented than I am as a Naval Officer, and you would have done very well in the Navy had you stayed on.

      My strengths lie elsewhere, and while I cherish the learning opportunities I've had, it's time to seize the day and take what's left of my youth elsewhere.

  7. Dude,

    its sad to hear yr story above. Not so much becos I empathise with you, but more so I felt was a chronic failure in communication between 2 grown men whom are supposedly trained to be leaders of other men and women. I suppose you could be right that he may well be the azzhole as described, and god forbid, enjoyed every moment in tormenting you on a daily basis for 2 whole months! But have you considered the kind of energy it takes to SUSTAIN that kind of routine and with the vigour as you described?! Its either he has nothing better to do on the ship, or maybe, just maybe, he thot he was doing his job to try to make you a better officer? If I used the SAF core values as a ref, a simple 1 where both of you saw opposing ends would probably be that of Care For Soldier. He prob thot he did what he had to do to make u better, and you obviously didn't. It boils back down to BOTH of you suffering from a chronic failure in Communicating to Influence each other positively. Hopefully he is reading this blog as well, since epaper cant quite wrap the flam..I mean fire. The 2 of you should deflate yr respective egos and learn to work together like the REAL Professionals in the Navy

    1. I have no ego to speak of. It was ripped to shreds during those two months, and I suppose that MAY be a good thing. In the same vein that those who have undergone abuse can emerge changed for the better after their experience.

      I think I would have largely addressed your points in my dedicated reply post to one of those earlier comments.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  8. A pertinent link to what one or two of you have mentioned...

  9. Dear neuroticramblings

    To start off with, I think you have misused the term Workplace Abuse. I thought that he term abuse is only applicable when you are mistreated for any gains/benefits. In this particular instance, you failed to mention what Kevin would or had gained by 'abusing' you verbally - instead you said that his task was solely to train you such that you could be a NO to take over the role asap.

    You definitely write well, and I enjoyed reading this post. But imagine what could happen, and how you could have rightly stood up for yourself and for your dignity, if you had chosen to say this outright to Kevin? You definitely have a way with words and for that, I think you will definitely silence him.

    I shudder to think that the future of Singapore lies in your hands - since you mentioned that you are a Scholar with the RSN - that terminologies are used loosely by a Scholar as they somehow can depict a somewhat more demeaning picture of Kevin or of the RSN, in this particular instance. (of course, this was what you were trying to achieve). Or perhaps, you failed to mention that he saw you as his competitor for the annual ranking?

    It's also scary/disheartening to think that the SAF have miplaced its belief in you (one of the scholars who will, one fine day, have a say and make decisions regarding the lives of Singaporeans). I say so because if a scholar could not even stand up for himself, how would I, a citizen, then expect you to stand up for me in times of crisis? When the need arises for you to defend me, would you cower in a corner, just like what you have done - say nothing to Kevin and then choose to blog about it in your own little comfort zone (even though it's an afterthought)?

    Imagine the kind of abuse you would be subjected to in times of war - verbal, physical and perhaps even mental. Would you stand up for Singaporeans? Would you stand up for me? Would you stand up for your family? ... if you could not even stand up for yourself...

    I earnestly beseech that the SAF or the governing body who picks the scholars of tomorrow, to award scholarships to only deserving people, especially so in the SAF. People who would stand up for the country and the people and of course, for themselves. It's disheartening to know that Scholarship is just be a prestigious term hankered and conferred to people who cannot even stand up for themselves.

    That said, I am a lady and have no associations with the RSN or whatsoever.

    1. Hi Christina.

      Let me reassure you that your worst fears won't come true. I am quitting the service and the country.

      You evidently have never been a victim like I have. Be grateful for that. It's bloody easy to pass judgement as an outsider. May I remind you that I was a trainee then? It's not the same as when I have been given a proper mandate.

      Yes I COULD and SHOULD have stood up for myself. Were not at least some of the rape victims in the world? But I shall not be as presumptuous as you.

      By the way, abuse is abuse. I find it preposterous that you should associate abuse with some kind of tangible benefit for the abuser. This point I can rip to shreds without having to even look up the definition.

      Of course one could speculate that he derived some form of sick pleasure from the abuse. But I'm not him, I really wouldn't know.

    2. Hi Christina,

      I tend to agree with Shawn on this one. It is easy to suggest that he should have spoken up and silenced Kevin. You're assuming that you can reason with Kevin but is this how SAF works? Hardly. How do I know? I went through similar things as him.

      The difference is that I was in the Air Force and I was scolded by my boss every single day. No matter what I do, it always seem to be wrong. It came to a point whereby I felt so lousy about myself and was losing sleep and had to take MC on many days. This of course incurred his wrath and he scolded me even more. When I decided to approach him nicely and tell him that I'm losing sleep because I'm stressed about my work, I thought he would be more understanding and be nicer to me. What I did not expect was that he turned around and scolded me even more because he reasoned that I'm irresponsible and did not make sure that I remain healthy!! From then onwards, I realised one important truth: You can never reason with an unreasonable person. Now try working under this kind of boss and you will feel miserable and trapped. Trapped because you can't quit and you run the risk of being charged with insubordination if you explode at your boss. This is hell lot of mental torture and stress and of course it is abuse.

      I don't know how you can generalise this situation to times of war and conclude that Shawn is not dependable. War is definitely stressful but it should not come from your commander shouting at you, more from the stress of losing your life and making wrong decisions that cost the lives of subordinates. Maybe you have watched too many movies and your idea of war is having a commander lambasting at his troops. There is a saying in BMT that if war comes, your soldier will give you the first bullet if you're a lousy commander.

      So I think you should get down from your moral high horse and start to understand what Shawn has gone through rather than pass quick judgments. In any case, Shawn went through officer cadet school and so did I. Cadet school trained us to work under immense mental and physical pressure and I can assure you that we are no softies. So pardon me for saying this, you just don't know what you're talking about.

      On a more comforting note, my boss gave me some serious mental toughening and made me a better man. I don't like the way he did it but somehow he forced me to grow. Shawn, I hope that you can see some positive things out of this episode. Remember, what does not kill you will strengthen you. Take it from one CPT (NS) to another CPT (NS)....

    3. Haha thanks anon. Obviously we are right because "Christina" was obviously dumbfounded by my response to her comment.

      I find it galling that a woman can get on her moral high horse like that. The few who I have served with in the forces wouldn't have. She's a mere civilian who knows nothing about NS or the SAF.

      I hope she never complained about "women problems" to any guys.

      Anyway water under the bridge. I've left that episode and that country behind. :)

      - S