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21 May 07
Outward Bound marks 40 rugged years
By Lim Wei Chean
IT WAS 1969 and two years after the Outward Bound School Singapore opened on Pulau Ubin that the first batch of female trainees arrived. Army administrative officer Celia Wee, then 20, was among them. She had heard of the adventure school's reputation for military-style training, so she had her hair cropped short for the stint.
It was boot camp. Along with 50 women, she went through the school's standard - actually, its one and only - 22-day course. Nothing had been done to tailor it for women, so it was gruelling.
'What the instructors made us do was quite sadistic,' she recalled with a laugh. Waking up at dawn for physical training, chilly morning dips in the sea, jogs that became sprints because of the island's stray dogs and trekking through swamps were all par for the course.
But insect bites, sunburn and blisters in the mouth, feet and hands aside, she had so much fun that she became a volunteer liaison officer for the school. This meant that whenever there were courses for women, she returned as an assistant instructor. She did this until 1976.
Now 58 and retired, she recently revisited the school with nine former assistant instructors and instructors.
The visit was among the many events lined up for the school's 40th anniversary, which will be marked in October. A commemorative book will be published next month, and travelling exhibitions will tell the Outward Bound story across Singapore.
Then Minister for the Interior and Defence Goh Keng Swee identified the school's mission: to build a rugged society. Modelled after the British school set up by German educator Kurt Hahn in Wales in 1941, the Singapore school was run by the Ministry of Defence between 1970 and 1990. The only courses were the standard 22-day ones.
In 1991, the People's Association took over, renamed it Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) and overhauled the premises and programme. Today, it has two campuses, the main one on Pulau Ubin, which is the size of 17 football fields, and a smaller one in East Coast Park for children.
OBS deputy director Edvan Loh said the school's main focus is on training students in teamwork, leadership and problem-solving skills. About 200,000 people have gone through OBS courses since 1991.
Today's trainees fall into four broad categories: Students, who make up three-quarters of the more than 20,000 graduates each year; parents who take their children for family-bonding programmes; professionals who need certification in conducting outdoor training and safety; and adults sent by employers for corporate development and team-building courses.
One company that believes in the OBS brand of training is Singapore Technologies (ST) Aerospace. Mr Lim Soo Heng, its human resource manager, said that 300 of its staff will be sent to OBS this year for a course to instil a common work culture.
The cost to the company: $195,000, which it sees as a 'worthwhile investment'.
Mr Lim said: 'We realise that groups that have gone through the courses bond and work better with each other.' The course activities expose common problems that crop up during work, so team members learn to avoid or manage such problems when they happen.
Soft-spoken software engineer Wendy Soh, 24, who joined ST Aerospace seven months ago, never thought she would have to attend an OBS programme.
But in March, she found herself with 17 colleagues on Pulau Ubin for three days. Together, they tackled rope obstacles, paddled canoes, crawled through tunnels and shared dormitories.
She worried initially about the lack of hot-water showers and whether she could endure the physical challenges, but was surprised to find out that her own physical and mental limits were higher than she thought. She did not think she would make it to the top of a three-storey rope tower, but she did. It did not hurt that she 'had a lot of fun' along the way.
Running the courses for trainees such as Miss Soh are instructors who rig up the obstacle courses, check on weather conditions and look out for participants' safety. The school has 90 instructors, who run both the Pulau Ubin and East Coast campuses.
Mr Ronnie Tan, 34, and Mr Effendy Razak, 35, are - like all of them - tanned, lean and fit.
Mr Tan, who is married with a one-year-old son, said that as work kept him marooned on Ubin for extended periods, having an understanding family was a job requirement. His parents stay at his home to help care for his son.
Mr Effendy, in this third year as an instructor, said that anyone who wanted to do this job had to love nature and the outdoors.
Potential instructors go through two rounds of interviews before being shortlisted to rough it out on Pulau Ubin for a weekend as a test of how they can survive the outdoors.
Mr Effendy, who sometimes takes on batches of juvenile delinquents as trainees, said his greatest joy on the job is seeing the sense of accomplishment in their eyes when they complete a five-day course.
He said: 'These kids look and act tough, but deep down, they too have fears and insecurities.' Going forward, the 40-year-old school plans to run more programmes for such 'special needs' groups, said OBS director Nicholas Conceicao.
The idea behind its existing courses for youth-at-risk is to expose them to physical challenges to develop their self-esteem and help them start afresh. The school started a pilot seven-day programme for prison inmates last month.
Mr Loh said the school is in discussions with various ministries to open up more sites to run adventure learning courses for anyone who is interested.
He said: 'Some people think we are just about ruggedness and adventure. But adventure is just a tool. 'Our main purpose is education - to develop men and women of character who will go into the world to do all that is right and who are courageous enough to do what has to be done.'
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