Fred Cheong, 55, has done a lot more than the average person across two starkly different lives. The Special Forces commando graduated from the excruciating US Navy SEAL course, stormed a hijacked Singapore Airlines plane, and molded multiple batches of officer cadets into soldiers.
After leaving the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Cheong became a Buddhist monk. Since then he has lived simply in a monastery, meditated on snow-capped mountains deep in the Himalayas, and led dharma retreats all over the world.
This is why Cheong prefers to be known as the Venerable Tenzin Drachom, a name given by the Dalai Lama and an acknowledgment of his 32-year military career.
“In Tibetan ‘dra’ means delusion, ‘chom’ means destroyer,” he told Channel NewsAsia at his temple-like maisonette in Pasir Ris. “In the military, I destroyed the enemy outside. Now I destroy the enemy inside.”
But as a young, scrawny boy, Drachom never had ambitions of joining the military. Or any strong ambitions, for that matter. “I was not very strong, I couldn’t even swim,” he said. “Maybe I was thinking I wanted to be an air steward.”
In December 1982, the 18-year-old enlisted for National Service and eventually signed on as an officer cadet, after seeing his bunkmates do the same. “Might as well,” he mused. “I thought (joining) the military could not be wrong.”
Hijack of Flight SQ117
Mar 26, 1991 was a day the military could not afford to get wrong.
Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 bound for Singapore was hijacked by four male Pakistani passengers shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur.
The plane, carrying 114 passengers and 11 crew, landed at Changi Airport at about 10.30pm. 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 refueled and flown to Sydney, made their demands: To speak to former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and have the authorities release a number of people jailed in Pakistan.
After negotiations spilled into the wee hours of the next morning, the hijackers lost patience and threatened to start killing if their demands were not met.
It was then that authorities gave the signal: Special Operations Force (SOF) commandos 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 said. “There was no mental thought of will I go, will I not go or I’ll call my girlfriend. No bulls***.”
From their training, the commandos knew the interior layout of various aircraft types like the back of their hands. Under the cover of darkness, they approached the Airbus A310.
The adrenaline was pumping, but Drachom treated the operation like “just another drill”.
“You’ve trained your mind to operate under duress,” he said, taking a deep breath. “It was really surgical … so we just have to be very clear, shoot very straight, and let’s do it.”
At about 6.50am the commandos stormed the plane, shouted for passengers to get down and shot all four hijackers dead. The operation lasted just 30 seconds. The years of training prepared the commandos well, but did it also prepare them to take lives?
“We were really quite clear when we went inside there; we knew exactly what to do,” Drachom replied. “You cannot go there and start to think. We go there and do what we train for because there will be that trade-off.”
Drachom stressed that “there wasn’t any ego” from each member of the team. “You were just there to do the job,” he added. “Nothing more.”
When the commandos returned to base, Drachom said nobody there knew how the operation had unfolded. But soon enough, elite forces from around the world wanted to visit, curious about how they had executed the mission so successfully.
The operation, Drachom noted, had elevated the young Army’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
“Only after the whole thing, we realized that we had rallied and pulled through together as a team,” he added. “What kept us going was a good training system; our due faith in every level that everyone will do their job.”
The details of the operation are still fresh in Drachom’s mind, although he said the team has declared the chapter “forever closed”. “We closed it because we wish that it will never happen again,” he said.