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How National Service Drives Entrepreneurs

Leadership Lessons From An Unlikely Business School

When polytechnic schoolmates Mark Zhang and Jeffery Tan enlisted for National Service (NS) in the Singapore Armed Forces in 2001, neither of them knew what to expect about this rite of passage that would take them from teenage boys to adulthood.

Today, 16 years on, they look back and realised that their experiences in NS have translated into valuable leadership lessons that have helped them in their entrepreneurial endeavours. The co-founders of lifestyle app Lobang King credit NS as the best business school they have attended.

“I think that NS has made us better leaders. We are more understanding, especially when it comes to more intricate, complex tasks, yet we are also more confident. We have both led teams in difficult conditions and environments, and still achieved our goals. Singapore’s National Service provides plenty of lessons in life for young leaders; only you pay in sweat, instead of cash,” reflects Zhang, who served as an 84MM recoilless rifle commander in 6SIR, while Tan was in the elite 1st Commando Battalion as a medic.

As they began navigating the challenging road of tech entrepreneurship in 2016, the pair drew upon their experiences in NS to remain motivated and focused, driven by the core values of perseverance, teamwork and attention to detail.

If You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

Zhang was gutted when he failed his initial fitness test during NS, “The one where we had to wake up every day at 5am to train for,” he recalls. “It would have been easy to give up, but I stuck to it (to be fair, I was forced!) and eventually passed the second-time round. It is this perseverance that translates into lessons that we use today.

“As any tech entrepreneur will know, working on a complex project inevitably means many redos, changes and additions. However, we knew that the late nights we were pulling were nothing compared to the early morning physical training we did on camp, and it was this thought, and the perseverance it engendered, that kept us going to a successful launch.”

Teamwork Makes The Dream Work

During NS, young people from diverse cultural backgrounds—many of whom are away from home for the first time—must learn to live and train together. “There was always someone who was constantly late, failed inspections and got us into trouble with the instructors,” reflects Zhang. “We quickly learnt that we had to get around him and help him, otherwise we would all end up getting punished.”

“Fast-forward to Lobang King, and the challenges become even greater. Our team is diverse, with people from all over the world. As with most start-ups, we are all pitching in, often

doing work that is not strictly in our job description. We saw first-hand how teamwork generates results from NS and we sought to promote teamwork as a priority.”

The Devil Is In The Details

It is not uncommon for NS men to be pulled up by an instructor for nothing more than a speck of dirt on his rifle or a crease on a shirt. This may seem petty at the time, but there are good reasons why attention to the tiniest details are hammered home during training.

“While dirt on a rifle can lead to rifle stoppage and potential death at the hands of the enemy, a tiny error in coding can result in the failure of a vital part of Lobang King. This means that attention to detail is paramount, right from the start,” says Zhang.

His advice for young men who are about to enter NS is to make the most of it. “Two years will go by in a flash, yet the lessons learnt, the memories, and the friends you make will stay with you forever. We both learnt how to be individuals, how to work hard and persevere.”

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