The call to serve
After spending his high school years in New Hampshire, Justin Ang returned to his native Singapore for mandatory military service
January 26, 2011, 5:29 am · Updated January 26, 2011, 12:00 am·
When Wharton and College freshman Justin Ang was in ninth grade, his father asked him if he’d like to study overseas. Ang, enrolled in a public school in Singapore at the time, said he “didn’t really know what that meant.”
Nonetheless, the bilingual — English and Chinese — thirteen-year-old consented to the transcontinental trip. One year later, he found himself at St. Paul’s School, a co-ed boarding school in Concord, N.H.
“I sat in a few classes, and I realized that it was a really, really different system,” Ang said. “In Singapore, you have forty students in a class, and it’s very lecture-based. It’s always the teacher telling you stuff, whereas at boarding schools in the U.S., it’s a lot of discussion. I found it a lot more interactive and very engaging.”
Though Ang confessed experiencing a bit of culture shock upon settling into the woods of New England, he also explained that it did not take him very long to begin loving St. Paul’s. He attributes much of the ease of this transition to his position on the boys varsity squash team, playing a sport he had picked up three years earlier.
“It was a great bunch of guys,” Ang said. “It really helped me to assimilate.”
At St. Paul’s, Ang played as high as number four on the ladder his sophomore year and number three his junior and senior years. His senior year, Ang was a member of the St. Paul’s squad that remarkably won the New England Championship without a coach, ending the Brunswick School’s four-year winning streak.
“Everyone kind of pushed each other, and we really set our goals high,” he explained. Individually, Ang took his match to five games, contributing 13 of St. Paul’s 104 points.
That same year, while in a car with a group of his teammates, Ang received a phone call from his father.
Ang’s father informed him that he had been accepted into Penn’s renowned Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business.
But laden in Ang’s excitement was a pang of anxiety: as a male Singaporean citizen on the verge of reaching adulthood, he would soon be conscripted into the national armed forces, requiring him to defer his matriculation to Huntsman for at least two years.
“I grew up knowing that eventually I had to serve in the army, so even when I was at St. Paul’s, it was always present in the back of my mind. After I got into Penn I was really happy, but it was kind of strange at the same time,” Ang said.
So, as Ang and his classmates stood in their blazers and white dresses, ready to proceed from St. Paul’s chapel to receive their diplomas and enter the world as college students, Ang was understandably sad to return to Singapore and leave his high school friends.
The Singapore Armed Forces’ Enlistment Act states that all conscripted males are required to submit to a fitness examination before entering. According to Ang, if an individual surpasses the base fitness levels, that individual may be awarded a “discount” on his service — that is, some time off to partake in another activity.
After three years of court-sprints at St. Paul’s, Ang passed with flying colors and was granted a two-month discount in order to play for his country’s Junior National squash team.
“Right after basic training, I went to this camp and I helped them with their security systems,” Ang explained. “My job there was eight-to-five, and after they would let me off to play squash.”
While such a schedule might seem nearly impossible to juggle to the average person, Ang called it “very, very fortunate.” In addition to having the opportunity to continue playing intensive squash, he was able to spend most of his nights at home.
“A lot of people had to stay in camp Monday to Friday and Saturday morning,” Ang said.
Ang, a wiry young man with a calm temperament and willing laugh, explained that although his service included tasks like route marches — carrying 120-pound backpacks for 16 miles in the equatorial Singaporean climate — serving in the army is “not as glorified as it sounds.”
According to Ang’s younger brother Julian, Justin considered his service a waste of time. Julian added that Justin “maximized his experience by playing squash.”
Julian, a senior at St. Paul’s who Justin calls his “best bud,” said his older brother found Basic Military Training to be the best part of his time in the army.
“I would tease him because he was given a really easy position in the camp,” Julian said, “I would make fun of him, and he would call me a fat ass.”
Julian aspires to enter a pre-medical program after his own service. Despite recently switching sports from squash to wrestling, Julian remains his brother’s biggest fan.
“He hasn’t changed much,” Julian said about his brother’s demeanor post-service. “It’s a good thing — I wouldn’t have really wanted him to change. Perhaps I’m being biased, but I don’t think he can change a lot more for the better.”
Apart from Julian, Justin has one other sibling, a sister Rachael, with whom he is also very close.
“When I was seven and Justin was nine,” Julian recalled, “he looked at me and said ‘Julian I’m going to change the world.’ I looked at him and nodded and said ‘Yeah, sure you are.’” But last summer, when Justin wrepeated his declaration, Julian replied, “Justin, Rachael and I are very proud of you.”
“If anyone’s going to do it,” Julian said, “Justin is.”
Justin is already off to an impressive start — at least on Penn’s campus. Last weekend, in his match against Trinity, Ang was one of three players to take a game from the Bantams, the most successful team in the history of collegiate athletics. Ang played at No. 7.
“It’s only a matter of time before he’s going to start notching up big wins for us,” coach Jack Wyant said.
“We never underestimate teams,” Ang said. “A team that we’re expected to win [against] — we still go in there, we prepare for it. We go, and we respect our opponents. On the flip side, against a team like Trinity … we go in there and give it our best and not give up.”
Though Ang, as a result of his service, is two years older than most of the people in his class, he says that he still looks up to the upperclassmen on his team, particularly No. 1 junior Thomas Mattson.
“I think he’s an amazing, amazing player and a good sportsman, which is very important. I really enjoy watching him play,” Ang said.
Today, Ang, Mattson and the other 11 members of their team are heading to Princeton, N.J., to try to unseat the undefeated Tigers. And if nothing else, Ang will travel with the knowledge that on top of his fellow Quakers’ faith in him and in his teammates, he has his little brother’s.
“He’s this tiny little Asian guy who’s zipping around the court,” Julian said. “I’m not kidding — he’s a pushover until he gets on the court. He never gives up, that guy. He’s always fighting to the end.”