Meet SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh Ali who has spent over 40 years of his life as a fireman and trainer in the Singapore Civil Defence Force. At 62 years of age, he is a member of the Merdeka Generation – Singaporeans born in the 1950s – honoured for their contributions to nation building.
In September 1975, the 17-year-old Mohd Salleh began his career in the Singapore Fire Brigade (the predecessor to SCDF) as a recruit at the former Jurong Fire Station. He had to quit school and find a job to help his father, who was working as a messenger at the Port of Singapore Authority to support his family of eight. Here is the first of two parts of Rescue995 exclusive interview with SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh Ali aka Encik Agayle.
Recruit Mohd Salleh (second row, fourth person from the left) joined the Singapore Fire Brigade in 1975.
Rescue 995: Encik, you are affectionately and commonly known as Encik Agayle to your colleagues and trainees. Not many know that this is not your real name. Can you share with us how did you get your nickname?
Mohd Salleh: When I started my career in the Force as a recruit, one of my seniors asked me, ‘Recruit, what’s your fireman badge number?’ and I replied, ‘Badge number 47, Sir!’. My seniors looked at one another in amazement and exclaimed that I resembled a predecessor with the exact badge number as mine, and whose name was Agayle. So, the name stuck with me until the day I retired. Later, I realized that the predecessor, Agayle, was actually my wife’s uncle. What a small world!
This picture was taken when SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh assumed the role of a Leading Fireman No. 5 (a rank structure of the past).
Rescue 995: What do you regard as significant milestones in your career?
Mohd Salleh: When I was selected to join the Rescue Squad - an elite team of the Singapore Fire Service and predecessor to SCDF’s elite Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) - that was one of the most significant milestones of my career. The three-month Rescue Squad training coincided with the Muslims’ fasting month of Ramadan. But this did not stop me from completing the course. I still remembered our physical fitness was tip-top back then! I even represented the fire service as a runner in several sporting events.
After my Rescue Squad course, I joined the specialist Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Task Force. The task force was set up in 1987, soon after the establishment of the first MRT system in Singapore that was operating from Yio Chu Kang station to Toa Payoh station of the North-South Line. Like the Rescue Squad, only the best firefighters were selected to join the MRT Task Force. Due to my working experiences with the Rescue Squad, I took on the role of both trainee and trainer during the task force training. We learned to manoeuvre in very confined spaces including acquiring skills and knowledge on how to conduct rescue operations in underground high-pressure environment.
SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh was an active participant in the Singapore Fire Service’s Sports Day competition.
Rescue 995: What were the memorable moments for you in your career as a fireman?
Mohd Salleh: Besides my involvement as a rescuer in the Hotel New World disaster in 1986, I recalled a particular incident years earlier, way back in 1977. It was raining heavily and my fire station colleagues and I were all responding to an incident at Nee Soon Road. Suddenly, one of our fire engines met an accident and we lost a colleague. He was my senior and that was the saddest moment of my career.
And in 1989, the Singapore Fire Service (SFS) and the Civil Defence Force merged to first formed the Singapore Joint Civil Defence Force (SJCDF) before becoming SCDF as we know it today. Like any merger involving different establishments, it was not smooth sailing. It was especially difficult for the SFS with such a long history and rich tradition that predates Singapore’s independence. Frankly we were very emotional at the sudden loss of our identity at that time but life must go on. After a few years, we managed to overcome many challenges and emerged even stronger as a united, modern and sophisticated Life Saving Force.
SWO (RET) Md Salleh (front row, second from the left) was part of the newly formed elite DART in 1989, when SFS merged with Civil Defence Force.
Rescue 995: And what was the happiest moment for you in your career?
Mohd Salleh: My happiest moment was in March 1992 when I was called to my superior’s office. He said, ‘Agayle, congratulations! You are attending a course at the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh, London.’ I was shocked and I said, ‘Sir, are you pulling my leg?’. He smiled and passed me a letter of approval from Mr Tan Chin Tiong, then-Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
I was elated but also concerned especially when I soon found out that I was the first junior officer to ever been selected to go for this 1-month intensive overseas course. Former SCDF Commissioner James Tan had high expectations of me then, and I told myself that I would not let him and my superiors down. I did my utmost and passed the course with flying colours!
After the course, I was posted to the Nee Soon Civil Defence (CD) Training School in 1993 then to Hougang CD Training School in 1997 and later to the Civil Defence Academy to train batches after batches of career officers until I retire recently on 15 July 2020.
SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh at the Fire Service College, Moreton-in-Marsh, United Kingdom, from 29 March to 17 April 1992.
Rescue 995: What were the biggest rewards of being part of the family of The Life Saving Force?
Mohd Salleh: Being called the Legend (laughed out loud). I like to share my knowledge and experiences with the trainees, and it is very satisfying and so rewarding to be able to bring out the best in every SCDF man or woman. When it comes to training, everyone knows that I am very strict and would scold my trainees when they make mistakes. That is because I care for them. I had to ensure that all rules are complied with and safety precautions are abided by because in this field of work, we have to embrace risk and go against all odds. Anything can happen during real-life incidents and where lives are at stake. I would say to my trainees, “I would rather ‘kill’ you now, than to let you get killed during operations.”
SWO (RET) Mohd Salleh had been a senior trainer at the Civil Defence Academy since its establishment in 1999 until his recent retirement this year.