Review: How to Forge a Frogman

ZYRUP reviews How to Forge a Frogman, an ‘angmoh’ recruit’s account of Singapore’s highly secretive naval diver training.
Photo: Isaac Chu

The coming-of-age National Service story has been told time and time again – just look at the number of shows, plays and even movies following the formulaic trope. So when a copy of Max West’s How to Forge a Frogman landed on my desk, the first question I had was, “What makes this one different from the rest?”

For one, How to Forge a Frogman was never intended to entertain – it is, in essence, a journal. In a prior interview with ZYRUP, the half-American author explained that the book started out as a way to document his military journey when he enlisted in May 2013.

Photo: Max West

“I sensed that [the experience I was going through] would be a unique time in my life, and I started down writing notes, mainly for myself to look back [on], either in 20 days or 20 years,” said West.

It was only after he compiled his notes that he had the idea of publishing them as a book. It was not an entirely new thought – having a published work has always been on the mind of the 23-year-old, who is currently studying English Literature at Princeton University.

The ‘nonfiction’ aspect of the book is what appealed the most to me. Sure, “angmoh in the Singapore army” is somewhat interesting for a short minute. But the fact that it is an actual, published first-hand account of what goes on behind the closely guarded gates of the Naval Diving Unit is what makes How to Forge a Frogman a book worth flipping through.


Photo: Max West

For those wondering, West did have to go through multiple levels of approval before his publisher, Marshall Cavendish, was able to move ahead with the project. It took over a year for the book to be green-lit – thankfully, with minimal changes. Not that any high-strung official need worry though; Max West is as clean-cut a soldier as they get. (Hell, even his peers in the navy do not seem to curse. Sure or not, Max?)

One thing that surprised me was how similar his experience was to mine. (I went through the ‘normal’ route of Basic Military Training on the island of Pulau Tekong.) Page after page, West’s experience largely mirrored the average BMT experience, which unexpectedly brought me a pang of nostalgia and fond memories. One difference that stood out? Trainees in the navy are expected to sport ‘flat top’ hairstyles. All of a sudden, going botak sounded almost appealing.

Photo: Max West

West himself, however, was more than your average BMT recruit. Every platoon has that stereotypical ‘Golden Boy’ – the guy everyone loves, but also loves to hate. In Frogman, West takes on that mantle unashamedly. His desire to excel, while frustrating to a slacker like myself, comes across as honest and earnest, and at times even endearing. By the end of the book, I, the quintessential underdog, found myself rooting for the top dog. Imagine that. (Spoiler alert: Yes, there’s a ‘happy ending’.)

Peppered with humour and packed with sincerity, How to Forge a Frogman offers an alternative ‘army story’ to the ones we’ve heard over and over again. It may not pack the drama or conflict we are accustomed to, but Frogman’s candour allows it to stand on its own against the scores of Singaporean army-based narratives.

Photo: Isaac Chu

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