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  • Jeff Baierlein

Not Settling for Less: A Brief Tour of Outward Bound Singapore

Outward Bound Singapore is a leading provider of outdoor adventure education experiences, and a global role model of a national investment in developing a community of people imbued with character, resilience and compassion.


The organization, a government entity part of Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), has several campuses in Singapore, and is also active overseas.


A recent tour of the school’s main campus by Viristar staff vividly showed OBS’ commitment to safety and quality, and its capacity to deliver on those aims.


Safety and quality are not demonstrated by physical facilities alone. Safety culture, operational practices, activity selection, risk management procedures, curriculum, staff training,  documentation and other organizational elements influence programmatic effectiveness and safety outcomes.


But facilities play a part in the experience that participants have.

OBS' extraordinary nine-hectare (22 acre) island campus shows an absolutely remarkable investment in outdoor adventure education as a tool for youth development and, indeed, nation-building.


Outward Bound Singapore’s principal base of operations, Camp 1, is located on Pulau Ubin, an island off the northeast corner of the main island of Singapore.


Pulau Ubin, which is thought to mean ‘granite rock’ or ‘granite island,’ also has a second OBS site, Camp 2, a kilometer east of the main basecamp. In addition, the school has a facility, Changi Campsite, on Pulau Ujong, Singapore’s main island.

OBS’ Camp 1 and Camp 2 are on the west end of Pulau Ubin. Illustration content courtesy National Parks Board


Singapore’s National Outdoor Adventure Education (NOAE) Master Plan, announced in 2016, calls for every public school child in the country to have three multi-day outdoor adventure education experiences as part of their K-12 career.


One of those experiences, for Secondary 3 students (generally 15 year olds), is with OBS, and the school is building a SGD $250 million (USD $190 million) 12-hectare (30 acre) new base on nearby Coney Island to handle the increased volume as the Master Plan is implemented—tripling capacity to be able to serve up to 45,000 participants a year.


Camp 1 somewhat resembles the leafy and tropical campus of a university preoccupied with outdoor adventure. It includes an Operations Room, reminiscent of a military command center, with wall-to-wall screens showing maps of the island, weather, and the real-time location of participant groups (tracked by GPS), all monitored by a team of OBS staff.

The entrance to the Operations Room. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


Adjacent to the Operations Room building is the boat yard, where the school stores and maintains a fleet of sailboats and support vessels.


The boats—including 11 newly delivered cutters—sport names like “Endurance,” “Resilience” and “Compassion,” reflecting Outward Bound values.


Here, as found throughout the campus, signs urging caution and providing safety guidance are present, in Singapore's four official languages, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, and English.


Nearby are racks upon racks of kayaks, a swimming pool used for kayaking activities, and the Tunnelling and Caving System, an artificial cave.

The OBS boatyard. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


Camp 1 also boasts a fully featured medical centre, operational round the clock when courses are happening, and staffed by advanced care practitioners wearing scrubs embroidered with the Outward Bound Singapore logo.


A whiteboard on the door lists the registered nurse on duty and their phone number. The names of members of the OBS medical advisory panel, including a consultant psychiatrist, paediatric cardiologist, orthopaedic surgeon, physiotherapist and respiratory physician, among others, are prominently displayed on an outer wall.


A helipad is nearby in case emergency transport is needed from the island to a hospital. Airspace at Singapore’s main international airport, the nearby Changi Airport, is closed as needed to enable evacuation flights.

Scenes from Outward Bound Singapore’s medical centre. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


The campus—which also includes dormitories accommodating 320 participants, learning and break-out rooms, and a cookhouse—is far more developed than when Outward Bound initially set up in an abandoned quarry by a seafront mangrove swamp on Pulau Ubin in 1967.


In those early days, instructors hunted for wood in nearby swampland to build obstacle courses, and salvaged wooden planks and tires that had washed ashore to use for activities.


The medical centre isn’t the only part of OBS that’s well-stocked. The school provides backpacks, rain gear and other equipment for watches (groups of participants), including packs and tents sporting the OBS name and logo.

Outward Bound Singapore-labeled tent and backpack. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


Outward Bound Singapore even prints its own topographical maps of the island (shown below).


Not every outdoor adventure program might custom-embroider backpacks, print their own maps, and build an artificial underground cave system, as OBS has done. But Outward Bound Singapore, founded by the country’s Minister for the Interior and Defence shortly after Singapore became an independent sovereign state in 1965, was designed with an existential purpose in mind: the development of rugged leaders who could guide the fledgling country through the early years of nationhood.


(In the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Outward Bound in Singapore was run by the Ministry of Defence, administered by army officers, featuring military-style training.)


Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said, in 1965: “If you want a nation and a society to flourish and to prosper, it must produce leaders…men of action…Outward Bound school types.”


He continued, “The whole orientation of your education is different. Your purpose is to breed a fighting, effective generation with the guts and the will to survive.”

OBS-printed topo map (see logo, bottom left). Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


To go along with its world-class facilities, Outward Bound Singapore has invested heavily in its curriculum.


OBS, along with its parent agency MCCY and the Ministry of Education, has developed an outdoor adventure learning model with established pedagogy and methodology, activities, and learning outcomes.


Adventure education, environmental education and place-based learning approaches are incorporated into the curriculum. Sophisticated formative and summative evaluations are conducted.

Alex Tan Ji-Loong, Outward Bound Singapore Head/Lead Training Consultant, Leadership Development Programme, explaining curricular elements of the Ministry of Education-Outward Bound Singapore Challenge (MOC) programme. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


In addition, OBS and other stakeholders are working on a multi-year plan to develop a formal national standard for outdoor adventure education safety and quality.


This follows a 2021 safety incident on a high ropes course in Singapore operated by a private company. The incident resulted in a pause on high elements activities for public school students nationwide for two years, a new set of high elements safety requirements, and the establishment of an Outdoor Adventure Education Council to develop the new national standards.


All of OBS’ work is done to advance the Outward Bound Singapore mission: developing mentally and physically rugged youths to be active citizens inspired to serve the community.

The MOC and other OBS programmes aim to meet the aims of the Outward Bound Singapore mission. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


Singapore as society takes a conservative approach to risk-taking, and OBS is no exception. Instructors (ground staff) go through some five months or more of training, and follow a 200-page Training Safety Regulations document outlining standard operating procedures for the school’s adventure activities.


The school uses the “5 M” model to understand incident causation—looking at member (people), machine (tools/equipment), medium (the environment), mission (the purpose of the activity), and management.


OBS also uses the related PEEP model: evaluating people, equipment, environment, and process to understand risk factors.


OBS staff have reviewed these models alongside the Risk Domains model explained in Viristar texts and training courses, to see how elements from each model can support good safety outcomes at the school.


(Viristar has been providing outdoor risk management training to Outward Bound Singapore staff since 2021, as well as to personnel from other Singapore government entities, including Republic Polytechnic and the Ministry of Education.)

Signs from across safety-conscious Singapore. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


Outward Bound, a global movement founded in the UK in the 1940s, is government-sponsored in Singapore, and in a small handful of other countries, such as Brunei Darussalam and Oman. Having access to government funding and support is a great benefit to OBS.


But private operators of adventure programs in Singapore grumble about OBS’s dominance, and during the COVID-19 pandemic complained that OBS got preferential access to Singapore’s national park areas for socially-distanced outdoor activities.


Critics have also noted that OBS—and other institutions across Singapore and worldwide—have room to be more inclusive of persons of non-dominant sexual orientations, genders and gender identities.




The Board room at OB Singapore. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


For outdoor educators who believe in the powerful potential of well-developed outdoor education experiences, encountering the investment that has gone into Outward Bound Singapore’s facilities and operations can be a religious experience.


After the group tour of OBS Camp 1 that Viristar staff joined, one tour participant from the USA, familiar with the occasional financial struggles of USA-based Outward Bound schools, said, “This is the first time I feel like I’m from a third-world country.”


And the facilities at Camp 1 are expected be dwarfed by the larger, state-of-the-art new campus on Coney Island.


When Outward Bound Singapore was founded 56 years ago, its primary role was nation-building—a role that remains in place today. OBS uses its facilities, staff, curriculum and pedagogy to foster a resilient citizenry, equipped to serve and contribute to the community in Singapore and beyond.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong completed a 17-day course at OBS in 1967. Image: Outward Bound Singapore


Kurt Hahn, one of the founders of the global Outward Bound movement, noted, “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”


OB Singapore and the nation of Singapore exemplify this ethic—both in encouraging course participants to overcome challenges and develop new depths of character and resilience, and also in investing in a globally best-in-class outdoor adventure education program that is an exemplar of excellence in quality and safety.


The world would be a better place if every nation invested in developing compassion, resilience and character in its youth in the way the government of Singapore does.

The 20-meter Inverse Tower at Camp 1. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar

Singapore, the garden city. Jeff Baierlein/Viristar


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