There is an inevitable suspicion that comes with a top military commander in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) being fast-tracked to politics.
And it’s completely understandable.
Why is a man who has served two decades in the military considered qualified to lead in the civilian world? What does a stellar track record in a highly regimental environment prove?
To compound the misgivings of the public, most ex-commanders in politics are SAF scholarship recipients who underwent an expedited career progression. Most, if not all, have seen no combat on the battlefield, earning them the moniker “paper generals”.
So many of us think: “If this doesn’t exemplify the state of elitism in the country, surely nothing else does!”
Yet the opposite could not be truer.
Being a minister is about leading one’s ministry with a compelling vision, and motivating those under them to execute said vision.
This is no different from being a general, who has thousands of men in various units and departments under his command to accomplish mission objectives, whether they are set in training exercises or policy administration.
It’s easy to mistake a general for one with the cushiest job, just sitting in his office and dishing out orders, when his actual job scope involves so much more than that.
Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, former US commander of the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in 2005, said in an interview with consulting company Gallup, “In the military, as in any organisation, giving the order might be the easiest part. Execution is the real game. The hierarchy starts with the leadership, which provides vision, wisdom, and motivation.
“Then there’s management. That’s turning time, task, and purpose into action. Leadership is working with goals and vision; management is working with objectives. Objectives, as you know, are specific, and they’re tied to time, coordination and resources.”
Former Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin would agree with General Honoré. After all, he was the coordinator of humanitarian efforts in Aceh following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami when he was still a colonel in the army. That must have been one hell of a leadership exercise.
Teo Chee Hean (left) and Lee Hsien Loong (centre) were among the former military commanders in Singapore's third generation of leaders. (Photo from SCMP)
Many Singaporeans also seem to be mistaken about the nature of the SAF Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS). Despite its name, the award was never designed for a permanent career in the military.
Rather, as a scholarship issued by the Public Service Commission, second in prestige only to the President’s Scholarship, it is meant to groom leaders for appointments beyond the SAF by placing them in the highest levels of military command and management.
Top SAF commanders are also often seconded to the civil service while in military service. The current chiefs of Defence Force (CDF), Army and Navy, as members of the Singapore Administrative Service, had all been assigned portfolios at various ministries. Most notably, CDF Perry Lim served as the Director of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education between 2006 and 2008.
One may criticise this form of leadership development as stunted and incomplete. But if all-rounded leaders with a holistic background and experience are what Singapore needs in its government, then certainly the career progression under SAFOS is the most ideal. One could even argue that it’s crucial for a country with a small population.
Military presence in a country’s government is not common, due to the need to balance civilian and military affairs. But it is also not unusual. Military junta governments of Thailand, Myanmar and Pakistan aside, there have been instances when commanders have assumed top governmental positions.
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served in the Bush administration, was a four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who oversaw the first Gulf War.
Closer to home, General Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan was Chief of Staff to Indonesian President Joko Widodo and is now Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs; Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has appointed Eduardo Año, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, as Secretary of the Interior and Local Government.
Donald Trump’s decision to appoint generals to his administration must not be overlooked too, though this has raised more than a few alarm bells in a country that is not used to a brass-heavy Cabinet. The Washington Post warns that “great generals don’t always make great Cabinet officials”.
Going by this observation, Dr Chee Soon Juan is perhaps right when he criticises the Singaporean government’s decision to continually shuffle former SAF commanders into top positions outside of the military, even when they have failed.
The elitism demonstrated is undeniable. But it’s also unfair to cherry-pick these cases and label the SAF as producing incapable leaders.
Chan Chun Sing was Chief of Army before retiring from the military to contest in the 2011 elections. (Photo from US Army)
For one reason or another, we love to hate on the military.
You never see local netizens singing the SAF’s praises for grooming popular figures like Tan Chuan-Jin or George Yeo, yet “paper general” easily becomes the buzzword when someone like Lui Tuck Yew bombs (without it even being entirely his fault).
While we poke fun at Chan Chun Sing when he tries his hand at the colloquial, speak to those who have served under him and you’ll find they have nothing but admiration for his leadership qualities.
Accordingly, gaffes in the form of tone-deaf comments have only reinforced our scorn for the ex-military.
Remember Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook post about cardboard collectors, or Chan Chun Sing’s comment on “doing justice to your job instead of searching for the perfect one”? These did not resonate well with the public, but does this sense of being out of touch really stem from serving in the armed forces?
Or is this the product of a bigger problem of elitism in a country that is run by an exclusive group? After all, most of the current Cabinet come from largely privileged backgrounds ‒ having studied at the most reputable local institutions before furthering their educations overseas.
This is more likely to be what has shaped an “ivory tower” approach to governance that has fuelled our discontent. The SAF just happens to be a convenient punching bag.
Or maybe we’ve met too many incompetent and rigid individuals during our time in National Service, hence our refusal to believe that SAF generals and admirals are the right fit for politics. Or perhaps we’ve just seen too many generals-turned-ministers who’ve made one too many questionable decisions.
Yet if this is the case, it’s only fair that we see this as the failure of the individual, and not of their military background. After all, current Co-ordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan does not hail from the SAF.
Lastly, as our society has grown more educated, perhaps we have just grown even more disdainful of the elitism that supposedly meritocratic structures like the SAFOS perpetuates.
Ultimately, there is no denying that military leaders – responsible for our security against external threats – are still amongst the most formidable talent a country has to offer. And generally speaking, the system has worked.
So instead of calling out the nitty-gritty of political blunders by pinning the blame on the military, it’s time we look at the bigger picture and judge our paper generals on actual policy work. If we’re going to be constructively critical of the government, then we should at least direct our criticism at the right things.