Long before foreign talent became a buzzword in the city state, Singapore's defence establishment had shown its readiness to cast its net wide for its military leaders. Singapore's fledgling air arm was led by a Taiwanese colonel in its early years after officers from Britain's Royal Air Force laid the groundwork. A New Zealander led the forerunner to the Republic of Singapore Navy.
After 45 years of independence, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have many local options for leadership positions. It thus has little need to look abroad for the unconventional - to put it nicely - move of having a foreigner lead a military Service. (That said, the SAF still relies on consultants from a certain foreign country for their military expertise. And let's leave the unique role of the Singapore Police Force Gurkha Contingent out of the picture... if not the argument gets somewhat convulated.)
Last Friday's leadership transition in the Singapore Army, after a retired general was brought back to its top post, shows how far the army has grown as a national institution.
Every SAF Service practices a policy of training-up-training, where a second and even third in line is spotted and groomed to take command. It is a prudent move for a professional of arms. During operations, the command structure could be left in a state of flux if key commanders are left out of battle through enemy action (eg GGK raid) or Murphy's Law (3G command network breaks down).
In earlier leadership transitions, rank-and-file had more success predicting their next Chief of Army (COA) than forecasting soccer scores for the next Premier League match.
Not all who are Service chief material (according to the gossip mill's Table Of Precedence) eventually make the grade. One is said to have faltered after a drink driving incident. Another general is said to have left for the private sector after missing out on the top post during a promotion exercise. Another well-regarded general left to join a bank.
With former COA Major-General Chan Chun Sing and former Commander Training and Doctrine Command Brigadier-General Tan Chuan-Jin pulled offline out of the blue, the Singapore Army's succession plan has been disrupted somewhat.
But this is the sort of situation which underlines the Singapore Army's coming of age as an institution. After decades of leadership development sparked off by the 1970s Goh Keng Swee-era Project Wrangler, the SAF has a pool of commanders ready to take command should the need arise. Among the 700,000-plus Singaporeans who served or continue to serve as SAF Operationally Ready National Servicemen, BG Ravinder Singh answered to call of duty.
With BG Singh as COA, MINDEF/SAF has a stellar example of how an Operationally Ready NSman really is at the forefront of the SAF and shares the same risks, duties and operational responsibilities as SAF regulars. In this regard, the system seems to have forgotten its own propaganda. All that press coverage in the mid 1990s that celebrated the change in nomenclature from reservist - which to soccer mad Singaporeans connotes a bench warmer reserve player - to the mouthful of an acronym ORNS seems to have been forgotten by new generations of journalists who make much ado about an NSman stepping up to the plate.
MINDEF/SAF's carefully calibrated succession plan appears to be a victim of its past year successes. Defence observers expect a smooth leadership transition for each Service with as much certainty as changes in the season. In the past, observers could indeed mentally map out the second, third and even fourth in line to the throne with some degree of assurance the plan would pan out as predicted. This mindmap no longer applies to the New Economy where the lure of the private sector and a more discerning MINDEF/SAF leadership appraisal structure has thinned the ranks of potential Service chiefs.
Much ado has also been made in the local press of a retiree coming back to active service. Remember that before the Military Domain Experts Scheme (MDES) came along, to retire in the SAF's context meant that an SAF serviceman would leave the military in the early to mid 40s for a second career. This timescale is way ahead of the statutory retirement age of 62 years, which means an SAF "retiree" - assuming one's career path led to the 40+ age exit - still has some mileage to offer.
The readiness of former commanders to return to take charge - as BG Singh has done - reflects that the Singapore Army's former generals have never fallen out of sight of the Army command. It also indicates that the Army Family embraces those in and out of uniform, because if MINDEF/SAF so desired, they could have cherry picked from within. (Indeed, a certain newspaper has practised a similar leadership renewal strategy by bringing in civil servants from outside the newsroom with no journalism background to be groomed as newspaper editor and editor-in-chief. *wink*)
The SAF's policy for leadership renewal recognises that the armed forces of a city state with a small population should be prepared to share its human capital. Movements of career officers from the SAF to the Admin Service reflect this reality. Implicit in this sharing process is the fact that human capital (ie. people) can move both ways, as BG Singh's move back to the Singapore Army readily demonstrates.
It is thus perplexing to see today's Sunday Times remark that the new 46-year-old COA "is in good company" on account of his age. This
Surely the writer would know that the career trajectory of SAF commanders moves them at a faster clip than their opposite numbers elsewhere? Which other country (apart from out of whack countries like North Korea) appoints generals at the age of 33 (current PM Lee Hsien Loong). The point is that the national paper should not play up the COA's age to justify his appointment as a sound decision to the detriment of previous SAF Service chiefs. Doing so casts a shadow on previous chiefs who did not have the benefit of "good company" because they assumed command in their late 30s or early 40s. (Another peeve: the over-used imagery of an Army general stepping in and out of uniform, boots and helmets, almost like a strip show. The analogy was used four times. We get the point already.)
Examples abound of older and younger generals who aced their opponents in combat. In World War 2, Allied reversals during the early years of the war saw many retired men in uniform called back to active service. Many led with distinction. In my opinion, the 700,000 former NSmen bring an immense and hitherto untapped value to the SAF as old soldiers, sailors and airmen are seen largely as old fogeys fit only to spin yarns at gatherings or for their quaint value as members of the SAF Veterans League (but more on this on another occasion).
The choice of a COA goes beyond book smarts of an SAF scholar or the street savvy of a commander who can relate to men and women under his command.
No less critical is the job of strengthening defence relations with Singapore's immediate neighbours with whom the SAF trains closely with, and with extant and emerging power houses farther afield such as China and India.
With some Indian newspapers (I mean the country, not Tamil Murasu) already commenting on BG Singh's link with the mother country, one would hope the current COA will be a driving force behind defence ties not just within ASEAN and with Pacific Rim partners but also those in India and beyond. Look at the response from The Times of India, which gushed on 5 March 2011 that BG Singh is the "first Sikh in nearly 30 years to be given the force's baton". It added: "A Singaporean of Indian origin, Singh is currently Deputy Secretary (Technology) at the Defence Ministry. He joined the Singapore Armed Forces in December 1982."
The Indians will likely welcome BG Singh as a former son of bharat who made good. Just wait for the editorials there when he makes his first official visit as COA. And the mainland Chinese will doubtless be keen to suss him out firsthand to see his impact on SAF-People's Liberation Army ties.
So a lot is expected of BG Singh's appointment.
In this regard, I believe the system has made the best of the current situation.