Monday, August 1, 2011

White horses in the Singapore Armed Forces: A personal experience

The surname Boey is not a prolific find in the telephone directory.

Combine rare family name with the time when the Singapore Army was led by a general with the same surname and you can guess the questions on my family background that I received during my full-time National Service. It did not help that my father has "Tak" in his name too, just like the then DCGS (Army).

The first query came during Basic Military Training at Pulau Tekong Camp 1, Delta Company, Platoon 15.

Just days into NS, I was summoned for a chat with the Platoon Commander (PC) - an oldish Lieutenant career officer in a camp where Captains were kings and the camp commandant, a Lieutenant Colonel, walked around the camp with an entourage in tow and was treated with almost imperial courtesy.

After the usual greetings, the PC cut to the chase and asked if I knew who or what a DCGS (Army) was. I had read Pioneer magazine since I was 12 and knew the Army's chain of command. Army acronyms were no sweat.

And so I spelt out the title in full and gave him the name of the BG.

Even at that age, unseasoned by years of interviewing strangers which my future career would require, I had a knack for reading body language and sensing what was on people's minds before they said anything. My PC had been reading the dockets of his new recruits and had his curiosity aroused when he came across the rare surname and father's name. Hence the chat.

It did not take a social scientist to figure out where the interview was leading to when the PC mentioned that since my dad also had "Tak" in his name, was I related to Singapore's army chief?

I replied "no" and the PC pressed the point home with a "are you sure?" before I was dismissed and returned to the Company line.

If I got a dollar from everyone who asked me that BG Boey question, I would have left NS with a chunk of change after my 2.5 years as an NSF.

I suspect that when my career as Defence Correspondent with the 90 cents newspaper was in full flower, at least some SAF officers with the same surname must have been similarly asked if we were related.

This is not a sign of a dysfunctional system. It was only natural to ask and anyone placed in a similar situation would probably have done the same.

The current debate over whether Presidential Election candidate Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam had anything to do with his son's NS stint has rekindled net chatter on white horses in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

It is an explosive issue in a city-state where NS is compulsory, when the NS experience isn't always positive and almost everyone has a story to share.

It has also led netizens to cite instances when sons of society heavyweights (minister's, CEOs etc) are said to have received special treatment because of their family ties.

From personal experience, the reality of group dynamics in the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF is that people do make it a point to find out who sits on the upper branches of one's family tree so they can polish the right apples.

I know this for a fact because the BG Boey question stalked me throughout my NS.

I suspect the impact is magnified in a hierarchical military environment where brown nosers up and down the chain of command try to impress or ingratiate so-and-so's father/uncle/god father.

Society heavyweights must be aware this happens because string pulling occurs in the private sector too. They must therefore be savvy enough (to use Dr Tan's choice of words) to take extra care not to allow suspicions of string pulling to crop up in the first place.

White horse debates cause collateral damage to Singapore's national service system when discussants on internet discussion threads bring up stories of alleged abuses of power, privilege or position. Just look at how the ongoing debate over Dr Tan's son has spawned numerous stories from people eager to recount supposed horseplay during their time in NS.

The individuals involved are almost invariably anonymous - some rich man's son, some minister's son, an MP's kid. You get the picture? In most cases, the people who bring up such discussions or jump into the ring with a sarcastic word or two also choose to remain nameless.

Damage is done to NS and commitment to defence because there is no way for officialdom to verify, prove or debunk such hearsay. So the allegations are left hanging in the air and urban myths are born.

I suppose it is too much to ask for discussants to have the intellectual courage that matches the level of their sarcasm and critical views. Doing so would help netizens with the means to do so get to the bottom of things and, if necessary, tear apart people who have been abusing the system.

If, for example, some towkay's son has been receiving special treatment in some SAF camp, wouldn't you want to "out" the bugger to CPIB?

To be sure, our NS system is not fault-free, thanks to apple polishers who spoil MINDEF/SAF's name. We should never desensitise ourselves to such theatrics nor condone it.

But apple polishers in the city-state pale in comparison with show boats in more developed societies where certain companies build their business model on their ability to lobby causes or open doors for a handsome fee. Whichever passport you eventually carry, these brown nosers will exist as humankind has yet to create a worker's paradise anywhere on this planet.

I bet the vast majority of Singaporeans who argue the grass is greener in the land of the free would not survive the hurly burly of real politik in the Washington Beltway and other cities.

It is also easier and less damaging to one's self-esteem to blame missed opportunities in life - didn't get this scholarship, failed to get that internship, couldn't get the dream job - to inequities in the system, real or perceived, rather than on one's own shortcomings.

In Singapore today, there is a family of heartlanders which has done very well for itself. So while internet chatter on white horses is sobering to read and odds are that scions of high society who push their weight around really exist, the real world situation is far from dire.

Three boys who grew up in a HDB flat rose to command appointments in the SAF that even the Lee brothers did not attain. That three brothers made it to the top of their respective Services says a lot about their ability and I would really love to see a cynic have the balls to say infront of their faces that they did not earn their keep.

The brothers are no anomaly or fluke. A Singaporean child has better prospects at raising his/her status in society provided he/she has the commitment and ability to chase his/her dream. Many from humble backgrounds have done so. If anyone has a better way of distributing scholarships or book prizes, please do voice this out.

Everyone is entitled to complain and bitch about life's woes. If venting helps create a better society by rooting out individuals who push their way around or buy favours, then by all means fire away.

But in the vast majority of cases, what we're seeing are anonymous allegations that achieve nothing but chip away at fault lines in society and extract collateral damage on a system which, despite its shortcomings, has kept this country safe.

I really wish MINDEF/SAF would someday declare an open house at Hendon Camp, which is the Home of the Commandos. I wish the complaining citizens would drag their butts to a certain office in HQ Commando and read and reflect on the list of operations engraved onto a wooden plaque bolted to the wall. Many of these operations have never made the news, save for Ops Thunderbolt (storming of SQ 117 in 1991), and the whiners and complaints bureau should spare a moment from their unhappy angst-ridden lives to reflect on why these operations were staged.

The nasties are still there, mind you, lurking beyond the borders in our neighbourhood.

Netizens must be streetwise enough not to play into the hands of mischief makers who mask their identities to push a certain agenda. It is a pity internet discussion boards do not show the IP addresses of posters as this would give one a clearer indication of the diversity of views and from whence they come.

The white horse issue is one that MINDEF/SAF will face time and again.

There is no PR trick or technique the system can use to hedge against people who rail against the system. Let them rail and let every cynical comment serve as a reminder that the system must never take NSFs for granted.

The best defence is a clear and transparent system which can explain to, if not convince, heartlanders that Singapore's NS system is fair and equitable to all, regardless of family background.

If the NS system created to defend the Lion City cannot defend itself from cynics, then people in this fragile city-state deserve the fate they sow.

You make your bed, you sleep in it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks David for another excellent post.

Contrary to what the vast majority of Singaporeans believe (then again people will believe what they want to believe), the so called White Horse system was developed to prevent abuses where sons of influential people avoided combat roles. From what I know, the tag on the medical docket serves as an identification that requires special approval for these NSFs to be deployed to non-combat roles.

Having said that, I assess the desire not to anger the influentials, required the SAF to keep this reverse discrimination policy on a need to know basis. Unfortunately, without proper dissemination, brown-nosers tried to demonstrate their high CEPs and often acted contrary to the policy's intent.

While I do not know what happpend in the case of Tony Tan's son, I am however certain that our then Minister for Defence would have gone out of his way to be seen as neutral.

(P.S. I apologise that I had to post this under Anonymous, but I trust you will understand for obvious reasons.)

David Boey said...

In November 2003, Cedric Foo who was then MOS(D) botched MINDEF/SAF's attempt to explain the white horse issue.

It remains unfinished business till today.

The issue will continue to attract critics until the day MINDEF is ready to have a no-BS forum on defence matters to clear the air.

Remember how Dr Seet Ai Mee was blasted in 1991 for washing her hands during a visit to a wet market? From a PR standpoint, she should have wrested the initiative to say she washed her hands after shaking hands with a pork seller (not a fish monger) because she did not want to offend Muslims she might shake hands with later. There was no robust defence and she basically left the field to her critics, who used it to their advantage.

When Dr Seet clarified the situation in 2009, many fair-minded people would have understood the situation better. But damage was already done.

re: Anonymous postings on this blog. I knew nothing about blogs before starting this one and drew guidance from people with more experience in such matters.

Due to the nature of topics discussed, we felt the community would benefit from the range of views rather than sanitising them to pre-registered discussants... like some MPs now do on their FB sites because it may lead to group think.

We get the occasional trolls but by and large, we trust visitors to this site are mature enough to figure things out for themselves. This includes friends from Malaysia, the US and elsewhere - which is why we added the flag counter.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to your views on the 40mm AGL incident.

Genesis said...

@David, Perhaps it's a good time for MINDEF to try to explain the White Horse Programme again. Yeah they didnt do a good job in the past, but to leave the matter hanging would invite more gossip and rumour-mongering.

"If the NS system created to defend the Lion City cannot defend itself from cynics, then people in this fragile city-state deserve the fate they sow. You make your bed, you sleep in it."

This may be true, but that doesnt mean that we can fold our arms and go "yup, you're going to get what's coming".

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." --Edmund Burke (disputed)

Anonymous said...

Much news for you today
Projectile that landed on plate was from NDP

Anonymous said...

HI David,

Might i suggest a new color scheme for easier readability? Your articles deserve to be read without eye strain!

Keep up the good work!

soulbiker said...

Thank you for the balance. You right and so are the whiners. The system does recognise excellence and it also cushions the connected. Such a system can exist without contradiction. Just don't feed us propaganda that bias doesn't exist and that our system is whiter than white and that it's wholly impartial. It's the sanctimonious hypocrisy that grates and worse, disillusions the population. If two legs are in reality the most superior, don't tell us four legs are the best.(I'm not directing the disgust to you personally, but those who preach fm their pulpit ...)

Anonymous said...

Whatever people say, their action will never match it. If people do feel the pinch of it, GE result make a great during to all this.

Another hot topic will be the housing price. They say the price will be stable in 3 years time. But end of the day, let ask ourself, who have the control over the piece of land before those developer ? They already knew all this will happen. Just that people are dumb to believe what they say.

David Boey said...

Hi Genesis, soulbiker and all,
The two new ministers at MINDEF, Lawrence Wong and Maliki are greenhorns, too new to face NSmen for this sort of open dialogue at this juncture. Their rawness would show and MINDEF can't bungle the White Horse explanation a second time. So they'll need time to warm up.

Protocol-wise, should the DM handle it when he has a MOS(D) and SPS to handle NSmen matters?

In my opinion, BG Tan Chuan-Jin would be ideal. Ditto MG Chan Chun Sing who could also explain the thinking behind evergreen units since he was involved in the Transformation roadmap when he was with Joint.

But as both are in another ministry, we'll have to see how MINDEF handles it - if at all. I won't count on them doing anything, unless Dr Tony Tan's election campaign gets compromised by the White Horse issue.

Re: Training incident. Good that it was reported by PAFF though it wasn't a fatal incident.

Re: Colour scheme. Will experiment with other options. :-)

Best Regards,


Laremy said...

Thanks for the clarification, David.

Anonymous said...

So are you related or not?:D

Interesting read. I always thought White Horse was created to avoid any unecessary complications involving sons of influential people in the event of unforseen (or indeed avoidable) situations.

I remember one instance when a white horse officer fragged himself during grenade live fire. There were at least 5 medics at the hospital accompanying him. It was a superficial wound (fortunately).:)

Anonymous said...

Great post. As another commenter pointed out, white horses are tagged to prevent abuse. I was in the medical corps. If I recall correctly, PES downgrade normally requires a medical board consisting 3 MOs. For white horses, 5 MOs are required. Obviously it will be a lot harder to get a concurrence if the reason for downgrade is flimsy.

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to see how an additional 2 doctors would make a difference. The notion of differing in opinion with an equivalent or superior officer is itself a challenge. How many MOs give approval, and how many doctors award MCs, for the sake of not being wrong, especially to a man of influence.

Jill Soh said...

Dear David,

Its not just the white horse issue. There are other big issues like keeping malays out of sensitive defense positions and the mother of all issues: the 2 year NS liability. Parents if given a choice will not send their sons to do a 2 years of NS. They are doing it because of the legal obligations. The Taiwanese have drastically reduced their NS obligations and its only a matter of time before we follow suit. Its been a long time since a minister from the ruling party spoke on these issues to the people. Things are brewing on the ground and its only the middle class growth thats keeping the lid on.

Timothy said...

Dear Jill, as of this moment, there are malays in sensitive positions. I have seen them, spoke with them and worked under them.

Even 3 Guards had a Malay CO not too long ago and he was formerlly my S3 before becoming CO years later. Okay in this case, he's actually half malay.

But my point is that SAF has opened itself unlike the many years before where it was claimed that no malays were allowed to be behind a machine gun.

The NS years were my most transformative years and it made me sharper. I would not have traded this experience for anything else and neither would any of my friends.

Anonymous said...

National Service used to be the (strictly enforced) price of citizenship. In our purportedly egalitarian system, can anyone claim to be surprised at the cynicism that results when people are perceived to have shirked their responsibility?

Anonymous said...

actually, the white horse system is a real system. i was in the air admin department @ mindef in '95 - that's where the P files for ranks up to Major are kept... anyway, there were these small paper slips in P files denoting if a guy was a white horse.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a balanced piece. Given the influx of foreign talents (mostly adults past 20s/30s) and how they eventually could become a citizen of Singapore without having to go through the 2-3 years of NS..I can understand why the angst and cynicism amongst the people. I am pretty certain someone like Janil is not the only case. Not only the White Horses, but it is imperative now for SAF to come out and even clarify how FTs who become citizens could have played their nation-building and defending role? Otherwise, is only inevitable that the youth are asking "why am I serving for? to defend who?" Does anyone know the vocational guidelines for this set of FT-turned-Citizens?

Anonymous said...

Some notes:

You try to appear impartial but yet you worked for the ST – I cannot believe impartiality is in your genes.

Being anonymous is essential in a state with a judiciary like ours, otherwise the truth will never start to be told in a tiny island like this. And why not let us know how you look like, since you are so aboveboard J

There is never any smoke without fire – nobody gets pleasure from making up something totally fictitious. Speculating that the level of exaggeration is worse in other places is irrelevant. What makes you think apple-polishing is less prevalent in SG, where a small and clearly defined ‘royalty’ exists? Where ministers’ pay are the world highest and where the govt has its hands in all areas of the economic pie?

When you have it made, it is easy to dismiss the non-achievers’ wails of privilege and connections. Just lugging out a rare example of ‘poor boys made good’ doesn’t do much.

You do subscribe to LKY’s ‘Sparta’ vision it seems. And like MG Chan, dismiss us as the ‘lunatic fringe’. You feel the SAF should reveal its ‘glorious’ deeds so that naysayers will be silenced. Even if the ‘glorious deeds’ are accurate, all this is irrelevant to our subject of why TT’s son had such a different experience.

The people who rail at the system are agents of change, just as proponents of status quo are big stumbling blocks.

Complainers may destroy the system slowly – but if it is a foul system, it is better destroyed – and a cleaner leaner one arise.

Of course the best system is a fair transparent one – but will it be allowed? People who have benefited from underhanded connections will say it ‘compromises national security’ and that those who ask for transparency are ‘perpetual whiners’.

Like LKY said – we know best, never mind what the people think.

Hegel’s dialectic must be allowed to work, and the greater the poison in the system, the harsher the antidote will have to be.

Anonymous said...

@ TS,

Do you know of any white horses that are PES A with 6/6 eyesight that were commandos ??? I'm proud of our commandos, they are all a different breed of animal and rightfully so ... but then again so are white horses for all the wrong reasons. please don't confuse the issues and bring them up in the same breath

Anonymous said...

This is not about 'apple polishers'

The 'White Horse' label is very real. I know because I see the list of names that should be provided preferential treatment when I was in the army. You must have served a very different national service. Or that you are just another one of the many SPH propaganda writers.

How much 'poor' have you gone through in life to declare that 'A Singaporean child has better prospects at raising his/her status in society provided he/she has the commitment and ability to chase his/her dream.'? What do you know about being poor with family problems and barely making ends meet whilst living in a one room rental flat?

To site the example of the 3 brothers (whom I have no idea who they are) who did well is like saying that if you keep buying the lottery, you will eventually hit the million dollar jackpot.

Don't pretend you know what being poor or unprivileged is about when you have never been there.

Anonymous said...

A glaring point that seems to float upwards these days... to be a real Singaporean, you gotta be poor and unprivileged? And if you made it, you are made to seem that you have less of a voice? Oh come on..

Perception may be reality, but sometimes one does not wish that reality to come with such blindsided vision.

Anonymous said...

' to be a real Singaporean, you gotta be poor and unprivileged?'

That is definitely blindsided vision

Anonymous said...

Thanks David for a balanced piece. One for the three brother once related that he owed much to the RSAF and Singapore.....He recounted how in the early sec schools days, when his father was retrenched, he used to survive on 20cents rice and 10cents stir-fried cabbage so that he could save some money (20cents?).

Singapore is not perfect and never will be. Sure, we should do more for the poor, we should ensure social mobility, there are many more things that can be done. But look around us, isn't there much to be thankful for? Singaporeans should ask more often "what can I do for Singaporeans" than simply point fingers at those who are actually trying do do something for Singapore and complain.

Overseas Singaporean said...

Let's assume that the WH had indeed start out with good intentions but through the years had become bastardized unwittingly. Does that make it acceptable?

I would be surprised that the powers-that-be were blissfully ignorant of that bastardization.

Anon 5/8/11 6.39pm: Look at the "complaining" about people highlighting issues that need correcting. Joe Blow Singaporean can hardly be expected to be do more than highlighting abuses of the WH system, can he?

Anonymous said...

Using the example of the 3 brothers who are deserving but are non-WH is a weak argument.

Just because deserving people can promote through the ranks doesnt mean that the WH system is not being abused or allowing less deserving people to have an easier life. This approach/arguement has been repeatedly used by the establishment that many ppl are buying into it.

Look at it this way, there are many scholarships and high ranking positions but obviously only a small number of ppl in power. So over the years there would definitely be examples of peasants making good. Highlighting these examples doesnt mean that the system allows everyone to start at the same point or is fair to everyone.

So in the case of mindef WH or equity, yes there are generals with HDB backgrounds. But if many WH end up getting overseas scholarships, cushy appointments, fast promotions and what have you, does the few HDB generals make such a system fairer? So the point is not just about deserving ppl getting rewarded, it is also about whether undeserving ppl getting concessions that are not accessible to others. Peasants making it could also mean that they might have to jump through more hoops and obstacles to get there. I am hopeful that research scientist tan is doing good work for mindef, but at the same time many ppl are unhappy because so many of us have heard of how hard many people could not get deferment for their further studies in similarly reputable institutions. So till the day mindef gets significantly more transparent about the WH and deferment issues, few ppl would buy their arguement.

And comparing the lee brothers to the ng brothers is another weak point since the elder lee brother was practically zooming through the ranks and what level he could have attained is moot since he left the military for politics. Not sure about the other lee brother. Wheras the ng brothers stayed on. So you are comparing a truncated career achievement versus a full career.

Anonymous said...

The 3 HDB generals are but 3 in a long line of many. Chan Chun Sing is another. If my memory serves me right, practically all the generals that rose to be service chiefs were from humble heartland beginnings. Those trying to shoot down their achievements or the merits of the sg system because of isolated incidents (real or perceived) are certainly "agents of change". Only question is whose "agents" are they?

Anonymous said...

What is the point of the SAF publicising weapons (rockets, submarines, armoured vehicles) periodically when it does not dare to release details of President Tony Tan's son (Patrick Tan)NS records? Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has kept very quiet about this scandal and oldfart Lee Kuan Yew tried to divert attention by talking crap about meritocracy.

Alvin Tan said...

some people seemed to think that the saying "no smoke without fire" is a universal truth. such people probably neever played the telephone game before wheere a message is passed through several people and the last one in the chain had to say what he/she heard. invariably it would be some nonsensical junk and everyone has a good laugh.

the fact is human beings are not perfect. messages get warped and in today's busy busy environment with the emoticons, truncated "shorthands" in social media, emails etc, there is more room to interpret the message subjectively.

moreoever, there are people who would spin half-truths and lies to achieve whatever objectives they have in mind. so don't think people are all nice and innocent and anything negative said against someone or some authority is due to a genuine cause, which is what is implied when "no smoke without fire" is used. in human society, one can have smoke without any fire and vice versa, and fires can be set to create the smoke desired.

Alvin Tan said...

white horse "policy" exists anywhere and everywhere. just that in SAF it becomes like a formal policy.

come one, let's be real with human nature here. suppose one is a manager in a company. one day, a group of new recruits arrived to start work in the manager's dept. and the manager found out that one of them is actually the grandson of the Chairman of the company's Board of Directors. how do you think the manager would react? here is a subordinate who has direct access to the top by virture of family relationships. whatever the manager says or do potentially can reach the ears of the Chairman himself. at the very least the manager will watch himself more carefully in front of this subordinate.

if the manager had treated his dept staff badly in the past, now would be a good time to start treating everybody better on account of this "white horse", less he appears to favour the WH above others.

it is human nature.

anyway, WH don't always win in the SAF, as can be seen a few years back when PM Lee's son broke the chain of command to complain against unacceptable behaviour of some other officers in SAF. the behaiour had been highlighted by the young man to his superiors previously (and all knew this is PM's son) yet no action taken. finally, the young man wrote letter to dunno who, and the whole incident became pubic knowledge. i think the incident involved a full lieutenant officer who could get away with ill discipline.

Anonymous said...

If Mindef is able to show the public a list of all people deferred since the beginning, how long they have been deferred, and who approved their deferment, I guess the Ministry do not have to say much to defend their stand.

Anonymous said...

Up to this point, Mindef did not even mention a single name who had enjoyed similar treatment is really fishy. Anyway, who dares to admit wrongdoings now?

Anonymous said...

Alvin Tan,

In the incident you referred to, His Excellency Lee Hong Yi was not satisfied with the punishment of his AWOL fellow officer aby the battalion commander. He wrote to the CDF and several other chiefs that these officers have no place in the SAF.

He was given a reprimand. That is all.