Saturday, October 15, 2011

GCE A Level Exams: Pivotal period for young Singaporean students and SAF Scholar aspirants

It is hard to imagine a period more pivotal to a young Singaporean student's life than the A level examinations that will take place in the coming weeks.

For students who eye a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) scholarship, the Advanced Level General Certificate of Education examination is their make-or-break moment.

In the words of an SAF scholar who reached the rank of Brigadier-General, his A levels were the most important exam papers he took in his life.

A stellar result puts you in the queue line for a scholarship interview. Impressing the interview panel puts one on the fast track in the SAF. A high CEP and opportunities to be groomed for higher appointment are almost guaranteed so long as the young scholar doesn't flunk out of university.

So the pressure to perform can be intense for SAF scholar wannabees from the class of 2011. In the very near future, they will sit for the General Paper, a mother tongue paper, maybe a third language, four A Level subjects, possibly two Special Papers. While A level exam preparations get underway, they have to juggle leadership positions in a CCA and volunteer activities for good measure.

Add to that the ability to speak English well (I have yet to meet a Singlish-speaking SAF scholar) with poise and confidence (so as to impress the interview panel) and one can easily whittle away the vast majority of potentials to a core group of outstanding pre-university students numbering in the dozens.

Those who make it know they extend the idea sown decades ago by then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee's Project Wrangler. The project aimed to raise, train and sustain a pipeline of high achievers with the potential to be groomed as future leaders for Singapore's citizens armed forces.

By and large, Project Wrangler has been a success.

Fast forward to 2011 and the pressure felt by SAF scholar aspirants is akin to the anxiety felt by SAF Regular officers whose respective career trajectories are not in the same orbit as the scholars.

A friend who served at OPC recounted how he regularly fielded calls from concerned young officers (i.e. twenty-something SAF Captains) who asked when they would be scheduled for a certain command and staff course that was a prerequisite for higher command.

For an organisation which forces one to bear one's rank openly, the feeling of being bypassed or sidelined for promotion by young officers is a real one indeed.

A former Colonel, a scholar who was among the first batch trained by the Australian Defence Force, explained that self esteem is an intangible construct that becomes very real in a uniformed organisation. And the blow becomes more apparent the day one has to salute a higher ranked officer from one's same cohort at OCS.

Whenever I stir coffee with active or retired military personnel, I inevitably ask them two questions once a certain comfort level is reached in our conversation:
First, what made you sign on with the Service you chose?

Second, what made you leave?

Answers to the first question are as varied as the personalities I encounter. A Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) officer said it was fighters or nothing. He fulfilled his boyhood ambition when he became a fighter pilot and ended his career commanding the RSAF. An Armour officer wanted to follow the footsteps of his father, who commanded an Armour brigade, so Armour was the logical choice. The son outdid his father's military career and is now an NS BG who works for a bank.

The second question applies only to those who left the SAF before their career had run its full and theoretical lifespan. They are usually officers in their late 20s or mid 30s. Most end up in assorted careers in the private sector.

A former Armour officer, Tommie Goh, recounted how he loved the Army and even encouraged his nephew to sign on as a Regular. For Mr Goh, his eureka moment came the day his young nephew surpassed his rank and he realised the limitations of his own career runway.

Mr Goh quit the SAF to form a contract manufacturing company called JIT Holdings - supposedly for just-in-time - which I had the privilege to write about while covering the electronics and tech sector as a Business Times journalist. He is today a self-made millionaire and made his name in partnership with an SAF Armour officer who left the Army after bagging the coveted Best Armour Unit prize. They may not have stayed to see the 3G SAF realised, but their 2G set up - named after the first letter in their family name - did handsomely well.

Had Mr Goh stayed away from striking it out on his own for the security offered by an SAF career, it is unlikely he would be able to give his family the opportunities in life now open to them.

Over the years, I have heard many human interest stories from personnel from the three SAF Services to be convinced that the SAF picks its people well.

To be fair, there have been duds. These include the Andover Prize winner who had leadership issues, but by and large the SAF Officer Corps is staffed by good people. They may not be able to articulate the differences between leadership, management and command in an essay but these officers can punch above their weight class and do not drop the ball when faced with unexpected situations like SARS or the post-9/11 injects such as Ops Bascinet.

If there is one shortcoming in human capital management, it is how the system's fixation in making the scholarship programme work ends up causing collateral damage when the aspirations, feelings and rice bowls of everyone else is affected. And we haven't even started talking about the WOSE or MDES career plans.

There is an impression, even among military officers, that SAF scholars are shielded from events or projects that could stymie their careers if things don't go according to plan. A former SAF BG observed that the commanders of some of the SAF's most trying overseas operations and peace support deployments in the 1990s were non scholars who could be relied upon to deliver the goods.

This mindset may be wrong as the situation may have indeed changed today. But historical baggage from early operations lingers in many minds and continues to cloud the system.

Just as MINDEF devotes an entire department at Depot Road to nurture SAF scholars, one cannot overemphasize that late bloomers in the military are also a critical source of human capital.

They may have botched their papers in the O, A levels or even N levels, but if they shine later in life in their chosen professions, they should be allowed the latitude to expand their career horizons and grow to the best of their ability.

Indeed, many of the world's combat proven and war-winning commanders would not make the cut had they been assessed based solely on paper qualifications and criteria used to cherry pick SAF scholars. What do you think is the average A level grade for Taliban commanders, Hezbollah fighters or the Viet Cong? Can they even pass a PSLE paper? Does it matter?

There is a general feeling among the non scholars that their careers are limited by a glass ceiling, that no matter how hard they slog or how well they perform, someone else's higher CEP will always put them in the vanguard of the annual promotions list.

Even among scholars, there are the elite and the also-rans. Cream of the crop are those awarded overseas scholarships at prestigious universities. The also-rans study on home ground under the local study award.

These young officers may not sense their place in the pecking order till years later, when they enter the SAF after their studies and are cycled through a couple of ranking and banding exercises.

They will then see first hand that SAF scholars come in different calibres and that in a system of equals, some are more equal than others.

Best of luck to all A level students from the class of 2011.


Anonymous said...

when i was in the army, the "farmer" 2IC of our brigade was widely respected, acknowledged as the real "field commander" while the actual bge (scholar)cmdr was "ceremonial". The general feeling was the 2IC was there to take charge if anything really happened.
The 2IC later left to join FAS.

In my unit, the farmer CO had great respect from the rank and file, the scholar 2IC (who later took over as CO) was compared unfavorably after assuming command.
The farmer CO later left to join the pte sector.

During my reservist, training officers related how "promotion" war games were conducted such that scholars will win, such that some farmer counterparts became very vocal about the purpose of the excercises.

Its no secret that many farmers left the SAF. So the scholar system is really a joke, combat arms should not be judged by a soldiers A levels... or any school cert.

Anonymous said...

David, stuff to watch.

David Boey said...

Dear All,
Here's a synopsis of the report cited in the comment above.

ChannelNewsAsia story titled : Preferential treatment during National Service?
Date : 15 October 2011 2156 hrs
Synopsis: Next week's Parliament sitting will discuss the disruption from National Service by President Tony Tan's son, Patrick. The question was filed by the Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Dr Lim Wee Kiak.
*End of synopsis*

I'd like to know whether Patrick Tan's disruption window was unprecedented.

If not, how many others, for what reasons and when were the disruptions granted?

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

Most important is whether these scholars cab relate to and emphatize with the soldier on the ground who has to brave the bullets and not be an armchair strategist. Pointless scoring a string of As and studying at an Ivy League University on a SAFOS if you can't fulfill that above. You'll just be sending your and OUR troops to their deaths and lower their morale.

Anonymous said...

Reverence for academic over vocational achievement is a social phenomena not just peculiar to the SAF. This is not going to change until society as a whole have a major mindset change.

The British Military used to draw it officer ranks from high society but unlike the SAF its commanders have had battle experience. The US military too also have a tendency to draw from certain pool for their officer corps but most are what I call battle harden. Here I need to qualify the term 'battle harden'; it does not only mean proven in combat. It also means having both political (i.e. ability to grasp political issues), diplomatic (i.e. resolve conflict without battle) and leadership (i.e. ability to lead and inspire men) in a field of conflict.

The SAF generals are peculiar in that it, unlike its US and British counter pats, don't have the (or a significant) problem of having to "fight' -- loose term -- with their political masters or their peers for funding or establishment of units.

The SAF Generals, with rare exceptions, don't have to deal with diplomacy under operational and really trying conditions. For example, a US General in Afganistan has to use his diplomatic charm to hold often factious coalition forces together and not to mentioned his own forces charismatic leaders under his charge (e.g Eisenhower had to deal with Montgomery and Patton in WWII).

With a lack of combat opportunities (i.e. as opposed to exercise or peacekeeping), the SAF is unlikely to have the opportunity to have pool of people identify leaders that are battle harden. For example, the Aussie Army ex COA Peter Cosgrove had fought in Vietnam as a junior officer. He then rose to become a Battalion commander. As a flag officer he was the commander of the peacekeeping force in East Timor during the 'combat' phase.

Is it any wonder why the SAF would fall back to the Singaporean mindset of academic over vocational experience?

I suppose the fact that SAF only draw from the 'academic' pool is not so much a problem if all that is required is administrative leadership. The real danger is should a crisis were to occur will its current corp of leadership be able to cope?

Or worst still, if this corp of leadership fail, will they stand in the way of real talent coming to the fore. For example, Eisenhower held a relative junior rank for most of his military career until the start of the war. Although he held no command position but when the times calls for a general with great diplomatic skill he was promoted to the top job and he lived up to that believe. Will the SAF during times of crisis be able to spot appropriate talent or just revert to SOP mindset?

I guess we won't know until the crisis come.

西北怪狼 said...

There will always be hierarchies and people needed to be sorted according to their abilities. I only ask for the system to be equitable and reflective of real merits. But the halo effect is too real and deterministic. Once you get into that band, you're almost set for life.