Saturday, June 7, 2014

Spouses of SAF Regulars deserve attention in ongoing defence narrative

If you think it is tough being in a military organisation like the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), where your rank in the social order hangs literally on your heart, try being in an organisation where one's standing in the pecking order must be sensed rather than seen.

For many young wives inducted into the SAF Officers Wives' Club (SAFOWC), their induction to the club set up exclusively for female spouses of the Officer Corps forces them to grow up quickly.

Make no mistake: the SAFOWC has done sterling work funding charitable causes, serving as a support structure for our men in uniform deployed for long and distant service in places like the Gulf of Aden, and in helping numerous Singaporean families come to terms with the demands of military service that only kith and kin can identify and empathise with.

Indeed, the SAFOWC is such a key part of our defence ecosystem that it is surprising scant attention has been paid to making sure it does not falter. Recent reviews of defence issues in Singapore have cast the spotlight (rightfully) on stakeholders such as National Servicemen and their families, on Regulars, employers and the role of women serving the SAF.

Alas, spouses who support the SAF leadership have to fend for themselves. And if you are the husband of a female Regular, good luck to you as there is no male equivalent club for SAF Officers Husbands.

In the Glossary of the recently-released Committee to Strengthen National Service report are found acronyms for organisations such as ACCORD (of which yours truly is a member), the SAFVC and SAFVL. But we've missed the SAFOWC, perhaps because of its charter which shapes it as a social club rather than a tool for winning hearts and minds? Pity.

The narrative thus far sidesteps the pivotal role that wives of SAF officers serve in keeping households in order when the head of household is away serving his country. And when the role of Family Liaison Officer brings the conversation into the household, it is done more to describe a functional role than a lead-in to a wider discussion on demands shouldered by the military family. This misses the opportunity exploring what more can or ought to be done to help wives of our officers and WOSPECS underpin commitment to defence (C2D).

And so the SAFOWC plods on valiantly. It gives uninformed observes the mental picture that it is all about chatty womenfolk who meet for high tea and the occasional jumble sale, when the influence such wives command should be better recognised and employed to advance C2D.

Fault lines in the social order
The SAFOWC deserves greater attention from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF because the social structure that sets norms and expecations for its esteemed membership is crisscrossed by fault lines that could fracture the organisation, if we are not careful.

Take the example of the young officer's wife, pretty and demure, at her first SAFOWC function. Determined to expand her social circle, she mingled easily and chatted with new faces even as she struggled to remember all their names.

That social encounter was akin to an interrogation. But so subtle was the technique that one would hardly notice that some wives were trying to suss out where the newbie stood in the social order. Central to the conversation was the rank and background of her beloved hubby. You see, some members of the SAFOWC are adept at charting a mindmap showing the CEP of our officers. They will quiz a newbie with vigorous intensity to find out whether a newbie's husband is a scholar, and then whether he was funded to study locally or overseas (the latter signals he is set for higher things in life).

As senior appointments in the SAFOWC tend to mirror the hierarchy of the SAF leadership, the social order in the SAFOWC tends to mirror that of the SAF with wives of Generals at the top and everyone else falling in behind.

One wife found out the hard way when the SAFOWC planned an overseas trip for a social  event with the officers wives' club of an ASEAN country. Her excitement was dampened when she was put on the wait list, all because the wife of a more senior officer wanted to bring her kid along. Lo and behold, junior didn't go in the end and the wife on the wait list was told she could finally go. She didn't. She politely declined because the offer to go came at the last minute and she felt wives of junior officers should be treated more respectfully.

Today, her husband has risen to the SAF's senior leadership and she can recount that episode with confidence. The incident made her acutely aware of  the potential pitfalls that could beset the SAFOWC, should an invisible cast system infect the wider membership of the organisation.

Such reasons probably explain why a sizeable number of SAF officers wives are absent as active participants to  the SAFOWC's activities. It is not a hostile or cold environment. Far from it.

Pilllow talk
But moving in a social circle such as the  SAFOWC demands a high level of social intelligence and self-awareness because gossip picked up from social events could easily end up as pillow talk with the boss of young officers. Negative impressions, shared at an inopportune time, picked up by the wrong ears and spread as salacious gossip, could wreck a career if the impression that someone is lazy at housework or a lousy father ends up clouding impressions of one's ability and potential as an SAF officer.

The stress level for SAFOWC members also arises from the fact that people have a tendency to think that the spouse of a capable officer must be cut from the same template. Even if the husband is a charismatic leader who is a master at public speaking and a capable officer, it is unfair to expect the wife to be the same. Let's face it: opposites attract (ok, we generalise).

And while the husbands may be best buddies because they trained and exercised together or were OCS mates, we cannot expect their spouses to draw on the same emotional credit generated from the close working relationship forged between the men. Indeed, some spouses may not get along with one another, even though their husbands may be best of friends.

Here's where mirroring the leadership structure of the SAF in the SAFOWC works against the wives, because there are some who prefer to be quiet homemakers who shun the limelight and absolutely detest public speaking, yet have expectations cast upon them because their hubby is a rising star.

Mind you, the pressure from such expectations can be immense because no wife wants to letdown their other half. So some put on a show, pretending they enjoy the moment when their inner thoughts and feelings are to the contrary.

The anecdotes above underscore fault lines that could unsettle organisations like the SAFOWC. This is why MINDEF/SAF ought to keep the interests and needs of military families in its sphere of consciousness.

And if you think the wives of officers and WOSPECS are left to fend on their own, spare a thought for husbands of our growing number of Female Regulars. They are worse off as there is no umbrella organisation like the SAFOWC to take care of them.

One supposes it is a machismo thing, that husbands - as head of household - should be able to pull things together?