Friday, April 26, 2019

Aristocracy of Armed Talent, Military Elite in Singapore Q&A with author Samuel Ling Wei Chan

Dr Samuel Ling Wei Chan, author of the book "Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore" tells us more about the book. 

Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore
Published: 2019
528 pages, 299mm x 152mm
31 tables, 5 figures
Samuel is an adjunct lecturer with the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia.

How long did it take you to write the book?
The book is a revised and updated edition of my PhD thesis. I started my studies in March 2011 but by February 2012 it was apparent that my initial topic (on military education in Australia and the US) was not tenable. 

My supervisor and I decided that a change in topic was the best (and only) option going forward. 

I submitted my thesis in June 2014 and received word in October that the external examiners were satisfied. 

I embarked on further research in mid-2015 and a revised my thesis in an effort to write a book along the lines of Morris Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait, albeit one focused on Singapore’s military establishment. I submitted the revised manuscript to NUS Press in early-mid 2018. Hence it took almost seven years from the change in PhD topics to the book hitting the shelves in April 2019.

What made you press on with research on the SAF despite initial hurdles?
It was a challenge to complete a puzzle and I was focused on the task at hand. The topic is interesting to me, both in academic and general terms. 

I knew more about America’s top brass than our own leaders after reading Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier, and The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by Greg Jaffe and David Cloud. 

I am sure that I am not the only one interested in the topic. 

Hence I set about capturing a small piece of Singapore’s military history. If I did not do it then I am certain someone else would, whether indigenous or foreign.

What was the most challenging aspect of the research for this book?
The most challenging aspects were access to information in terms of open source material and interviews for the specific questions that I had in mind. 

The difficulties in accessing open sources included: whether the materials still exist (e.g. copies of Pioneer, Pointer, service newsletters) and if I could access them. 

Official channels did not prove helpful so it became quite simply “detective work for one”. It would have been nice albeit wishful thinking to access material at the Centre for Heritage Services. 

The interviews were also hard to come by with 28 of 46 officers approached agreeing to interviews that lasted between 30 minutes and 5.5 hours in duration. Some had a lot to say about their careers, and some did not say much. We were all cognizant of the Official Secrets Act so it was pretty much about personal stories.

How did you go about resolving the challenge(s)?
The 28 interviews were great and a blessing in terms of being able to get the work done. 

Open source required a lot of patience, which mean repeated iterations of combing through publications and photographs to triangulate the necessary information followed by a list of further information required and doing it all again. 

It was tiring yet refreshing to go through the publications as one can really appreciate how the SAF has grown over the years, and the effort put in by the state and population to ensure the defence of Singapore.

Which chapter did you enjoy researching/writing most?
I must say I enjoyed them all due to the variation, focus, and information in each of the chapters. 

Chapters 1 and 2 are pretty much ground work in terms of literature and history. This was enjoyable as I could convey what was “out there” in terms of books, how the topic is viewed, and the history of our early military leaders. 

Chapters 3 to 5 pretty much contains the personal stories of the generals and admirals that I interviewed. They grew up in a Singapore that is very much different from a teenager enlisting for NS today. Singapore was a different place back then. Nevertheless, I walked away from the 28 interviews with the confidence that our generals and admirals, at least those I interviewed, are professional military officers. 

Chapter 6 is pretty much understanding the force structure of the SAF, its evolution, and how it supports and justifies the configuration of the military elite. 

Chapter 7 is a mix of statistics, outliers, and perhaps inconvenient truths. 

Chapter 8 is on society and its impact on the SAF of today and tomorrow. Some issues can be addressed by technology, and as always some of the remedies for today could potentially pose problems tomorrow. Only time will tell. All in all, I enjoyed writing every chapter in the book. Each required a different skill to piece together and I learned much.

What are the takeaways you hope the reader will glean from the book?
To appreciate the SAF in its entirety, both the good, the quirky, and the not so good. 

To understand that it is led (at least in the past) by leaders who began their careers for a variety of reasons, both for altruistic and/or egotistic reasons. They converged towards serving for a greater good as they progressed up the hierarchy. 

Those who made general and admiral are mostly field commanders tasked with deterring aggression, and should this deterrence fail, to fight and win our nation’s wars. 

Military leadership takes time to nurture. Scholar officers are afforded chances to prove their worth but do not automatically get a “free pass” into the top brass. Disruptions to, or “rushed jobs” in, succession planning will have detrimental effects on the leadership of tomorrow. 

Most importantly, the SAF is only as strong – physically, mentally, and morally – as the society that is pledges to defend.

Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore is available from Books Kinokuniya and NUS Press here. You can also pre order from Amazon here

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Keep pay for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers competitive

Whenever I hear of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers who earn as much or more in civilian life as they did when they were in uniform, I am both happy and concerned.

Happy for the individuals whose years of service and experience in the military has been recognised and rewarded by the civilian sector.

At the same time, one wonders if the remuneration for SAF officers has kept up with the times. The situation described above is not as uncommon as one would expect.

SAF officers are said to command higher remuneration packages as compared to equivalent civilian jobs because of their shorter career spans. In simple terms, SAF officers are paid more because their career end point terminates around the age of 45.

If that is the case, one can see three immediate reasons for those who are worth the same salary after leaving the SAF.

First, the individuals are the outliers. They are exceptional talent valued by free enterprise.

Second, the market-plus pay scale for SAF officers has lost some of its market competitiveness.

Last, some civilian employers are over-paying their SAF alumni. In a free market economy, it is of course an employer's prerogative to pay a new hire as it wishes so long as the company can afford it and their shareholders don't quibble (especially for listed entities with a heavy presence of SAF alumni).

Of the three possible reasons listed above, the second is the most troubling because it may be a sign that market benchmarks for SAF pay need to be reviewed.

In general, SAF officers tend to think about a career transition around the age of 30. This is the time when their first contract is about to expire. A sense of personal ambition ("I can do better outside") or a sense of reality ("I'll never make it past +insert rank+ and should leave now") are common triggers for career transitions by younger officers. 

SAF officers who are promoted are obliged to stay with the organisation as part of their moral obligatory service (MOS) for accepting the promotion. The SAF's MOS tenure is said to be two years long. Some officers do not take up the MOS lock-in period, decline the promotion opportunity and leave.

The next trigger point is around the age of 40 when individuals choose to carve a new career in the private sector before they are too old to make the transition.

Specific to Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilots, the number of pilots who want to switch to civilian flying careers has apparently been strong and sustained enough to support a niche industry set up to assist military fliers who want to get their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certification.

Demand is such that at least one ATP hot house has a dedicated programme for RSAF pilots on its website. No other ASEAN air force or Asia-Pacific air arm for that matter, has attracted their attention to the same extent as RSAF candidates - at least none known to this blog.

Considering the importance of the RSAF to Singapore's defence, we pray that military aviation careers in the air force are on a strong footing.

Our combat pilots are in demand by commercial airlines. Why?

Not because RSAF pilots speak English. So do the Australians, Indians, Malaysians, the New Zealanders and many others in the region. The RSAF-specific focus probably stems from awareness that RSAF fliers come with a strong pedigree and count as valuable additions to any airline's bench strength.

Alas, it is also sobering to think of the possibility that there is sufficient demand from RSAF pilots who want out to justify the niche service.

It is estimated that it will take about $5 million to get a pilot to the OCU stage prior to joining squadron service. Upon entering an operational squadron, a pilot's pay is said to account for a fraction of the cost per flying hour for a fast jet like the F-15 and F-16.

Similar arguments can be made for critical roles, say for example, submarine officers in the RSN and the army's C4ISTAR officers.

But you probably get the picture: We risk losing officers who can command and fight our latest and most capable war machines if these individuals are unnecessarily distracted by bread-and-butter issues.

In the case of RSAF pilots, one does not expect them to demand the sun and the moon. Informal calculations show that about $2,000 more per month will make the opportunity cost of leaving the air force high enough to make one think very carefully before punching out.

Yes, that's still a chunk of change in any language. But relative to the cost of the platform and how much it takes to keep it flying, it is a pittance.

It is Singapore's loss if we let market forces whittle away the SAF Officer Corps, especially under current conditions where a high ops tempo strains the organisation's leadership.

Every officer who resigns prematurely leaves behind a gap that is not easily filled. This is because the pipeline of candidates with the requisite professional expertise, leadership qualities or operational experience to step into the vacancy is limited. One must fill middle to senior appointments from within and cannot simply recruit from outside like private sector organisations.

One hears that it is not uncommon for regulars within a unit to double hat, with some holding concurrent appointments with open-ended tenures. The added workload, unceasing and demanding operational tempo, high expectations from the bosses and public creates a vicious cycle where unhappiness stirs among those called upon to make additional sacrifices. So there's a knock-on effect for every resignation.

Anecdotally speaking, one has heard of fathers and mothers in uniform who have missed birthdays; sons and daughters who have experienced the same. A good number have been away from their loved ones when needed because duty calls.

In many respects, one could say this is par for the course. It is what the men and women signed up for and they did so with their eyes wide open. That's absolutely true.

But a career as an SAF officer also comes with the social compact that the compensation and benefits from such a career pathway are compelling enough to overshadow such sacrifices.

Pay matters are never easily resolved.

When asked if you are underpaid in an organisational climate survey, one might guess the response most people would give. Tax payers would bristle at suggestions that armed forces personnel should be paid more. Everybody has an opinion how much is enough.

To be sure, the SAF's voluntary attrition directly linked to remuneration has not reached epidemic proportions. But remuneration for critical appointments and those with long lead-time vocations must be resilient enough to withstand market forces.

A salary review would help determine if that is the case today.

Comparisons with salaries of other armed forces often give no clarity especially when one has not factored in cost of living adjustments specific to the Lion City whose limited size has made the cost of homes one of the most expensive in Asia.

Warfighters, like all other salaried staff, have expectations for their family and lifestyle too and the pay scales for SAF officers must keep in step with the times.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Deterrence is Force multiplied by the Ability to use it

When you look at emergency vehicles in Singapore from the civil defence and police, you are likely to find studs around the windshields and windows of frontline vehicles. These studs serve as attachment points for wire mesh screens that protect the glassware of Home Team vehicles during operations.

Many of the emergency vehicles that responded to Singapore's Little India riot on 8 December 2013 had these studs but went into action without the protective mesh (which was stored back at base). Twenty-five vehicles had their windshields smashed and windows shattered. Some vehicles were overturned. Five were set ablaze. It was a shambles.

The Singapore Police Force has prepared and practised drawer plans for internal security situations, including riot-type scenarios of a far larger scale than the one that erupted at Little India. TTX, FTX, they've done it all. But the forces trained, organised and equipped with the tactics, techniques and procedures to quell civil disturbances were held in check by authorities.
[19 April 2019 09:50H Edit: Paragraph 169, page 55 of the COI report reads:"The SPF officers’ decision to await the arrival of the SOC before taking action was based on the assumption that the SOC would arrive imminently. The officers did not realise that, due to a delay in deployment and traffic congestion, the first SOC forces would take a total of about 50 minutes to arrive from the time the request for activation was made. Had the SOC arrived earlier, the rioters would not have had as much time to cause mayhem." Click here for full report.]

The chilling police announcement, Disperse Or We Fire, seen so often at internal security exercises, was not broadcast on that fateful night.

After the rioters spent their fury, they found themselves surrounded by police in the small enclave with nowhere to run. Some 40 trouble makers were eventually arrested and the perpetrators faced justice. No lives were lost.

So the Home Team had the equipment (wire mesh protection) but no chance to install such protection before actual ops.

The police had the drawer plans to smash riots swiftly and decisively but held its forces in check for various operational reasons.

Telescope this analogy to the armed forces (generic reference and not specific to the Singapore Armed Forces) and you will find many instances where soldiers, sailors and airmen were caught unprepared by sudden and unexpected crisis.

Tragic are the situations where fighting units have the equipment and training but lacked the tools to do the job when they are needed most because it was locked in the armoury or because the unit was caught in march order with its guns limbered.

British infantry at Isandlwana during the Zulu War outgunned the human waves of Zulu infantry. The red coats would have shot the Zulu attacks to pieces on open ground were it not for the lack of access to rifle ammunition that was locked in packing cases on supply wagons.

Several tactical engagements fought during the 70-day Malayan campaign during WW2 saw British and Imperial units destroyed by surprise attacks by Japanese forces who moved with unexpected speed to catch the units while their vehicles were nose to tail in tight convoys.

Equally tragic are cases where the fighting forces are ready and willing to carry out their duty but are held in check by political indecisiveness or non-military considerations.

The fighting forces may be good to go and excel at what they do.

But when the time comes to press the button, would the political masters have the guts to do so?

As a visiting Israeli general once said: Deterrence is Force multiplied by the Ability to use it.