Friday, May 31, 2019

Book review: Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore

If you want to know more about scholars in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and how the system recruits, retains, retrains and retires candidates (supposedly) on the career fast track, look no further than the book Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore.

Its author Dr Samuel Ling Wei Chan has set the bar high with his 495-page book released last month by NUS Press Singapore. This soft cover publication represents a rich, one-stop resource on the 170 people who earned a general's star in SAF service and analysis in detail how the system works. It purports to list every known brigadier-general and above, and from what we can tell, is complete and accurate at the time of print.

The book is divided into nine chapters led by a preface:
Chapter 1: Generally Speaking (This provides an overview of the book and how the data was compiled)
Chapter 2: The Profession of Arms and Society
Chapter 3: Motivations for Military Service
Chapter 4: Commitment to Military Service
Chapter 5: The Ascension Process
Chapter 6: The Ascension Structure
Chapter 7: Scholars and Stars by Numbers and Cases
Chapter 8: Character Determines Destiny
Chapter 9: The Aristocracy of Armed Talent

The 14 appendices will delight number crunchers as it examines data on recipients of the coveted SAF Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS) in many forms.

The tables list every known general and Military Expert 8 (a rank unique to the SAF which denotes a BG-equivalent under the Military Domain Expert Scheme which is tailored for engineering vocations) since Singapore's independence in 1965. It should be clear to the reader browsing through the list that it took a labour of love to raise and sustain the spreadsheets that led to the appendices. As a source of data for future study, the book's appendices (and 12-page glossary of SAF terms) is unrivalled. Indeed, the book is worth getting for the appendices alone as there is nothing like it out there and it has pulled together reams of open source data to produce the information in easy-to-understand tables.

Here's the full list:
Appendix A: Year of authorization to wear BG/RADM1/ME8 and post-SAF career (1965-2018)

Appendix B: The military elite by service and vocation

Appendix C: One-star and above appointments in MINDEF (the Singapore Ministry of Defence) and the SAF (circa 2018)

Appendix D: Distribution of SAFOS officers within the military elite (1965-2018)

Appendix E: Command appointments of generals in the Singapore Army (1965-2018)

Appendix F: Command appointments of admirals in the RSN (1988-2018)

Appendix G: Command appointments of generals in the RSAF (1987-2018)

Appendix H: Estimated active service rank attainment of SAFOS batches (1971-98) by 2018

Appendix I: Former regular SAF officers in the Cabinet (1984-2018)

Appendix J: Defence Chief roll of honour (1966-2018), Director General Staff/Chief of the General Staff//Chief of Defence Force

Appendix K: Army Chief roll of honour (1988-2018), Deputy Chief of the General Staff (Army)/Chief of Army

Appendix L: Navy Chief roll of honour (1966-2018), Commander Singapore Naval Volunteer Force/Commander Maritime Command/Commander Republic of Singapore Navy/Chief of Navy

Appendix M: Air Force Chief roll of honour (1970-2018), Commander Singapore Air Defence Command/Director Air Staff RSAF/Deputy Commander RSAF/Commander RSAF/Chief of Air Force

Appendix N: Legislative Assembly (1959-65) and Parliamentary Elections (1965-2016) in Singapore

A book of this nature crammed to the gills with data risks coming across as dry and turgid; the kind of book you only touch when you need to submit an academic exercise or gloss up an essay's bibliography.

But Samuel engages the reader with his lively writing, judicious use of puns and factoids, which is complemented by first person accounts from SAF scholars who shared their thoughts on their military careers.

To get these stories, Samuel interviewed 28 generals. Many of these names will be familiar to Singapore's citizen soldiers. The candid and generous airing of views by these generals, drawn from various cohorts, strengthens Samuel's attempt at describing how MINDEF/SAF scholarship machinery works by showing us how it affected the individuals at the heart of the scheme.

The time and effort the author invested in persuading these high fliers to talk AND go on record can only be imagined because anyone who has attempted to publish on MINDEF/SAF matters would realise information is tightly controlled.

The generals who made the time to share their experiences with Samuel have made a meaningful contribution to the (limited) storehouse of knowledge on the SAF scholarship system and will hopefully inspire future aspirants to think about their career options in the Singaporean military.

It is this first person, almost gossipy examination of SAFOS that makes the book a standout. It tells how so-and-so rose  through the ranks, who dropped out of the system due to moves to the private sector and so on. It is the story of the HDB heartland brothers who rose to the highest positions of leadership, thanks to the SAF scholarship system. It is the tale of the successful property CEO who left the system at the age of 32 after thinking about his future in the SAF.

Those who pick up this book must know the ambit of this book which builds on Samuel's thesis on the SAF scholarship system. Samuel's DPhil thesis, Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Motivations, Commitment and Ascension of Military Elites in Singapore (1965-2014), was submitted to the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, in June 2014. The thesis laid the groundwork for further scholarship on this topic with tables updated for the years 2014 till 2018.

So while it shows where SAFOS holders ended up after they left military service, the book is not intended to be a treatise on Singapore's political office holders who came from the SAF. The juxtapositioning is tempting as the book contains the raw data that shows the number and background of the generals who went into politics, but this research trajectory is outside the firing lane of this book and there is plenty enough to get the reader up to speed on the ins and outs of the SAF scholarship within its covers.

If there is a weakness, it is the fact that the book will be outdated with the SAF promotion ceremony next month (June 2019) ahead of SAF Day on 1 July when a new cohort of generals will don their epaulettes. That said, the first edition will form a solid foundation for Samuel's future revisions and analysis of the subject.

Aristocracy of Armed Talent, The Military Elite in Singapore
Author: Samuel Ling Wei Chan
Publisher: NUS Press Singapore 
528 pages, 299mm x 152mm
31 tables, 5 figures
Paperback, first edition April 2019
Samuel is an adjunct lecturer with the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia

You may also like:
Q&A with Dr Samuel Ling, author of Aristocracy of Armed Talent. Click here