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L-R: Ng, Lai, Ong

More ex-military men in Cabinet after next GE?

L-R: Ng, Lai, Ong
L-R: Ng, Lai, Ong

If a report by the Sunday Times (7 June 2015) is any indication, the Singapore Cabinet is set to imbibe more ex-military men into its fold.

The current Lee Hsien Loong Cabinet has 19 ministers.

Out of these, six are former military men, including the Prime Minister and one of the deputy prime ministers, Teo Chee Hean.

They make up almost one-third of the current Cabinet.

This looks to continue, with perhaps even an increase in such credentialed men at the very heart of Government, depending on whether any incumbents step down at the next General Election (GE), which is due by January 2017.

The Sunday Times reported:

“Talk is that those from the top government ranks who may take the plunge include Chief of Defence Force Ng Chee Meng, 47, Chief of Navy Lai Chung Han, 42, Chief Guards Officer Melvyn Ong, 40...”

The three men have spent a large part of their careers in the military.

Undoubtedly, no one should expect that these highflyers in the military would assume a “lesser” political role as mere Members of Parliament (MP), if they should get elected by Singaporeans.

The men, in fact, would form the other half of the so-called “4th Generation leadership” which PM Lee spoke of recently.

He said in a radio programme in May that the first half of the next generation of political leaders were already in place, and that the other half would be installed after the next GE.

If these three military officers join the Cabinet, it would mean Singapore may have close to 40 per cent of Cabinet made up of those from the uniformed services, assuming no further changes to the Cabinet.

This compares with the five SAF men who were in the 2001 Cabinet, out of 17 ministers.

The recruitment of military types or “scholar soldiers” into government started more earnestly in the mid-1980s, when the ruling party started to find it hard to attract candidates from the private sector.

This, however, was not planned, according to former minister George Yeo, said Diane K Mauzy, in her 2002 book, “Singapore Politics Under The People’s Action Party”.

"The transition from purely civilian government to one including Brigadier-Generals and a rear Admiral... was sudden, and it raised some qualms and presented Singapore with at least a minor image problem,” she said.

She further explained:

"To increase the prestige of the SAF, a major SAF scholarship scheme was introduced in 1971, and the 'best minds' were channeled that route. Later, when the academic and professional recruits did not work out for the most part, and attracting candidates from the private sector or the Administrative Service proved difficult, the military scholars, especially from the first two scholarship batches (1971 and 1972), increasingly provided the PAP with its new talent. Most of these scholar-soldiers were immediately appointed Ministers of State."

PM Lee was among those who were awarded the SAF scholarship in 1971 to study mathematics at Cambridge University. (See here.)

Ms Mauzy also noted then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s views on the number of military men in Cabinet.

"Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong is aware that having too many military men in government is bad for Singapore's image, and he also believes it would not be good to have too many in Cabinet with the same military (engineering and mathematics) mindset."

Until these men shed their military uniforms and put on the whites of the PAP, all talk is mere speculation.

But if the talk is true, it may yet again point to a problem the PAP has faced for a long time - the inability to recruit from outside the usual hunting grounds of the military and the Civil Service.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking ourselves if having a large number of former military men in the Cabinet is something good for the nation, given the challenges we face, which calls for experience in the private sector, and a non-conformist, out-of-the-box mindset.

The last thing Singapore needs, in going forward, is groupthink at the very heart of government.

But for now, the so-called "4th Generation" leadership under the PAP looks set to be led by military men.