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‘Ah Boys to Men’. Ah Men to what?

by Lee Siew Peng

I did not have the personal experience of being compelled to transition from ‘Ah Boys to Men’. I do have two brothers, one of whom graduated Officer Cadet School (OCS) and another who was a regular. I also remember with great fondness crawling in mud with Varsity Christian Fellowship mates in a ‘Christian Walk’ at which male students taught us hand (field) signals to communicate silently. How cool was that? I have total respect for every man and woman who had undergone military training.

Recent events have really concentrated our minds on the wisdom of transferring military scholars into business positions after their limited shelf-life as high-ranking officers. That model is broken and is not working anymore. What is it about army culture that is holding back this nation (via SMRT, SPH, NOL, etc.)?

Total institutions

In his book Asylums (1961) sociologist, Erving Goffman classifies asylums, prisons and barracks as ‘total institutions’ where individuals are ‘physically isolated from the normal round of activities by being required to sleep, work, and play within the confines of the same institution’. The army adopts rituals and strategies to transform an outsider civilian into an insider soldier such as stripping them of their personal effects and identities (shaving their hair and putting them into identical uniforms) so that they become just one faceless person amongst many others and eventually behave as an integral part of a close-knit team.

These strict regimes and hierarchy, clearly symbolised by stripes, pips and stars, ensures that everyone knows his/her place; no one steps out of line. This clear chain of command is critical in a real war. Keeping rules, following instructions, not veering to the left or right, are absolutely vital if the goal of safety is to be achieved each and every time. This is the case with the Singapore armed forces where death or injury to any Singaporean son is unacceptable. Military culture in itself is not a ‘bad culture’, but it is not very useful in, say, the creative department of an advertising agency where there is a need to ‘challenge orthodoxy’.

The soldier-scholar

The Singapore military culture is unique in its programme of promoting the ‘soldier-scholar’; an enigma or some would say an oxymoron. Typically, soldiers – trained to obey commands – are not scholars, and scholars – trained to think outside the box – do not make good soldiers. How the Singapore government has managed to produce a second/third wave of retired generals who had moved seamlessly into politics (via the GRCs) and the civil service is quite remarkable.

The military scholarship system has allowed the government the pick of the brains by giving 18-year-olds several incentives. One, it is prestigious to win a scholarship. Two, they get to study at top universities. Three, they get to ‘retire’ at 45 (now 50), but get help into (top) jobs elsewhere within the extensive network of government-linked agencies. Four, they could earn in 25 years what another ordinary soldier would take 40 years to earn. (da Cunha 1999 and Walsh 2007).

Walsh (2007) describes the CEP (currently estimated potential) which determines ‘how far an officer can go’ and their ‘terminal rank during his or her career’. The CEP "spells out his or her career path for assignments, educational opportunities, promotion, and attendance at military schools". This probably sounds good for an idealistic 18-year-old, eager to lift his family onto a higher economic rung. In reality, "officers are selected and groomed for even the most senior leadership positions in the SAF based on little more (my emphasis) than how they performed as a cadet in OCS and the strength of their high school transcript".

Liddat means you kee chiu at the right time and place, you win liao lor! Izzit?

At 18 I wanted to get my CPF at 50, die at 55

How many of us had become what we thought we wanted to be at age 18?

Worse, soldier-scholars selected in this manner are not even professional soldiers. The political scientist Samuel P Huntingdon defined professional soldiers as those who see military service as a life-long calling to serve society, with a readiness and willingness to die for it. Singaporean soldier-scholars, on the other hand, have been enticed by an illustrious career in the armed forces not as the career goal, but as a ‘stepping stone to other careers in politics, business, or the civil service’ (Walsh 2007).

It is unfair to tar every scholar with the same brush. I have friends in the services. Some have retired and gone on to successful careers in the private sector. (You don’t hear much about these ones.) Some have taken on senior positions elsewhere in the government-linked sector. Others had just enjoyed their retirement.

More importantly, it is not their fault. Even if the ones who are truly gifted in military life wish to carry on, they cannot. These scholars have to retire at a relatively young age of 45. It’s not any different from airlines that forcibly retire their cabin crew at an arbitrary age like 35, no matter how well-kept they are!

First principles

Perhaps it’s time to get back to first principles to ask why is the age 45 cut-off sacrosanct (Now changed to age of 50). It was necessary because of the nature of the beast back in 1965. Do we still require an age 50 retirement for all soldier-scholars?

The scholarship system was designed to attract talent at a time when the armed forces were unattractive. How have the circumstances changed? Do we now have many more young Singaporeans – men and women – who are attracted to the armed forces? Could we not open up these top positions to those who would not have qualified as scholars but have a special gift in all things military?

Next, why are so many of our soldier-scholars trained in engineering? I have nothing against engineers. I live with one. Will scholars become equally effective generals had they trained in business administration, philosophy, or best of all, social anthropology – seeing that the nearest to battle that our armed forces see is in peace-keeping (between rival tribes)? Perhaps then their transition to civvy street will not be so traumatic.

In any case, why should we feel obliged to these retiring soldier-scholars? If it is true that they are in fact compensated for 25 years of service by 40 years of income, then the taxpayer should not be obligated to keep them in employment past retirement. They can afford to do nothing for the rest of their lives. We will assume that because they are scholars they would have invested this income wisely. If they have not … then clearly, we should not trust them with another taxpayer dollar!

In short, given the way Singapore military culture has evolved, it’s time to re-think what we want our military to be. Re-consider how talent should be recruited and retained. No general will send his soldiers into battle without equipping them properly. How are these soldier-scholars prepared for civilian life? Military culture is quite the opposite to business culture. We’ve learned that the hard (but watery) way.

What next?

The government had promised to take care of soldier-scholars post-retirement. We are still stuck with how to re-deploy a backlog of soon-to-retire soldier-scholars. Ah Men to what? I was going to suggest the voluntary sector as vital training ground. But then…

I know the non-profit sector (in UK) well, having spent the best part of 20 years in it. Managing volunteers require a very different skill set from managing paid employees. As a paid employee in an international non-profit I had to get staff in member organizations – who do not need to stand to attention when I blow a whistle – to produce the goods, on time and on budget. How do you motivate volunteers for whom no amount of pulling rank might make a difference? How do you manage customer expectations? Our generals will do well to learn these people skills before they are set to head another non-military set-up.

If we expect soldier-scholars to run government-linked businesses on retirement, we should at least prepare them for this next phase of their career before foisting them on the civilian public. It’s great that SMU is offering ‘warrior scholarships’ to SAF retirees. That, I say, is inspired thinking.

What about getting our ex-military into teaching? That would sort out some of the most disruptive pupils in schools, I imagine.

Facing the music

Confession: I don’t tidy my teenager’s room. There were times when one could not see an inch of floor (that is if I managed to push the door open against a pile of clothes). Yet I steadfastly refused to clean it. (I suspect most Singaporean parents will delegate this task to a maid.) Then one day the son realized that an untidy room is unsustainable: he could not find something he needed. He cleaned it up on his own accord. My mission as a mother is to work myself out of a job: his room, his mess, his responsibility.

Not that my opinion matters, but I think that Mr Desmond Kuek should remain in post to clear up the mess. Let’s not forget that he is someone’s son, husband and father, and is unlikely to find another job after this. For now, I will err on the side of graciousness. Besides, I feel it is important that we, and especially young people, learn that we MUST face the consequences of our in/action. It is so much easier to let him, or anyone in a similar position, walk away from it all.

With all sincerity, I wish Mr Kuek well. I hope he gets all the help and support he needs to clear up the mess. I only ask that he enlightens the government on how differently he might have managed his own transition to civvy street, and how this might help other soldier-scholars.

And please, let no one in government be too proud to admit that mistakes had been made and lessons can be learned. Just because the soldier-scholar system worked in the past, it does not mean that its success is guaranteed.

Think ‘Kodak’.

Meanwhile, SMRT staff have been very helpful to this very ‘blur’ passenger, often found wandering, wondering which exit to use. How about we greet them with a smile and show appreciation for what they are doing under very trying circumstances?

Editor's note - Desmond Kuek left the military at the age of 46 and went into civil service as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources in 2010  before assuming the position of SMRT Chief Executive Officer in 2012.

Da Cunha, D., 1999. Sociological Aspects of the Singapore Armed Forces. Armed Forces & Society, 25(3), pp.459-475.

Goffman, E., 1961. Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates.

Walsh, S.P., 2007. The roar of the Lion City: ethnicity, gender, and culture in the Singapore Armed Forces. Armed Forces & Society, 33(2), pp.265-285.

This entry was posted in Opinion.
This entry was posted in Opinion.