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Photo of Ng Yat Chung by Straits Times.

How do ‘paper generals’ fare in the real world?

by Kwok Fangjie

Today, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Overseas Scholarship is seen as a route to senior-level positions within the government, public sector, statutory boards and government-linked companies. While many of these scholars have gone on to contribute to the good of the nation, it would be great to appreciate the origins of this scheme and how these military generals have fared in the broader society.

The legacy of a great man

A man of great foresight, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew placed emphasis in building Singapore in a holistic manner during the post-independence uncertainty. Not only did economic growth soar under him, he also understood the geopolitical vulnerabilities and built up Singapore’s defence capabilities by seeking to attract the best talent via the SAF Overseas Scholarship scheme.

At a dinner more than 30 years later, the then-DPM Lee Hsien Loong said that these men “...could define and analyse the complex issues, and make informed judgments where the bottom line was not dollars and cents, but unquantifiable yet vital outcomes: operational effectiveness, deterrence and security”.

With such praise from the top echelons of the government, it is little wonder that such SAF Scholars are given top leadership positions. No fewer than six of them are chairmen of statutory boards while a good number of them are in the Cabinet. Yet, the facts show that not all of these generals have shown stellar results.

From three-star general to shipping and newspaper tycoon?

Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) was once considered a blue chip investment and constituent of the Straits Times Index before it saw consecutive years of losses under ‘paper general’ Ng Chung Yat before being acquired. Barely a year under the new buyers CMA, NOL turned a $86 million profit compared to $100 million in losses the year before.

After that, Ng was posted to Singapore Press Holdings where changes were made in terms of reducing headcount numbers and charging for “premium content” which did not go well with subscribers. It is unclear how the general would stem the core issues of declining readership, where the market penetration hit an all-time low of 28.8% in 2017.

What about transport?

With another 3-star general Desmond Kuek taking over at the helm of SMRT in 2012, the MRT lines saw disruptions getting worst over time. It was revealed that the sleepers were replaced 16 years too late while maintenance records were fabricated under his lead. Worse, Minister Khaw Boon Wan stepped up in his defence saying that he ‘volunteered’ for the job.

In 2016, Hong Kong news agency Factwire exposed that China-made trains were being shipped back secretly to repair hairline cracks and defects. The LTA later – under ‘paper general’ Chew Men Leong came clean and said that they were of no safety concern and the non-disclosure was due to prevent undue worries by the public.

Arrogance without substance elsewhere?

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) caused a controversy in 2014 when its CEO – Colonel (NS) Lim Chin - was filmed shouting at footballers who demanded a response to Jaguar’s sitting out of the 2015 campaign. He was quoted as saying,"Do not ever question the chairman on his role and responsibility" before regretting his statement later.

Subsequently, it was revealed in the Annual Report that the FAS spent only $70,000 to help develop the sport compared to its revenue of $35.8 million and $1.6 million in top salaries. Worse, Singapore’s ranking in the FIFA league dropped to an all-time low, in the same league as Cuba and Kosovo.

Good bureaucrat but limited understanding of democracy? 

Retired US Army Colonel Robert Killebrew said that the skills obtained as a military officers “...Makes [them] good bureaucrats and maybe good chiefs of staff, but not someone who has a gut-level understanding of democracy—the role of a free press, for example, or the give and take of backroom dealing.”

It seems that this is not something Singapore agrees with. What do you think?