Major General Neo Kian Hong handing over the army command symbol to Brigadier General Chan Chun Sing in 2010. Both of them have moved on to civil service and politics.

ST ignores real world case studies and and publishes propaganda about the capabilities of former generals

The Sunday Times published an opinion piece on Sunday (6 May) entitled “Where do former generals go?”. The author citied leadership consultant Malini Vaidya on how these ex-military men supposedly have “complex leadership capabilities” that are developed under pressure. This in turn makes them suitable for top jobs in the private sector despite having a military background.

It was then revealed in the opinion piece on how there were at least four Cabinet Ministers, the Speaker of Parliament, four Permanent Secretaries, nine heads of Statutory Boards and numerous CEOs of Government-linked Companies who were senior military personnel.

Interviewing several of them, one former colonel claimed that his experience has helped him to respond to disruption quickly and how this is essential in a fast-changing economic climate. Downplaying his weaknesses, another former general said that the lack of technical competency could be “learnt” and the lack of [industry specific] experience could be “attained”

It is unclear why these ex-military men seem to think that those in the private sector have none of their supposed capabilities, or why they are superior to someone who has spent their entire life working in the private sector.

The not so beautiful reality?

Interestingly, the opinion piece carried no mention about how paper generals have failed while leading companies in the private sector.

For instance, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) was once a constituent of the Straits Times Index before it saw consecutive years of losses under former Chief of Defence Force Ng Chung Yat. Barely a year under the new buyers CMA, NOL turned a $86 million profit compared to $100 million in losses the year before. Despite this, Ng is now heading Singapore Press Holdings  where he intends to focus on digital media.

Another classic example can be seen in transport operator SMRT. After another former Chief of Defence force Desmond Kuek taking over at the helm in 2012, MRT services saw disruptions getting progressively worse before the worst ever breakdown took place last year. It was revealed that the sleepers were replaced 16 years late while maintenance records were fabricated under his lead.

The mindset of former military men may also have been too dogmatic to function in the real world.

Former colonel Lim Chin – CEO of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) – was filmed shouting at footballers, demanding that they “do not ever question the chairman on his role and responsibility”. Under the FAS, Singapore’s ranking in the FIFA league dropped to an all-time low, in the same league as Cuba and Kosovo. It was later revealed that the FAS spent only $70,000 to help develop the sport compared despite its revenue of $35.8 million and $1.6 million paid to key management personnel.

Public opinions?

Lawrence Lim commented on the Straits Times Facebook page: “In Japan, the top management needs to start working hands-on from the lowest rank. They know a lot about rail operations because they are hands on. There is no nonsense in their rail operations.”

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.”

What do you think?