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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.

Where else do generals get to be feted as top dogs who can do no wrong?

by Augustine Low

On August 1, former general Neo Kian Hong succeeds former general Desmond Kuek as CEO of SMRT.

There was purportedly a “comprehensive global search” by SMRT, ending in the appointment of someone in our own backyard.

What a waste of time and resources. They needn’t have bothered.

The prevailing notion in Singapore is that generals are top dogs who can do no wrong. And if a general should somehow be not up to the mark, just bring in another general to get the job done.

Just what is it about the training and the experience generals undergo that gives the government such unfailing trust in them to excel outside the SAF? What baptism of fire have they been put through which prepares them to be top dogs?

It’s no secret that the SAF is a prodigious breeding ground for high fliers and PAP politicians. Dozens of high-ranking officers, many of them generals, emerge with regularity to contest elections, take on ministerial posts and infiltrate the government, civil service and government-linked corporations.

In the current cabinet we have former generals or admirals in PM Lee Hsien Loong, DPM Teo Chee Hean, Chan Chun Sing and Ng Chee Meng. Fairly recently, Tan Chuan-Jin was moved down to Speaker of Parliament from Minister. Prior to the last General Election, Lui Tuck Yew stepped down as Transport Minister. He is now Singapore’s Ambassador to Japan.

The top echelon is littered with former SAF Scholars – including PM Lee, DPM Teo, Chan Chun Sing, Ng Chee Meng, Tan Chuan-Jin, Melvyn Ong (Chief of Defence Force), Ng Chee Kern (Permanent Secretary) and Ng Chee Peng (CEO of CPF Board).

On paper, the SAF Scholarship is second in prestige to the President’s Scholarship but safe to say, it is now the passport to elitism and a quickfire route to being top dog.

It wasn’t always this way, this path to glory paved for generals. Dr Goh Keng Swee, one of Singapore’s founding fathers, was only a Corporal in the British-led Singapore Volunteer Corps.

His brilliance and accomplishments have been acknowledged by Lee Kuan Yew: “Of all my cabinet colleagues, it was Goh Keng Swee who made the greatest difference to the outcome of Singapore.”

Besides building up the SAF and defence technology, Dr Goh the humble Corporal also masterminded the economic success of Singapore.

Yet, today, we have a mighty general in Desmond Kuek who is powerless even to stop “deep-seated cultural issues” from festering and creating mayhem at SMRT. How ironic is that?

Where else in the world do we find generals infiltrating the top echelons of society with such predictability and regularity?

Where else (other than in countries with military dictatorships), do we find generals ruling the roost and automatically becoming top dogs for life?