Ah Boys To CEOs: An Academic’s View Of Singapore’s Military Elite

Ask the Straits Times comment section who is to blame for Singapore’s problems and they will likely finger one of three culprits: 1. Overpaid Ministers 2. Foreign Talent 3. SAF Paper Generals.

Thanks to SMRT, Chan Chun Sing, and the recent spate of training-related fatalities, option 3. has become increasingly popular. Over the years, as more generals have been “parachuted” into public life, more and more of our problems have been laid at their feet.

I can name names—LG Desmond Kuek, SPH CEO Ng Yat Chung, Rear Admiral Lui Tuck Yew—but a full accounting is surely unnecessary. Our mistrust of these so-called ‘Paper Generals’ runs so deep that criticism begins before said General has even booked in.

The problem is, no one really knows if the SAF elite are cock-ups. How much of SMRT’s problems are ‘military-related’, and how much is just garden variety “corporate rot”? Have the generals helped, hindered, or both? Without transparency, speculation breeds; the term ‘Paper General’ gets casually tossed about and everyone begins to doubt if the military elite is truly ‘elite’—despite the lack of any good evidence to support such a thesis.

I don’t have any good answers to this issue, but a new book does.

Enter Aristocracy of Armed Talent: The Military Elite in Singapore, an academic publication written by Adjunct Professor Samuel Ling Wei Chan of UNSW, Canberra, and published by NUS Press.

As the title promises, the book is a detailed study of Singapore’s military elite, focusing on the flag-officers with one-star and/or above. It covers their career motivations, how they ascended the military ladder, scholarships, and even LHL’s infamous BG appointment at age 32. It promises to “take on the myths directly” while providing a “rare window” into the SAF elite.

Timely stuff and gripping too, but does it deliver what the blurb promises?

A useful guide for this article

Raffles’ Army

Short answer: Umm, not entirely. The long answer is as follows.

To give credit where credit is due, Aristocracy of Armed Talent (henceforth: Aristocracy) really is as “detailed” as promised. There is page after page of career stats—on SAF generals’ retirement age, years of service, age in the year of first star, years in flag rank, post-service career, etc. Prof Ling even counted the exact number of days that George Yeo and Lee Hsien Loong spent as Generals (43, 83) before departing for politics.

From these numbers, we can glean much and more about the overall make-up of our military elite. For starters, the scholar-farmer divide is real. SAFOS scholars—the most prestigious of SAF scholarships—make up a disproportionate amount of the SAF’s so-called ‘elite nucleus’. For Generals authorised to wear one-star and above, SAFOS scholars make up 43.04% of the total cohort. This number climbs as you go up the ranks from Brigadier-General to Major-General to Lieutenant General.

When you reach three-stars (Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral), 77.78% are SAFOS scholars, which seems very high when you keep in mind how small the SAFOS cadre is as compared to the total number of SAF officers. SAFOS scholars also get their stars approximately 5 years earlier than non-SAFOS scholars, and they serve one year more as generals. However, Prof Ling notes that there is greater variance in the SAFOS-general’s service length because many depart shortly after earning a star in order “to answer their calling to politics”.

Hence, Prof Ling concludes: “This clearly shows that an officer did not need to be a SAFOS recipient to enter the military elite, but the elite nucleus was dominated by presumably the creme de la creme of SAFOS officers.”

Unsurprisingly, ex-RI boys dominate this creamy caramel centre of the SAF. They make up 44% of all SAFOs recipients—twice as many as runner-up Hwa Chong Institution and 4 times the number from my own alma mater National Junior College.

Although this number might seem rather alarming for critics of Singapore-style meritocracy, Prof. Ling assures us that we are not becoming a One-School State. The proportion of scholars who go on to become generals is roughly the same. No matter which one of the top six JCs you attended, your chances of making general are about 1 in 3.

But good luck if you went to a Polytechnic. Aristocracy has you listed as “unknown”, with a 25.00% chance of earning your star.

While the FIFA Manager inside me rejoices to ogle these stats as if our SAF generals were European Footballers waiting for a transfer to PSG, the more important question is, how? How did these officers get promoted to Generals to the first place?

This is where it gets tricky because SAF’s appraisal/promotion system is more complicated than Game Of Thrones.

And like many things in Singapore, it all began with LKY.

Before that, the SAF promotion system was based on time, exams, and your superior officer giving you a thumbs-up. This was naturally quite nebulous, so LKY decided to borrow an appraisal system from the most unlikely of places: Royal Dutch Shell. The Shell System introduced the idea of Current Estimated Potential (CEP), defined as the highest rank/appointment that a person could ‘handle competently’ within an organisation before retirement.

In less flattering terms, you could see it as ‘camo ceiling’ which determines whether you Hentak Kaki at Lieutenant Colonel or SMRT CEO.

Rather hilariously, an officer’s CEP is defined by the amount of HAIR he possesses. HAIR being short for the four cardinal virtues of Helicopter Vision, Analytical Power, Imagination, and Reality. I don’t want to go management consultant on you, but suffice to say, HAIR is used to “identify and nurture talented individuals” in the SAF. Alongside performance reports, it is used to evaluate and promote officers.

CEP is kept secret even from the officers because of how depressing it would be to learn that the organisation you serve considers you an inferior specimen (ie. ‘affect morale’). However, one can make an educated guess based on, well, education.

As Prof Ling explains, “Perhaps there is no greater influence on CEP than an individual officer’s level of education.”

The official rhetoric from the SAF claims that “we don’t see ourselves constrained by whether an officer is a graduate or not” (Permanent Secretary Lim Siong Guan), although this is contradicted by the testimony of ex-officers, one of whom claims that “Even grades within degrees have at times proven significant”.

Other retired generals agree. Even with the “best intentions”, an assessor “could not help but be influenced by the educational qualifications of the assessed”. (Colonel Menon)

Scholar-officers, by virtue of their prestigious Oxbridge/Ivy League education, would naturally have an edge over the rest. However, they also enjoy other advantages over their peers.

They are more “visible” in the military hierarchy, and “this is a big advantage because it gets you more projects and better appointments” (LTC Dominic Ng, SAFOS 1972). Crucially, they are also given “second chances” and “the benefit of the doubt” by a system that considers them “better than the rest until proven otherwise”. Many are “specially groomed by the organization”, while non-scholar peers have to “seize opportunities” and take “career-wagering risks”.

Or, as one general recalls: “COs might be hesitant to take action against scholars because of their ‘halo’ where they are predestined to rise to high positions. That being said, many who get there do deserve it.”

I feel old looking at them Image credit: Mindef

But, Encik …

Interesting so far? If yes, you should head to Kino and buy this book for $58.85, because what comes next might put you off.

The book is fascinating and frustrating in equal parts because it does not offer any strident criticism. Despite an abundance of interviews and numbers that hint at problems within the SAF, the author declines to pass judgment. The more controversial aspects of the SAF-scholar-elite are often glossed over. What’s good about the military elite (i.e. motivation) receives elaborate rhetorical laurels. Meanwhile, the contentious hot button issues—race, parachuting generals, and LHL’s fast promotion—are given less scrutiny.

Whilst other academics offer critical perspectives based on their knowledge or understanding, Aristocracy sits on the fence—a proverbial Switzerland in the war between state narratives and their academic detractors.

Take, for example, the problem of farmer-scholar relations in the SAF. In many of the interviews, some officers sound practically dejected by limits placed on their career by their non-scholar status. One of them literally says, “ The fact is, I wasn’t a scholar. I was just a rank-and-file officer,” while other officers recount stories of resentment over unequal opportunities.

How does this affect the organisation? What do the scholar-officers make of their own privileged position?

These would be a natural follow-up question, but Aristocracy does not ask them. Although the book notes that “such seemingly unmerited and systemic favors lie at the root of consternation between officers of different educational backgrounds”, there is no serious discussion of how it might affect the organisation’s morale or fighting capability.

Instead of highlighting this as a potential pitfall in the system, Prof. Ling launches into a rather unconvincing defence of the status quo.

He points out that SAFOS scholars remain a minority within the military elite despite their “specially tailored careers”. If they comprise 43% of all officers, the other 57% are non-scholars. 57% is more than 43%, so therefore it’s possible to ‘make it’ to the top whether you’re a ‘farmer’ or a ‘scholar’. The scholarship status, he concludes, is “by no means guaranteed entry into the military elite even if they are on a well-planned and accelerated career” and fairness prevails because “odds can be evened by sheer ability.”

Apropos of nothing, he also tells us, “The scholarship may afford recipients a choice of vocations, but standards are certainly not compromised.”

This pious humbug surfaces again when Aristocracy looks at civilian afterlives of SAF Generals. In Singapore, Generals often go on to serve long careers in the civil service or Government-linked companies. This is unique to Singapore, and it has been a source of great contention amongst historians and military experts. Not to mention the equally vocal denizens of Facebook.

In his monograph The Roar Of The Lion City, Sean Walsh, a graduate of United States Military Academy, suggests that the lure of illustrious post-military careers might negatively impact the professionalism of some officers, who may consider the army “a stepping stone to politics, business or the civil service”. The short military careers—ostensibly designed to accommodate post-military aspirations—mean that most generals lack the operational experience found in their western counterparts who typically reach Colonel rank at an age when SAF officers have become Chief Of Army.

Other academics like Michael Barr and Derek Da Cunha have expressed similar reservations because “most scholar officers spend only 8 years in the ranks and their training tends to focus more on sharpening managerial techniques in preparation for future civilian service”.

Given the long list of ex-Generals in public service, you might expect Aristocracy to give this issue some attention. But like my old CSM, the book has chosen to simply ‘close one eye’ as if Parachuting Generals were stray pubes in the company toilet.

In fact, Aristocracy’s stance on this is downright paradoxical: military officers must be compensated more for their shorter careers, which were cut short to make room for civilian appointments, many of which are “managed for them”. The book also notes that military personnel must be highly-compensated because their skill-set is non-transferable, but apparently not non-transferable enough to prevent employment in government roles or affiliated entities.

Say what.

Once again, the problems are paved over. The implications of a high-profile post-military career—which troubles experts, academics, and practically everyone—never gets more than a passing glance.

Last but most importantly, the book offers no critical perspective on the idea of meritocracy which underpins so much of what happens in the aristocracy of armed talent. In the introduction, Prof. Ling asks: “How can an individual be identified in their late teens and groomed for a position they would hold only in their late 30s and early 40s? Does this not contradict the oft-mentioned practice of meritocracy?”

It is a pertinent question, but he doesn’t answer it.

For other critics, SAF-style meritocracy’s use of scholarships and CEPs is a flaw. The biggest flaw in what they consider South-East Asia’s most capable military.

However, by privileging potential over performance—promoting officers based on the things they could yet do instead of the things they’ve already done—the system has become overly ‘deterministic’ in its attempt to separate “the best from the rest”.

Prof. Ling’s book does not question this logic, except to create the academic equivalent of clickbait. On the contrary, he accepts the received wisdom that we must create “an aristocracy of talent”. The grooming, the managed careers, the second chances, and the “benefit of the doubt” given to certain individuals is accepted and defended by the book. They are not seen as troubling impediments to meritocracy, but facts of life as unchangeable as our weather.

He notes that sometimes, “an officer with a higher estimated potential is given posting preference over a seemingly more capable officer albeit one with a lower estimated career potential”, but he doesn’t treat such “controversies” as serious structural problems we should tackle. These practices are an ‘improvement’ on what came before and they are the ‘best available’ at this time, he concludes.


How is it that Tan Chuan-jin looks more comfortable than LHL?? Image credit: Facebook/Lee Hsien Loong


At 500 pages, Aristocracy Of Armed Talent is just thick enough to stop mortar shrapnel. However, half of its weight is taken up by the appendix, and large chunks of it read like Pioneer Magazine. This is because Prof. Ling, whether by choice or circumstance, is mostly uncritical of the titular ‘Aristocracy’.

He narrates, describes, and summarises. He doesn’t express scepticism towards the subject matter.

This is a problem because his explicit goal is to write something different from the “commemorative coffee-table books” published by the SAF. However, by relying exclusively on officer interviews and open source material from the SAF itself, and by not interrogating these sources with a raised eyebrow, he ends up replicating the same coffee-table circle-jerk that he derides.

To paraphrase one academic whose lecture I recently attended, this is like writing a history of Singapore using only ST editorials and nothing beside.

The end result is a courtly Holbein portrait rather than an insightful warts-and-all.

In the introduction, he rightly points out that selecting future generals during their adolescent years is a dubious proposition, but he never tackles the issue again in detail. He also chides ‘parochial’ academics like Michael Barr and Lily Rahim for excluding the SAF officer corp in their studies of anti-Malay exclusion in Singapore, only to forget about it himself.

If education and socioeconomic background are important enough to warrant long chapters, surely the so-called ‘open secret’ of race deserves a mention?

The defence against these accusations is naturally one of ‘scope’. Prof. Ling came to bury Caesar, not to KP him. He was inspired by Morris Janowitz, and seeks only to describe the military system, not attack it.

This is all fine and good, but I would argue that it’s not the book Singapore needs. In a time of widespread scepticism towards ‘Paper Generals’ and growing discontent over meritocracy, the book does little to either reassure us that all is well, or to point out what needs fixing. Hints of discontent and malaise emerge as the narrative unfolds, but they are not explored or analysed in any meaningful way.

In the end, the military elites and the system which produced them are as inscrutable as ever. It may be a “rare window”, but the glass panels are clearly rose-tinted.

Aristocracy Of Armed Talent: The Military Elite In Singapore is available in Kinokuniya and from NUS Press. For everything else, there’s community@ricemedia.co

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