A SAF military infiltration

Chief of Army Handing Over

“Hold the flag, I’m off to my second career!”

The Straits Times report that SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek is looking to hire more senior SAF officers to beef up his management team was, not surprisingly, greeted with some incredulity from Singaporeans.

We are well aware of the ubiquitous presence of retired generals and admirals given easy passages into top-ranking posts in the PAP, government agencies and GLCs based solely on their achievements in the SAF. And after the recent troubles at SMRT with its current ex-army CEO and former CEO from a similarly unrelated retail background, it is right that we must question if their experience in the armed forces should automatically translate into the right skills for their new jobs in civilian life.

This phenomenon of a constant infiltration of ex-military personnel into our government and related corporations is a natural consequence of the constant leadership renewal policy of the SAF. The retirement age for commissioned officers was for a long time 45 until it was raise to 50 in 2009. Against a constant inflow of servicemen rising up the ranks, this means that the tenure of top posts, in particular those of service chiefs, are typically limited to 3-5 years. As a result, there is a constant supply of former officers in their early to mid forties transitioning into the civilian sector.

The government all but guarantees a second career for the top ones and, to be fair, there are good reasons for doing so. While some may disagree, many of these officers have a strong record of leadership qualities which can be more critical than direct relevant skills. On top of that, they are familiar with how the government works, have existing relationships with the people within and already hold security clearance to the highest level. Sympathy, though, must go to the mid-ranking officers, the non-scholars, and the ‘farmers’ as they are called, who could end up as taxi drivers if they find themselves of a wrong age without marketable skills.

On the surface, constant leadership renewal is a sound idea. Fresh leadership brings fresh ideas and rejuvenation, and the same can be argued for any corporations and even the government itself. At a deeper level, though, the PAP has another reason for wanting such a policy in the SAF — to prevent the building up of power concentration in individuals that could potentially lead to a military coup d’état.

Recent history has shown that military coups tend to happen in countries where there are government corruption, oppression of people, dictatorships or crises that the civilian government cannot handle. They are most common in Africa. While many other countries, particularly in the western world, have strong military forces, the danger of a coup is much lower where there are proper democratic processes. There will be many other reasons but essentially when legitimate political institutions exist to address the people’s will, there is less incentive to resort to such drastic actions.

In present day Singapore, such an outcome is unlikely as well, but for a different reason. The idea of the likes of Desmond Kuek, Lui Tuck Yew, Chan Chun Sing or Tan Chuan-Jin attempting to overthrow the government will leave us rolling on the floor laughing at its absurdity. This is because the PAP has taken care to co-opt our brightest young men into the government machinery from an early age, through prestigious scholarships and letting them rise to the very top. Needless to say, those provided with an expensive education followed by a rewarding career all laid out are much less likely to be disgruntled with the government.

I don’t see this ex-military omnipresence in government agencies and GLCs as necessarily a bad thing, though in politics it’s a different matter where a track record of serving the people is important. That said, if Singaporeans see it as an undesirable trend, we should look to raising the retirement age in the SAF further and more in line with the general statutory level. Let our officers have the option to serve out a full lifelong career. It will not just boost the strength in numbers but retain more of the knowledge and experience as well.

More importantly, generals and admirals must earn the ranks they hold, which should be through years served and real achievements in service and not the scholarships they hold. This means a slower and longer progression to the top ranks, bearing in mind that it will largely be peacetime experience. After all, it is hard to imagine how a scholarly 35 year old general who has never been to war will be looked upon when meeting his 50 year old peer from another country with real battle experience.