Generals who can’t hold a candle to a Corporal


By Augustine Low

It was a lowly Corporal who masterfully built up the foundations of the SAF and Singapore’s defence technology framework but today the notion that it takes Generals to get the job done has become all-pervasive and they are parachuted right to the top with amazing speed.

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 GLCs.

Just what is it about the training and the experience they undergo that gives the PAP 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?

A look at the track record of former Generals would make us none the wiser because there are hits and misses. 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. Recently Tan Chuan-Jin was moved down to Speaker of Parliament from Minister. Reasons were not given. Prior to the last General Election, Lui Tuck Yew stepped down as Transport Minister, for reasons only known to himself and his boss.

Another former General, Ng Yat Chung, was sent from Temasek Holdings to NOL to stem the bleeding. After years of trying, and not succeeding, he sold NOL to a French shipping line cheaply, which then promptly turned it around to profitability within a year. Ng, billed as a big fan of cost-cutting, has since been sent to SPH to stem the drop in profitability. The Desmond Kuek story is familiar to many by now. The former General brought in a team of military officers but together they have not managed to address the SMRT woes.

The top echelon is littered with former SAF Scholars – including PM Lee, DPM Teo, Chan Chun Sing, Tan Chuan-Jin, Perry Lim (Chief of Defence Force), Neo Kian Hong and Ng Chee Kern (Permanent Secretaries) 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 surefire 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 also masterminded the early economic success of Singapore. 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?

Times may have changed but the qualities inherent in leadership remain constant. While rank and title is today a stepping stone to the top, the sad reality is that our Generals can be clueless when it comes to stopping the rot or putting the shine in Singapore.


    • The 2nd tier : colonels, half colonels, majors. Retirement, planned for : schools’ OMs. 1st class office boys : oversee schools’ maintenance, children’s transport, security guards. Work that can be undertaken by administration, by the VP.

    • And there’s no adversity to toughen them up. Look how much snowflakes they are whenever they face opposition,disagreement or a legitmate alternative point of view. They get all huffy and treat opponents as wreckers and traitors.
      Personally i think the new generation of leaders will fold up like ikea tables when they face a real serious event.

      • Challenges and adversities aside, these ‘leaders’ are just put in position of power without having a clue of the field they are appointed to oversee. What does a military General know about the operations and needs of the Public Transportation System, Shipping Industry or even Print-Press Media? Why SMRT would trust their operations to someone who’s only experience in transportation service is to visit a SAF MT line is beyond me.

        I do believe, first and foremost, a leader should be an expert of the field he is supposed to lead. Imagine train engineers and technicians having to take instructions and report to someone who doesn’t even know in details the technicalities of operating trains.

        The same goes for “Members of Parliament” getting the Ministerial positions for Ministries which they know nuts about. What does our Minister of Education (Former Air Force General) know about what’s best for the education system and school developments? What does our Health Minister (Degree in Electrical Engineering and former CEO of a Steel Company) know about the practice of Medicine? How can we trust these people to make decisions about policies or handle issues that demands attention within their Ministry? Can you imagine, Teachers, Principals, Nurses and Doctors – many experienced and experts in their fields, having to rely on Ministers who earn multiple times of what they do, but only possess a fraction of the knowledge and experience? And Singaporeans wonder why many things are going wrong in our beloved country.

    • Liu INan read my post carefully and tell me what have I complained about the paper general?
      If you are one of those pappy mole show your ✋ just like your paper general ask you to keep chiu.
      I am smart in my own way and not necessarily compared to Hawking. At least I don’t lick and suck up like you.

    • Des Boon hahaha you know what you accused them of! You think you are better than those SAF Scholars but what scholarship did you ever won?
      If you are any good you would have been made captain during NS. Did you?
      You measure up to nothing, and you want to measure other people against the best in a generation.
      It’s not about which party I support. Objecting to your view doesn’t mean I must be supportive of the pappy.
      But it does mean I think your comparison is unfair and fucked up.
      Our current leaders are no match to our first generation leadership. that’s a fact we are can agree on. But who in the world can match the brilliancy of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Sweet? Not many!

      • why are you pimping for these paper generals?
        ‘the best’? see ng yat chung. see desmond kwek.
        you are v good at carrying. it shows.
        it is fair comparison. these paper clowns are just that – paper and theoretical.
        put them in real work – running nol or mrt – their incompetence showed up.
        put them behind ministries, they have a bunch of civil serpents to front them.
        even lui tuck yew has to quit. I think he is the more decent one who showed up and took responsibility when there was a major train disruption. now, ah khaw hides behind all his men, and blamed them, comes up with excused, cover ups and lies.

  1. Paper generals, like paper cut-outs repeated ad nauseam throughout the white camp. I await the acid test which will surely come! Logic says they will fail big time, just like Little India of not so long ago!

  2. When I came to Singapore almost 18 years ago. My feel is the government agency are very sufficient. Now a day, my feeling is they simply sit on issue and hopefully you give up. Or simply ignore you. Eventually you are frustrating but if u lack of self control and do something stupid, well they will say u should go through the right channel. So more frustrating.

  3. Can’t imagine if war is here, how will all this paper generals without real solid experience handle the warfare? Will they just give command sitting in their ivory tower or will they hands-on lead the soldiers on? A big question mark hangs on the balance here isn’t it?

  4. The British Army had always relied on field expertise of their personnel- be it a crisis situation like post WW2 war in faraway Falklands and many before.
    It was the same with our local Army that saw the rise of reliable and loyal officers like Lt Adnan. Even the Singapore Police Force utilised the same system to gauge such officers and members of the Rank & File.
    I have worked with junior police officers who have proven to be so analytical in their work. They can even handle family disputes with distinction.
    However things started to sour when such high fliers were ushered in, given the ranks liberally and were never made to deal with crisis situations. Their promotions were promised and it was a meteoric rise upwards. Such high fliers were actually lost all the way. They may be fortunate to have experienced junior officers to handle situations and were stamped with approval by the leaders. More often then not the real heroes were sidelined. This caused much frustrations in the real heroes who slowly faded away. Was it good?
    The late Cpl Goh Keng Swee was one good example who could have learned a lot from such junior officers.
    SAF is there for a sacred purpose. The same with the SPF. These people must not be brought into politics or even into the Civil Service but made to retire and enjoy their days. A reward that is most apt.
    Let the TOP leaders come from the strong Civil Service. Give them their rightful dues. Why cast them into positions which are so different from what they were originally trained to be.

    Sukhdev Singh Gill

  5. Well written article and it hits the needle on the head. While these insanely paid self professing aristocrats are enjoying their so call entitled benefits the average man on the street suffers and undergoes constant pressure to make ends meet. Raising the various taxes including the GST in the years to come is no help. Every TIM there is a increase all prices of goods and essential necessities go up and that includes hawkers too. There are much more misses than hits from the whites.

  6. The Ministers today all mostly military men and scholars are a class well below any of the first generation of Ministers. Sadly they guys are paid well above or more than what their predecessors were getting. What have these expensive Ministers delivered for a better Singapore?

  7. Well said. I have seen a scholar goes through his various postings in 6 months. The idea is that he experienced everything. But in fact, he has no clue of everything. They only touch the surface and will not get their hands really dirty. It is sad that we are in a world of paper general.

  8. Dr Goh was a man with a vision. A man like him doesn’t come by everyday.
    The Generals today have not endured anything, they’ve not worked their way up, have not built anything from scratch.
    How can these men ever hold a candle to Dr Goh?
    Clearly they never will!!!

  9. DR GOH was a great man ..Our best minister of defence ..I serve the army at his era as a regular ..a man of love , care and concern ..please do not compare him with paper generals that have no compassion for others ,,and only care for themselves …

  10. in those good old days ..we have only 1 army general ..BG Winston Choo …even when he walk around in his uniform ..the look of a general is enhancing ..A great man indeed ..if you put BG Choo together with the current paper generals …it will look like a great joke ..haha

  11. The entire culture of promoting Paper Generals and inducting into politics is going to derail the country. Is there any proven cases elsewhere that such mechanism take the country to heights? They may cite Israel. Israeli seed can’t grow in Singapore soil. They are a war faring country with largely homogeneous population or religion. They simply have to fight or die. Any way, how many are ready to listen to this Paper Generals and die?