Generals who can’t hold a candle to a Corporal

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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.