Before the scholars, the two men most identified with the Singapore Armed Forces were Kirpa Ram Vij and Winston Choo, its first army chiefs. The former helped lay the barest foundation of the SAF in its formative years from mid-1960s/1970 to 1974. The latter, whom many older Singaporeans who had served national service was most familiar with, was the face of the SAF for a fairly long period – at least 30 years from the late 1960s to 1992. He retired as Chief of Defence Force. He was more than Chief of Defence Force, he was Mr SAF.
His story needs to be told. And it has indeed been told in a just-launched book published by Landmark, whose owner-founder Goh Eck Kheng said: “His memoir is by no means an official history but is valuable in a different way, in that it gives personal, detailed insights and perspectives that official histories don’t usually have.”
Let me contribute my perspective.
I have had some contact with Winston Choo within the SAF and outside it. These encounters told me that he was, in many ways, the right man for the SAF at a crucial period of its history. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Goh Keng Swee made the right choice.
Remember that the army was being built literally from scratch in the 1960s/70s. Kirpa Ram Vij was from the civil service. The earliest batches of officers came from mostly former teachers who had their training in Malaysia’s Federal Military College in Sungei Besi, Selangor – Colonels Kesavan Soon, Butch Kleinman, Roy Desker, James Teo, James Chia and so on.
Lee Hsien Loong and his cohort of scholars turned SAF generals came in almost raw in the late 1960s and were only able to operate – following a break from their early military training – after graduating in the mid or late 1970s to catapult their way to the top. They were, in fact, the pioneer batch of SAF scholars. That parachuted route set the tone and pattern for the SAF elite template. Younger male Singaporeans would be more familiar with these careerists first in their first karma as SAF generals and colonels and in the second karma as People’s Action Party ministers or as corporate head honchos (examples, Desmond Kuek and Ng Yat Chung). But I digress slightly. Let’s get back to Winston Choo.
I was a platoon commander in the then 4 SIR (Bedok Camp Two) which Choo used to head. He was just promoted to the post of a brigade commander but he somehow always appeared at 4SIR camp functions. Sometimes, he stayed too long and some of us would start to sing, none too subtly but in good nature, “Good Night, Winston, Good Night”. And he would get the hint and call it a night, finally. A natural crowd mixer, he has a knack for faces and names. I would say the camaraderie of soldiers (officers, NCOs or other ranks) who served under him was usually excellent. He was the very human face of a citizen army we were trying to form and that concept would not have worked if he was trying to pretend he was General George Patton.
After army, I bumped into Winston Choo a couple of times. He was already a civilian. As a journalist, I used to see him at think tank and other VIP events and would exchange pleasantries. He was in the diplomatic service then. Mostly casual encounters until one long night in 2000.
I was managing editor of a publishing company hosting a special dinner function at an Italian restaurant in the city. Among the special guests were Dennis Foo (boss of the Europa chain of nightclubs) and Winston Choo. They were related, I was told. I knew I was in for a raucous night. And I was right. Choo was in top form. He sang through the night. No one had the chance to rest. I dared not ask my company managing director later what the size of the night’s bill was.
Winston Choo’s unique contribution to Singapore did not end when he left the military. He had that personal touch and sheer ability to get people to, pardon the army phrase, be at ease. I think he used that skill to our great advantage in his relationships with the militaries of this region, in particular, Indonesia, and later as a diplomat.
He is rightly considered one of the pioneer civil servants who were able to bridge the gap between policies and implementation, delivering more than was expected.
An earlier book featured this special group of public servants who were able to speak the truth to power – giving honest and sometimes unpopular advice to political leaders as Singapore transitions to independence and the struggle for survival. In this group were people like J Y Pillay, Hedwig Anuar, Abdul Wahab Ghows, Ngiam Tong Dow, Tommy Koh and Winston Choo.
Mix, listen and learn. You will not learn much in a choreographed setting. Forget about these awkward and artificial conversations. Go out and mix, Winston Choo style.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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