Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Change - Yes We Can - We'll Stay the Same.

Something amazing is happening in Singapore. On the 25th of March, 2011, Major-General Chan Chun Sing will step down as Chief-of-Army and be replaced by Brigadier-General Ravinder Singh. Much of the talk has been on whether MG Chan will be heading into politics. However, the story that the media played down, was the fact that BG Singh will be the first Non-Chinese Chief of Army that we've had.

This is landmark. Singapore has been pretty good at getting people of different colours into top government jobs. Our Head-of-State is an Indian and the sensitive ministry of finance is also headed by an Indian. The Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs also happens to be the same man running our much valued water resources. Lower down the level of full-minister, we have a relatively high-profile Minister-of-State like Mr Zainul Abidin Rashid.

You could say the presence of 'ethnic minorities' in cabinet reflects the ethnic mix in Singapore. You have good people of every race doing certain jobs. Let's face it, in a multi-ethnic society, you need a few faces in the chief policy decision making body who are darker than the rest.

Things have been rather different when its come to armed forces. The people with direct control over the people with guns have inevitably been Chinese. Yes, you have Malay and Indian officers passing out of Officer Cadet School - but the top brass is inevitably Chinese - from the majority race.

To the Westerner, this sounds blatantly racist. However, our 'practical' political masters have always maintained that should we go to war, its likely to be against Indonesia or Malaysia and we don't want our Malay population having 'dual' loyalties. As for the Indians - well, there simply enough 'talents' hanging around the armed forces. So, when you put things this way - the top brass is going to be Chinese and looks likely to remain that way.

Things have now changed thanks to the elevation of BG Singh. Not only is he the first Non-Chinese to take the job in over 30-years, he's also the front runner to take over the job of Chief-of-Defense-Force in a few years time. What's going on?

One might say it's election politics. The lack of ethnic minorities in the top ranks of the armed forces has been a sore point with our neighbours. We brag that we are a meritocracy that does not discriminate (unlike them) - but it doesn't quite work when you see our top brass.

Then there's the fact that BG Singh might be the right person to do the job. The Sikh's have always been proud of their military heritage (unlike the Chinese who traditionally spit on the idea of soldiering). If the Ministry of Defense's photos are anything to go by, his conduct and bearing are befiting of a senior general.

Then there's the fact that BG Singh's credentials are impeccable. He's got first-class degrees from Oxford in the UK and MIT in the US - therein lies the rub.

If you look at his academic background, you'll realise that BG Singh's credentials are identical to those of everyone who has become a top general in Singapore. The fact that his name is Singh rather than Chan is merely incidental. He is an Oxford and MIT graduate and this ultimately what counts.

While much has been made about 'race-relations' in Singapore, we've always been a fairly open minded society. Yes, a typical Chinese family might have balked when the daughter brought home an "Indian" boy. However, much of the feelings towards race have always been based on social class. The early Indian migrants to Singapore were labourers and convicts. However, as the Indian population became more "educated" and joined the professional class, we've seen the rise of more and more interracial relations between Indians and Chinese.

If you look at BG Singh, he's the ideal Singaporean. His credentials are impeccable. He's been to two of the best universities in the world. He has a secure civil service job and he's flown up the career ladder.

In short, he is exactly like every top general we've had. BG Singh is a man made by the system like MG Chan and LG Neo (The Current Chief of Defense Force). So what exactly has changed here? The only thing that's changed is the fact that the top man is called Singh and is a little more tan than his predecessor. Other than that, he's exactly the same.

Now, it's not a bad thing that BG Singh has many of the qualities of his predecessors. If you look at his credentials, you'll realise that BG Singh has to have a lot of brains just to get into Oxford and MIT. You want brainy people running the show.

However, the problem with that is that BG Singh is EXACTLY like everyone else who has taken the job before him. He's been trained to think a certain way like everyone else before him. His appointment is not meant to change anything - it is meant to preserve the status-quo.

This is a shame, because the nature of warfare is changing and we need top people to be able to adapt to the changing nature of the game. As political integration within South-East Asia gathers strength, the likelihood of a full out war between nation states seems more and more unlikely. Malaysia will not rush to invade Singapore as long as Singaporean tourist flood across the Causeway. Indonesia will not rush to invade Singapore as long as the nations elite see Singapore as a safe haven for their money and the poor see Singapore as a source jobs.

What is, however, a threat, has been the growth of extremist groups like the Jemah Islamiah, and other Al-Qaeda off shoots who want to do as much damage as possible to national economies to set up a mythical Islamic State. These groups operate across national boundaries and they are held together by an ideology.

As such, some of our old ideas about security might have to change. For a start, we should look at whether Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces and Chinese in the Malaysian Armed Forces needs to be looked at. In Singapore we've argued that our Malay brethren cannot be trusted to fight against fellow Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia.

May be this is true when the most likely opponent was a nation-state. However, as that possibility recedes, isn't that idea of not trusting the Malay community with senior positions in the armed forces becoming outdated?

If anything, a Malay general in the armed forces might be exactly what we need. Let's face it, the opponents are claiming to be fighting for an Islamic cause and they're appealing to the Malay population of South-East-Asia - so who else could be more qualified to fight these opponents but a Malay Muslim.

We have to look at someone who is different from the norm. The enemy seems to be able to adapt to various situations - surely we should do the same? We cannot keep having men trained to fight yesterday's wars to fight today's.


Gary said...

It's GE political wayang all right. Bear in mind that the average watch of the top SAF posts is 3 years. So no big deal. There is no fundamental change of heart or promotional policy.

The only Malay Brig we have is already a civilian with a lucrative job in a GLC. See the process?

Anyway who wants to round around the SAFTI and Australian training areas for too long? It gets boring after the initial challenge.

Betty said...

It seems that in Singapore, all noble professions are renumerated handsomely and celebrated - in a straits times article on Benchmark salary data in 2008, it was pointed out that the top eight of the following professions earned huge bucks: accountants had a median income of $3.55 million, Bankers $5.92 million, and lawyers $5.38 million. Even back in 2001, MM Lee had proudly revealed that Minister Ng Eng Hen, who was a surgeon at the same hospital as Dr Lim, earned as much as $4.5 million in 2001 ! And this is far more than what Dr Lim earned according to court documents even in her best year ! So I don't get why Dr Lim is being hung for running a commercial business honestly and rendering excellent service to Royal standards.