'You have to keep transforming'

'You have to keep transforming'
The way we have resolved that is to say that we understand that there are certain people with exceptional talent - who can bring honour and glory to Singapore - such as Joseph Schooling. Then it's a clear-cut case.

In 2004, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) started its 3G transformation. What else is there to do?

You have to keep transforming because the challenges change, if not in nature, then in scale. Now, you have new threats: Human smuggling, human trafficking, urban environments that are more complex and modern weaponry that is more precise.

But the fundamental change has been with information.

For some of you, when you went to Basic Military Training, the information that you were given to complete a mission was someone briefing you and you draw on plastic talc using pens. Today, our scout teams could float an unmanned aerial vehicle up, (and) see for themselves the enemy's position.

Theoretically, you could have a computer tell you the best offensive strategy to take with your assets, how to do it and also call upon the resources of Apache helicopters, modern fighter planes and even the navy.

Getting there requires integration of systems and platforms. System of systems. It's going well, but it will take a few more decades.

What you will see, I think if I can look further, is the introduction of more unmanned platforms controlled by humans.

How is the SAF helping those who seek to defer or disrupt their national service for a career in sports or the arts?

We have to be both flexible and fair.

The way we have resolved that is to say that we understand that there are certain people with exceptional talent - who can bring honour and glory to Singapore - such as Joseph Schooling. Then it's a clear-cut case.

I am a sports enthusiast as well. I'm very happy that we did very well for the SEA Games.

The more tricky part is when the person himself or parents feel that "my child is special". Only that he hasn't shown it, but if you give him enough time he will show that he is special.

Every year, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) gets many requests and we do it transparently - it cannot be for personal needs.

Let me assure you that Mindef will support requests that we can explain to the rest of the public, and that the public feels it is fair. For those with long-term deferments, we will publish those names that we deferred, as we have promised.

During the past general elections, there were high-ranking officers inducted into politics. How does Mindef grapple with retaining talent versus having its people to serve the better good?

Each time people from the SAF are asked to go into politics because they have good leadership potential and are potential ministers, the SAF feels very proud.

How do you make sure you don't lose enough such that you can't function?

Well, as the Minister of Defence, if you want to pull too many of my chaps out, I can't say no if they decide for themselves. All I can do is persuade or dissuade and say I need you. Yes, there'll be some loss and we'll be sad to see them go. But so far, we've been able to manage.

We just witnessed our first female general Brigadier-General (BG) Gan Siow Huang. How do you think this is significant in how SAF attracts women to the force and has it broken the brass ceiling?

We promote based on merit. There has never been a ceiling. Not based on gender, not based on race. If you are able, you will rise to the top because we need you.

If you feel that you are being held back and discriminated, you talk to me and I'll make sure that will never happen. Not under my watch.

I'm very happy that BG Gan got her one-star.

She just happens to be female. It's a function also of the proportion of females in the SAF - now it's about 7 per cent.

It has been about a year since you've gone on Facebook. How has the past year helped the image and people's perception of the SAF?

I'm old school. I thought be seen less, do more, don't be so worried about how you are judged. Let your work speak for itself. That's classic Lee Kuan Yew teaching.

I was persuaded to come out of my comfort zone because it is a new generation, a more touchy-feely generation. I have children so I know. Hearing from the first voice allows people to hear what you believe, what you feel more strongly.

For high-intensity incidents such as the AirAsia crash, the Sabah earthquake and Mr Lee's passing, it allowed me to quickly post and keep Singaporeans informed.

You also get to know Singaporeans from their reactions. It's interesting how fundamentally, people want to feel safe, feel valued, feel they are part of something bigger and feel close to one another. And this is quite gratifying because you have this response that we have become a nation.


This article was first published on July 01, 2015.
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