The Aristocracy of Armed Talent is a sociological study of Singapore’s military elite, which author Samuel Ling Wei Chan defines as uniformed Singapore Armed Forces officers who wear one or more stars in the Army, Navy or Air Force. The author models this work on the sociological studies of political elites by Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels, as well as the path-breaking studies of civil-military relations written by Samuel Huntington, Morris Janowitz, and others.
The book is a combination of data analysis and anecdotal evidence. Ling Wei Chan, an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, uses previous scholarship, biographies and autobiographies of some of Singapore’s past military leaders, data from other sociological studies, and interviews with 28 officers who served in Singapore’s armed services at high levels between 1965 and 2012. It is part political science and part history. The political science part, with the usual tables and appendices of data, makes for slow, sometimes painful, reading. The book’s most interesting aspect is the presentation of the views of former high-level officers in Singapore’s military. This forms the best and most fruitful sources of the motivations, ambitions, and perspectives of the country’s military elite.
Singapore is a relatively new state, having gained full independence in 1965. The author identifies the “chief architect of Singapore’s economic, defence and education policies” as its first defense minister Dr Goh Keng Swee. Goh fostered the “creation of military elites in the Republic,” and sought only the “most skilled, most competent and most successful [general officers]” to lead Singapore’s military. One general officer interviewed by the author recalled that Dr. Goh was “a mentor to anyone he felt had talent,”, and focused on those with unimpeachable character and integrity.
One obstacle that had to be overcome in the formation of Singapore’s military elite was that initially a career in the military was not considered an “honored profession”. Recruitment was difficult. This led to the institutionalization of National Service or conscription, and a scholarship program that enticed talented young men to seek a career in the armed forces. So-called “scholar-officers” were highly prized by Singapore’s government and formed the early nucleus of the city-state’s military elite. Ling Wei Chan identifies employment opportunities, salary, attraction to medical work, flying, seafaring, and family influence as other important motivators for choosing a military career.
What the author calls the “ascension process” in Singapore’s military requires candidates to demonstrate “innovation, discretion, political skills … and being in the right place when opportunities arise.” Advancement is supposed to be based on “performance and potential”, but subjective factors such as favoritism and cronyism also play a role. Some of the officers interviewed criticized the emphasis for promotion placed on academics as opposed to experience. As one officer noted: “Scholars are smart, but is it merely academic smart? The question is whether they are also leaders and commanders.”
Singapore also boasts elite schools for the profession of arms, such as Raffles, Hwa Chong, and National, where the majority of high-level officers study. There is also a revolving door where retired military elites enter politics or the civilian executive world.
The author’s findings about the military elite in Singapore are hardly surprising since they are quite similar to military elites in other countries. Singapore is a small city-state located at one of the world’s most important strategic choke-points—the Strait of Malacca. Singapore’s remarkable economic achievements have been made possible not only by the implementation of sound economic policies but also by the political stability supported by a strong defense establishment.
The author, however, sees trouble ahead for Singapore’s military based on several worrisome sociological developments, including a low birth rate, the rise in obesity, an emphasis on materialism, the growth of individualism, and a complacent view that peace can be secured with little effort.
“Whether the top brass of the future will possess the same motivation, commitment, passion and conviction as their predecessors is unknown,” Ling Wei Chan writes.
The only certainty seems to be the evolving character of each generation and the need to win their commitment to defence time and again. The battle for the hearts, minds, and souls of tomorrow’s leaders is unquestionably the greatest challenge faced by Singapore’s military elites today.
And, one may add, the military elites of many other countries in Asia and elsewhere.