My supervisor and I decided that a change in topic was the best (and only) option going forward.
I submitted my thesis in June 2014 and received word in October that the external examiners were satisfied.
I embarked on further research in mid-2015 and a revised my thesis in an effort to write a book along the lines of Morris Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait, albeit one focused on Singapore’s military establishment. I submitted the revised manuscript to NUS Press in early-mid 2018. Hence it took almost seven years from the change in PhD topics to the book hitting the shelves in April 2019.
What made you press on with research on the SAF despite initial hurdles?
It was a challenge to complete a puzzle and I was focused on the task at hand. The topic is interesting to me, both in academic and general terms.
I knew more about America’s top brass than our own leaders after reading Janowitz’s The Professional Soldier, and The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by Greg Jaffe and David Cloud.
I am sure that I am not the only one interested in the topic.
Hence I set about capturing a small piece of Singapore’s military history. If I did not do it then I am certain someone else would, whether indigenous or foreign.
What was the most challenging aspect of the research for this book?
The most challenging aspects were access to information in terms of open source material and interviews for the specific questions that I had in mind.
The difficulties in accessing open sources included: whether the materials still exist (e.g. copies of Pioneer, Pointer, service newsletters) and if I could access them.
Official channels did not prove helpful so it became quite simply “detective work for one”. It would have been nice albeit wishful thinking to access material at the Centre for Heritage Services.
The interviews were also hard to come by with 28 of 46 officers approached agreeing to interviews that lasted between 30 minutes and 5.5 hours in duration. Some had a lot to say about their careers, and some did not say much. We were all cognizant of the Official Secrets Act so it was pretty much about personal stories.
How did you go about resolving the challenge(s)?
The 28 interviews were great and a blessing in terms of being able to get the work done.
Open source required a lot of patience, which mean repeated iterations of combing through publications and photographs to triangulate the necessary information followed by a list of further information required and doing it all again.
It was tiring yet refreshing to go through the publications as one can really appreciate how the SAF has grown over the years, and the effort put in by the state and population to ensure the defence of Singapore.
Which chapter did you enjoy researching/writing most?
I must say I enjoyed them all due to the variation, focus, and information in each of the chapters.
Chapters 1 and 2 are pretty much ground work in terms of literature and history. This was enjoyable as I could convey what was “out there” in terms of books, how the topic is viewed, and the history of our early military leaders.
Chapters 3 to 5 pretty much contains the personal stories of the generals and admirals that I interviewed. They grew up in a Singapore that is very much different from a teenager enlisting for NS today. Singapore was a different place back then. Nevertheless, I walked away from the 28 interviews with the confidence that our generals and admirals, at least those I interviewed, are professional military officers.
Chapter 6 is pretty much understanding the force structure of the SAF, its evolution, and how it supports and justifies the configuration of the military elite.
Chapter 7 is a mix of statistics, outliers, and perhaps inconvenient truths.
Chapter 8 is on society and its impact on the SAF of today and tomorrow. Some issues can be addressed by technology, and as always some of the remedies for today could potentially pose problems tomorrow. Only time will tell. All in all, I enjoyed writing every chapter in the book. Each required a different skill to piece together and I learned much.
What are the takeaways you hope the reader will glean from the book?
To appreciate the SAF in its entirety, both the good, the quirky, and the not so good.
To understand that it is led (at least in the past) by leaders who began their careers for a variety of reasons, both for altruistic and/or egotistic reasons. They converged towards serving for a greater good as they progressed up the hierarchy.
Those who made general and admiral are mostly field commanders tasked with deterring aggression, and should this deterrence fail, to fight and win our nation’s wars.
Military leadership takes time to nurture. Scholar officers are afforded chances to prove their worth but do not automatically get a “free pass” into the top brass. Disruptions to, or “rushed jobs” in, succession planning will have detrimental effects on the leadership of tomorrow.
Most importantly, the SAF is only as strong – physically, mentally, and morally – as the society that is pledges to defend.