Singapore, a country generally known for its efficiency and bureaucratic excellence, has in recent times been plagued with unusually frequent train breakdowns. As irate commuters pack over-crowded platforms, anger and frustration is directed at not only the government, but also at transport provider SMRT and its Chief Executive Officer, Desmond Kuek.

Despite assurances that the issues concerning the rail networks are being looked into and will be addressed, problems with the train lines—the backbone of the country’s much-lauded public transport system—persist with little sign of accountability from the top.

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Kuek, in particular, has been seemingly bulletproof. A former Chief of Defence, he left the military in 2010 to serve as a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, and was later appointed as President and Group CEO of SMRT Corporation Ltd. His leadership—or lack thereof—in this period of train-based woes has revived questions about the suitability of former military officers to positions of power in civilian life.

But he isn’t the only former top brass now in an elite civilian position—men like him are all over the place in the city-state.

The one who might be Prime Minister

Chan Chun Sing has a glittering resumé: after spending his secondary and post-secondary education at the prestigious Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College, he read economics at the University of Cambridge on a government scholarship, graduating with first-class honours. He went on to obtain a postgraduate degree in management and eventually attained the rank of Major-General in the Singapore Armed Forces before leaving the army to enter politics under the banner of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Ooi Boon Keong

He now serves as a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the PAP whip. On top of that, he’s the head of both the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Deputy Chairman of the state grassroots organisation People’s Association (PA).  Chan thus holds leadership positions in four of the most important and powerful political institutions in Singapore. Amid the speculation over leadership succession in the PAP, Chan has been touted as a favourite to succeed Lee Hsien Loong as the Secretary-General of the party and therefore to the premiership of Singapore.

To casual observers, Chan’s upward trajectory might seem uniquely impressive. In reality, it’s an oft-charted progression that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.

Like Kuek, Chan is what’s known in Singapore as a “paper general” —a current or former member of the military whose high rank is seen as being merely “on paper” because he lacks achievement outside the academic sphere.

They aren’t the only ones. Besides Chan, Singapore’s Cabinet includes three other ministers who are former military brass with stellar academic credentials but little combat experience: Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself.

Men of similar stock occupy positions outside of Parliament too. No fewer than six former generals are chairmen of statutory boards: Lee Hsien Yang (the Prime Minister’s brother) of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore; Lim Chuan Poh of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research; Lim Neo Chian of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority; Lee Fook Sun of the Building and Construction Authority; Neo Kian Hong of the Defence Science and Technology Agency; and Ng Chee Peng of the Central Provident Fund Board. As Kuek holds the fort at SMRT, another former Chief of Defence, Ng Yat Chung, is now a chief executive of Singapore Press Holdings.

Lee Kuan Yew’s search for leaders

That so many “paper generals” can be found in top positions in politics and commerce is hardly a coincidence. It’s the product of a highly-organised practice, the genesis of which can be traced back to the early days of the PAP.

It not only needed to recruit political leaders… but also to recruit people who fit Lee’s idea of what a leader ought to be: English-educated, highly qualified academically and professionally experienced

In The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, Michael Barr details how the Lee Kuan Yew-led PAP, coming off the back of a resounding victory in the 1959 General Election, faced a challenge. It not only needed to recruit political leaders—both for the short term as well as to take over the original party leadership in future—but also to recruit people who fit Lee’s idea of what a leader ought to be: English-educated, highly qualified academically and professionally experienced.

Men within Lee’s faction of the PAP, such as Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam, Kenneth Byrne and Goh Keng Swee, tended to fit this description. In contrast, many of those who challenged Lee, being people who had risen through the ranks of trade unions and grassroots organisations without necessarily having stellar academic qualifications, fell outside of his parameters. Noticing a lack of suitable existing candidates, Lee sought to nurture prospective ones by implementing various measures, among them placing great emphasis on English-medium education and pioneering military study awards like the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS, now known simply as the SAF Scholarship).

The foundations for Lee’s new system for identifying political leaders were laid. Bright young scholars were sent overseas (that Lee himself read law at the University of Cambridge was probably a significant factor) to pursue their undergraduate studies, after which they came back to Singapore to work in the army, navy or air force, where the government could closely monitor their performance and from there determine their suitability for political leadership.

According to Barr, Lee turned to the military as a training ground for prospective leaders “partly because he could control it”. He elaborates: “[Lee] was using military analogies to describe society from his earliest speeches after independence. He was talking of generals and mid-level executives and privates, and saying how the generals need to lead and the privates need discipline and [to] learn not to spit all over the place … it is harder to say where he got the idea that the military would make a good provider of leaders from originally. There was nothing in his personal background to suggest this turn, but we can’t get away from the reality that he did turn in this direction, big time”.

Lee’s public rhetoric from Singapore’s first decade of independence suggests that Lee viewed the challenges facing Singapore through a military framework. To get Singapore moving quickly along the lines he envisioned, he wanted to move away from the freewheeling, lightly governed entrepôt society, which Singapore had been throughout its first 150 years of existence, towards a militarised society that could move in lockstep with his commands. Who better to lead, then, than generals?

Elitism and meritocracy

Although this system of grooming political leaders from a young age has often been described as elitist, it’s not a charge the government tries hard to deny. On the contrary, Lee Kuan Yew was unapologetically elitist; in 1975, he went so far as to say that “if all the 300 [top civil servants and political elites] were to crash in one jumbo jet, then Singapore will disintegrate”. His view of society was that a select few were destined to lead, and everyone else should fall in line.

The accusation that the system is anti-meritocratic is more controversial. Statistics compiled by Barr in The Ruling Elite of Singapore as well as with Zlatko Skrbis in Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project show that alumni of Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution—widely recognised as two of Singapore’s top schools—are vastly over-represented in the population of SAF scholars.

“Singapore’s meritocracy is real, but only among a preselected group”

Some argue that since these schools produce top students with top grades, it’s only natural for many of their former students to receive top scholarships and the associated perks. However, these institutions tend to be populated by students from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds with greater access to the resources needed both to gain acceptance to such programmes and to thrive in them. The system is therefore sometimes described as one that rewards people for the coincidence of being born into wealthy or well-connected families.

The intense competition within this privileged group creates the illusion of meritocracy. However, this potentially breeds a dangerous line of thought that they do not owe the state or society any favours, having honestly earned their privileged position entirely due to their own talent and hard work. As Thum Ping Tjin noted in Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, “Singapore’s meritocracy is real, but only among a preselected group.”

Scholarships, like the SAF scholarship, are also handed out to young Singaporeans at a time when their personal development is far from complete. Much can and will change over time; a promising teenager may not necessarily grow into a competent adult.

Take former SAF scholar and Chief of Defence Ng Yat Chung for example: his last four years as Chief Executive Officer of the shipping company Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) saw it accumulate over S$1.5 billion in losses, until it was sold and delisted in June 2016. As mentioned earlier, Desmond Kuek is now under fire for the repeated failures in Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit network.

Former Chief of Navy (and SAF Scholar) Lui Tuck Yew left the Navy to become CEO of the Maritime and Port Authority. He lasted for two years (2003-2005), then became CEO of the Housing and Development Board for barely a year (2005-2006) before entering politics. As Minister for Transport (2011-2015), he worked with another former Chief of Navy and SAF Scholar, Chew Men Leong, who was CEO of the Land Transport Authority (2014-2016). They oversaw significant changes to the public and private transport sectors, but both abruptly resigned amid criticisms of the changes they were making to the public transportation system.

Most notably, they oversaw persistent failures of the SMRT network even as train fares rose and SMRT reported profits. Chew had followed his retirement from the Navy with a three-year stint as CEO of the Public Utilities Board before his ill-fated tenure as CEO of LTA. Neither man appears to have distinguished himself since resigning, with both holding appointed positions on boards. Earlier this year, Lui was appointed Ambassador to Japan.

What it means for Singapore

Individual competence and worthiness aside, the fact that so many of Singapore’s political and business leaders come from such similar backgrounds and lived experiences raises concerns that groupthink in the upper echelons of Singaporean society will make it more difficult for the tiny city-state to grapple with the challenges of a fast-changing world.

Of the 242 identifiable SAF Scholarship recipients to date, 235 are ethnic Chinese and 236 are male

The fact that the military has historically been dominated by Chinese males has led to disproportionate representation, gender- and race-wise, in decision-making roles. Of the 242 identifiable SAF Scholarship recipients (out of 322 total awardees) to date, 235 are ethnic Chinese and 236 are male. Although other military scholarships like the SAF Merit Scholarship and the Defence Merit Scholarship are also available, the fact is that the SAF Scholarship, labelled as “second in prestige only to the President’s Scholarship”, is universally acknowledged as being of higher standing than the rest. SAF scholars have been and are over-represented in the top positions in the military, suggesting that one’s career prospects are closely tied to the class of scholarship one receives.

“To truly address the concerns of a diverse society, political leaders need a range of social experiences, along axes like gender, race, language, education and other characteristics. While every leader must strive to understand experiences differing from their own, too much similarity in a group of decision-makers will tend to stack the deck against socially inclusive outcomes,” said Jolene Tan, Head of Advocacy and Research at the Association of Women for Action and Research.

“We think that in the military it’s quite hierarchical. In some sense it is because there’s a hierarchy, there’s a command, structures and all that for the military to function, as with every organisation,” Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, a former brigadier-general, told The New Paper back when he was the Minister for Social and Family Development in 2015. Although he went on to argue that the level of engagement necessary to lead a government ministry is very similar to that required of a leader within the armed forces, the hierarchical nature of the military has been pointed to as fundamentally different from the style of governance suitable for a democracy.

It’s an observation made not only in Singapore, but recently in the United States as well. “[F]ew of us quite fit into the ‘dishonest, disorganised and glorious’ mess [that] is American democracy,” wrote Colonel Robert Killebrew, a retired officer of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the United States. “That makes us good bureaucrats and maybe good chiefs of staff, but not someone who has a gut-level understanding of democracy—the role of a free press, for example, or the give and take of backroom dealing.”

This system of grooming prospective leaders has contributed to an ever-growing disconnect between the elite and the electorate; people feel as though those in the anointed ruling class cannot relate to the anxieties and concerns of their everyday lives. A perceived lack of accountability on the part of the leadership only makes things worse. Within a year of NOL’s sale to French company CMA CGM, NOL was again profitable, making $86 million compared with a $100 million loss in the same period of 2016 under Ng Yat Chung. Despite Ng’s failures, he was appointed as CEO of Singapore Press Holdings, where he has presided over a major retrenchment exercise in his first year. Meanwhile, Desmond Kuek continues as SMRT’s CEO despite the numerous train delays, breakdowns, and struggles to upgrade the system to meet the needs of Singapore’s rapidly growing population.

Changes appear to be taking place. The six female SAF scholars all received their scholarships in 2010 or later, suggesting a recent shift towards more equal gender representation.

However, if Chan’s recent interview with Channel NewsAsia is anything to go by, change will come slowly. When asked if the Cabinet could stand to be more diverse, the Minister responded: “I don’t think we don’t diversify … many people from the civil service and military can cross over into public service in terms of political service because many of them, like me, see it as a continuation of public service”. Clearly, the system, warts and all, is set to remain largely intact in the coming years.

This points to the major weakness of Lee Kuan Yew’s militarisation of Singapore’s governance. As both Prussia and imperial Japan demonstrated, militarisation produces rapid gains and forward progress; but when the generals are leading you lockstep into disaster, who will say no?

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Tay Jing En

Tay Jing En is a Singapore-based freelancer. Having given up on his dream of being seven feet tall, he now writes about Singapore's politics, laws and culture.