Being in the SAF

I was sorting out my drawers and throwing out all the documents that were no longer needed. The past year papers I printed for this semester but didn’t get to do; the old Army News or Pioneer Magazine; the one sided printouts that could be re-used as rough paper etc. I came across an old set of papers with holes punched, fastened by a fastener. On top of it was a small stack of papers, about the size of 1/4 of an A4 paper, which are testimonials written by the people from my NS times for me. The fastened stack of papers are the Platoon Magazine they created, which contained memories of their NS lives, of which I played a part of in the first half.

Looking through all these items really bring back certain memories. Thinking back, in the past 4 years or so in University, my perspective on things have indeed changed a lot. You start to gain some sense of what people were trying to do in NS, and appreciate the little things and thoughts that went into performing all the duties in NS.

With the elections coming now, you get a sense of the unhappiness people have over serving NS. This is logical and understandable, after all, I was part of the system formerly and could understand where all that unhappiness come from. It is just that these unhappiness need to be put into the proper perspective, which many do not.

It is saddening when people go by their general feelings instead of rationally analyzing things as it is. For example, if one says that it is not a good thing to keep repeatedly finding candidates only from a fixed set of places, like the labour movement or the SAF, then yes it is a valid judgement. But if you criticize a candidate because you “do not respect a paper general with no real war experience”, then I begin to doubt your intellectual ability, as clearly emotions of being “ill-treated” in NS still rings in your head.

I think respect towards an individual should be to the things they do, or their opinion and perspective on things. Not whether they have gone through a war before. I would really choose peace anytime and have paper Generals than war and have war-weary Generals.

Besides, thinking that the SAF is only about a war is too naive isn’t it? Granted, the SAF isn’t perfect and has many flaws that everyone can see. However are we being too myopic in our views of what SAF does? Somehow I feel, given the sensitive nature of the jobs in the SAF, only those who are inside would truly appreciate and understand what is being done. There are things that cannot be said too.

In addition, I find that whether a person’s NS experience was enjoyable or not has a large correlation to how his NSF superiors are. Read: NSFs. NSF commanders are the ones that mingle with the men the most, as opposed to regular commanders. The section commanders or platoon commanders are usually NSFs. Given a heavy responsibility just after 9 months of training, with that much power together with it, it is indeed hard to find a balance. Most go crazy over their increase in power and get blinded. Sadly, it is us NSFs who cause misery to the others.

Not to say that the regulars are free from blame. Somehow we do know that not every regular is a good leader. A good leader in the staff office would not necessary make a good leader in the combat environment. I learnt this because my ICT Battalion HQ personnels are staff officers most of their lives, and right in the first ICT they have destroyed any respect anyone could have had for them by their very own actions.

However, objectively speaking, it does seem like the higher HQs do see the problem and does try to change things, but it is usually the people on the ground who do not have the collective vision. This is a problem even for private sector companies. The CEO sets a direction but it isn’t communicated effectively to the last person in the hierarchy. This is especially so for the SAF, whose soldiers are mainly civilian personnel forced to serve. Most do not see the point and hence cannot effectively bring the vision of the commanders to the ground. In addition, many people remain negative and feel that they are forced into being in the military. As a result, this is a problem that is very hard to eradicate.

But there are many good commanders who are good leaders. I was fortunate to serve under them. Hence my NS experience was very different from people out there. I truly learnt a great deal, so much that I could spend 30 minutes with the interviewer just talking about the unique parts of my NS experience. At 19, most young men are immature and do not understand many things. Coupled with the fact that the SAF has a problem recruiting talented people, the spoilt apples come in and cause big problems for the rest of the people. When you have a bad experience, you tend to think SAF is a lousy organization and hence you won’t feel inclined to join it. Hence they have a problem recruiting talented people. The cycle goes on.

I believe this can be seen even in the private sector. To call the private sector competitive and the real world is just pushing it. It might be true that a role in the SAF is something like an iron rice bowl; it doesn’t break unless you do things that destroys it; but I believe the private sector has it fair share of people in leadership positions but no leadership potential. Just take a look at how many people in the private sector criticizing their immediate superiors. I suppose everyone would criticize their superiors from time to time. Everyone is still learning on the job, and trying to improve as well.

I think the SAF has potential. The more holes there are, the more opportunities I have to plug it, the bigger the challenge. It is a job most people do not like to do. It is a job most people would hate to do. It is a job where people think you are some lousy person that cannot survive in the outside world. With all these negativities, most people don’t even consider going into the organization.

Actually I wrote this post as a collection of thoughts cumulating to the reason why I joined the Air Force. A good friend asked me yesterday and I didn’t answer after he said, “Don’t tell me you love Singapore”. I guess, if a good friend cannot even fathom why I would bother joining, then there is nothing more left to be explained. No reason would be satisfactory, and I might as well avoid all the negativity that might come had I tell the truth.

The truth is I love this country. If you read my blog and read my Facebook statuses you should already have a rough idea. Next amongst so many industries I wanted one that gave me a sense of purpose. That shortens the list considerably. What’s left is the defense industry, or sectors that are related to Singapore like Changi Airport or Singapore Airlines. Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport are not hiring engineers. So can I say there’s a calling to join the Air Force? Somehow, even though it may sound absurd but it is partly true. I know I liked my NS experience and I know I liked doing what I did. I know that I can find meaning in the job, and I wanted meaning more than anything else because I do not want to feel sick of the job that I chose.

And I know I can make a difference. With the experience obtained from NS, and the training I got as a specialist, added to the training I would receive as an officer, I am probably one of the better few people that actually understands the subordinate’s feeling as well as the direction from the superiors. It is a challenge and it would be very satisfying if I can balance the two and raise the effectiveness and productivity of the RSAF.

I know I am a talent and I can survive in the private sector. No matter what people say I am happy that I chose this career path, and that I can make a difference in people’s lives when I go out to lead my bunch of engineers and technicians. And I also love Singapore. So there.

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