The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy

For several years a decade or two ago, tiny Singapore was reckoned by defence analysts such as at Jane’s, to have one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful militaries. I don’t know if this is still true, but given this chart below which I took from this site, I won’t be surprised if it is. The bar graph shows that Singapore topped all our Asean neighbours save Laos, which isn’t included in the graph, in military expenditure in 2014.

It’s been the case since Lee Kuan Yew’s falling out with the Malaysian government in 1965 and his obsession with race conflict, that Singapore places inordinate importance on security, both external and internal. Coupled with high defence spending, Singapore encourages top young talent to go into the armed forces, through the various Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) scholarships.

A July 2016 press release by the Ministry of Defence disclosed that there had been 838 awardees for its various scholarships since the beginning of these programmes till that point in time. In 2016 alone, there were 47 awardees.

It’s hardly a surprise that Singapore appears top heavy with generals. I’m not saying that all scholarship holders become generals, but I think when one starts with this number of ambitious young people, you would expect the bulk of them to climb quite high in rank. The Ministry of Defence would be highly conscious of their career aspirations; slow promotion would not make a lot of sense in terms of people management — at least for these select beneficiaries of scholarships.

Unfortunately, it’s an inescapable feature of pyramidal hierarchy that higher levels have fewer places than mid and lower levels. Even if one makes it to general, is there a job to do?

At the same time, there may be concern among civilian politicians over the possibility of military generals one day usurping power. What happened to Robert Mugabe is instructive. For 37 years he was the paramount leader of Zimbabwe. But in November 2017, as the contest for succession heated up between two factions of the ruling party, with Mugabe clearly supporting his wife’s ambitions, it was the military chief who decided the matter through mounting a slow coup d’etat.

Nearer home, Thailand provides another learning point. In this case, it proves that even with a conscript army, military generals can mount coups.

In any modern state, military generals there will unavoidably be, but the risk increases when some of them hold command positions over regiments for a long enough time to virtually acquire personal fiefdoms. To avoid this risk, generals must be shuffled around frequently, with early retirement.

So, for one reason or another, Singapore would have a surplus of high-ranking military officials, maybe still in their forties, with nowhere to go in the military. It wouldn’t be such a problem if they were in high demand in the private sector. But how often do we hear of ex-SAF senior officers there? To my knowledge, rarely, which then suggests that perhaps the private sector does not see much use for the specific skills or the personality types they have. Recognising the lack of options post-military career,  I suppose one can give each of them golden handshakes and tell them to play golf for the next fifty years of their lives. But if so, boredom and a sense of being discarded may make them very dangerous to have around.

Keep them close, would be a sage’s advice. Which really means that the civilian government has to find employment for them. Is it surprising anymore that they populate our ministries and state-linked companies?

Yet, the Singapore government boasts that the guiding principle is meritocracy. Putting aside the roiling debate about how ‘meritocracy’ in practice is often less egalitarian and perhaps even less efficient than it sounds, it’s nonetheless an ideal worth holding on to as a guiding star. However, when there are pressures to find jobs for surplus-to-requirement generals, it is hard to see how the posts they eventually occupy have really been filled through a meritocratic process.

This is not to say that sometimes, the person really is a good fit for the new, post-military job. People have been known to shine in their second careers, unanticipated talent may bloom. But I think it would be fair to say that in the general case, the odds are poor that the guy is really the best person for the job.

The point I wish to underline here is that each time the government claims that the ex-military inductee into whichever ministry or state-linked corporation is the “best man for the job” — and to my recollection, it is always a man — take this protestation with more than a pinch of salt. I reckon it’s better described as a case of surplus generals with nowhere to go; qualities and “fit for job” be damned.

There will also be knock-on effects. How are these organisations where key positions are filled more out of a need to give a general a job than through openly-competitive recruitment, going to attract the best talent? Best talent (surprise!) tend to be really smart people who want space and leeway to operate. Would they wonder if the organisational culture of the place is one that values obedience and conformity rather than out-of-the-box thinking, experimentation and disruption? Would they wonder whether their own chances of promotion within the organisation would always be secondary to the need to keep the newly civilianised military guy happy?

In the same way that businesses where the sons and daughters of the founder have been guaranteed important positions struggle to attract talent, our ministries and state-linked companies may well be suffering the same perception handicap.

And once we go down this slippery road of only being able to get second-best even when we recruit openly, governance in its multiple manifestations, from making policy to maintaining infrastructure, will acquire the stale air of mediocrity.

Is that why Singapore is where we are today?

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