Cold War? Never heard of it, says SAF officer: The state of military education in Singapore

Among the tidbits shared with this blog, the one about the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officer who attended a strategic studies course clueless about the Cold War is one of the gems.

Granted, the officer was young (born after 1990). True, courses are tailored to upskill participants. Indeed, the SAF’s mission readiness was not compromised by the said officer’s ignorance and that officer is now more worldly-wise.

It reminds one of the true story of a non-uniformed SAF officer (NUSAF, this pre-dated today’s DXO scheme) who, having been notified by AOD that an RSAF Scout 700 UAV had gone down around Poyan Reservoir, scribbled down frantic notes before screaming down the phone line:”But where is the pilot?”

The strength of one’s military awareness will not guarantee victory.

Lessons from the past
However, a lack of military awareness could possibly result in the SAF relearning painful lessons, paid in blood by more established armed forces, when such pitfalls could have been avoided in the first place as the possible solutions to many strategic, operational and tactical conundrums are enshrined in the lessons of war through the ages.

As a small nation with no hinterland, our first mistake on the battlefield could be our last. This is why the domain knowledge of SAF leaders should have breadth and depth, and must have a pedagogy that keeps up with the times .

It is easier said than done.

The anecdote from the military lecturer made a fine lead-in to the discussion on the state of strategic awareness among our fighting men and women, particularly officers in their 20s who are being groomed as future leaders in the most technologically-advanced fighting force in Southeast Asia.

Leading and learning
Quite possibly, many of our educators know the answer: Students conversant with world affairs and history stand out because such boys and girls are increasingly rare.

Move upstream, speak to our educators and you would find ample examples of book smart students who struggle cobbling together a coherent argument for the General Paper. Writing skills aside, speak to them in person and you may discover that outstanding grades do not correlate with poise, EQ and structure and logic in thought processes needed to sustain a conversation on a professional topic.

Done with their A levels or polytechnic diploma, those with leadership potential who find themselves in Officer Cadet School (OCS) during their full-time National Service face a steep learning curve when learning the rudiments of the profession of arms.

Fast forward a couple of years and when that young officer finds himself or herself at a diplomatic cocktail reception, clinking glasses with foreign counterparts and chatting about professional matters, that’s when astute observers will be able to filter the standouts from the poseurs.

For many, such learning will be lifelong. For some, the education process will be a blooming chore.

GMKE’s demise
Compared to earlier generations of SAF officers, the learning journey has been made less onerous now that the General Military Knowledge Exam (GMKE) has been dumped.

The GMKE used to be the bugbear of less historically-aware officers who struggled to quickly get up to speed with a plethora of factoids that the exam deemed worthy of a well-grounded military education. Remember, this was pre-Internet. Research was done the old fashioned way navigating a maze of book shelves with book lists (not Wikipedia) and the Dewey Decimal system (not Google) to guide one along.

The GMKE was despised and today, few mourn its demise.

If you believe in substance over form, then whether or not the Third Generation SAF counts the GMKE as part of its DNA is really immaterial. The loss of the GMKE should not be bemoaned for sentimental reasons. But one should ponder how we can raise and sustain awareness of, and appreciation for, the lessons of war among young Singaporeans who have made the profession of arms their career choice.

A former MINDEF Perm Sec said:”It is a question of (command) emphasis. GMKE is not what made officers read widely. In the early years, it was Goh Keng Swee who took a direct interest in the education of SAF officers. I recall how he used to recommend books to read, and his suggestions were taken seriously, because he was the Minister for Defence. His interests were eclectic, and not just military history.

“I think this situation is compounded by the advent of the Internet, which filters information that the individual is interested in, and most likely, it is not going to be history.”

Learning gap
If there is a generational shift where technology makes competing demands for one’s time and attention, then MINDEF/SAF must recognise that the pedagogy within our military education system must move with the times.

What now? GMKE for Dummies, downloadable via a smart phone app? Clausewitz’s On War, crunched down into Twitter-size factoids for easy digestion? Modern-day strategic affairs distilled into a tip sheet so you won’t sound stupid in front of foreign diplomats while performing staff officer duty during the Shangri-La Dialogue?

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF is well aware the knowledge gap should not be widened.

Someone who teaches MINDEF/SAF officers said:”In general, there is keen interest in deepening the curriculum in the SAF, but there are practical limits to what can be done. Interest also doesn’t always mean it becomes a priority. Time and ability are the biggest constraints. Officers can’t be on course for too long, and a significant number of them simply don’t have the ability (or inclination) to appreciate academic study.

“I have to point out this isn’t a uniquely Singaporean problem. It’s visible in military education around the world. The ability and inclination for study, however, may change in the future with a greater emphasis on a broadened curriculum in school and university, and more time for officers to attend courses. The academic quality of officers (insofar as critical thinking and writing are concerned) seems to be increasing, and more of them seem genuinely interested in the lessons conducted, though I can’t say they form the majority, or even a sizeable minority, just yet. Still, one should be optimistic.”

That sounds like a promising start: More capable officers who are eager to learn.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that higher operational demands after the 9/11 terror attacks have resulted in a higher operational tempo for the SAF. Higher demands placed on performing homeland security duties such as Ops Bascinet have eaten into the time available for professional development (Note: Such operational taskings should fall as new infantry units have been raised specifically as security battalions, allowing NS battalions to focus on hot-war scenarios. But we’ll save this topic for another day.)

As courses tend to focus on developing specific skill sets needed for one’s vocation – rather than belly-gazing on arcane topics like the use of armour during the Malayan Campaign – and as the local security environment leans towards homeland security ops, we risk raising a generation of SAF officers with a constricted world view on the value and roles of the SAF.

This narrow strategic view is compounded by the lack of a Singapore defence university run by, and staffed with, professional warfighters tasked with delivering a military education curriculum superior to anything available here today.

“The SAF has also always been practical-minded,” noted one observer.

“First, the SAF doesn’t have a defence university with its own faculty because of a lack of critical mass of officers to justify the investment. It’s possibly the only modern, professional force without one. The solution adopted is to outsource it, in this case, to NTU (through RSIS and the SAF NTU Academy, which for now is merely an administrative body). This is a workable solution, but it’s an imperfect (and in some instances, poor) replacement for having its own academic institution with its own uniformed talent.

“Second, it seems to me there is a belief that investing in operational training with a tangible output that contributes to deterrence (that is, soldiers who can function better in the field) is a better use of time, than academic learning. After all, having a soldier who can shoot better is far more effective than one who can debate you.”

Cold War or Cod War. MCV or MCMV. F-16 or M-16. Does anybody give a damn?

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