Singapore’s eighth Chief of Defence Force may be the top man in the country’s military, but that did not stop him from lugging 20kg of combat gear on a 32km route march among junior comrades less than half his age.

Lieutenant-General Ng Chee Meng volunteered for the army combat skills course last year, taking part alongside 20-year-old trainees.

He also completed a two-week naval diving course.

An ace pilot more comfortable within the confines of the fighter jet, he said he wanted to understand the “way of life” in the army and navy.

“I’ve done the route march as a young man. I wanted to go through it again just to understand what the people who serve together with me go through,” said Lt-Gen Ng in an interview ahead of yesterday’s Singapore Armed Forces Day.

People seem to be the main focus for Lt-Gen Ng, who took over the helm from Lt-Gen Neo Kian Hong in March last year.

The graduate of the prestigious US Air Force Academy joined the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in 1986, and is only the second man from the air force to be promoted to the top job in the SAF’s 49-year history.

More than a year into his job, he paid tribute to the 350,000- plus men and women he leads, calling them the SAF’s “biggest asset” and part of a “tribe” that sets high standards.

In Lt-Gen Ng’s tribe, there is an open culture in which commanders, and the rank and file, speak their minds and do not mince words so as to “derive the best decision”.

And with a more vocal and questioning generation of servicemen reporting for duty, the defence chief sees great opportunities.

“I was a 21-year-old before, I embrace the idealism of the younger generation,” he said.

He added that he will take on their views, but as a 46-year- old man now, he will “try to imbue in them a balance of idealism and pragmatism”.

Lt-Gen Ng said getting people to share their opinions promotes a sense of ownership of the SAF.

But he cautioned that an “open culture is not equating to anarchy”. “As a military force, once a decision is taken, I do expect my commanders to carry (out) those decisions and implement those decisions successfully on the ground… you cannot have a discussion at a time of crisis and have different divergent instructions all over the place.”

While SAF combatants train hard to sharpen its fighting edge, Lt-Gen Ng stressed that he trusts his commanders to “do the right thing” and ensure training is conducted safely.

“But there’s inherent risk involved in the military and in any daily activities… if you’re going to be very, very safe, well, stay at home.”

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