Is Singapore run by a military junta?

In another example of the terrible journalistic standards, the Straits Times (ST) of Singapore counted that there are five former military men in the new cabinet.

The five that ST named are: Lee Hsien Loong (Prime Minister), Teo Chee Hean (Deputy Prime Minister), Chan Chun Sing (Minister in Prime Minister’s Office), Tan Chuan-Jin (Minister for Social and Family Development), and the newly appointed Ng Chee Meng (acting Minister for one part of Education).

But a quick bit of research will reveal that there are two other full ministers in the cabinet who formerly had careers in the military. They are Lim Hng Kiang (almost permanent Minister for Trade and Industry) and Lim Swee Say (Minister for Manpower).

According to Lim Hng Kiang’s CV on the PMO website, he spent nine years in SAF, holding several command and staff appointments. As for Lim Swee Say, I cannot find details of his career in the SAF, but the Wikipedia says that Lim Swee Say was awarded a SAF scholarship to study in UK. Knowing how the SAF scholarships work in Singapore, this means that Lim Swee Say probably spent at least a good eight years in SAF before moving off to any other places and also probably held some command and staff appointments.

So seven out of twenty cabinet ministers formerly had careers in the military. For comparison, four of the cabinet ministers were career civil servants without any background in the SAF (not counting NS and reservist, of course) before joining politics. They are: Khaw Boon Wan, Gan Kim Yong, Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung. One of the cabinet ministers, Heng Swee Keat, started his career in the police force before joining the civil service. Tharman was in MAS for a large part of his career prior to politics. Yaacob Ibrahim was a university lecturer. Grace Fu was sort of from the private sector (started in OUB, then PSA). Similarly Masagos was sort of from the private sector (started in Singapore Telecomm Limited, which is now SingTel). S Iswaran’s pre-politics career consistd of work in both private and public sector. Shanmugam was a lawyer and then there are the two medical doctors: Ng Eng Hen and Vivan Balakrishnan.

The comparison shows that the former military men form the single largest bloc amongst the full ministers.

The influence of former military men is not just within Cabinet. There are numerous permanent secretaries (PS) who are also former military men. In the civil service, there is a total of 22 positions for PS. Out of the 22, five are held by former military men: Neo Kian Hong, Chee Wee Kiong, Neo Kian Hong and Ng Chee Khern (Ng Chee Khern holds two PS positions).

And there are countless generals who hold key appointments in statutory boards and government linked companies (e.g. Ng Yat Chung, former Chief Defence Force, is Group President and CEO of Neptune Orient Line).

With so many former military men holding top positions in the government, it is understandable why there is the impression that the fastest way to the top of the government is through the military route. So parents take note: if you aspire for your child to be a minister or a PS, groom your child to get the SAFOS.

However, I believe that all the above does not really mean that Singapore is run by a military junta. Because all of the military men who are now holding top positions in the government all relinquished their military appointments before taking over their portfolios in politics or civil service.

That said, one cannot help but wonder why the influence of so many former senior SAF officers spreads so far, wide and deep throughout the various organs of government in Singapore. I wonder whether this is normal for other countries too. Are former military men really the most suitable candidates to lead government institutions and government-linked companies? If so, then what is it about the SAF that trains and develops their high potential officers to be the most capable and suitable to run non-military government institutions and government-linked companies?

Any suggestions?


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