Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hits and Missus

Foreword: This post illustrates difficulties whistleblowers may face and the burden well-intentioned defence personnel may have to bear when commenting on the annual promotions list.

Signaling that an officer may not be ready or suitable for an appointment is neither straightforward or hazard-free. SAF personnel who voice misgivings have to remember that the very act of doing so may invite repercussions.

This post was never intended to cast aspersions on the motives of SAF officers/WOSEs who commented on past promotion cases. As a reader pointed out, they did so because they care for the right things. Please read this post in that light. Thank you.
War talk took a back seat when the Mexican General’s mobile phone buzzed to life. The electronic interloper stopped our conversation in midstream but rewarded me with a better feel of just how close our officers are to the General’s armed forces.

Being the consummate gentleman, the General apologised before checking the SMS - something most Singaporeans don’t ever do. Tsk.

“Wait a moment,” he said, leaving a half-told story of a tank battle in Lebanon hanging in the air as his fingers scrolled down the message.

“Do you know (name of Singapore Armed Forces officer)?”, he asked.

I replied “yes” and he reached over the table – peanut dish and ash tray indicating enemy and friendly positions of the foretold tank battle – and handed me his mobilephone.

From what I recall, the message went something like this: “Dear (name of Mexican), I have been promoted to the rank of Tat Aluf…”

I can’t recall the rest. Even if I did, it would be improper to share private conversation between a General and peasant soldier.

But I can share that I did ask him what on earth a Tat Aluf was.

It meant the rank of Brigadier General in the Mexican’s defence force.

I was happy for the SAF officer as I had known him in a professional capacity for a number of years.

As I would soon find out, not all of the Singaporean Tat Aluf’s peer group officers shared my sentiments. Some even said they would have hung up their uniform for good had the newly-minted Tat Aluf risen to command the Singapore Army.

One of the realities of a hierarchical system populated (or shall we say dominated?) by highly-driven personalities who are the cream of Singapore’s education system is the intense rivalry that takes place for top positions. Scholar officers jockey to be top gun, eager to catch the eye of the system yet not sabotaging their chances for promotion by rocking the boat or stepping out of line too much.

Innovation and initiative are triumph cards in a system where conformity brands one as a follower, not a leader. And leadership of a high order is precisely what the system expects from its generals. So the ambitious have to calibrate their career signature and prominence wisely.

Some who make it truly earn their keep.

And then there are some who squeak through from one ranking and banding exercise to another till one day, they end up at the top of the heap to the utter surprise of some, the disgust of others and the dismay of their hapless underlings.

To be sure, I had no issues with the Tat Aluf in this story. In our many conversations, he had always shown himself competent, well-grounded in the theory and history of war, able to hold his own in numerous what-if scenarios we discussed involving mechanical age warfare. He did strike me as being somewhat flamboyant, but who out there doesn’t have some quirk worth talking about.

His peer group officers felt otherwise. I was therefore surprised when he left the SAF even after he was offered a top post in the system. The aforementioned Tat Aluf had only one position in his sights. And when he didn’t achieve that goal, he left for the private sector.

This episode has two takeaways for me. First, that the promotion system does result in exceptions who are fully competent technically, tactically and scholastically, but lack that X-factor expected of high office holders. If you know what I mean, all well and good as I won’t elaborate.

Second, some SAF officers feel it’s worth their while memorising the rank structure of a certain foreign defence force. Indeed, some even speak the language. I’m not sure why, but I personally doubt committing foreign rank structures to memory will accelerate one’s career trajectory.

As promotion season looms, there’s little doubt many SAF officers will nurse ambitions of higher rank attained by a select few.

By and large, the system seldom disappoints.

But there are exceptions to every rule.

Some of these exceptions disappoint both the system and the staff officers in the directorate they were entrusted to command. And when the sun sets on their reign, the delta measured from the time they took command to the magic handover moment is at best negligible, at worst a few steps backward.

Their legacy is a contribution to the story bank that will be retold at mess functions and private get-togethers, mostly behind their back as the system picks up the wreckage and rebuilds.

Some stories will be retold with relish, some with unrestrained glee but I know of one directorate which will retell its experience with relief.


Anonymous said...

Mexican general's friend must either be wong or tan

Anonymous said...

Gotta feeling it's the former

FinalFive said...

To me there are only 2 kinds of Officers who emerge as the worst types to hang around with during the promotion season - The Changelings and Imagineers.

Changelings are the arrogant ruthless types who step into a new post with the ambition of making change happen, regardless of cost. They have to leave proof for the system to identify that these guys are worth the initial investment, and therefore worthy of promoting. Most of these sorts are scholars. They are ruthless because ANYTHING that stands in the way of change is to be castigated and stamped out. Sometimes changelings don't know that they are arrogant arses. They just believe fervently that the system is f-ed up and hence change must happen.

Imagineers are really sad basketcases. They fight for promotion with every bit of action done (which can be regarded as 'achievement')during their tour. Their reasoning is the direct opposite of Changelings. Because most of their family and friends are in the private sector, or have had a bad time in NS, they sneer at their job. So Imagineers are constantly fighting for the respect that they will never get out of these fellows. It is one thing to say at 28 that "I am a Lieutenant", which essentially means 'farmer, A-level/Poly holder' and totally another thing to say "I am a Captain(2)" which means 'award holder, possible scholar,future flag rank'. The funny thing is - there is nothing further from the truth with such thoughts, but imagineers fight their imaginary fight everyday.

Both behave similarly when it comes to ranking season. But they are WORLDS apart. One of them needs a humility lesson. The other needs counselling.

I wonder how many of us have kicked ourselves out of the system because we were left 'untreated'.

Anonymous said...

Come on, stop using the term "Mexican". Everyone knows its Israeli. One Google of the term "Tat Aluf" can blow the cover.