Speech by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the SAFOS, SMS and DMS Award Presentation Ceremony
A warm welcome to tonight’s scholarship presentation ceremony and dinner. Please accept my heartiest congratulations to 31 recipients. I am sure that your parents, families, principals and friends must be extremely proud of your achievements and that you, in turn, are very grateful for the significant roles that these important people have played in your life.
Every year around this time, MINDEF awards 30 or so scholarships. This is to ensure a steady pipeline of capable leaders for both MINDEF and the SAF. We do this every year. For some, they may become routine but if you think about it, things have changed. Compared to our founding generation when they previously got a scholarship, it is almost the only ticket to be able to study overseas. But today is very different. Even without the scholarships, some families can afford to send their children overseas and our universities – NTU, NUS – are one of the tops. And it just shows that for today’s generation – 18-year-olds – those of us from the older years should remember how we were when we were 18-year-olds. We don’t want to necessarily tell our children how we were and how we thought but we should remember how we were when we were 18-year-olds. Today’s 18-year-olds are much better educated certainly. The first trip that I took overseas was when I was 15 years old was a relatively short trip, but now, 15-year-olds may have travelled to many countries. Younger generations, more choices and better educated, they can choose their universities, they can choose their courses and they can choose their careers. That is the reality that Singapore has done. But they also feel more competition as more and more students excel in both their academic studies and personal development. For example, medical school, 250 places with 2000 applicants all with at least three As or four As. Indeed our selection processes – be it PSC or MINDEF Scholarship Boards – are rigorous and demand the best from applicants.
Each year, they help us to select the most capable, brightest. They handed me the list of those who are successful and I scrutinise the list for a few reasons. One, to see whether we are still attractive, meaning MINDEF and the SAF can still attract top students into careers in MINDEF and the SAF because that is vital and two, whether we kept to the standards. I am happy to say that for this year, I am both impressed and gratified that we are still able to attract our fair share of applicants and that those who have been awarded and accepted the scholarship have shown excellent qualities.
Securing Our Homeland
Joining us tonight are members of the selection boards who have served many years and witnessed successive batches of scholarship recipients. Mr Edward D’Silva and Mr David Wong, who are here with us, must have interviewed countless cohorts of people. I asked them jokingly whether they tortured the recipients and they said no. They are very in-depth and they can sense it is not the answer but sometimes what is behind the answer – how a person thinks, body language, what is the value, what is he thinking. Because of the selection board, these are the people that go into our top ranks in Government and Civil Service, very important. Also with us, are previous scholarship recipients and leaders today in MINDEF and the SAF. When you interact later during dinner, these guests, apart from your parents, will see in you their past replayed because they remember 20 or 25 years ago, they were similarly in this Istana receiving the scholarship. They will remember some facets. They will remember the pride of finishing A-levels, doing well, being selected, the thrill and anticipation of a new journey in your chosen university and the wonderment of what life has in store for the next chapter.
They see that in you and as you interact with them, you should see in them a glimpse of your future; of personal goals to be achieved, in getting a degree and a good education, in finding a life partner and starting your own family. That is a KPI in the SAF. Please put that in. It is important to finding a life partner and I will tell you this. I am not a military man and I do not come from the SAF but I noticed that the officers in the SAF have very good wives. I am not joking and I asked them why. I asked the women why, I did not ask the men why. They told me there is an attraction to the uniform. I am not sure if that is true but anyway let us see, perhaps each cohort will prove the previous cohort correct. But that is a life norm to start a new family and you see in them what they would have gone through as you are going through and now raised to leadership positions in the SAF and MINDEF.
Indeed, as we invest heavily in each of you, great things are expected from the alumni of scholars. And I am glad to see that members of these alumni have stepped up when called. Some examples, LTC Wong Hong Kai is a SAFOS recipient in 2000, was part of the SAF team that went to the people of Philippines after the Super Typhoon Haiyan, gave aid in November last year and he also participated in the search and locate operations for MH370 five months ago.
We have COL Goh Si Hou. Si Hou was a 1997 President and SAFOS recipient, as well as Leong Kai Ping, who was a 2004 DMS recipient. We used them to lead the Committee to Strengthen National Service, as you would have remembered, came out with a slew of recommendations that the Government accepted and this was to strengthen NS for the next generation.
Because we attract, select and award scholarships year after year routinely, we must be careful that some of us, if not all of us, can be lulled and forget the significance of this process, that we have capable men who can interview, who choose, who go through, scrutinise each person that applies and then awards, what it means for MINDEF; what it means to the SAF and Singapore. Because it is this ability to induct the brightest and most capable with the right values of service and commitment into the top ranks of leadership. This is a virtuous and vital ingredient that makes for the future success of our Singapore.
The moment this pipeline stops, the moment we start degrading. We have to keep it up, make sure the routine never gets mistaken for something unimportant. It is routine that is vital because committed, incorrupt capable leaders within all agencies of Government have brought us very far compared to other countries in the world. For the SAF, we are no exception; it is this well-stocked cadre of thinking and progressive leaders that has transformed the organisation into a professional military force, respected by all. Without their capability, the SAF could not have learnt from other militaries.
And the present and future challenges for the security of Singapore necessitate such continuing top notch leadership. All around, people are saying that the environment is more comprehensive, local population is more complex; more issues. The external environment is more complex. Indeed it is, whether it is threats to our sovereignty, our international airspace, terrorism, natural disasters, biological pandemics, cyber threats- they are all complex, they are transnational and they need rapid decisive response. Case in point – who would have thought that the trouble in faraway Ukraine, when there was a problem in Ukraine, we brought it up at Parliament. Many Singaporeans responded,-This is very distant. Why are you talking about it?” Who would have thought, trouble in faraway Ukraine could have impacted people in this region until the tragic downing of MH 17? And it was not because that we were clever or advanced -it could have been any airline that was flying in the airspace. Who could have thought trouble faraway would have approximate and direct influence on us? Because in today’s interconnected world and more so in the future, any region can be affected by trouble elsewhere, which is why within the last decade, this decade itself, the SAF deployed thousands of kilometres away in Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden. People may forget but it was in Afghanistan that they found the tapes of terrorists that were doing recces of places that they wanted to bomb before we unearthed the G.I plot. Problems elsewhere impact us here.
As the ultimate guarantor of Singapore’s security, you are now part of the SAF in MINDEF, must make SAF remain a strong and credible force to protect us against all security threats and to give Singaporeans the confidence that our homeland and loved ones are safe. In accepting these scholarships today, you have pledged yourselves to serve this noble cause.
An Exciting and Rewarding Career
Tonight therefore, we celebrate the achievements of our scholarship recipients as well as celebrate another cohort of strong potential leaders for MINDEF and the SAF. As a scholarship recipient, you can expect an exciting and rewarding career. Significant resources and deliberate efforts will be committed to help you realise your full potential. The roles and responsibilities will be demanding and will test your mental, physical and leadership abilities. I am confident that each of you will rise up to every challenge and collectively make MINDEF and the SAF better organisations.
As scholarship recipients, much is expected from you. But there is one essential aspect that you must personally be responsible for and watch over – that of personal integrity and trust. Not only what you say, what you don’t say. What you do, what you don’t. That’s personal to you because once personal integrity and trust are lost or questioned – you can no longer be an efficient leader. The organisation and the public will look to you to embody and uphold the highest standards of integrity and devotion to duty while serving MINDEF and the SAF. I am not telling you, you can’t play, but play safe. In fact, that is part of the process – to be able to explore. I think you will be able to manage. I am confident that you will carry out your roles and responsibilities to your utmost and provide the confidence that when people look at you, that they will say “Our home is in safe hands.”
Let me once again extend my congratulations to all of you for being awarded MINDEF and SAF scholarships. I want to thank the scholarship boards, PSC members for this rigorous selection, for giving this time to selecting. I urge you as recipients to not forget your parents, teachers and peers who have played a crucial role in guiding and supporting you along your journey.
On this note, I wish you every success in your studies and I look forward to your future contributions to MINDEF and the SAF. Congratulations.