Monday 22 July 2013

SAF to recruit more women

Military aims for 3,000 women as number of male enlistees is expected to shrink
By Jermyn Chow, The Sunday Times, 21 Jul 2013

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is looking for more women to join as career soldiers as the pool of qualified male enlistees shrinks.

For a start, it wants at least 500 more women by 2018. When that happens, one in 10 career soldiers will be a woman.

Beyond that, the military hopes to double its current female population to at least 3,000, said the SAF's chief recruiter Gan Siow Huang.

Latest statistics revealed to The Sunday Times show that 1,500 women now hold combat jobs, with 60 young women signing on every year as officers, specialists and warrant officers, and military experts.

These female combatants, who serve as artillery gunners, pilots and intelligence analysts, among others, account for 7.5 per cent of the SAF's pool of regulars.

By comparison, women make up 14 per cent of the United States military and more than 10 per cent of the Australian Defence Force.

Colonel Gan, one of the first four women who received the SAF Merit Scholarship in 1993, heads the Joint Manpower Department. She said the number of female troops in the SAF is "way too low", adding: "There are many top-quality women out there who can contribute so we need to be more aggressive to get them to sign up.

"We also don't want to be overly reliant on the pool of male enlistees. Today they may be our main group, but the numbers are going down."

About 21,000 males enlisted for national service in 2011. But given the declining birth rate, the number is expected to shrink to about 15,000 a year in future.

Adding more women will boost the ranks and ensure that the SAF can still mobilise about 300,000 soldiers from regulars, full-time national servicemen and operationally ready NSmen, said Col Gan.

The army recruited its first women combatants in 1986.

Australia, South Korea, Germany and Israel allow women to serve in combat roles. Last month, the Americans revealed plans to open up more combat positions to women.

Col Gan said the SAF will be doing more to hire women who can perform well in areas like cyber-defence, military intelligence and air warfare surveillance.

The army and air force recently started recruitment drives targeted at women. Among other things, the Defence Ministry's publication Pioneer was bundled with women's magazine Cleo for the first time last year.

The navy will start its recruitment campaign for women later this year.

Defence analyst Bernard Loo said that while the SAF has been progressive in integrating women into its ranks, some "apparent barriers" need to be removed.

Noting that the highest-ranked SAF female officer now is a colonel, Dr Loo said: "The perceived glass ceiling will truly be broken if a female officer becomes a general and shows that there is true meritocracy within the SAF."

But Col Gan, the only female colonel in active service now, said: "We are not about to put a woman in a job or promote her for the sake of doing so or to make a statement.

"It is about who is the best man for the job."

Men treat us like one of them, say SAF women
Female SAF regulars say they have not encountered any discrimination
By Jermyn Chow, The Sunday Times, 21 Jul 2013

Women combatants in the Singapore Armed Forces say the male-dominated workplace is a conducive environment for doing well and progressing in their careers.

About a third of the 60 women who sign on with the SAF every year receive study awards and scholarships for their tertiary studies, said the Defence Ministry.

This also puts them on track to be groomed as commanders and leaders in the top military brass.

The women who spoke to The Sunday Times said they have not encountered any discrimination from their male colleagues.

Military Expert 2 Jayanthi Armugamm, who signed on with the navy in 1997, said she was never made to feel like an outsider when she was the only female in the combat medic training course.

"The boys treated me like one of them and made me feel comfortable... They were very supportive and we helped each other out," said the 34-year-old mother of two.

While she admits that she does not outperform the bigger-sized men in physical training, she has held her own in medical emergency drills.

"My only limit is my physical ability... In everything else, we are equals and fair competitors," she said.

Infantry officer Nur Atiqah Ahmad Rosman, 25, agreed, and said today's battlefield requires as much mental and intellectual power as brawn.

"A lot has got to do with positive attitude and mental strength. Size does not matter," said the pint-sized platoon commander from the Officer Cadet School, who gave birth to daughter Nur Alesya, her first child, on July 9.

And being a mother in the SAF does not disrupt the servicewoman's career progression.

Major Neo Su Yin, 33, a mother of one and commanding officer of the navy's patrol vessel RSS Dauntless, said: "I never felt I was at a disadvantage or marginalised when I was pregnant. I was still given many opportunities and moved ahead in my career."

Some women, like artillery instructor Angeline Wong, have also impressed commanders with how they handle volatile situations.

Staff Sergeant Wong, who signed on with the army when she was 17, is one of six women who have done tours of duty in Afghanistan.

During her deployment in 2010, she and her team risked being hit by enemy artillery and rocket attacks.

The 29-year-old said a rocket shell landed only 100m from her.

Senior Warrant Officer K. Chandran, who was in the war-torn region at the same time, said the cool-headed women appeared to have "a calming effect" on the men.

Pioneer scholarship holder also proud mum
By Jermyn Chow, The Sunday Times, 21 Jul 2013

The most senior female officer in the Singapore Armed Forces is Colonel Gan Siow Huang, who was among the first four women to receive the SAF merit scholarship in 1993.

After graduating from the London School of Economics, she rose through the ranks and is now head of the SAF's joint manpower department. She is also something of a poster girl for the SAF's recruitment campaign for women.

Her successful military career included stints drafting policies, and commanding the Republic of Singapore Air Force's 203 squadron and Air Surveillance and Control Group.

But the 39-year-old is also a proud mother of three girls: Ella, nine; Emma, five; and Eleanor, one.

Despite her current 8am-to-7pm work routine, Col Gan still manages to spend at least three hours with her daughters in their Bukit Panjang home. "It is always a joy to be there to witness every step of their growing-up years," said Col Gan, who is married to Mr Lee Jek Suen.

It was through the military that they met in 1994. He was a naval officer studying in Britain on an SAF scholarship. They got married in 1998.

Mr Lee, who left the service in 2006 for the private sector, said in jest: "At least she was holding a stable job, allowing me to be more adventurous with my job options."

Col Gan said her second pregnancy was her "most trying" because her husband was away in Algeria. After that, the family decided to settle down, with Mr Lee taking twice-monthly work trips to Shanghai.

Col Gan, who also has a Master of Business Administration from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, admitted that as a pioneer female scholarship recipient, she does face some pressure to meet people's expectations.

Many others have followed in her footsteps, with one becoming the first woman to be awarded the most prestigious SAF Overseas Scholarship in 2010.

Col Gan said: "It keeps me going, knowing that I'm not alone and I cannot let down some of the very good men and women I've worked with over the years. I'm still happy to know that I'm doing something that is more than just desk-bound and money-making."

Yearning for the front line
By Jermyn Chow, The Sunday Times, 21 Jul 2013

Dissatisfied with her humdrum stint in a paediatric ward, nurse Kong Hui Yun decided to switch to a military career and a more fast-paced emergency department.

She was drawn to the prospect of treating casualties on the front line, after chancing upon an advertisement about the Singapore Armed Forces' overseas deployment in Afghanistan in 2011.

"I wanted to experience the thrill and adrenaline, working against time and resources to treat war injuries," said the 27-year-old, who worked for more than three years in hospitals here.

She traded her nursing whites for green fatigues last year, hoping to emulate one of her heroes, Florence Nightingale, and tend to wounded soldiers.

She joined the SAF's Military Domain Experts Scheme, in which she would be a medical military expert.

Despite being offered a senior military expert rank, she requested to start from scratch before moving up the rank structure.

"I wanted to be with the men and get hands-on experience in the medical centres, rather than do administrative work in the medical corps headquarters," said Military Expert (ME) 1-2 Kong.

She has not looked back since.

Today, she is the second-in-charge at one of the busiest SAF medical centres in Pasir Laba Camp.

Since her posting last October, she has attended to soldiers with respiratory problems, fractures, seizures and fainting spells.

She has also been mentoring medics under her, teaching them how to bandage or handle casualties better.

The avid motorcylist, who rides a CBR 150 bike, said: "The discipline and regimentation in the military suits me and I definitely am more motivated to put in my best, and hopefully inspire more people to join."

A naval diver, tough as the guys
By Jermyn Chow, The Sunday Times, 21 Jul 2013

Naval diver Esther Tan almost did not make history as the crack unit's first-ever female in 2001.

She finished among the top of her naval officer cadet batch and aced her physical and medical tests, but she was not picked for the final - and most crucial - interview to qualify for the Naval Diving Unit.

The indignant 25-year-old challenged the decision. "I knew I had fulfilled all requirements so I just asked what else I lacked," she recalled.

That paid off and she landed an interview with the unit's then commander. Among other things, she could run 6km within 28 minutes and swim 50m in under a minute.

"All I thought was to convince him that I was confident that I could do it," she said.

She was accepted into the elite unit and went on to specialise in search-and-rescue operations and explosive ordnance disposal. She is now a major.

Despite blazing the trail as the first woman naval diver, the avid triathlete, who has taken part in more than 30 international marathons, triathlons, and Ironman and adventure races, still had to overcome her peers' pre-conceived notions.

"They wanted to tie knots on a rope, thinking they were helping to make it easier for me to climb up and clear the obstacle, but I just told them, 'No need'," she recalled.

She eventually broke the barriers with the men and became good friends with them.

These days, the tanned 38-year-old works in the navy's intelligence department. She runs every other day and spends two hours working out in the gym on weekends. This is to build up her strength and stamina so she can still carry up to 39kg of load and weapons underwater.

She said: "If a woman is competent and has leadership qualities, her career shouldn't be hampered by her shape, her size or her gender."

Promote NS volunteer scheme for women
By Jermyn Chow, The Straits Times, 8 Aug 2013

DEFENCE planners have been doing some soul searching about national service (NS). What lies ahead for this rite of passage for the nation's young men, 46 years after it was first introduced?

As part of that crystal ball-gazing exercise, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) organised a series of focus group discussions with Singaporeans on NS.

One issue that cropped up was how women can play a bigger role in Singapore's defence. "We cannot just be bystanders and just watch the men slog...we also have to do our part for the country," said Ms Estelle Lek, a 36-year-old sales manager. She would serve NS - and said her 13-year-old daughter would too.

She is among a group of females who clamour for women to do NS. Some favour shorter stints, or duties that involve administrative, logistics or nursing roles. Others think girls, like boys, should do compulsory NS.

Real estate agent Lucie Chua, who has a daughter and a son, said: "NS will not only strengthen women mentally and physically. The experience will also help to correct any misconceptions about NS and get more buy-in from everyone."

The issue of NS for women has been debated since the 1980s. Some want women to be allowed to opt in to do NS, while others think women should be conscripted the same way as men, if they want true gender equality.

In 2004, then-MP Lim Hwee Hua, the former chairman of the PAP Women's Wing, said: "Women have equal responsibility to men. Women have equal access to education and employment ... It's a form of discrimination if only men serve NS."

In fact, only Israel has compulsory military service for women. They serve for two years, form a third of all Israeli Defence Force soldiers and half its officer corps.

In 2015, Norway, a self-touted leader in equal rights, will become the first European and Nato country to enlist women, who will serve one-year stints. These female enlistees are likely to undergo outfield training to learn how to fire weapons, manoeuvre in the battlefield and build up stamina.

This comes even as others, including Sweden and Taiwan, ditch conscription altogether. The abolitions are fuelled by financial pressures as countries slash their defence budgets.

For Singapore, NS has been a must for men since 1967. More than a million Singaporean men have donned uniforms to serve in the military, civil defence and police force. NS is touted as a social leveller, a glue that binds Singaporeans together.

For now, though, the official stand is that there's no need to enlist women. There are "no operational needs to justify doing so", explained Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in 2011, when he was Second Defence Minister.

This is despite declining birth rates, which will result in the number of qualified male enlistees shrinking from the current 20,000-plus to about 15,000 a year in future. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) responds by relying more on technology.

In Singapore, women who are keen to play an active role can sign up as career soldiers. The army broke its all-male tradition and recruited its first women combatants in 1986. Today, there are 1,500 women who hold combat jobs, with 60 young women signing on every year as officers, specialists and military experts.

Now, the SAF wants to double its current female combatant population.

Women who want to do NS but not become career soldiers already have an avenue to do so. They can sign up as volunteers once they turn 17.

The trouble is that not enough is being done to promote the volunteer option for women.

The last publicly available figures show that more than 80 females volunteered as nursing and medical officers in 1995.

When contacted, Mindef declined to give the latest number of female volunteers or how many times they have been called up.

There is hardly any information on how and where women can serve. Attempts to look through SAF or Mindef-related websites drew a blank.

The SAF should make its volunteer scheme for women more widely known. This will also serve as a litmus test of the support for NS for women.

To get more female volunteers, Mindef has to broaden the roles available to them. Besides nursing, administrative or logistics jobs, today's tech-savvy women should also be allowed to serve in new warfare areas such as cyber-defence and military intelligence.

A spell in the SAF units will give the women a realistic sense of today's high-tech battlefield and better showcase military careers for women, something that has been quite difficult to do without compulsory NS.

But defence planners must make sure the volunteer enlistment programme for women has enough depth and duration for the women to make a meaningful contribution.

Military service is serious business in which all servicemen and women are trained to defend every citizen. A huge amount of money, resources and time will be invested to house, feed and train future G.I. Janes.

The last thing anyone wants is for the volunteer programme to be seen by parents and teenage girls as an adventure camp to toughen up princesses.

It will be counter-productive to boost the NS corps with those who are only planning to play at adventure, and leave after they've had enough of green fatigues.

Dr Ng, who is spearheading the ongoing NS review, said it is timely to look long and hard at how to strengthen NS because "every new generation will need to find its own commitment to NS".

Maybe this millennial generation is ready to embrace a new breed of women warriors.

Want more women in the SAF? Here’s how
By Fitriani Bintang Timur, Published TODAY, 8 Aug 2013

Singapore has clear examples of embracing diversity in its armed forces. It has gradually built generations of multiracial troops since the early days of nation building.

Currently, the country has broadened its policy of inclusivity to recruit more women as the number of males is forecast to decline nearly 29 per cent (from 21,000 to 15,000 recruits) due to the falling birth rate. Despite not having any female general to date, the forces have voiced support for women to “go the distance”.

One good example is Colonel Gan Siow Huang, the first female colonel in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) who was promoted in 2010 with experience in drafting policies and commanding RSAF 203 Squadron, as well as the Air Surveillance and Control Group.

The 2011 National Day Parade (NDP) proudly brought on Jennifer Tan — the first female combatant to reach the rank of Master Warrant Officer — as the first female Regimental Sergeant-Major on stage. This year’s NDP will feature the first woman parachutist, 3rd Warrant Officer Shirley Ng, in Singapore’s 48-year national history.


Singapore introduced the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Merit Scholarship for women in 1997. The scholarship provides support for outstanding women, with strong leadership qualities and who passed basic military and officer training, to pursue overseas undergraduate studies. They take up SAF senior command and management positions upon their return. Col Gan was one of its best graduates.

The SAF recruited its first female combatants in 1986, allowing them to serve as artillery gunners, pilots and intelligence analysts. In 2004, Singapore began to assign women as mortar platoon leaders in infantry units.

Singapore’s achievement in allowing women into combat roles has been praised by Ms Jennifer Mathers, an American expert on women in the military, for being ahead of the United States. The US has had fierce debates on whether women can enter combat roles, up until early this year when they decided to drop barriers for women to access all military roles.

However, Ms Mathers notes that in the SAF, most women are still confined primarily to support roles, with few managing to attain senior command positions.


It is difficult for women to be in the armed forces. They gain more visibility as a minority in a masculine institution. Thus, they are required to perform even better than their male peers to avoid being labelled as “poster women” or tokens. Cynicism greets both women enrolling in the SAF and the institution’s sincere intention to improve the country’s defence posture. This hinders the full integration of women.

The instant-integrationist approach has side effects in that the male majority envy the minority getting the limelight and leniency. Nevertheless, Singapore is known for its merit-based society, and has done well to keep its heterogeneous society together. Surely this challenge of replenishing its human resources with the best persons for military roles, whether men or women, will be tackled with similar attitude.

Within the security sector globally, the critical mass of 30 per cent minority representation — adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995 — has been difficult to attain.

Even the UN Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKO) modestly targets a goal of 20 per cent female police peacekeepers by next year — a goal that seems far away because, as of March this year, women comprised less than 10 per cent of the police forces and only 3 per cent of military forces — this after mainstreaming efforts raised the number from 1 per cent in the 1990s.

The UN PKO has acknowledged that they face difficulty in meeting quota goals for women peacekeepers because there is a gap in the data and analysis on female participation in national security institutions worldwide, as well as social biases that perpetuate gender inequality within the sector.

Still, the UN PKO stresses the importance of female peacekeepers to act as role models, inspire women and girls, address specific needs of female ex-combatants and survivors of gender-based violence, mentor female cadets in military and police academies, and interact in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men.


One country that encounters similar problems in recruiting and retaining more women in its armed forces is Norway. The country’s goal is 25 per cent females in the armed forces by 2025; last year, it stood at 12.4 per cent. The Norwegian Defence Department identified three reasons for this.

First, Norwegian women viewed military as a launch pad to other careers. Second, they perceived family relationships as a priority. Third, they felt that the military has an exclusionary culture that is male-dominated and hard to break.

Yet, acknowledging these weaknesses and sticking to the commitment are good ways to plough ahead. Last year, Norway was the only UN member state that promoted a senior female candidate to the leadership position of force commander in its UN PKO military component.


Leadership is important in a top-down organisation like the armed forces, including Singapore’s. Hence, the first strategic action required to integrate women into the forces is for the military top brass to demonstrate — both in a public setting as well as within military training — their confidence in women’s ability to take on military roles.

This is to encourage open-mindedness and dispel the perception that the SAF recruits only a token few females, demonstrating instead that it is committed to both genders being equally respected.

Secondly, a strategic plan is required to better recruit and retain women personnel. Gender-sensitive and specific force-generation strategy to promote gender equality would better address the underlying issues that cause women to have reservation about entering the SAF.

Creating female military personnel role models, establishing gender-coaching programmes, conducting outreach initiatives and having gender advisers are some of the policies that can be implemented. Last but not least, research into social norms and equality engineering will be important.

When all the foundation works are complete, Singapore will be in better position to reach its goal of 10 per cent women career soldiers who can then be pushed to their maximum potential. So far, good marks have been attained. Greater female contribution to the SAF will help make the future look better for all Singaporeans.

Fitriani Bintang Timur is an Associate Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She was formerly a researcher at the Institute for Defence Security and Peace Studies, Indonesia, and a Research Fellow at Technische Universitat Dortmund, Germany.

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