Sunday 25 August 2013

National Service: From scepticism to accepted way of life - Winston Choo

This month marks the 46th anniversary of national service. Winston Choo, the first and longest-serving Chief of the Singapore Armed Forces (1974-1992), shares his personal insights of his years in the army and of national service.
The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2013

A FORTNIGHT ago on Aug 9, thousands of Singaporeans celebrated our nation's 48th birthday.

What many may not know, however, is that August also marks the month that the first batch of 9,000 young men were enlisted for compulsory national service in 1967.

This first batch led the way.

Now, 46 years later, more than 900,000 Singaporeans have served and played their part in defending our home.

When I joined the military in 1959, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) did not exist. Even Singapore did not exist then as an independent nation.

City boys can fight too

AFTER I was commissioned as an officer in 1961, I was in the 1st Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR), who were all career soldiers.

In 1963, then Indonesian President Sukarno launched the Konfrontasi, or Confrontation, campaign to oppose the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which merged Singapore, Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak.

When the Confrontation broke out, we were sent to Sebatik Island south of Sabah - the northern half was under Malaysia, the southern half was under Indonesia. We were there conducting operations for about seven months. Our role was to patrol the border areas and ensure that there were no intrusions by infiltrators into Sabah.

We went there expecting to take fire, expecting to fight. We didn't have any experience then and, of course, there was some degree of apprehension that we could lose our lives.

We had a real enemy across the border, and it is only natural that any person would feel fear. We were all carrying loaded weapons and you don't carry loaded weapons unless you expect to use them.

When you go into an operational zone, you must go in with the expectation that this danger might happen. There was always this sense that we could be shot at.

But if you train your people well and motivate them well, they will fight, and fight well. We knew that it was professionally and operationally expected of us to fight.

I remember that when we first arrived, the talk within the brigade - we had a Malaysian brigade commander - was, "these Singaporeans cannot fight. They are city boys".

As it turned out, we could.

There was shooting and mortar fire, and we continued with our operations. Our soldiers performed their tasks courageously and did not turn tail and run.

Fortunately, those of us in 1 SIR didn't suffer any casualties, though our brothers from 2 SIR did in Kota Tinggi.

We executed our duties as professionals and we showed the rest that we were capable of fighting alongside the best of them.

But that was just the first battle that we had to fight.

Becoming independent

TWO years later in 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia.

We were in camp when they said that then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was going to make a statement, so we turned on the radio. His voice broke because he was very emotional - I will never forget his voice when he announced the separation.

At the time, we had a mixture of Singaporean, Malaysian and British soldiers in my battalion. Nobody showed a lot of emotion. The British officers were the ones who cheered, whereas the rest of us were more subdued, because I think to us, the repercussions and implications were tremendous.

I was just a young captain then, but what struck me was the importance of having the military capability to ensure Singapore's sovereignty.

We were all concerned about the future, about what was going to happen to Singapore. It became evidently clear to me that unless we had a strong military, we were not going to survive.

We had two army battalions then. In 1 SIR, three-quarters were Singaporeans, one-quarter Malaysians. The ratio in 2 SIR was almost 50-50. We realised we would have only 11/4 of a battalion after the Malaysians left.

And even after independence, the presence of the Malaysian Armed Forces in Singapore was still overwhelming.

A battalion of the Royal Malay Regiment continued to occupy Temasek Camp in Holland Road. They refused to vacate the battalion camp, and 2 SIR, which had returned from Sabah, had to live in tents in Farrer Park. It took them quite some time before they pulled out and 2 SIR went back to Temasek Camp.

Any thinking Singaporean, especially those involved in the military, would realise how naked we were as a small country.

When the time came for us to build the Singapore Armed Forces, there was no doubt among us about the need to have our own defence capability.

Taking charge of our own

I HAD been under the command of the British, then the Malaysians, and finally we Singaporeans were in charge. It was as though I had been in three different armies, but I never changed my cap badge or my uniform. To me, I was always just a part of the Singapore Infantry Regiment.

Everything that I had gone through made me appreciate Singapore's independence even more. We were now the owners of our own destiny. Vital to that was the capability to look after ourselves and be responsible for our own defence.

At the time, the Vietnam War was raging and the American soldiers were pulling out, so there was a more heightened sense of the need for security and defence.

It was a continuous stretch of events - the Confrontation, the breakaway from Malaysia, the communist threat during the Vietnam War, and the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore and the region - that made us aware of our vulnerability and the need to be strong.

We could have a capable armed force only through national service (NS). Singapore could not, and cannot, afford to raise and maintain a non-conscript armed force of sufficient strength without bankrupting our economic workforce.

When NS was introduced in 1967, it was not a popular move. The Chinese had a saying, "Good sons don't become soldiers".

Our leaders, led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and then Defence Minister, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, went out of the way to emphasise the importance of NS.

There were send-off parties in every constituency, where all the young men who were supposed to go do NS attended dinners with their Members of Parliament, and were given gifts and some small mementos as a gesture of appreciation.

When we first started NS, of course there was a lot of mystique and doubt as a result of rumours and lack of awareness. I think the youth of today and the average Singaporean parent now have very good knowledge of what to expect.

These days, parents are encouraged to visit Pulau Tekong, and the Basic Military Training graduation parade has become more visible to the public - it is held at the Marina Bay Floating Platform, and parents and other Singaporeans can see the young men and take pride in them.

Then and now

IT TOOK us a long time and a lot of effort to get NS fully accepted as a way of life, as something every son of Singapore should be doing.

Now, every young man expects that after he finishes his Institute of Technical Education course, polytechnic studies or A levels, he has to do his NS. It is something which everyone today accepts as a given, a fact of life. That much has changed over time.

Of course, you find a lot of fathers today who say: "Wah, your NS so easy, so soft."

I don't believe that. I have never looked upon life as being "so easy now", or that NSmen today are sacrificing less than what NSmen of yesteryear have sacrificed.

Training is still tough, and life is still difficult. It is still a big sacrifice to do NS, perhaps even more so today. Maybe the treatment was a bit crude and rough before, whereas now it's more refined. That doesn't mean it's softer or more lax.

If you look at the NS soldiers of those days, many of them were not very well educated and didn't even have O levels.

We have a different calibre of people coming in now - the younger generation are better educated, and can meet the same training requirements more efficiently and effectively.

The need for and importance of NS will always be there, but the type of people who come into NS will change over time. The SAF must be dynamic and continue to adjust the way it trains soldiers.

New challenges

IN SOME ways, the challenge for the Ministry of Defence and the SAF today is greater than it was for us then. When we broke away from the federation and had to form our own armed forces, our vulnerability was very evident. My generation understood this very clearly.

How are you going to put this message across to today's Singaporeans?

It can be a difficult thing for people to connect with, but you cannot take for granted that the peace you have today will always be there. If you are not prepared to fight, how can you expect anyone else to come and do it for you?

In a way, half our battle is already won because many Singaporeans today have served NS. The people I meet, especially the fellows who served with me in the SAF, always think fondly of what they did when they were in NS.

Not everybody has had a good NS experience. But even so, I think if you ask those who have gone through life after serving NS, very few would say in retrospect that they have not benefited from NS.

Singapore is what it is today because our fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins served NS. Every generation has to step up to do their duty. Old soldiers like me have done our turn, now it's up to the next generation to carry on this duty.

Lieutenant-General (Retired) Winston Choo was the first and longest-serving Chief of the Singapore Armed Forces (1974-1992). He left the military after a distinguished 33-year career, and has since held several diplomatic appointments and served on the boards of various companies. He is currently chairman of Metro Holdings' board of directors and Non-resident Ambassador to Israel.

* Life of Singapore's longest-serving military chief Winston Choo captured in memoir
It recounts how he got top job, features views on leadership and many anecdotes
By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 28 Jun 2021

In the middle of a senior commander's course in 1970, then 29-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Choo was summoned to see the Defence Minister, the late Goh Keng Swee, at his office.

What Dr Goh told him struck him like a bolt from the blue.

"I'm going to make you DGS," he said, referring to Director-General Staff, which was the equivalent then of the Chief of Defence Force.

It was the last thing he expected to hear from the minister at that stage of his military career, Mr Choo told The Straits Times.

"It seemed like sheer madness to me! Yes, he did say that after an assessment, it was decided that I was the best candidate. I did not know what to make of it," he added.

The story of how Singapore's longest-serving military chief, now 79, assumed the top job in 1974 is featured in a new book released today. The memoir, titled A Soldier At Heart, is published by Landmark Books and is based on 40 hours of fresh interviews, oral history transcripts, speeches and Mr Choo's writings, said a statement from the local publisher.

The book was written with the help of former civil servants Chua Siew San and Judith d'Silva, who were with the Ministry of Defence.

Asked whether he had agreed with Dr Goh's assessment that he was the best man for the top job, Mr Choo told ST: "There were at least 20 or more others who were senior to me, and in my opinion, would have been suitable for the job.

"In retrospect, among my contemporaries who were formally trained in a military institution to be an officer, I was among the few who had an A-level education. None had a university degree then. I guess that could have been one of the considerations," he added.

But being earmarked for the top post was not all smooth sailing. He faced resistance from other military leaders in the top brass who had later found out about the plan.

Mr Choo rose through the ranks from a bugler in the Singapore Volunteer Corps when he was 17 as a private, to its highest rank of Lieutenant-General when he stepped down as Chief of Defence Force in 1992 after 18 years.

After his retirement from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), he served in numerous other roles. Among others, he was High Commissioner to Australia, chairman of the Singapore Red Cross, and Ambassador to Israel, all experiences that he has recounted in the book.

The 280-page book, which took more than 10 months to produce, also touches on his leadership philosophy, his views on the scholarship system in the SAF, his battle with tongue cancer - which he was diagnosed with in 2017 - and the support given by his wife, whom he married in 1966.

It is peppered with anecdotes, such as when he was in the military with current and former Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former foreign minister George Yeo.

The book was, for a long time, an unlikely endeavour. Mr Choo said he had resisted writing a memoir for years.

It was in May last year that Mr Goh Eck Kheng, founder of Landmark Books, broached the subject with an old friend, Mr Ramachandran Menon, as well as Ms Chua and Ms d'Silva.

"Together they assured me that I had a valuable story to tell and persuaded me to consider producing a memoir. But it was my wife Kate and my children Karina and Warren who sealed the deal when they argued that I owed it to my grandchildren and their children to leave them my legacy so that they may benefit from my story," Mr Choo said.

"So I decided to tell my story in an honest and truthful manner, without any embellishment. That's exactly what I have done in this book."

Mr Goh told ST: "His memoir is by no means an official history, but is valuable in a different way, in that it gives personal, detailed insights and perspectives that official histories don't always have. This is what makes the book important."

Asked if there was anything he had omitted from the book, and if there would be a sequel, Mr Choo said the very nature of his appointments made it difficult to share many things "without incurring the wrath of the security people".

"I have had to be very careful to share my story within the bounds of the security classification. As it stands today, I feel I have said all I want to say and don't intend to venture into a Part 2."

The book is available for $35 (before GST) at major bookshops. It will be formally released on July 16 by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.

**  Singapore's 1st chief of defence Winston Choo built SAF's values from trenches with his soldiers: Teo Chee Hean
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Jul 2021

The Republic's first and longest-serving chief of defence force Winston Choo shaped the culture and values of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) - not by issuing orders alone but by living and breathing these values, said Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.

"Winston Choo epitomised the SAF and led by example," said Mr Teo at the launch of Mr Choo's 280-page memoir, A Soldier At Heart, at Temasek Club yesterday.

Mr Teo, a former navy chief, also related how he had served under Mr Choo, and learnt from how the retired lieutenant-general led his soldiers as well as engaged with foreign leaders.

Mr Choo, who turns 80 on Sunday, was 17 when he joined the Singapore Volunteer Corps as a bugler, and rose through the ranks from private to military chief - a post he held from 1974 to 1992.

After his retirement, he served as ambassador to various countries and was chairman of the Singapore Red Cross.

Mr Choo's most important contribution was to the development of the SAF, said Mr Teo, who described how he built national service as an institution and professionalised the three services - the army, air force and navy - among other feats.

The Senior Minister also lauded how Mr Choo formed relationships with generations of soldiers.

"He parachuted and dived, jogged with his men, and went into the trenches with them. He cared deeply about his soldiers, and spent long hours talking with them, listening to their problems, getting to know them and their families," said Mr Teo.

"I saw how he valued his soldiers, sailors and airmen, and engaged them easily. They trusted him because of his open and sincere manner."

These people skills also served Singapore well, through the warm ties Mr Choo developed with other armed forces in the region and beyond - which continue to be of great value today, said Mr Teo.

Mr Teo said he too had benefited from observing Mr Choo - in how he won trust and put forward Singapore's positions in a friendly but firm way, and advanced cooperation while safeguarding the Republic's interests.

Speaking at yesterday's event, Mr Choo acknowledged leaders like Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Old Guard minister Goh Keng Swee for giving him the opportunity to take on significant responsibilities and appointments, "without which, my story would not have been worth sharing".

"I am thankful for their faith in me, and for allowing me to walk in their shadow and benefit from their wisdom, their strength and their greatness," he added.

Earlier, Mr Teo had concluded it was no exaggeration to describe Mr Choo as having had an impact on every Singaporean.

His memoir is more than the life story of a remarkable man, said the Senior Minister.

"This book is a legacy… to all Singaporeans, especially those who serve in General Choo's beloved SAF - past, present and future - to make Singapore more secure."

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