I am the last person you would expect to defend the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or its scholar-generals. In particular, while I am convinced that National Service (NS) is justified by the need for defence and deterrence, there is room to improve the NS experience: Empowering full-time national servicemen (NSF), bettering their welfare and management, and enhancing the military justice system.
But the argument that “the institutional culture of the SAF might explain why scholar-generals may not necessarily make the best leaders once they are taken out of the military context” is not a meaningful one. (In fact, the follow-up qualification of “that does not mean that just because a person is a scholar-general, [he or she] will necessarily be a bad leader” might even render it a non-argument). Substitute the SAF for companies in the private sector or agencies in the public sector, and one could find fault with their “institutional culture”, which means their leaders would not necessarily thrive someplace else. A consumer-focused executive may not manoeuvre around non-financial bottom-lines, and a civil servant accustomed to increasingly consultative approaches would struggle with the hierarchy in the military.
Institutions and organisations – likewise characterised by their own sets of problems (or “numerous negative traits”) – develop their own culture to suit their goals. Misalignment, as a result, is inevitable when leaders move between institutions and sectors.
A more meaningful argument (one that the aforementioned commentary was careful not to moot), is whether the scholar-general is especially inept when leading outside the military context he or she is accustomed to. In other words when assuming a new role, on average, the scholar-general will not fare as well as the private-sector executive, or the public-sector civil servant, and perhaps even the non-scholar-general (that is, scholarship can be deleterious). In this vein, the extent to which one agrees with this argument is likely to depend on personal experiences in or with the military. If an NSF – led by an insufferable commander – was unfairly treated throughout his two-year stint, then these grievances would be extrapolated and generalised to influence his perspectives.
(The regular reader must be sick of hearing about experiments and quasi-experiments, yet again in this context a research study would elucidate useful findings. So the hypothesis is that the scholar-general makes a bad leader? At the first level of analysis, track the career trajectories of the military officers (with the Colonel rank and above) who have left the SAF: For those in the private sector, calculate how profits or revenues or equity have changed, and while it is trickier, for those in the public sector, public perceptions based on media analysis could be a good proxy. At the second level of comparative analysis, the research sample can be extended to include Singaporean civil servants and business executives who make switches too).
Because otherwise, it is difficult to find the empirical evidence that scholar-generals may make bad leaders. This is also the reason why the discourse has not moved beyond anecdotes. Most recently CEO of SMRT Corporation Desmond Kuek, a former SAF Chief of Defence Force, has been castigated for frustrating train disruptions and a series of incidents. Last year too his immediate predecessor at the SAF, former CEO of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) Ng Yat Chung, was criticised for his perceived poor leadership of the container shipping company, which was delisted and later sold to a French company which managed to turn NOL around. Both have been cited extensively as evidence that scholar-generals adjust poorly after they leave the SAF.
In response, the counter-examples are often politicians such as former Foreign Minister George Yeo, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, and even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – all of whom held the rank of Brigadier-General in the SAF – who are said to be “well-regarded” and who have distinguished themselves in office. (At this point, some would contend that managing companies in the private sector is much more demanding than parliamentary or ministerial responsibilities, but the same problems of comparisons and the lack of counterfactuals emerge again). Cherry-picking on both sides adds nothing substantive.
At its core, notwithstanding the research evidence which may emerge from the proposed comparative studies, at the level of senior executive leadership and management – where the focus turns to more strategic decisions, people and stakeholder management, as well as high-level operations – where a senior executive or leader used to ply his or her trade is unlikely to be the most significant predictor of his or her eventual performance. I am not of the opinion, therefore, that the scholar-general is especially inept, or that he or she is more susceptible to misalignment. Or even that the military context is unique with its own set of (cultural) problems.
And given the unique scholarship and scholar-general configuration in Singapore, what I think is more important is the degree to which the processes of selecting them in the beginning and for future positions are adequately selective and competitive (and representative, though this may apply more generally to public service scholars).
So talk of the military context, I think, distracts from the more pertinent issues of selection too. With Mr. Kuek and SMRT Corporation, in this regard, the remark by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan that the CEO had “volunteered for the position” was the most puzzling, since it raises questions about how the leadership search was conducted, and how a hiring committee – presumably composed of board members – decided that Mr. Kuek was the best man for the job. Even more broadly, selection and competition also relate to the permeability of pathways between the scholars and the non-scholars in the military and in the public sector. And if competition rarely features in these situations, then more systemic issues beyond the military must be dealt with.