by Solange Harpham

Civil-military relations usually consists of spheres which are not only separate and independent but also antagonistic: an army that grows too strong and independent could be tempted to take on a greater role in politics or drain the education and social resources in favor of its own programs – something which Pakistan’s military has been accused of. On the other hand, complete control of civilians over the military could have negative effects: too much meddling from uninformed and inexperienced the civilian side could damage effectiveness in case of conflict, and undermine the training process of the recruits in times of peace. How do the Singaporean Armed Forces manage such a unique military and civilian “fusion” at the highest levels of decision-making while being effectively controlled by a civilian government?

Samuel Huntington and his book “The Soldier and the State” (1957) is considered to be one of the first to explore the area of civil-military relations extensively. One of its theories is “objective control”: the respect of the civilian sphere for the military sphere’s independent action while retaining control at the political level is the best way to ensure smooth civilian-military relations. This seems to be the case in Singapore: the People’s Action Party, the civilian party governing the city-state since independence, controls and dominates the SAF, and there is no question of rebellion or of deep enmity between the two. The SAF continues to be the armed branch of the Ministry of Defense, under the authority of a civilian Minister. However, independence and an effective division of labor – decision making to the civilian, action to the military – is not enough to understand the absence of friction between the civil and military spheres in Singapore’s case.

Let us first understand the historical origins of the SAF puzzle. After its exclusion in 1965 from the Federation of Malaya and the withdrawal of the British, Singapore found itself extremely vulnerable with only two battalions of about 50 officers and 1000 men, a navy consisting of two ships with wooden hulls and no air force. From there, the SAF grew to an impressive force of more than 70 000 active personnel (as well as 75 000 paramilitary), and more than 950 000 active reservists in 2014. The SAF has been described as the “most technologically advanced armed forces amongst the Association of Southeast Asian states” and has played a large part in the image of Singapore as a safe haven in the jungle of Southeast Asia. How did they do it? Although Singapore received a considerable amount of technical help from Israel – whose geopolitical situation resembled Singapore’s – the SAF was also intriguingly built and integrated into Singaporean culture, eliminating any possibility of friction between the two through a variety of means, the most influential of them being a National Service of 2 years.

National Service

Although implemented in 1967 primarily to build a consequential army despite its small population, National Service went from being an obligation to being a “national duty” for all Singaporean men. Consequently one of its unintentional effects was to further reinforce the links between the military and society. After having completed the two required years of National Service, Singaporeans continue to be reservists until the age of 40, undergoing training up to 40 days a year to be “operationally ready” in time of crisis. Therefore, every Singaporean family has at least one man periodically vanishing for army training. Going through the army experience is seen as a “normal” part of life and National Defense is often referred to as “a rite of passage” for young Singaporean men. Although there is some debate on NS now due to changing perceptions (lack of threats from abroad, the difficulty of the job market and debate on whether to reduce the two years of NS to one), there is still a large consensus that the National Service in itself must stay.

National Service  not only managed to normalize the presence of the armed forces and to involve all civilians in the defense of Singapore, it has also been part of a much greater effort of the nation-building effort Singaporean leaders always considered as an imperative process. Expelled from the Federation, with no history of national pride and desire of independence, Singapore had to find a way to survive as a minuscule city-state, with a mixed population composed of 74,2% ethnic Chinese, 13,3% Malays and 9,2% Indians. How to inculcate the idea that Singapore was now their home and how to give them the feeling they were responsible for its defense and its well-being? SAF was one of the multiple tools – among communication campaigns, songs and festivals – contributing to the building of a national feeling.


National Service was supposed to integrate all into Singaporean society, while promoting a sense of social responsibility and national consciousness. Although Singapore’s economic success was supposed to lessen the risks of ethnic tensions, the fear of ethnic riots or conflict never completely disappeared. The National Service answered these fears by being what Singaporeans referred to as the “great equalizer”: mixing all races, languages, ethnicities and classes, and unifying them in the goal of defending Singapore. The military infused these diverse populations with what later became “Singaporean values”: hard work, courage, loyalty, the pursuit of excellence, determination – all of which could be called both military or civilian in different contexts. Other military values such as the importance of technology, discipline, the importance of hierarchy and efficiency are all strongly reflected in Singaporean society.

However the most prominent factor insuring that there will never be any risk of a coup or of friction between the civilian and the military decision-makers is what could be called “fusion by the elite”. Civilian and military men occupying the top positions are often part of the same closely knit elite, raised together and educated in the same fashion.

Fusion of the elite

Selection to be part of the ruling elite starts at primary school in Singapore. The Gifted Program – originally created for the 1% of  children more “intellectually gifted” than others – was implemented in nine primary schools in Singapore starting in 1985. These children of the gifted program are often isolated in their own educative system and socialize among each other, moving on together to the top secondary schools and high schools of the country: Raffles and Hwa Chong. The importance of getting into the right school is not to be overlooked: as Barr and Skrbis write in  “Constructing Singapore: elitism, ethnicity and the nation-building project” (2008) : “Winners are ushered into a world where not only minds are trained and opened, but institutional doors and pathways are opened and futures mapped out.” Some of this “cream of the crop” choose to apply to the Singapore Armed Forces Scholarship. If they succeed, these young men – and more rarely women – will be considered as possible future leaders for Singapore and educated and trained accordingly.

What can we infer from these facts? First of all, most of the scholars were selected on the basis of their high school grades, not during military training, nor because of existing military experience. They were in fact pre-selected from their A-levels, which reflects the prodigious emphasis Singaporean society places on education as a major tool of meritocracy. Once a Scholar, policies such as the Wrangler Scheme put in place by Dr Goh Keng Swee in 1974 facilitate their advancement. Some have criticized this rapid promotion as too rapid, placing young men, who although academically bright might not have the necessary experience, in high military positions.

However, the core of the civilian-military blending comes afterwards – in the dual career plan set up by the Ministry of Defense. As the compulsory retirement age for SAF personnel is 45, one can easily start a new career in the civilian sector, aided by the SAF administration. It has even been said that most SAF scholars enter the eight-year long bond in the scholarship package in view of that civilian career possibility. A former SAF scholar will have benefited from the best education and proven his leadership qualities in the army – the path is open to even the highest ranks of politics or diplomacy. The opportunities of networking within the army are plentiful, especially for scholars, and the new career structure and compensation package, the SAVER established in 1997 will help the retired Major or Colonel attain his or her desired civilian job. In 2005, the prime minister and four of his cabinet ministers as well as a great number of deputy and permanent secretaries were retirees from the SAF. The best example of this would be the current prime minister: M. Lee Hsien Loong. Son of Lee Kuan Yew and Chief of the general Staff at the SAF, he started a political career at the age of 32 and was elected prime minister in 1984.

The SAF personnel can thus move back and forth between the SAF and the government and follow a twofold military and civilian career. This drastically reduces any threat of a coup d’état as the military will be represented at the highest levels of the government. Moreover, why would SAF officers rebel against the government when a future senior position within the high ranks of the civil service awaits them? Furthermore, whether in the government or in the military, most will know each other – at least by sight – from having been at the same primary school, the same high school or the same platoon.

Some, such as Walsh in the article ‘The Roar of the Lion City: Ethnicity, Gender, and Culture in the Singapore Armed Forces’ characterize this as similar to “an aristocratic model of political-military elite structure”, where sons of wealthy families are enrolled in the army before emerging as leaders in the civilian sector. Another labelling of this process of intersecting military and political elites comes from Tan Tai Yong who was the first to describe it as a “civil-military fusion” in a paper published in 2001: “The military, rather than functioning as an independent or dysfunctional component outside the civilian polity, is for all intents and purposes an integral part of the administrative structure, playing an essentially complementary role in the social and economic functions of the state.”

The fusion of military and civilian spheres in the SAF is thus the result of a unique mix of meritocracy and elitism, making sure civilian and military leaders at the highest level come from the same educational background, and allowing them to cross from military to prominent civilian careers. This had been one of the major reasons for the absence of friction between military and civilian spheres in civil-military relations in Singapore. However one may also attribute the harmonious civil-military relations and the possibility of such a tight-knit elite forming to the small size of the country and population. More research would be needed to determine the possibility of widening the Singaporean example to other countries.

Featured Image Credit: Choo Yut Shing SAF50@Vivo, Flickr CC. License available here.