Questions on the rise and rise of Singapore’s scholar-soldiers

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By Augustine Low

The networks of power and influence in Singapore are complex but what is clear is that scholar-soldiers are now entrenched at the very apex. And this possibly marks the most dramatic change in the character of the national elite in the past 50 years.

This is among the conclusions drawn by Australian academic Michael Barr in his just-published book The Ruling Elite of Singapore. Barr, an expert in international relations, has also written several books on Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore and regional politics.

Barr asserts that a central element of Lee Kuan Yew’s social order was the transformation of the military into a scholar-dominated organisation. Lee Hsien Loong was the first scholar-soldier appointed to the Cabinet.

But how far we have come since then can be seen from the current Cabinet, which has numerous former military officers and SAF scholars:

  • PM Lee Hsien Loong
  • DPM Teo Chee Hean
  • Lim Hng Kiang
  • Lim Swee Say
  • Lui Tuck Yew
  • Chan Chun Sing
  • Tan Chuan-Jin

Besides the leading presence of the military in Cabinet, they also have numerical importance in the civil service, statutory boards and GLCs. Says Barr: “The military has, in a very real sense, provided a new cultural centre of gravity and a new standard for the elite.

Military officers are presumed to possess higher levels of organisational ability, self-discipline and leadership skills than others, and are routinely parachuted into critical leadership roles in both the administrative and political elite, both while on active duty and upon retirement.”

What conclusions of our own can we infer from the fact that scholar-soldiers are now nested at the very centre of the networks of power and influence in Singapore?

Firstly, it shows that the Singapore system celebrates and acknowledges scholar-soldiers as first among equals. It is the surest route to entry into the political and administrative elite.

Secondly, it suggests that all the training and grooming (especially mental and psychological) for our scholar-soldiers is geared towards a career and life among the ruling elite.

Thirdly, is it avoidable then to have group-think in the leadership? How diverse and robust can the leadership be if they largely come from the same mould, as the same products of the same system?

Fourthly, the scholar-soldier is essentially Chinese-dominated. Has there ever been a non-Chinese scholar-soldier who found his way into the political elite? How does such a system that produces purely Chinese scholar-soldiers to form the ruling elite of Singapore, contribute to the national fabric of our society?

There may not be clear answers, but what remains undisputed is the rise and rise of the scholar-soldier to the current status as the centre of gravity and the gold standard for the elite in Singapore.