Rafflesian Times: Life is Bigger Than You

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Published online at Rafflesian Times
By Michelle Zhu (15A01B), Nicholas Baey (15S03F), and Teo Yao Neng (3G)

In 2014, two of our alumni, Major-General (MG) Perry Lim (RI, 1988; RJC 1990) and Rear-Admiral (RADM) Lai Chung Han (RI, 1989; RJC 1991) were appointed as Chief of Army and Chief of Navy respectively. In this interview, they share their candid thoughts about Singapore and the armed forces, as well as the life lessons they gleaned from their time in RI.

Left: Chief of Army, MG Perry Lim Right: Chief of Navy, RADM Lai Chung Han


PL: We’re concerned about terrorism at the global level. Even though the operations by the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq may seem half a world away, the threat that we face could involve self-radicalised individuals from Singapore, as well as from the region who go over to fight for what they perceive to be a religious war. When they return to the region, they will be trying to further their agenda here.

Singapore stands on the side of the international community to combat this terrorism and because of that, we may be a target of terrorists. That is why on a day to day basis you have the Army and Navy conduct operations during peacetime. We defend installations, places like Changi Airport, Sembawang Wharf, Jurong Island, to make Singapore a difficult target for terrorists.

LCH: Terrorism is a very real threat because the world is getting “smaller” and more inter-connected. Singapore is a maritime nation and we need to watch our maritime borders very carefully. Regionally, South China Sea (SCS) disputes, as well as tensions in the East China Sea, are on our radar. These tensions affect the freedom of flight and navigation in the region. As for Singapore’s role, we are small and we have no claims in the SCS, which puts us in a good position to be an interlocutor. We’re also non-threatening, which makes us ideal to facilitate the discussion on maintaining regional peace and stability.

PL: While we are maintaining our capabilities to deter conventional threats and to defend the country, over time the SAF has re-organised our forces to be more flexible, and to respond to a range of scenarios. Our army is capable of a spectrum of operations, including counter-terrorism and other sorts of peacekeeping operation. These peacetime operations include responding to natural disasters, like the Boxing Day Tsunami and earthquakes around the region, in terms of providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

MG Perry Lim visiting a Unit


PL: I think that the fundamental problem now and going ahead for the next 5 to 10 years is our population size. Our cohort is getting smaller, in the sense that the people who are enlisting for national service gets fewer. As a national service army, we will eventually have to manage an armed force that will be smaller in terms of numbers. So the challenge for us is to continue to strengthen the army and achieve our missions, becoming just as capable and ready even though we have fewer soldiers. To do this, we would have to rely on military technology in terms of hardware, networks and better trained soldiers. So demographics provides a long term challenge to the army.

LCH: Well, the navy is slightly different. The army is largely a conscript force, but the Navy is largely a regular force. There are still similar issues though, since as the cohort shrinks, there are competing demands and it becomes more challenging to recruit regulars. We’ve been looking at how to recruit more women and mid-careerists as regulars.

PL: Our soldiers today are more educated. One of the advantages of this, is that they pick up soldiering skills much faster and are more adept at operating our 3rd generation capabilities. However, they also have higher expectations and bigger aspirations. We have to adjust our approach in the way we train and teach them to acquire skills, as well as how to engage them so that they find meaning and purpose in National Service. So the main issues are related to demography: how do we continue to be effective and capable with a smaller army? How do we motivate and inspire a more educated army?

LCH: For the Navy, the issue is one of retaining talent. There’s an increasing trend of people wanting to try different things, people not staying in the same job like they used to. It used to be that you had one profession and you would stick with it for decades and that would just be your career, but now there are changing preferences. We’re addressing this in two ways – how to bring in people from other professions, and how to encourage people to stay on.

We need to help our people feel that their job is meaningful and worth doing for the long haul. We also offer a very strong programme for professional development and there is a range of scholarships available. In terms of career value proposition, we started a military domain expert scheme (or MDES) a number of years ago, where our servicemen are offered a full career until they are 60, to go deep in a specialised area. On the other hand, our naval officers on the combat scheme retire young at 50, and so to get people to stay we need to ensure they have clarity of purpose – why they are doing what they are doing. The sense of personal conviction is very important.

The idea of the Navy family is also important, with the sense of belonging and solidarity that it provides.

PL: The Army has transformed its training system, such that it is in line with the experience that our students go through in school. In the same way that students use laptops and tablet computers to learn – there’s a lot more self–directed learning currently in place. Because of the emphasis on group learning and projects in our schools, we are able to restructure our ground forces such that they can operate in smaller groups – they are able to handle technology, communication systems, such that we are able to effect new ways of fighting and operating at the soldier level.

We are conscious that we have to give our soldiers a positive experience. Over the 2 years we must make them feel that their time is well-spent, and that we are not wasting their time. We try to give them moments that they will remember for life – our term for this is defining moments and positive experiences.

That said, it’s not that training has become easier. Every generation would think that their training is tougher than the new generation. When I was undergoing training 20 years ago, my seniors would say that we were having it easy, during my time blah blah. Then, when it was my time to be a senior, I would tell the soldiers at BMT or OCS, ‘Hey my training was tougher than yours!’ The fact of that matter is that the way we are training our soldiers has changed. It is a different generation and the soldier’s learning experience is very different from now as compared to 20 years ago, and they respond to different means of instructions. We take greater care to ensure safety in training, and we don’t just tell them to do things – we explain the reasons behind what they are doing so that they can be committed to learning the tasks. Out in the field, we give them missions and tasks to do, which are no less tough than before.
And in spite of the tough training, at the end of it we hope they can find meaning from the process, understand it is for a good reason and with the rest of their team they are able to have a positive experience. We actively design our training to facilitate that.


PL: In the case of the boys, it is a universal system of conscription. This means that it is not selective conscription – we enlist all the boys in the cohort. It isn’t the case that we enlist some and not the others. But we are not at the stage where we need to double the number. So what we are trying to do really is to do more or to do just as well with fewer soldiers.

Obviously it is not the decision for us or the armed forces to decide, but it a decision by the government. And it needs to take into account the public’s support. The only reason why we are able to conscript our young men for 2 years of NS, and 10+ years as operationally ready national servicemen, is because the public continues to support national service and believe that NS is vital for the defence of the country. People generally accept that it is a fair and equitable system. And on our part, we are, in a sense, in a fairly good position in that we continue to have firm support from the public.

LCH: With regards to the SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC), the volunteers will come in at specific windows, and some of the jobs are quite specialised – so people can use their specialised skills from their civilian work to contribute to defence. Through the SAFVC, we also hope that the volunteers from all segments of Singapore society will gain a better understanding of what it takes to defend Singapore and in turn better appreciate the contributions of NSmen.

PL: The objective is to allow those not liable for national service like PRs and Singaporean ladies to contribute to defence. There are quite a number of vocations they can choose from, such as a security trooper or medical trainer or legal advisor. First we have to put you in uniform and get you familiarised with how to be in a military organisation. The initial programme lasts from 2-3 weeks.

Even though the corps is small, they are able to provide a valid contribution. The reason being, if I can fight with 10 people why would I fight with 9? Obviously it would not replace national service and we are also quite careful to make it clear that our volunteers will not be trained to the same level as some of our servicemen, considering the fact that the servicemen have a longer term of service and undergo more rigorous and specialised training.

The other objective is to allow people who are not acquainted with the military to know more about our armed forces and national services, so as to better appreciate for what the guys do, and foster greater support for NS. This helps sustain our national service system in the long run.


PL: Well there is this view that goes something like this: ‘With the large number of foreigners, I don’t feel that Singapore is ours anymore, therefore why should we defend it?’ I don’t understand or accept this view. Just because there are foreigners in Singapore or people joining us as PRs or new citizens, it shouldn’t take anything away from defending the country. It is a Singaporean’s duty to defend their own country. In times of conflict, foreigners will leave to countries which are safe, but we as Singaporeans must stay and fight. If no one defends the country, who will?

LCH: The immigration issue is not in any way unique to Singapore and many developed countries have similar challenges. We’re still a young nation – 50 years is a short time when you set it against the history of other countries – and our grandparents were themselves migrants who settled in Singapore several decades ago. There is a bright future for Singapore to be forged together with all who are prepared to be involved and who want to contribute positively. Ultimately, we ourselves need to get involved, because a national identity and national pride are best forged when you are involved.


PL: The mission of the army is to be Ready, Decisive, and Respected. The Ready part involves being ready for special operations, and Decisive in the sense that – should there be a war, we can achieve a quick and decisive victory. That part is something we have achieved and continue to achieve, with a steady investment in defence, acquiring and operationalising military technology with the soldiers that we have. It is the third part where we have to continue to strengthen the army as a Respected organisation in the eyes of the public. In terms of the soldiers and their self esteem, if they are not afraid and shy to wear their uniform in public, then we’ll know that we’ve succeeded, when they respect themselves as soldiers. We also strive to be respected by the other armed forces in the world, to the point where they seek to train with us so they can learn from us.

LCH: Having taken over as CNV only in August 2014, I am quite clear that organisational priorities don’t have to be changed just because there is a change in leadership. Continuity is important for us, and I’m very grateful for all the work my predecessors have done. Truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

My predecessor RADM Ng Chee Peng (RI 1986, RJC 1988) coined the term TEAM Navy, which I am very happy to continue advocating. TEAM is an acronym: Transforming into the 3rd Generation RSN, Engaging our people and stakeholders, Advancing integration with the other two Services (Army and Airforce) as well as whole-of-government, and achieving Mission success. So TEAM Navy describes what we do as well as how we work as a team. Equally important is the idea of Navy FAMILY which describes who we are and the close-knit community that we are. When you put TEAM Navy and Navy FAMILY together, we have a very strong sense of purpose and community. My constant refrain when I visit the different units in the Navy is that we have to believe in our mission, be proud of the role we each play, and to strive to great at what we do.

RADM Lai Chung Han
RADM Lai Chung Han (extreme left)


LCH: Let me first point out that competition can be a good thing. The question is – are we assessing our students holistically? And this reflects trends and developments in the wider society. For Singapore to have developed so quickly, some trade-offs have been made. So it’s not really a question just for RI or for our schools, but for our society as a whole.

On RI’s part, as long as the school is still giving opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds to join RI and to succeed, I don’t see intense competition as a problem. At the same time, it is about seeing our students through multiple lenses – not just academic achievements, but also leadership, character and values.

PL: You can’t really expect RI to be the same as it was 30 years ago. This is because our society has changed. People generally have become a lot more affluent, so there are fewer cases of RI students coming from very humble family backgrounds.

But I think that RI must continue to be the beacon of meritocracy, such that every able Singaporean after PSLE, should feel comfortable and not out of place in RI and RGS. It shouldn’t be the case where there is social exclusion or intimidation when entering RI. As long as you qualify on your own merits, you shouldn’t feel out of place. So we need to create that environment, and we need that culture.

You can’t really point a finger and blame the school for the change in the student profile, because that is really a reflection of society and its nature. But we must continue to maintain RI and RGS as a place whereby students will come of their own merit and feel at ease in the environment. It is about educating our students to be more inclusive and to not judge other people by their background. I hope it’s still the case.


RADM Lai Chung Han's photo in the 1991 Yearbook of RJC
RADM Lai Chung Han in the 1991 Yearbook of RJC

LCH: Some of my teachers made a very strong impression on me. Mr Mag was my Prefect Master who taught us that some things could be done differently, rather than just observing tradition for its own sake. I also particularly remember Ms Miiko Tan who was my form teacher in Sec 1 and 2. She taught us to see the good in others, to laugh at ourselves and to understand that life is far bigger than our own lives.

RI definitely taught me to be independent. It gave me the autonomy to do things and make decisions. It gave me leadership opportunities and instilled in me a sense of service to others and the community. The Rafflesian Spirit is about rising above oneself and serving a larger cause – we all have to work at serving a larger cause, because life is bigger than you. This ethos of service is certainly something that’s very relevant beyond RI – in the Navy, it is about believing in the larger mission of safeguarding our waters and defending our nation.

MG Perry Lim's photo from the April 1991 issue of Rafflesian Outlook, an RJC publication.
MG Perry Lim’s photo from the April 1991 issue of Rafflesian Outlook, an RJC publication.

PL: You would probably all agree with me that it is a rather competitive environment in RI. It is now and it was 30 years ago. Now when you are in RI, with a bunch of highly driven people who all strive for excellence, they really apply their minds to the subjects which they have to learn and the things that they do. So in a sense, because of this environment, you are also driven to excel, take initiative of your own leadership. These traits are what stayed with me even when I left RI. Well, I played sports in school. I was in both the rugby and swim team. You learn how to develop discipline and juggle your time. Of course, in those days you don’t win all the time. So I learnt to be gracious in both winning and losing. I also learnt about sportsmanship, fighting spirit, teamwork. These are the big lessons which I have learnt from my time in RI.


PL: Well, I think you should make the most of the opportunity you have to learn as much as possible. Not just learn to do well in exams, but to read more widely and to make good friends, I would say. Because I would find that a lot of my friends who are not my colleagues who I am close to and keep in touch with are my primary school friends. School is not just a place to excel but also a place to build closer friendships. Not just to stay within your close group of people, but to make friends with everyone in your cohort and across cohorts. Because when you go up to the workplace – sure, the networks are important, but it’s your friendships which give you a more fulfilling life.

LCH: Well, just know that you’re in a very good school. Be grateful for this, enjoy the experience, and give back to the school and the society. And also don’t forget to have a good time! I did!

PL: We shouldn’t have the assumption that when you reach a certain standard you have learnt everything and there is nothing else to learn about. You need to be humble and believe that there are people who know a lot more than you and learn, and to apply yourself to every job you do. I have tried to improve to become a good listener. When you’re younger, you ironically think you know everything. And so when I was in my junior leadership positions, I made my own decisions and told people what to do and got things done quickly. But as I moved up the organisation, I learnt that you don’t have all the answers and that it’s good to get various perspectives before arriving at any conclusion.

It is also important to achieve buy-in, because if people are not convinced, usually there won’t be a lasting outcome. And when people do the things you ask them to do, but once you are no longer there, you would not have a lasting outcome. To remain accessible to people, you shouldn’t create a culture where people are afraid to give bad news, or people only tell you things you want to hear. If people are afraid to come to you to just ask about your plans and to clarify, because they are afraid that they may appear to not seem to be too smart, then you know that the culture is in need of positive change.

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