- Aristocracy of Armed Talent: The Military Elite in Singapore by Samuel Ling Wei Chan
Chan claims that his book "represents the most detailed current account of the military elite in Singapore" (p. 349). Far from being an instance of scholarly hubris, the claim is justified in most respects. The author has undertaken the mission to (partially) unravel the camouflage surrounding the top brass of Singapore's military elite, elucidating the personal motivations, circumstances and structures that have defined their careers.
In the first chapter, Chan clarifies what he understands by the term 'military elite'. His primary concern is the career trajectories of 'flag officers', the highest echelon of the three services in the [End Page 389] Singapore Armed Forces (SAF); these officers wear the rank of brigadier-general (BG), its equivalents, or higher. He also engages with relevant scholars studying militaries, like Samuel Huntington and Morris Janowitz, and provides an overview of the academic literature on the SAF. Chan, like other scholars writing on the SAF, continues to face an uphill battle because of the paucity of declassified state documents. Nevertheless, by deploying empirical data from an arsenal of sources such as interviews, newspapers and other material published by the SAF's publicity arm, one cannot help but be impressed by the scholarly dedication of the author. Furthermore, the appendix contains meticulous records that will be helpful for future scholars writing about Singapore's defence and security and the SAF.
Chan provides a brief overview of Singapore's historical experience in setting up a professional military following independence. Chapter 2 affirms the dilemmas faced by Singapore's pioneer leaders in their attempts to convince the citizenry of the importance of defence and conscription through National Service (NS). The author convincingly recounts the obstacles in setting up a military during Singapore's early years as a nation-state, establishing a contextual base for subsequent chapters.
Chapters 3 and 4, meanwhile, are heavily based on the retrospective accounts of twenty-eight interviewees, all of whom are retired generals and admirals. These two chapters are probably the most enlightening parts of the book, yet the quality of scholarly inquiry plummets from here on. Both chapters humanize these elusive figures of authority who once commanded generations of men and women in uniform—institutions, after all, are made up of actual persons. For such an organization as the SAF—where power distance, hierarchy and narratives of patriotism are distinctive elements of its culture—Chan has managed to sieve out the more individualistic reasons that went into the decisions of these men to 'sign on'. They stem from human concerns: ambition, self-improvement and hope for a better life. His treatment of the sources, however, is largely problematic. Besides pointing out the dimension of "rhetoric [End Page 390] of modesty" and the vetting of his transcripts (pp. 24–25), Chan explicitly chose to de-emphasize the strongest aspects of these accounts: the human relationships and personal characters of his interviewees. These ingredients, if they had been included, would have tremendously enhanced his work. Chan himself makes the observation in the final paragraph of the book that "[t]he candid lived realities captured in this volume reveal frailties that made military elites human" (p. 361). Why exorcise the humanity from accounts that are inherently human? Furthermore, even though the author declares the enlistment and retirement dates of the interviewees (some serving decades apart from one another), using these interviews collectively and drawing broad conclusions from them unsurprisingly result in an unnuanced analysis.
Chapters 5 and 6 report on the promotion mechanism and structure of the military hierarchy, with the former also drawing upon the interviews. One does wonder why Chan made the decision to place these two chapters after chapters 3 and 4. A reversal of this order would have been more strategic as familiarity with the structure of the SAF would provide a more effective reading of the excerpts from the interviews. The overall outcome is a clumsy narrative, not to mention the frustrating need to retreat constantly to the twelvepaged...