Mr Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Defence,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen, 




1          I am delighted to be here this evening at the SAF Overseas Scholarship Award Presentation Ceremony. 


2          The SAF Overseas Scholarship is one of the top government scholarships in Singapore, second only to the President Scholarship.  It was started in 1971.  There were 5 of us in the first batch.  Now into its 38th year, 261 SAF Overseas Scholarships have been awarded and there are currently 138 scholars in service.


Building up the SAF


3          At independence in 1965, Singa­pore had only two infantry battalions of 50 officers and some 1,000 men.  The Commanding Officer of one of the battalions was a Malaysian officer who eventually rose to become Chief of the Malaysian Armed Forces.  We had two ships but no air force.  Building a capable armed force thus became an urgent priority of the Government.


4          Despite our limited means, we put massive resources into creating the SAF.  We acquired the equipment and weapons, introduced national service, recruited and trained the officers and men, formed an air force and navy, and built up the SAF order of battle squadron by squadron, and battalion by battalion.


5          As the SAF developed, the critical constraint on us became not so much the manpower or the money, but the quality of the leadership to plan the build-up, execute the training, work out operational concepts and plans, and command the forces.  Dr Goh Keng Swee as Minister of Defence therefore started the SAF Scholarship scheme in 1971, to assure the SAF of a continuing inflow of the best talent in Singa­pore.


6          With strong leadership and hard work, the SAF has grown in strength and competence.  Today, the SAF is a force that is taken seriously.  Our soldiers are well-trained and highly motivated, our units are equipped with sophisticated weaponry, and our forces are wielded as an integrated joint force, operationally ready to respond to all contingencies. 


7          Such an SAF is an important reason why Singapore has enjoyed peace and stability all these years.  The SAF deterrent has been credible and effective.  The SAF has been called into action once – to rescue the hostages taken in the hijack of SQ 117 in 1991, successfully.  But it has also carried out many exercises with other forces, deployments as UN peacekeepers, and operational missions in the Gulf and in Afghanistan. 


8          After the tsunami disaster in Aceh, the SAF sent relief and medical supplies within 48 hours.  In all, 3 Landing Ships Tank, 8 helicopters, some 1,200 men, and tons of heavy equipment were deployed at short notice.   This was testimony not only to the readiness of the SAF but also to the competence of its command.  The commander of the Humanitarian Assistance Support Group was Colonel Tan Chuan Jin, now a Brigadier General, an SAF Overseas Scholar.


9          Closer to home, the SAF was activated during the SARS outbreak in 2003 to handle the non-medical aspects of the crisis, including managing contact tracing and home quarantine orders.  Leading this effort was Major-General Neo Kian Hong.  As a Colonel, Kian Hong had commanded the SAF contingent in East Timor in 1999, which was part of the international force, INTERFET, tasked to restore order to a violence-wrecked country.  Now a Major General, Kian Hong is also an SAF Overseas Scholar. 


10        Through these exercises and operations, the SAF has established a reputation for itself as a highly professional, capable force.  This has given Singa­poreans the confidence that their future is secure, and investors the reassurance to take long-term stakes in our economy.  Hence Singa­pore has grown and prospered. 


Importance of Talent in the SAF


11        Compared to the SAF of the 1970s and 80s in which I served, the SAF of today is an incomparably stronger organisation, in terms of the sophistication of its technology, the subtlety of its doctrine and the quality of its people.  From the camouflage pattern on uniforms to the performance characteristics of fighter jets, every aspect of the SAF’s operation is analysed, optimised, and integrated into an overall force structure and concept of operations.  This continuing transformation would not have been possible had we not brought talent to bear at all levels of the SAF.


12        But the SAF now faces new challenges.  Military technology is constantly evolving.  New technology will generate new war-fighting concepts and render old ones obsolete.  So will new threats.  The SAF must adapt and transform itself, or become ineffective.  Therefore it requires professional and imaginative leadership – commanders and staff who have the confidence to break new ground, and create a Third-Generation SAF.


13        Being a citizens’ armed force puts heavier demands on the SAF’s leaders.  Nowadays servicemen are well educated, and quick to sense whether or not they are being competently trained and led.  They are prepared to take tough training, but they have a low tolerance for army bull, or for superiors who pull rank instead of command respect through their competence and personal example.  Servicemen and their parents must have every confidence that should they ever be ordered into battle, the generals and admirals commanding them count among the most able that Singapore has to offer. 


14        From a strategic perspective, Asia looks set to prosper, with China and India rising peacefully.  But Southeast Asia remains a turbulent region.  Powerful and complex political, social and religious forces are at work in many countries, and will also affect relations between countries.  We have been lucky to have enjoyed four decades of peace and stability, but nobody can predict that we will be lucky for another four decades.  Apart from conventional threats, we also have to deal with new kinds of threats, such as terrorism.  This will translate into different operational demands on the SAF.


15        The SAF needs to learn from other armed forces how they deal with similar situations and missions, and it constantly does so.  But the SAF has reached a level of maturity where often it cannot find ready-made solutions elsewhere, but must develop its own to stay ahead.  This makes talent even more critical to the SAF.  More than ever, the SAF needs leaders of the highest quality throughout the organisation, who can think ahead, conceive new ways of operating, implement bold and creative plans and bring the SAF to the next level.


The SAF Overseas Scholarship


16        The apex of the SAF talent scouting system is the SAF Overseas Scholarship.  Every year, the SAF needs to find and induct half a dozen young men under the SAF Overseas Scholarship.  This is a heavy investment of top talent for a small country, but the government is committed to doing this to assure the security of Singapore. 


17        The SAF chooses for the Overseas Scholarship young Singaporeans with outstanding all-round credentials – character, academic record, leadership, commitment to serve the nation – and puts them through a systematic grooming process.  Scholars receive training at the best command and staff colleges, and post-graduate studies at the best universities.  They serve in both command and staff appointments, to be developed and tested out, and if found capable, entrusted with heavier responsibilities. 


18        Their career path stretches them and offers them tremendous challenges at a young age.  They may command battalions, ships and squadrons, and rise to become Chiefs of Service and Chief of Defence Force at a young age.  The broad experience that they have in leading large organisations, mobilising people, thinking through complex problems and dealing with uncertainty, prepares them well to take leadership positions in the public service and in industry. 


19        Many scholars have completed their service with the SAF and gone on to do well in their subsequent jobs.  Some have risen to top management posts in the private sector, while others lead ministries as permanent secretaries, or are chief executives of statutory boards.  Several have entered politics and become ministers.  These former SAF scholars continue to contribute in many fields to Singa­pore.




20        Talented and ambitious young people going to university today have many choices.  More families can afford to send their children overseas.  Young Singapo­reans have a plethora of scholarships to choose from, and thereafter many opportunities to pursue challenging and rewarding careers both locally and overseas. 


21        But we should remember that all these opportunities have come about only because a strong SAF has provided the stability for Singapore to develop and prosper.  Without the SAF, the good life and the opportunities that young people enjoy would disappear like Cinderella’s coach at midnight.  Therefore, each year we need to find more outstanding young Singaporeans to take up the SAF Overseas Scholarship, serve in the SAF, and take on the responsibility for upholding and improving our system.   


22        In this globalised environment where opportunities are aplenty, we must impress upon young people the importance of the SAF, and the challenge and satisfaction that an SAF career through the SAF Overseas Scholarship can offer.  I know that the SAF has made a special effort to do this.  I have discussed this with the MINDEF and SAF leadership, who fully share the sense of urgency of this task.  I hope young people will respond, and so enable us to maintain and enhance the SAF and the security of our nation.


23        This year, four promising young Singaporeans have decided to step forward to serve the SAF and the country.  They have done brilliantly in school, and have also distinguished themselves in their officer cadet training.  I congratulate the four of you for being awarded the SAF Overseas Scholarship.  I wish you all the best in your studies, and in your career in the SAF and beyond.