I was glad to learn that Colonel Ishak bin Ismail will be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General come 1st July. As Commander of the 6th Division since last August — division commanders in Singapore are usually BGs — his promotion was unsurprising.
What makes his achievement so significant is the fact that he became a BG despite having two “strikes” against him: He is Malay in the Singapore army, and he is not a government scholar. Although I have never served under him, I am confident that the SAF would not place a man in command of one of our three Combined Arms Divisions just for the sake of political tokenism.
Nevertheless, Singaporeans should not be lulled into thinking that full meritocracy has arrived in the SAF. There are still many “sensitive” units that have recently naturalised citizens but not a single Malay in their ranks.
I have long maintained that the SAF’s policy of not allowing Malays to serve in sensitive units is not just unnecessary, but it goes against our entire country’s boast of meritocracy as a national philosophy. It is based on the generalising assumption that all Malays are ideologues who see the world only in terms of “my race vs the rest”.
During a forum with students back in 1999, then-SM Lee Kuan Yew said that “If you put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine-gun unit, that’s a very tricky business.”
I don’t think anyone is expecting the SAF to put anyone who has close family ties in a foreign state in charge of a front-line combat unit. But is this a reason to keep all Malays out of all sensitive units?
Given today’s high-tech warfare, it is unlikely that soldiers in the offensive combat units — air force, navy, armour and artillery — will see their enemies’ faces or know which race they belong to before blasting them to smithereens. So the dilemma about “I-won’t-pull-the-trigger-because-my-enemy-is-Malay” should not factor in. If anything, it is in the infantry where face-to-face combat will take place, and ironically, that is where a larger proportion of Malay soldiers are deployed.
By perpetuating the widely-held view in neighbouring countries that Singapore is a Chinese-dominated country, the SAF is making itself (and Singapore) an even easier target for potential adversaries use racial politics to stir up negative sentiments among their populace against Singapore. Already, neighbouring country politicians frequently take gratuitous pot-shots at Singapore because of the SAF’s policies on Malays.
The SAF and the Government would do well to uphold — to the last letter — their claim to meritocracy. Instead of excluding qualified Malays simply on the basis of their race from sensitive units, thorough background checks should be done before deploying soldiers in sensitive units.