By Inez Tan

Even as more Singaporean women join the defence sector, they remain in the minority, regarded by their male peers with some measure of wonderment, and, perhaps, awe.

‘Given the context of National Service, many asked me why I would take the path less travelled,’ shared Stephanie Cai in our interview with her. ‘The guys, who were preparing for enlistment, were undoubtedly surprised, and many were sceptical about my decision to delay my studies for a year in order to undergo military training.’

Stephanie is part of a group of four girls—which also includes fellow alumnae Julie Lim, Chia Pei Qi and Rachel Lee—featured in this edition of the Feminine Eye, all of whom hold the SAF Merit Scholarship for Women. Although, as women, they did not serve National Service, they nonetheless joined their male peers on Pulau Tekong for that famous rite of passage—Basic Military Training (BMT).

Julie fills us in on what they undergo: ‘We go through our BMT in Tekong for ten weeks, and move on to Officer Cadet School (OCS) for about three months. This also differs slightly for the different services. Following which, we disrupt our OCS training to leave for our studies depending on our university (as OCS would usually last nine months to be commissioned as officers). This allows us to leave for university studies in the same year as the other girls in our school year.’

Still, it is a path less taken; what inspires these young women to enter a field that is perceived as being a male-dominated one? Here is Stephanie’s heartfelt answer: ‘I was motivated by the fact that I, along with all Singaporean men, have the opportunity to give back to Singapore in this way.’

In this feature, our four young alumnae tell us why they chose to sign on, and share their thoughts on defending their country and the ones they love.

 


CHIA PEI QI

Name: Chia Pei Qi (RGS, 2010; RI, 2012)

Vocation: Air Warfare Officer (C3) (Trainee)

Now: SAF Merit Scholarship for Women; Reading Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Then: Vice-head prefect of the RGS Prefectorial Board; RGS Tarbet House committee member; RGS Golf team; Vice-president of the RI Student Council; RI (Year 5-6) Golf

Pei Qi (front row, middle) with friends
Pei Qi (front row, middle) with friends

 

Tell us a bit about how you joined the SAF and the major milestones in your journey with the SAF so far. What inspired you to join, and how or why did it matter?

Growing up, I had always heard my dad and cousins talking about their time in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). As I was exposed to the Singapore issues faces, I learnt the significance and importance of the SAF to our nation’s growth from independence till today. When I was in RI, I attended career and scholarship fairs but never actually stopped to visit the SAF booth—while I was curious about the uniformed services, I did not stop to find out more due to the stigma attached to a female joining the military. However, a female officer called me over and talked to me about career opportunities in the SAF, and that was what piqued my interest. I also knew some seniors, both male and female, who shared their experiences with me, and this made me realise that I am not alone in considering the SAF as a career choice.

The biggest moment for me was taking the ferry to Pulau Tekong to begin my Basic Military Training (BMT). It was difficult being away from my family, and getting used to the military life. However, the friendships that I forged with my platoon helped me through my entire BMT journey. Eventually all of us made it to the floating platform for our Passing Out Parade (POP). Officer Cadet School was the start of an entire new journey, where my leadership skills were challenged.

I am inspired by various reasons to join the SAF. Even now, I cannot boil it down to just one, so I will name a few. The strong purpose of the organisation was one of the reasons I joined, another would be my individual purpose of wanting to protect and defend the people I love. Role models, such as the existing female officers in the SAF are great inspirations for me as well.

 

What were the reactions of your friends and family when they knew that you were going to join the SAF?

My family was very supportive of me joining the SAF although they could not help but worry a little. After all, I was the first female in the family to don the uniform to serve our country. Many of my friends were very surprised that I made the decision to sign on, as I was not the stereotypical athletic, toned, tall-built girl whom one would imagine to join the military. In fact, I am actually pretty small-sized.
The best piece of advice that I ever received was from my parents, where they told me to ‘Do your best, and remember that we will always be here for you. It is all in your mind, if you believe that you can do it, you can. We believe that you can.’

 

Did you encounter scepticism from anybody over your decision?

I guess encountering scepticism is inevitable, since it is still out of the norm for women to join the SAF. When I made the decision to sign on, many of my friends questioned my decision, particularly my male friends who soon had to serve their mandatory two years of national service. But there were many who respected my decision as well, and supported me all the way.

 

Were there any moments of discouragement?

There were moments when the training was tough and I felt like giving up. The Standard Obstacle Course is a good example. There was once when I almost fell through the gap at the top of the apex ladder. I was terrified and I did not think that it would be possible for me to complete the course. However, with much encouragement from my platoon mates and the officers, I attempted it again and again, and overcame my fear. The low rope station was particularly challenging for the females, as many of us did not have the physical strength of our male counterparts. We overcame that by having extra training every night, and eventually most of us made it to the top of the rope. It was extremely satisfying.

 

What is your understanding of good leadership? Has it changed over time and why?

I feel that good leadership is one that positively influences the people around you. My idea of good leadership did not change over time, however my perception of the different leadership styles did. In my years in Raffles, I came to realise that my leadership style was one that was largely people-centred. When I first entered the military, I thought that only people who were task-focused and loud would be good leaders, as they seem to be able to command attention. However, when I took on a leadership role, I realised that I did not have to always shout to get people to listen to me; instead, I related to them personally and gained their respect.

 

Did your time in Raffles shape your SAF experiences in any way?

The confidence that I gained in RI was largely applicable in my SAF experiences. Also, having the honour of being elected as the Vice-President of the 31st Student Council gave me the opportunity to work with a great bunch of councillors, the student population and the school administration. The leadership and communication skills that I gained made me a stronger leader in my SAF journey thus far. In my opinion, training and working within the SAF is not just about being good at what you are doing, but rather being able to work with the people around you to accomplish a greater goal and forging understanding and bonds within the team.

 

What do you see as the SAF’s bigger goals and what are your own personal goals at this time?

The mission of MINDEF and the SAF is to enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy. I believe that my personal goals of gaining more specialised knowledge in my vocation, understanding Singapore’s position in the world and protecting my loved ones, would contribute to the SAF’s bigger goals in time to come.

 

In your understanding, why is the SAF important to Singapore?

The most essential role that the SAF plays is to protect the sovereignty and interests of Singapore. Being a small island nation, there is a need to be independent and be able to have a strong defence to protect the ones we love. With the SAF, Singaporeans can feel safe and sleep peacefully at night.

 

What would you say to a junior who is contemplating a career in the armed forces?

I feel that a career in the armed forces will be a challenging yet fulfilling one. If you have even a slight interest in signing on, I would urge you to find opportunities to speak to people who are already in the SAF, attend tea sessions and career fairs to find out more about what you are up for. Once you decide that this is the right path for you, I believe many of us will be here to welcome you to the SAF family.


JULIE LIM

Name: Julie Lim (RGS, 2009; RI, 2011)

Vocation: Pilot (Trainee)

Now: SAF Merit Scholarship for Women; Reading Engineering (Aerospace and Aerothermal) at the University of Cambridge (Sidney Sussex College)

Then: RGS NCC (Air); Cadet Officer in RI NCC (Air) (External CCA); Singapore Youth Flying Club (SYFC), where she obtained her Private Pilot’s License; Mathematics Society.
Additionally, Julie was in the Raffles Academy (RA) for Mathematics and Geography in RGS, and continued in the Mathematics RA in Year 5-6. She also took part in competitions such as the Future Problem Solving Programme (FPSP) and the Singapore Mathematical Olympiad (SMO).

 

Julie (seated) at the SAF Merit Scholarship Award Ceremony
Julie (seated) at the SAF Merit Scholarship Award Ceremony

Can you tell us more about your journey with the SAF so far?’

Initially offered a provisional Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Merit Scholarship for Women (SMS (W)), I enlisted for Basic Military Training (BMT) in January 2012 and completed part of my Officer Cadet School (OCS) training before leaving to read Engineering (Aerospace and Aerothermal) in the University of Cambridge. In this time, I completed my Jungle Orientation Training (JOT) in Brunei, and had the privilege of making many good friends through BMT and OCS whom I am proud to serve alongside. Although I had other scholarship options at that point, the experience during my training was enriching and helped me better understand and develop my sense of purpose for serving in the SAF. It also proved to me that a career in the SAF and the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is unlike any other career I could choose. I am now in my third year of studies and return for Vacation Attachment (VA) in the SAF every year. During my VAs, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to undergo leadership development courses, experience different departments and squadrons, as well as complete part of my Undergraduate Professional Military Education and Training (UGPMET). A helicopter pilot in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) by vocation, my father is currently serving as the head of a branch dealing with Peace Support Operations (PSO) and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Inspired by the commitment and dedication of my father to his work despite the challenges and long hours, I saw the true value of an SAF career and wanted to contribute to the defence of Singapore myself. When I was in Raffles Girls’ School, I joined the National Cadet Corps (Air) (NCC (Air)), where I began to hone my leadership skills and understand the military better. After I moved on to RI, I continued to serve in NCC (Air) as a cadet officer. My time in NCC (Air) has taught me that leadership is a learning journey. Not only can you learn from your superiors, there is also much you can learn from those whom you lead. I also joined the Singapore Youth Flying Club (SYFC) where I obtained my Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), shortly before my A-Level examinations. From building up my confidence, commitment and perseverance to equipping me with technical flying knowledge, SYFC has developed me significantly as a person. The experiences I had in NCC (Air) and SYFC only served to reaffirm my decision to sign on—defending one’s country is but a responsibility that all of us should bear, following all that our country has given to us.

 

Were your friends and family shocked when you told them you wanted to join the SAF?

My friends felt that it was a rather natural choice for me, given the Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) I was involved in during my schooling years. My father was supportive, as he understood well what my job would entail, while my younger sisters encouraged me to pursue my passion. However, I received more scepticism from my mother, who had genuine concerns about females in the military and why I chose a career with so many risks associated over other seemingly less demanding options (physically and mentally). I was fortunate that my father was in a good position to reassure and convince my mother, and had friends who could ease her fears. The best piece of advice I received was from my father. As I was about to embark on my career in the SAF, he told me to ‘learn well, serve well’, and one word that I should always remember—humility.

Did you face any challenges that seemed daunting in your journey with the SAF?
There were certainly moments when the challenges seemed daunting—the buddies by my side spur me on and knowing that we are all working towards a common mission helps.

 

How has your understanding of leadership changed since joining the SAF?

When I was in secondary school, my understanding of leadership was rather theoretical—the knowledge of concepts like leadership by example, servant leadership and Kouzes-Posner leadership model shaped my view. As I moved on to RI, I was better able to consolidate all these ideas and with more experience, developed my own understanding of good leadership, which has not changed much since then. To me, leadership is about positively influencing people—inspiring them to believe in certain values and to work towards a common mission. While leadership is based upon the competencies and values of the leader, it is also a journey in itself, as one develops and learns over time. I believe that a good leader not only earns the respect of his/her followers, but also treats them with respect. These followers may be subordinates, peers or even superiors, and have a choice whether or not to follow this leader. The success of a team depends not only on the leader but also every member of the team. As such, good leaders also should be able to motivate the team members, make the right decisions under stress and time pressures, and effectively communicate their visions to those whom they lead. Good leaders need to possess confidence, tampered with humility, be professional and serve as good role models.

 

How has your experiences in Raffles shaped you as a person?

My time in Raffles helped to develop me as a person, which influences how I deal with situations I face in the SAF. My CCAs had a greater impact on this than my academic pursuits, which have certainly prepared me well to deal with the academic rigour in university. During my time in Raffles, I was also privileged to have the chance to take on other activities, such as the Adventure Leadership Programmes (ALPs). This was an experiential leadership journey that helped me to better understand my leadership competencies and myself. I was also involved in the Future Problem Solving Programme (FPSP), which has undeniably improved the way I work in teams, as well as analyse and tackle problems.

 

What do you see as the SAF’s bigger goals and what are you own personal goals at this time?

The SAF mission is to enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory. I believe that building up a strong and credible defence force is the key goal to ensuring the mission is achieved. I have numerous personal goals, and they range from short to long term. One of my main goals is to achieve my pilot wings and perform well in flying training, upon completing my studies.

 

In your understanding, why is the SAF important to Singapore?

The SAF ensures the sovereignty and existence of Singapore. As seen in Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, international law alone may be insufficient to ensure the independence of small states. Singapore needs to be able to preserve and protect its independence, which the SAF defends.

 

What would you say to juniors interested in joining the armed forces?

A career in the armed forces will undoubtedly be different, fulfilling and enriching—the military culture is a unique one and the organisation not only provides many opportunities for young nineteen-year-olds to take on different responsibilities and leadership positions, but also invests a lot in the training and development of people (our most valuable asset). Above all, the military is more than a career; it is a profession with a greater purpose and unlimited liability (i.e. one is prepared to risk one’s life in service of the country).


STEPHANIE CAI

Name: Stephanie Cai Ruixin (RGS, 2010; RI, 2012)

Vocation: Infantry Officer

Now: SAF Merit Scholarship for Women; Reading Psychology at University of California, Los Angeles

Then: RGS Track & Field and Cross Country Captain; represented RGS in various cross-country races; Vice-captain of the RI Soccer (Girls) team.
Stephanie says her experiences with the Soccer (Girls) team defined her RI experience; the team won the 2012 National Championships despite the fact that only one of them had prior experience with soccer when they first joined.

 

Stephanie (second row, fourth from left)
Stephanie (second row, fourth from left)

 

Tell us a bit about how you joined the SAF and the major milestones in your journey with the SAF so far. What inspired you to join, and how or why did it matter?

After learning about a career with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) through various recruitment centres’ engagement events and through friends who were in service, I began considering taking up a career with the SAF and finally made the leap after A-levels.

To me, going down the path of a servicewoman in the SAF seemed like a very dynamic and meaningful prospect and I wanted to seize the opportunity to pursue a career that is relevant and purposeful. The SAF has a very important role to play in our country and I was motivated to be part of the organisation that defended Singapore. It was my way of giving back to the country that has given me so much. The sense of purpose and my passion to serve was reinforced after I joined the force and my time serving in the SAF, albeit short, has been very meaningful.

A few weeks into 2013, I was told that I could not enlist into the upcoming Basic Military Training (BMT) batch due to a mild medical problem and had to delay my enlistment. If I decided to continue on the journey of being a servicewoman, I had to delay my studies for a year in order to complete the due military training. It was then that I realised how certain and motivated I was to be part of the SAF—this delay did not affect my passion to pursue what I sought, or my aspiration to be part of the organisation responsible for Singapore’s defence.

 

What were the reactions of your friends and family when they knew that you were going to join the SAF? Did anyone offer you any advice? If so, what’s the best piece of advice you received?

My parents were very understanding and I am very, very grateful for their love and support. After realising that I had considered my career choice carefully and that I was deeply motivated to pursue this path, my parents supported my decision and made an effort to comprehend the nature of the career. I received advice from many who were already in the service, as well as from my loved ones and I believe that the best piece of advice that I received was: ‘Go with an open mind.’

 

Did you encounter scepticism from anybody over your decision? Where did it come from?

Given the context of National Service, many asked me why I would take the path less travelled. The guys, who were preparing for enlistment, were undoubtedly surprised and many were sceptical about my decision to delay my studies for a year in order to undergo military training. However, in a way, this fuelled my belief that everyone had a part to play in National Defence and I was motivated by the fact that I, along with all Singaporean men, have the opportunity to give back to Singapore in this way.

 

Were there ever moments of discouragement and how did you pick yourself up after that?

A career with the Armed Forces presents its own unique challenges, be it mental or physical. Nevertheless, as long as I am clear about my reason for serving, the role I play and my dedication to the organisation, these challenges and discouragements are all but hurdles that we, as servicemen, should overcome.

 

What is your understanding of good leadership?

A good leader is someone who, with vision and mettle, inspires those under his charge to be the best that they can be. It has certainly evolved throughout my time training in the military as we are exposed to various forms and styles of leadership. The people in the SAF are very important to the organisation and as a leader, we are given immense responsibilities at a fairly young age relative to leaders in other organisations. I have learnt that being a leader not only encapsulates showing the way and commanding, but also serving those under your charge.

 

Did your time in Raffles shape your SAF experiences in any way?

My time in Raffles has certainly strengthened my determination to overcome whatever challenges are strewn in my path, which was crucial to my experience in the SAF.

 

What do you see as the SAF’s bigger goals and what are your own personal goals at this time?

In a constantly evolving and advancing world, I believe that the fundamental goal of the SAF remains steadfast—to provide for the defence of our country. The SAF has given me the opportunity to develop myself holistically, and I strive to improve myself in various facets of my life to become an effective and valuable contribution to the force.

 

In your understanding, why is the SAF important to Singapore?

The SAF’s importance lies in its role as the perpetrator of defence in our country and a nation’s defence is of paramount importance due to the inter-relatedness of the defence, economic, social and political spheres. It is key to establishing peace and security in Singapore, which is elementary to the functioning of the economy and society.

 

What would you say to a junior who is contemplating a career in the armed forces?

Go for it! But it would be good to find out more about the organisation before making the decision. Consider the difference between the services and approach your decision with an open mind!

 


RACHEL LEE

Name: Rachel Lee Qing (RI, 2011)

Vocation: Pilot (Trainee)

Now: SAF Merit Scholarship for Women; Reading Economics and Industrial Organisation in the University of Warwick; Warwick sailing team

Then: Studied in the Singapore Sports School during secondary school; joined the Sailing club in RI (Year 5-6); represented Singapore as a national sailor at major international sailing competitions

Rachel (third from left)
Rachel (third from left)

What inspired you to join the SAF?

In RI, I was privileged to represent Singapore as a national sailor at major international sailing competitions (World Championships 2012 and Asian Games 2010). These experiences at overseas competitions offered me opportunities to learn and look beyond Singapore. From this, I came to appreciate the broad-based education and safe, caring environment that Singapore has provided for me and my family.
Upon the completion of my A-levels, I was certain that it was my duty to give back to my country. I was in search of a career that would serve this purpose. Being a competitive sailor, I was looking for a career that is active and diverse. As a sailing member of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Yacht Club, I had opportunities to interact with senior commanders, like Rear-Admiral (RADM) Lai Chung Han and Brigadier-General (BG) Lim Yeong Kiat who shared with me about the SAF.

The decision to join the SAF was not a straightforward one—I was offered bond-free scholarships at top universities and opportunities to represent Singapore at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janerio. I took a year off to study at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and do a stint at the SAF Basic Military Training Centre before I finally decided that I would pursue a professional military career.

 

Rachel (fourth from the right) with her friends in the A Division Sailing team
Rachel (fourth from the right) with her friends in the A Division Sailing team

My family members were proud and supportive of my decision to pursue this path less travelled, and fully understood my reasons for doing so. If there were sceptics, they were probably my peers who initially felt that I was ‘not normal’ as I had to leave a professional double-degree programme at NTU to join the SAF.

Why this decision? As a recruit, and now as a young officer, I take pride that the SAF is a professional organisation that provides opportunities for leadership and personal development for all personnel to excel. Given the wide spectrum of operations that the SAF undertakes—which ranges from protecting our nation to humanitarian missions—I am once again provided me with the privilege of flying the Singapore flag and contributing back to Singapore.

The SAF creates opportunities for all to excel based on merit. As women soldiers during basic and officers cadet training, we were treated equally and professionally. Like all young soldiers, we encountered many unfamiliar environments and ran alongside Singaporeans from all backgrounds and races.

RI prepared me for my time at SAF, for as students we were reminded that we must be ‘inclusive’ as a person and as an institution. So running alongside peers from many different races, religions and social backgrounds came more naturally. I am thankful to Raffles for shaping my thoughts and ingraining this on my value system.

What is your understanding of good leadership? Has it changed over time and why?

As a young SAF officer, I believe that it is important to embrace the philosophy of servant-leadership, i.e. to form good relationships with those we work with, be able to understand their needs and challenges, and develop our colleagues to their fullest potential to work as a team. A good leader should be able to bring the best out in the team by capitalising on the strengths of each individual.

The SAF has given me the opportunity to be put into different leadership positions and to hone and develop my leadership skills in various different contexts. With every given opportunity, I have learnt to constantly adapt and mould my perception of what it means to be a good leader. Through my experiences in the SAF, I have learnt that there is no one perfect leadership style that we need in order to be a good leader. Rather, being a good leader entails the ability to employ different types of leadership styles based on what is required to achieve your objectives efficiently and successfully.

What do you see as the SAF’s bigger goals and what are your own personal goals at this time?

The SAF’s goals should always be centred upon effectively achieving mission success. In my opinion, one of SAF’s bigger goals would be to capitalise on technology to enhance our current capabilities and to maximise the utility of our limited resources. As we are a conscript armed force, there is also a need to maintain and further strengthen the community’s believe and support in the SAF and its systems.

My personal goal at this point in time is to lead a fighter squadron in the RSAF. On top of that, I hope to be a better communicator and listener. I believe that it will help me be a more effective leader to those around me, allowing me to positively influence and impact those around me. In all of this, I want to be grounded in humility, and to always remember those who have helped me in one way or another.

In your understanding, why is the SAF important to Singapore?

Based on my understanding, the SAF is important in ensuring the peace and security of our land. Many a times, people overlook the importance of the SAF as we operate in the background. Many day to day operations that the SAF conduct keeps our air, sea and land safe for citizens to work, play and live in. The SAF is important as an added layer of defence to protect the sovereignty of Singapore.

Do you have any advice for juniors interested in joining the SAF?

Do not be afraid to take the path less travelled. Speak to as many people as you can to develop a better understanding of what will be in store for you if they choose to sign on. Believe in what the organisation does and the values that the organisation uphold, and it will carry you through. Most importantly, believe in yourself. There may be times where you are stretched to your limits, both physically and mentally, but you must know that through each of these experiences you come out a better person.

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