Former Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General (LG) (NS) Ng Chee Meng speaks to PIONEER on what it’s like leaving the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after 29 years.
Saying goodbye was evidently difficult for the top man in Singapore’s military. “Without the SAF, I would not have been the person I am today,” said the 47-year-old who joined the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) as a fighter pilot in 1986.
Growing up in a middle-class family with four other boys, LG (NS) Ng said he would not have had the means to afford an overseas education if not for the SAF. He graduated from the prestigious United States Air Force Academy, and was the second man from the RSAF in the history of the SAF to be made Chief of Defence Force.
“There are very few places in the world that will allow a boy from a middle-class family to have these opportunities to succeed,” said the father of two.
“My drive to serve comes from wanting to give back to our country and our people,” he added.
Fulfilling a childhood dream
His eyes lit up when he spoke about his first solo flight on a Cessna 172K after completing his O-levels.
“I was in JC 1…taking an aircraft to the sky with no one beside me,” the then-Junior Flying Club member recalled. “It was my first step in fulfilling a childhood dream (to become a fighter pilot).”
His first 10 years in the RSAF were some of the most memorable times of LG (NS) Ng’s career. He described himself as a “brash and young” pilot who loved being in the thick of action.
In his early days, the hotshot pilot recalled flying combat air patrols in his F-5 fighter jet in response to possible threats, putting himself in the frontline to protect Singapore’s skies.
As he rose through the ranks, it dawned upon him that he could no longer stick to his “youthful ideals, and ambitions to be a fighter pilot”.
“It was time to really seriously look at how to give back in terms of policy-making, and (use) the ground experiences that I had garnered to be the most effective commander that I could be.”
LG (NS) Ng helmed key command and staff roles that included Commanding Officer of 144 Squadron which operates the F-5 aircraft; Commander Changi Air Base; Director Joint Operations; and Chief of Air Force.
After taking over the top job in the SAF in 2013, LG (NS) Ng volunteered for the Combat Skills Badge (CSB) and Basic Diving courses. Training alongside servicemen half his age, the ace pilot wanted to understand his men and women in the Army and Navy, and lead by example. “You cannot lead if you do not understand what your people go through,” he explained.
When asked what he considers his greatest achievement, LG (NS) Ng humbly declined to answer, simply saying: “I did what I was supposed to do, what a responsible officer would do.”
SAF: Cornerstone of country’s success
LG (NS) Ng is proud of the SAF and its world-class people. The country’s remarkable economic progress, he said, was made possible because of the stability provided by the SAF’s servicemen and women.
Although the SAF has never been tested in an all-out war, LG (NS) Ng said the fact that Singapore has enjoyed peace for 50 years is a testament of its abilities to enhance Singapore’s peace and security.
“Detractors should understand that the ultimate strategy is to win without fighting,” he said, quoting renowned Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.
The full force of the SAF – including its citizen soldiers – when marshalled, renders it a formidable opponent, he said. “Any hostile country would think twice or thrice about threatening us.”
He noted that the SAF is in a very strong position today, not just because of its high-tech military arsenal, but also the dedication of its people and the strong support from the public.
This was what he witnessed during the state funeral of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. “I saw my officers and men doing their part beyond the call of duty, and ordinary Singaporeans giving them strength through their encouragement and support,” he recalled. “This is the binding strength of Singapore.”
Quoting the late Mr Zubir Said, the composer of Singapore’s National Anthem, LG (NS) Ng urged all SAF servicemen and women to continue to “uphold the sky of the land where you live”.
“Uphold the standards that we have forged over the last 50 years. Train our people tough, but fairly and safely, so that when we are called into operations, wherever or whenever, we are ready… We do this for Singapore, for Singaporeans.”
“The CSB course requires extensive physical conditioning and preparation. During one of our training sessions, LG (NS) Ng was in great pain and visibly limping. But he pushed himself and eventually attained the badge which required him to walk 32km in full battle order. I have the utmost admiration and respect for his determination and leadership.”
– Chief Warrant Officer (Ret) Joseph Koa, former SAF Sergeant Major
“I spotted LG (NS) Ng in the thick of the crowd, talking to people and reassuring them that we were doing our best to lessen any inconvenience and make the queue move as fast as possible… Seeing him walk the talk, when there must have been a host of pressing things for him to attend to, was both inspiring and reassuring.”
– Lieutenant Colonel Nur Effendi, who was in charge of queue managament during the state funeral for the late Mr Lee
“(As chairman of the SAF Welfare Council,) he takes a personal interest in understanding the situation of each family before sharing his views of how help can be rendered.
He has also given his support (for those with financial difficulties) through the SAF Benevolent Framework or the SAF Bursary and Merit Bursary Awards.”
– Ms Serena Woon, Finance Manager in SAF Personnel Services Centre
“One day, he (then Chief of Air Force) said he wanted to fly with us in the front seat of the F-15SG. With his busy schedule, we were worried whether he could make it, but he committed himself to the training. (He sets these) standards to show us that he knows his stuff, that ‘I set a high standard for myself and you better demand a high standard of yourself too’.”
– Colonel Nalpon Patrick Selvan, former Commander Fighter Group, Air Combat Command