Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the SAFTI Inaugural Commissioning Parade Golden Jubilee Dinner on 16 July 2017.
Pioneers of the Singapore Armed Forces, COL Menon, Chairman of the Organising Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening.
I am very honoured to be here tonight to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the commissioning of the first batch of officers. I am happy to see so many old friends gathered here. I last met quite a number of you when you marched, in your old fatigues, still fitting, on the SG50 National Day Parade two years ago. Now we mark the 50th anniversary of your Commissioning Parade, the first ever Commissioning Parade held by the SAF. For half a century, you have been meeting every year on the anniversary – July 16th. It is a testament to the strength of your friendship and camaraderie, even after all these years.
You served in the SAF at a crucial time in Singapore’s history. We were newly independent, defenceless in a dangerous world. Indonesia had not yet given up Konfrontasi. A Malaysian Armed Forces brigade remained in Singapore, nominally to help defend us. It seemed likely that the British would withdraw their troops from Singapore, as they eventually did. Many doubted that Singapore could exist independently apart from Malaysia.
We had to build up the SAF from scratch, as quickly as we could. In fact, the officer cadets started training at Jurong Town Primary School, before moving to the newly built SAFTI at Pasir Laba Camp. As pioneers, you seeded many initiatives often with limited resources. But today, after 50 years, tall sturdy trees have grown from these seeds.
The cadets who started Officer Training on 1 June 1966 came from all walks of life and must have had different motivations for volunteering. For many of you, it was a leap of faith, and no small commitment. 12 years of service – 10 years of Colour Service, and 2 years of Reserve, following the British system. A few were already career soldiers, either from the SAF, or the Malaysian Armed Forces. Others signed up because a military career would provide a stable income for your families, and good opportunities. Some may even have enlisted because of the attractive SAF recruitment brochures. I am told the picture of Clarence Tan with the red sports car was especially effective!
OCS was a gruelling, testing and bonding experience, for trainees and instructors alike. So tonight I am happy that besides the First Batch officers and spouses, we have also some of the instructors for the course – Daljeet Singh, Goh Lye Choon, Kesavan Soon, Albert Tan, and Shari Ngaimin. And also of course, Kirpa Ram Vij, who was Commandant of SAFTI.
By the time the First Batch graduated on 16 July 1967, after 12 months of chiong sua, you had forged a common purpose. The National Service Act had been passed a few months earlier. The first NS men would be called up within a month of your commissioning. All of you, instructors as well as newly-commissioned subalterns, were preparing to build up the SAF. To transform boys into men, and train raw recruits into seasoned soldiers with the responsibility of defending Singapore.
As Tim de Souza wrote to me a few days ago, I asked him if I could quote this:
“The Reviewing Officer was Dr Goh Keng Swee, whose dream of an Armed Forces made up of Singaporeans was just becoming a reality. Dr Goh had been the prime mover of the new nation's defence plans. He was a frequent visitor to SAFTI. He had addressed us, Officer Cadets, on numerous occasions, always urging us to train hard and true, for the mission we were to undertake would be a most serious one. He was very proud to see us go through the Parade with precision and pride. We had become real soldiers, and to those who had never seen such a transformation in Singapore before, like our families and the Diplomatic Corps, it must have an awesome sight.”
Dr Goh said at your Commissioning Parade (I looked up his old speech), and I quote:
“Today we witness the most significant event since SAFTI’s birth – the Commissioning Parade of SAFTI’s first officers’ course.
“This is an accomplishment which all those concerned in it have just cause for pride and satisfaction. The men who have successfully completed this course know it has demanded of them the utmost in physical and intellectual effort and has set a stern test of character. I congratulate them on their success and wish them a meaningful career in the Army.”
This was a pivotal moment for Singapore. That you, the First Batch, stayed the course, gave Singaporeans confidence in the country’s future. It showed that despite the odds and the uncertainties, Singapore had men who would come forward to serve, and were prepared to defend our existence as a sovereign and independent nation.
As pioneers, your careers were meaningful in a way which those who came after you could not match, however well they did. You helped get the SAF off the ground, filling key staff and command positions. Some of you went for specialised training, and eventually became the core of the Infantry, Armour, Artillery, Signals and Logistics formations, as well as the Commandos. Three learnt to fly, and were pioneers who launched the Singapore Air Defence Command, now the RSAF – John Norfor, Gary Yeo, and Tim de Souza. Without you, the SAF would not have been able to grow as quickly it did, and would never have reached where it is today. You were the foundation and the backbone of the SAF for a long time, until the people you trained were able to join you and eventually take over from you, to take the SAF the next step forward.
But perhaps more importantly, you set the culture and ethos of the SAF. As the First Batch, you were acutely aware of this responsibility. You upheld foundation values: loyalty to country, discipline, and professionalism. Having seen how vulnerable Singapore had been, you understood deeply why we needed the SAF and NS. You resolved to work with the elected government, to defend Singapore, and uphold our multiracial and meritocratic society. You transmitted these values to the men you led and trained.
It has been my privilege to know many first batch officers personally over many years. I have been trained by you, served under you, and worked beside you. In many cases, we have become old friends and comrades. In OCS, my Commanding Officer was Jimmy Koh, and my OC was the late Tang Seng Kong. When I was in the Artillery, my first Battery Commander was the late Lee Kee Lian. My COs included Ng Jui Ping, Chan Cheow Nam, Chan Sui Choy and Govinda Rasu, and Chan Jwee Kay was Chief of Artillery. In the General Staff, I took over as ACGS (Ops) from Kwan Yue Yong, and served beside Ng Jui Ping, Menon and the late Ha Weng Kong. My task was easier because in the formations, there were first batch officers who worked with us and were supportive of us. Kwan Yue Yong went to the third division, Colin Theseira was Chief Armour Officer, Gurcharan Singh was Chief Engineer Officer, later succeeded by Chng Teow Hua, and by then Rasu had taken over from Chan Jwee Kay in the Artillery, and Gary Yeo was Deputy Chief of Air Force, or I think we call him Deputy Commander. All of you have taught me something about being a good officer and leader and I am grateful for your mentoring, friendship and support all these years.
When it came time for my peers and me to train and lead men, we tried to pass on not just what we had learnt from you, but also the values we had imbibed from you. This passing of the torch has continued from generation to generation, and continues today. But among all the different vintages of SAF officers, the First Batch is truly special, sui generis. Or as Menon titled his book about you – “One of a Kind” – a description that the First Batch truly deserves, for the trail blazing role that you played for our young nation.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of National Service – NS50. NS continues to enjoy strong support from Singaporeans, despite the sacrifices it calls for. The two years our young men give as full-time servicemen, along with 10 years of reservist training and exercises to make sure that our NSmen stay sharp and ready. Uphold all that, it is operationally ready. Families, employers and co-workers play their part to, holding the fort at home and at work while our servicemen fulfil their duty. You started us on the right footing, or else we would not have been able to maintain this system for so long that is so crucial to our defence and security, and improve upon it year by year for half a century.
We are grateful to the First Batch officers and their instructors for all that you have done and contributed. I wish you many more happy gatherings on 16 July. May your legacy continue to live on in future generations of SAF servicemen and Singaporeans.
Thank you very much.
Explore recent content
More from Notes
Explore related topics