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Singapore's first three-star general says he joined up to get away from books

Tomorrow marks Singapore Armed Forces Day, where Singapore men are recognised for their national service contributions. JUDITH TAN speaks to Singapore's first three-star general and Chief of Defence ForceWinston Choo on what life was like when he was a career soldier

WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY

His was a career of firsts.

During his 33 years in the military, he was the youngest officer to rise to the rank of Brigadier-General.

He was also the first professional soldier to achieve the rank of Major-General.

His promotion to Lieutenant-General made him Singapore's first three-star general.

He is also the first and longest-serving Chief of the Singapore Armed Forces.

Yet retired Lieutenant-General Winston Choo, 72, said his military career came out of a desire to get away from books and exams as soon as he was done with school.

All he wanted was to be out in the great outdoors. A career with the military seemed perfect.

But the young Winston Choo was to discover just how wrong he was.

Back then, the military was styled after Sandhurst, the military academy and training centre for British Army officers. And that meant hitting the books.

At the end of his career, he had received a degree from the National University of Singapore, a master's from Duke University in the US, and an Advanced Management Programme at Harvard - all sponsored by the military.

Not surprisingly, the parents and grandparents of Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo, the only son in the family, had wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer.

When he broke the news of his acceptance into military college on Christmas Eve of 1959 to his family and that he had to leave for Port Dickson the day after New Year's Day, "there was a lot of gnashing of teeth", Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo said.

"But I loved the great outdoors, so a career in the military was a natural choice for me," he added.

DOWN AND DIRTY IN THE BATTLEFRONT

After completing his officer cadet training at the Federation Military College in Port Dickson in 1961, Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo was commissioned as Second Lieutenant and sent to the 1st Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment (1 SIR) where he served as platoon commander.

"We were still part of the British army then, and were assigned to the Malaysian-Thai border to protect it against the communists. We were thrown into the wilds. We didn't have any experience then and, of course, there was some degree of fear and apprehension that we could lose our lives," he told The New Paper.

It was not until 1963 and 1964, during the Confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia, that Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo saw actual action.

"We were deployed to Sebatik Island in Borneo and later to the Kota Tinggi in southern Johor. It was only then that we were thrown into an operational situation and were fighting for real. We had loaded weapons, and you don't carry loaded weapons unless you expect to use them," he said.

"Life and death were something that we, in this regiment, had to seriously think about. We are no longer shooting at inanimate targets, but at another man and shooting with real bullets, and the possibility of getting shot ourselves," he added.

Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo recalled that when his troop first arrived, the talk within the brigade was, "these Singaporeans cannot fight. They are city boys".

"We proved that we were made of sterner stuff. We fought. Those of us in 1 SIR did not suffer any casualties, but those in 2 SIR were less fortunate and several of them died."

The battle was in February 1965 when one of the platoons of the 2nd Battalion, tasked to hunt down Indonesian troops in Kota Tinggi, was ambushed. Nine soldiers lost their lives.

SADDEST MOMENTS

Death of a soldier has always been hard on Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo.

"The saddest moments I experienced during my career were each time when I was told that we had lost a soldier - through vehicle or training accident, or when a pilot (died) in an air crash. The loss of the young lives under my command were never easy to accept," he said.

But that was not the hardest thing for him.

"One of the most difficult things I had to do was to discipline a close friend and fellow officer by demanding that he resign his commission," he added.


HARD LESSONS

Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo, who is currently chairman of Metro Holdings' board of directors and non-resident ambassador to Israel, said that young Singaporeans today do not know what priced Singapore's independence.

"We had to fight. Some of us even lost our lives to attain sovereignty (for Singapore). For many young ones, SAF exists only after 1966. They tend to take things for granted," he said.

"It was only with the recent fiasco of naming a warship after the two bombers of MacDonald House that young Singaporeans realised why and how hard we fought," he added.

NS TODAY:

But Lt-Gen (Ret) Choo said the young men doing NS today face new challenges that is "perhaps greater than it was for us then".

"We have a different calibre of people coming in now - the younger generation are better educated, and can meet the same training requirements more efficiently and effectively," he said.

During his time, some of the men doing NS "barely finished their secondary education".

"We had different profiles of conscripts to work with. Some were what we called 'Hokkien pengs' (soldiers), who could not even understand Mandarin, let alone English. But they were loyal, ready to fight to the death and made good soldiers," he said.

"The need for and importance of NS will always be there, but the types of people who come into NS have changed over time.

"The SAF, therefore, must continue to be dynamic and adjust the way it trains our soldiers, so that they would be better able to master new skills and operate technologically complex systems to defend Singapore."