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Want more women in the SAF? Here’s how

Singapore has clear examples of embracing diversity in its armed forces. It has gradually built generations of multiracial troops since the early days of nation building.

MWO Jennifer Tan (right) was Singapore’s first female Regimental Sergeant-Major at the 2011 National Day Parade. Singapore’s achievement in allowing women into combat 
roles has been praised by experts. Photo: MINDEF

MWO Jennifer Tan (right) was Singapore’s first female Regimental Sergeant-Major at the 2011 National Day Parade. Singapore’s achievement in allowing women into combat
roles has been praised by experts. Photo: MINDEF

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Singapore has clear examples of embracing diversity in its armed forces. It has gradually built generations of multiracial troops since the early days of nation building.

Currently, the country has broadened its policy of inclusivity to recruit more women as the number of males is forecast to decline nearly 29 per cent (from 21,000 to 15,000 recruits) due to the falling birth rate. Despite not having any female general to date, the forces have voiced support for women to “go the distance”.

One good example is Colonel Gan Siow Huang, the first female colonel in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) who was promoted in 2010 with experience in drafting policies and commanding RSAF 203 Squadron, as well as the Air Surveillance and Control Group.

The 2011 National Day Parade (NDP) proudly brought on Jennifer Tan — the first female combatant to reach the rank of Master Warrant Officer — as the first female Regimental Sergeant-Major on stage. This year’s NDP will feature the first woman parachutist, 3rd Warrant Officer Shirley Ng, in Singapore’s 48-year national history.

MORE THAN BEING INCLUSIVE

Singapore introduced the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Merit Scholarship for women in 1997. The scholarship provides support for outstanding women, with strong leadership qualities and who passed basic military and officer training, to pursue overseas undergraduate studies. They take up SAF senior command and management positions upon their return. Col Gan was one of its best graduates.

The SAF recruited its first female combatants in 1986, allowing them to serve as artillery gunners, pilots and intelligence analysts. In 2004, Singapore began to assign women as mortar platoon leaders in infantry units.

Singapore’s achievement in allowing women into combat roles has been praised by Ms Jennifer Mathers, an American expert on women in the military, for being ahead of the United States. The US has had fierce debates on whether women can enter combat roles, up until early this year when they decided to drop barriers for women to access all military roles.

However, Ms Mathers notes that in the SAF, most women are still confined primarily to support roles, with few managing to attain senior command positions.

CHALLENGES FOR WOMEN

It is difficult for women to be in the armed forces. They gain more visibility as a minority in a masculine institution. Thus, they are required to perform even better than their male peers to avoid being labelled as “poster women” or tokens. Cynicism greets both women enrolling in the SAF and the institution’s sincere intention to improve the country’s defence posture. This hinders the full integration of women.

The instant-integrationist approach has side effects in that the male majority envy the minority getting the limelight and leniency. Nevertheless, Singapore is known for its merit-based society, and has done well to keep its heterogeneous society together. Surely this challenge of replenishing its human resources with the best persons for military roles, whether men or women, will be tackled with similar attitude.

Within the security sector globally, the critical mass of 30 per cent minority representation — adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995 — has been difficult to attain.

Even the UN Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKO) modestly targets a goal of 20 per cent female police peacekeepers by next year — a goal that seems far away because, as of March this year, women comprised less than 10 per cent of the police forces and only 3 per cent of military forces — this after mainstreaming efforts raised the number from 1 per cent in the 1990s.

The UN PKO has acknowledged that they face difficulty in meeting quota goals for women peacekeepers because there is a gap in the data and analysis on female participation in national security institutions worldwide, as well as social biases that perpetuate gender inequality within the sector.

Still, the UN PKO stresses the importance of female peacekeepers to act as role models, inspire women and girls, address specific needs of female ex-combatants and survivors of gender-based violence, mentor female cadets in military and police academies, and interact in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men.

NORWAY’S EXAMPLE

One country that encounters similar problems in recruiting and retaining more women in its armed forces is Norway. The country’s goal is 25 per cent females in the armed forces by 2025; last year, it stood at 12.4 per cent. The Norwegian Defence Department identified three reasons for this.

First, Norwegian women viewed military as a launch pad to other careers. Second, they perceived family relationships as a priority. Third, they felt that the military has an exclusionary culture that is male-dominated and hard to break.

Yet, acknowledging these weaknesses and sticking to the commitment are good ways to plough ahead. Last year, Norway was the only UN member state that promoted a senior female candidate to the leadership position of force commander in its UN PKO military component.

ACTION FOR INTEGRATION

Leadership is important in a top-down organisation like the armed forces, including Singapore’s. Hence, the first strategic action required to integrate women into the forces is for the military top brass to demonstrate — both in a public setting as well as within military training — their confidence in women’s ability to take on military roles.

This is to encourage open-mindedness and dispel the perception that the SAF recruits only a token few females, demonstrating instead that it is committed to both genders being equally respected.

Secondly, a strategic plan is required to better recruit and retain women personnel. Gender-sensitive and specific force-generation strategy to promote gender equality would better address the underlying issues that cause women to have reservation about entering the SAF.

Creating female military personnel role models, establishing gender-coaching programmes, conducting outreach initiatives and having gender advisers are some of the policies that can be implemented. Last but not least, research into social norms and equality engineering will be important.

When all the foundation works are complete, Singapore will be in better position to reach its goal of 10 per cent women career soldiers who can then be pushed to their maximum potential. So far, good marks have been attained. Greater female contribution to the SAF will help make the future look better for all Singaporeans.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Fitriani Bintang Timur is an Associate Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She was formerly a researcher at the Institute for Defence Security and Peace Studies, Indonesia, and a Research Fellow at Technische Universitat Dortmund, Germany.

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