Do scholar-generals necessarily make bad leaders?

3_CEO interacting with commuters on the first day a66092

Recently, there has been much discussion surrounding the topic of leadership. Take for example, the criticisms of Desmond Kuek, the CEO of SMRT over the recent slew of train breakdowns. Many people criticised Mr Kuek’s background as a military general, and pointed out that not only was he possibly ill-fitted for the job, his performance so far has failed to justify his salary of $1.8 million in 2017 (it was higher in previous years).

This is not the first time such an issue has entered the public spotlight. Many of our political and quasi-public sector leadership roles are filled by military scholars. In what ways might a scholar-general background influence one’s leadership style and ability?

I argue that the institutional culture of the Singapore Armed Forces might explain why scholar-generals may not necessarily make the best leaders once they are taken out of the military context. However, that does not mean that just because a person is a scholar-general, he/she will necessarily be a bad leader.

Institutional culture

Every institution has its own institutional culture, which is tied to its internal system of rewards and punishments, and the success of any individual within such a system depends on their ability to respond to them. For example, one might expect the leaders of an institution built heavily on strict rule-following to be themselves strict rule-followers. Similarly, one might expect leaders of an institution that is built on creative development to be themselves the creative type.

Hence, in order to understand the competencies of those with a scholar-general background, we need to ask ourselves: what is the institutional culture of the Singapore Armed Forces? It is argued that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has an institutional culture which contains numerous negative traits, and this might affect a scholar-general’s ability to lead outside the military context.


First, the SAF is heavily built on hierarchy – commands come from the top down, and it is rather easy to get one’s way if one possess the necessary rank and power within a clearly structured hierarchy. This is much unlike, for example, the experience of a CEO of a private-sector company, who has to manage the desires of his/her shareholders, as well as expectations of its employees who are more easily able to exit the company and take up employment with its competitors.

Lack of consumer-focus

Second, the SAF is not consumer-focused. Unlike, for example, the management of a train network, the service provided by the military is not “consumed” by the public on an everyday, face-to-face basis. One might argue in response that we consume the services of our military by enjoying the benefits of its protection of our country from day to day. However, the difference is that this type of consumption is not as apparent as, for example, the consumption of transport services – we are not immediately affected by any military mess-ups.

For example, if we negligently spent $50 million on a shipment of tanks that keep breaking down every exercise, the public will not feel directly affected (even though fiscally, they might be). Furthermore, in any case, this matter would be kept secret from the public due to the Official Secrets Act. Hence, there is no consumer backlash similar to the one which commuters have recently unleashed on SMRT.

The technical team of Equifax was primarily to blame… but the CEO resigned anyway

Furthermore, the fact that the SAF is not consumer-facing may also lead mismatched expectations when it comes to the role of the CEO in public relations, and the level of responsibility he/she ought to take for serious mess-ups, even when these mess-ups are not directly their fault.

For example, just two months ago, the CEO of the major credit-monitoring company Equifax resigned after a data breach which led to hackers stealing the personal data of over 143 million Americans. Was the technical team of Equifax primarily to blame for this mess-up? Of course they were; but the CEO resigned anyway.

However, in the SAF, a general is not expected to resign even after a major incident. Take for example past incidents where NSF servicemen have died in training due to the negligence of their military commanders (e.g. the smoke grenade incident in 2012), or the incident in 2007 when an NSF went AWOL with his rifle and live ammunition. On both occasions, it was the lower ranking soldiers who were punished, not the senior military commanders.

Rewards and punishments

For many military administrators, the only way to go is up

Third, the SAF has an inadequate system of punishments. While on the operational level, punishments for misconduct are extremely harsh, as pointed out earlier, this harshness mainly affects the lowest ranking soldiers, and not senior officers. On the other hand, when it comes to military administration, my own experience in working with military administrators has indicated to me that for many of them, only way to go is up. Incompetent staff are rarely ever fired; they are merely denied promotion and sometimes transferred out to other departments. This does not happen in the private sector – competition and slim profit margins mean that incompetent staff are very quickly sacked.


However, this is not to say that because a person is a scholar-general, he/she will make a bad leader outside the military context. There are of course many leaders with military backgrounds who perform well in the private sector and in government. Take George Yeo, for example, who is arguably one of Singapore’s most well-regarded former ministers.

The point of this article is to illustrate how the institutional culture of the SAF might affect a scholar-general’s leadership style and how it might impede his/her ability to adapt to a new environment and execute his/her new role effectively. Therefore, for a scholar-general to do well in his/her new role, he/she will need to adapt to the different demands of a vastly different sector, and alter his/her leadership approach to suit the new role. He/she will also need to manage expectations, and understand when it is the right time to “move on” (if you get what I mean). Those former generals who have succeeded in the private sector and in government have managed to do this successfully, and that made the difference.

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Image credit: SMRT

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