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Professional Military Education

A Cross-Cultural Survey


Edited By Duraid Jalili and Hubert Annen

This book brings together non-Western viewpoints on military pedagogy and professional military education (PME). In doing so, it seeks to provide a counterbalance to the predominantly European and North American bias found within the research field, as well as generating new insights on Latin American, African and Asian pedagogical commentaries and critiques. The collection contains essays from PME researchers and practitioners across fourteen countries, on subjects including large-scale educational reform, civil-military and academic influences on military pedagogy, internationalisation, cross-cultural collaboration, and interoperability within military education.

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‘Outsiders Inside’: Experiences of Privately Contracted Educational Staff in the Singapore Armed Forces

Ho Shu Huang

‘Outsiders Inside’: Experiences of Privately Contracted Educational Staff in the Singapore Armed Forces

Abstract: This chapter addresses the challenges faced by ‘outsider’ educational contractors in scenarios in which the academic education of military officers has been outsourced to a civilian university. Focusing on the Singapore Armed Forces’ Tri-Service Warfighter Course, the chapter assesses the potential challenges resulting from different notions of ‘time’, teacher-student rapport, student motivation and student ability within a military educational environment. It emphasises, in particular, the challenges faced by lecturers who are only present in the military environment during teaching hours. The author argues that this scenario requires a process of compromise between the military client and academic contractor. It also concludes that academics should view these experiences as learning opportunities which can benefit their own work and generate a culture of self-reflexivity in the application of civilian pedagogy.

Keywords: PME, military education, civil-military relations, Singapore Armed Forces, military contractors, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, RSIS


The professional development and education of career soldiers, sailors and airmen in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is taken very seriously, as they form the military’s leadership core (Ng, 1998, p.197). Rather than conduct academic courses with its own faculty, as is common in other professional militaries (Brown and Syme-Taylor, 2012, p.453), the SAF contracts the teaching of the academic components of its professional military education (PME) to civilian providers. One contractor is the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) within the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which provides instruction in military history and strategic studies.

This chapter seeks to assess the challenges faced when the academic education of military officers is outsourced to a civilian university. Specifically, it will focus on the SAF’s Tri-Service Warfighter Course ←113 | 114→(TSWC), a mid-career route-of-advancement course for SAF officers, with a military studies component taught by RSIS academics. The chapter will firstly introduce the TSWC (including its objectives, structure and staff demographics), before exploring four key challenges faced by ‘outsider’ educational contractors when teaching in a military environment: the notion of ‘time’, motivation, ability and rapport. A key theme of this analysis is the differences and similarities faced by RSIS lecturers, who are only present in the military environment during teaching hours, in comparison to academics who are full-time employees of the PME institutions in which they teach. The chapter concludes with the hypothesis that despite or even due to these challenges, the military classroom provides academics with an opportunity to rethink their traditional pedagogies, even in their own native teaching environments.

It should be noted that, although the chapter focuses on the Singaporean context, it situates this within a broadly Western canon of military pedagogical theory and case studies. In doing so, it neither seeks to reify nor problematise this link. However, it is understood that the application of such pedagogies to Singaporean contexts could be interpreted as tacitly reifying either the broad universality of military pedagogy or the historical standardisation of global educational practices. One methodological goal which the chapter does seek to achieve, however, is to contribute an alternative ‘civilian’ perspective to a pedagogical discourse which has a tendency to explore the role of civilians in PME from a military viewpoint. Much of this discussion concerns what should be taught, how to incorporate academic classes within existing military curricula, and risks to the military profession generated by outsourcing its education (see, for example, Higbee, 2010 and Avant, 2005). Yet, as noted by Brown and Syme-Taylor (2012, p.453), PME is an academic activity as well as a military one.

The Tri-Service Warfighter Course (TSWC)

Introduced in May 2006, and built upon the principles of the original Tri-Service Staff Course which started in 1997, the TSWC is one of three route-of-advancement courses in the SAF.1 The course is conducted four times a ←114 | 115→year, with a maximum of 78 students (MINDEF, 2010). Four weeks long, it is attended by Captains from the army, navy and air force who have typically served for just under a decade, though there are often exceptions.2 The course provides an opportunity for these mid-career officers to learn about and discuss issues concerning “SAF Joint Operations, the Strategic Environment & National Security, Military Technology, as well as Leadership and Values” (SAFTI MI, 2016, p.89).

Most of the officers attending have, thus far, spent much of their career narrowly focused on attaining technical or operational proficiency in their respective vocations. The TSWC provides an opportunity to contextualise their role within the broader mission of the SAF and its wider strategic setting. Lessons are pitched at an undergraduate level and learning is assessed through a research paper (pre-course), as well as class participation and group presentations. The majority of lessons in the TSWC are taught by officers from the SAF, Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and other government agencies. Other lessons such as country-specific briefings, citizenship education and strategic studies are contracted out.

The RSIS’ Military Studies Programme (MSP) is the biggest contractor for the TSWC, providing all of the teaching for the Strategic Environment and National Security (SENS) component of the course. The MSP comprises both senior staff (with doctoral qualifications) and junior staff (with master’s degrees). Its primary task is to provide academic instruction to the SAF (RSIS, n.d.) across a wide range of subjects in strategic and military studies, from the level of officer cadet up to senior commander. The MSP allocates six instructors for the TSWC, who each provide teaching for eight sessions over six days. This is comprised of four lectures of two-hours’ length each, three tutorials of three-hours’ length each and a six-hour session for group presentations. The lectures and group presentations are conducted in a lecture room with the entire cohort present. The tutorials are held in smaller groups of eleven to thirteen officers. As will now be considered, in delivering these sessions, civilian staff face a range of different challenges.

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Challenge #1: Time

How time is understood and valued, vis-à-vis learning, can differ in the academic and military worlds. Academics tend to have a broader understanding of time. Research and fieldwork are not fast processes and require flexible scheduling. Learning cannot be rushed and the end results of one’s efforts (such as peer-reviewed journal articles and academic books) can take months, if not years, to reach fruition. Learning for its own sake is time well-spent, and generating new knowledge is vital, even if its value is rarely immediately obvious.

On the other hand, military officers are used to seeing visible and immediate results from training, generally determined by measurable standards. After all, the military’s objective in battle is a decisive victory, achieved with speed and precision. Education, with its often-unquantifiable benefits, sits uncomfortably within this mind-set. As noted in Daniel J. Hughes’ exploration of the U.S. Air War College (2010, p.153), some military officials dismiss academic classes on non-technical subjects as unimportant. How time is allocated in the TSWC hints at this. Significant allowance for ‘study time’ is provided in the SAF’s other ‘route-of-advancement’ courses because university accreditation for some modules in these courses mandates such periods. However, the TSWC possesses only a few of these dedicated study periods. Moreover, these periods are often used for other purposes such as administrative tasks. TSWC officers are also required to write a pre-course research paper while working an often extremely demanding full-time job as a mid-career officer. Finally, in addition to a heavy schedule of lectures and pre-course readings, there are also other assignments that compete for students’ attention. In addition to the SENS assignments, for example, officers attending the TSWC have to deliver two group presentations for the other course components, as well as a vocational presentation on their service and branch during the four-week course.

Consequently, while the SAF Leadership Competency Model does emphasise the importance of “conceptual thinking competency”, which includes critical and creative thinking (MINDEF, 2016), there is limited interest in allocating time in the SAF’s shorter courses, such as the TSWC, to the broad study of the social sciences which could promote such skills. To fully benefit from such studies would require extended immersion in a ←116 | 117→discipline with no direct relevance to an officer’s job and a value proposition that is difficult to tangibly quantify. This belief in functionality in education is not restricted to the Singaporean military (see, for example, Keaney, 1998, p.151). To mitigate the lack of measurable standards, many lesson plans in U.S. PME courses explicitly state how to apply the subject of study to an officer’s career (Carter, 2010, p.171).

These shared cultural contexts shape a key challenge faced by civilian PME contractors in Singapore: timetabling. The modularisation of military tasks means that classes are seen as ‘plug-and-play’ and pre-defined periods are shifted around to make the timetable work. Given the array of lessons in the TSWC and the number of external parties involved, this is partly an administrative necessity. Priority for ‘preferred’ slots is given to senior guest lecturers from the military and government, who work separate full-time jobs and must be accorded due deference in line with their rank. As a result, civilian academics are often parachuted into the remaining available slots, with schedules occasionally changing at the last minute. Practically speaking, such academics do have greater flexibility to accommodate unforeseen changes in comparison to government officials, due to the nature of their work and their own university schedules. As a contractor, there is also an unspoken obligation to accommodate the needs of the client and forge a harmonious working relationship.

This flexibility, however, presents issues for the quality of learning provided by educational contractors. Although contracted hours are met, less priority is given to when they are met. RSIS lecturers are usually allocated two periods for lectures, each of two-hours’ length, which occur back-to-back. As noted by Middendorf and Kalish (1996, p.2), requiring students to sit through hours of long lectures is not ideal for effective learning as “adult learners can keep tuned in to a lecture for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and this at the beginning of the class”. They recommend working a “change-up” into classes to “restart the attention clock”, based on a typical university class length of fifty to seventy-five minutes long (Ibid.).

At the TSWC, however, the four SENS lectures that RSIS is contracted to deliver are split into two four-hour blocks (i.e. two two-hour lectures back-to-back on two different days). While RSIS instructors have the ←117 | 118→flexibility to conduct their lessons as they deem fit, varying class activities cannot mitigate the student (and instructor) fatigue that invariably occurs across four hours of instruction. Although a concerted attempt is made to spread tutorials out across three separate days, they tend to be on consecutive days or, in some instances, on the same day. This system stands in contrast to the policies of most civilian higher education institutions, which consider long lectures to be pedagogically less effective and which seek to keep sufficient space between lessons to allow students time to reflect and prepare for the next class, especially when new, unfamiliar material is taught.

Challenge #2: Motivation

Passing the TSWC is a requirement for an officer’s promotion to Major. Although students gain no new operational qualifications, the SAF prioritises the course through several means. Firstly, it gives officers a full month away from work to attend the course. This purely educational endeavour is atypical for a military course of this duration. Secondly, superiors of those attending the TSWC are informed that the course is protected time and that officers should not be assigned work during this time. Thirdly, RSIS staff are asked to distribute lesson materials two months in advance through the SAF’s online learning platform for ease of accessibility. The RSIS also delivers a pre-course briefing for students with an overview of the forthcoming classes, modes of assessment and a short writing workshop.

Despite these attempts to create a conducive learning environment, student motivation remains a challenge. Although some officers wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to focus on learning, they are often within the minority. Others continue to prioritise work over education, even covertly participating in tasks and assignments for their current job role. Some see the course as a chance to rest and recharge for a month – an observation which has also been made in the U.S. (Hughes, 2010, p.152). Most view the TSWC as a networking opportunity to better understand the other services, or even the different branches within their own service. The level of motivation that officers possess within their classes is a function of the proportion of each attitude they take.

←118 | 119→

Building sufficient rapport to encourage unmotivated students is particularly difficult for RSIS staff, as their tutorials are held towards the end of the course. Contracted civilian staff also possess limited carrots or sticks to encourage better behaviour. Thus, although RSIS staff are responsible for almost half of each student’s final course assessment, many officers place less emphasis on preparing for RSIS lessons than would be expected from students at a civilian university. This lack of effort can be frustrating for external academics. In tutorials, for example, few officers reference the material provided or come prepared with detailed responses to the tutorial questions, significantly limiting the depth of discussion. It is easy for an officer to submit a hastily written research essay and drift through the tutorials for the duration of the course.

A lack of time is an oft-cited reason for this. However, a lack of time can mask other causes that are less palatable, including a basic lack of interest. Similar to the scenario outlined by Hughes (2010, p.152), for some officers, attendance is simply a means to achieve promotion. These students apply just enough effort to pass, as the actual grade received has little bearing on one’s career. This stands in stark contrast to students at civilian universities who, at a basic level, are motivated by tuition fees and a desire to graduate with a transcript of respectable grades. The absence of these factors means that the expectations of academic contractors have to be adjusted when teaching officers in the TSWC.

As we shall consider further in the next section, however, it is important to acknowledge the role that ability may play in this scenario. For example, a lack of prior experience or training on how to prepare for classes may partly explain why some officers do not. The same can be said of poorly written research papers. This may help elucidate why most SAF officers – even those who have not made an effort to prepare – participate in tutorials as best as they can, with a curious and open mind, even extending discussions beyond the allocated time. These officers also bring a wealth of career experience that can help to clarify abstract concepts in a way that academics may sometimes struggle to achieve. Motivation, or lack thereof, to engage fully in course preparation and self-study outside of class, therefore, may be partly understood as a function of the officer’s confidence in their own academic abilities.

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Challenge #3: Ability

In university, all students are required to meet specific academic criteria before they are admitted. Prospective students need to demonstrate that they have the ability to learn at that level. The TSWC, however, has no academic pre-requisites for attending, even though the course is designed to be conducted at an undergraduate level. Admission to the TSWC is achieved either by exceeding a certain number of years of service, or due to one’s likely career potential based upon current career performance. Both are typically taken into consideration.

Admittedly, educational attainment in Singapore has been rising. In 2015, 52.3 % of residents in Singapore between the ages of 25 and 34 (the general age band for officers attending the TSWC) possessed university qualifications (Department of Statistics Singapore, 2016, p.11). These figures may well be equivalent to or even lower than those in the SAF, due to its policy of recruiting broadly across society and actively encouraging regulars to seek better academic qualifications. Opportunities for regulars to attain undergraduate and postgraduate degrees have also been created. The UGPMET and several modules in the CSC, for example, have been accredited by the Nanyang Technological University, and these credits can be used in the attainment of a diploma in other Singaporean universities.

An undergraduate degree, however, does not automatically equip an officer with the reading and writing skills necessary for the TSWC. English language proficiency in Singapore remains a topic of concern for the government (Sim, 2015). Moreover, a large number of officers opt to study science and engineering courses, in comparison to the types of humanities and social sciences courses that would enhance wider reading and essay writing skills. Finally, whilst there may be officers on the TSWC who are as academically qualified as some of the tutors, there still remain a large share who may not hold any university qualifications or any experience writing research papers, and thus who possess comparatively low reading and writing skills for such a course.

This wide range of abilities adds another layer of complexity for educators. The intention of the TSWC is to equip mid-career officers with a broader perspective on the context in which the SAF operates, and not a formal education in strategic studies. Whilst RSIS lessons form only a ←120 | 121→small part of the TSWC syllabus, these lessons must still be taught professionally. This poses a dilemma for civilian educators: should we lower the content and teaching methods of the lesson to the level of the lowest qualified officer, or should we focus on the minority who can participate at the level we are accustomed to and expect the rest to step up?

Challenge #4: Rapport

Research has demonstrated the importance of instructor-student rapport, the positive interpersonal relationship between instructors and students leading to classroom connectedness, in effective learning (Frisby and Martin, 2010, pp.146–148). Fundamental to establishing rapport is mutual understanding and respect in a “classroom made up of multiple interpersonal relationships which contribute to the construction of a unique community” (Ibid., p.146). In PME, this “unique community” is made more complex due to the distinct cultural differences that exist between the academic and military worlds. Brown and Syme-Taylor (2012, p.453), for example, describe the university environment as “[standing] apart doctrinally and institutionally from daily military life and training”. Vernon (2002) notes that “academe tends to value tolerance, dialogue, and creativity, and strives to nurture multiple points of view, the military tends to value authority, utilitarianism, and physical force”.

This difference is, in part, an unavoidable reality. While the professional soldier is subordinate to political control, they are physically and culturally removed from wider society due to the nature of their work. Bases where soldiers reside tend to be in rural areas because of the land required. War fighting, fundamentally the legal killing of an opponent in defence of one’s country, is antithetical to typical perspectives on the taking of another’s life within civil society. This “civil-military gap” (Garb, 2005, p.83) can engender a professional military culture that relates uneasily to the rest of society.

When these two cultures come together in PME, there is a tendency for academia to be subordinate to the military. Some critics claim that academic subjects are “corrupted at military schools to fit the ‘needs’ of the military” (Kennedy and Neilson, 1998, ix). A kinder observation is that PME tends “to reflect the wider military culture” (Brown and ←121 | 122→Syme-Taylor, 2012, p.454). At its very worst, the clash of cultures results in misunderstandings, raising tensions between military officers and academic civilians (Bruscino, 2010, p.139).

Although cultural differences do exist between RSIS lecturers and SAF officers, they are professional and non-antagonistic. The nature of civil-military relations in Singapore is a major reason for this. Singapore’s civil-military relations have been described as one of “fusion” (Tan, 2011, p.148). Singapore is a young nation with no prior military tradition or battle experience. The SAF has therefore developed alongside wider society, not separate from it. This is amplified by Singapore’s policy of National Service, through which most able-bodied male citizens (and some Permanent Residents) have to serve two years full-time in the SAF, and often come back for annual training as a reservist for at least a decade afterwards. Military service also features at the highest levels of government. A fifth of Singapore’s cabinet are retired SAF Generals, and many others have experienced National Service. Cultural boundaries between the military and civilian worlds are therefore blurred, and some have even described Singaporeans as “militarized civilians” (Chong and Chan, 2016, p.2).

Thus, officers at the TSWC are more unfamiliar with academia than vice-versa. They tend to view RSIS lecturers with curiosity. Lecturers are often asked why they chose to be academics, or what exactly it is that academics do. RSIS staff are made to feel at ease, by students who are generally open minded, respectful and almost deferential. At worst, students are indifferent to RSIS staff. This stands in contrast to the suspicion that is typically directed at “outsiders” within the military (Ben-Ari, 2014, p.32). Nor do lecturers have to teach combative officers who are fundamentally “anti-intellectual”, as observed in Lloyd J. Matthews’ commentary on the U.S. military (2002, p.17). As Thomas Bruscino (2010, p.141) playfully observes:

“when academics introduce some of the contentious but highly specialized debates from their respective fields into [A military environment], they are often accused of arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or, less charitably, for contemplating the fuzz in their navels”.

The difficulty of establishing rapport with officers that is faced by RSIS staff, however, is far less related to this cultural gap. Instead, it is the ←122 | 123→plug-and-play approach of the SAF’s academic outsourcing model that provides lecturers with minimal time to develop rapport. The custom of parachuting lecturers into teaching slots during the middle of the course means that lessons are delivered quickly, impersonally and without any additional social interaction or post-lesson follow ups. The plug-and-play model also makes it more difficult to relate lessons to the rest of the course content, as RSIS lecturers are not allowed to audit other lectures requiring security clearance. This scenario amplifies the ‘outsider’ identity of RSIS staff, thus providing a systemic inhibitor for developing rapport.

This is not the case within the RSIS where opportunities to develop rapport are promoted. There, social events are organised across the semester for faculty and students to interact with each other informally. All instructors maintain regular office hours where students can meet with them in person outside of class. Alternatively, students can correspond with faculty by email or through the university’s virtual learning community. Admittedly, given its brevity and the fact that the RSIS is only contracted to provide one of several components of the course, the TSWC arguably cannot be expected to run like a typical extended university course. That having been said, the TSWC could well adapt some of these practices. For example, RSIS instructors could participate in the team games played by the student cohort several times a week at the end of the working day. The SAF has its own virtual learning community, LEARNET, that RSIS instructors can be, and have been, given access too. Instructor email addresses can also be easily distributed to the officers.

The main obstacle to this is inertia. Structurally, there is little incentive to facilitate the development of instructor-student rapport by both the contractor (the RSIS) and the client (the SAF). The client specifies what exactly has to be delivered quantitatively, typically in terms of class hours, number of instructors required, and the number of assignments to be graded. The contractor provides teaching services in accordance to what is spelt out in the contract. There is no need to provide more than the contract demands. Presently, the focus is more on ensuring that relevant content is taught over a specific number of teaching hours, rather than how the content is taught, and whether it is done so in the most effective way. While there is some motivation amongst individual officials on the ground (be they RSIS instructors or liaison officers from the SAF) to improve the learning ←123 | 124→environment for both student and instructor, there is organisational indifference due to the fact that RSIS’ involvement in this PME remains comparatively small. RSIS is not formally invited to participate in discussions on pedagogy in the SAF or ‘train the trainer’ programmes. Perhaps the issue, then, is a lack of rapport between the officials who undertake the commissioning and contracting of teaching services between the SAF and RSIS. Focusing on the legalities of the contract reinforces the ‘outsider’ identity which trickles downwards.

Conclusion: Who Is Teaching Whom?

As regulars form the minority of its forces, it is unlikely that the SAF can justify the cost of dedicated PME institutions with their own academic faculties (Menon, 1995, p.60). Outsourcing academic instruction, therefore, is a practical way to enhance the professional development of SAF regulars. It is also part of an established trend of contracting external providers for non-essential functions, including the provision of meals in military camps, management of rifle ranges and the conduct of physical training during Basic Military Training.

Using the TSWC as a case-study, this chapter has sought to highlight both the broad challenges faced by external academics whilst teaching military officers, and the ways in which these challenges are compounded by the plug-and-play scheduling system. In analysing civil-military relations in Singapore and comparing the Singaporean PME system with its international equivalents, the essay has shown how practical realities, rather than fundamental differences in cultural values, have created difficulties for RSIS lecturers in helping officers prepare for lessons, teaching officers with vastly different academic abilities and developing rapport with officers.

These inhibitors are not insurmountable. Indeed, the way forward is a well-worn cliché: compromise. The challenge, of course, is determining who should give way to whom, and when? To my mind – and some of my colleagues may disagree with me – it is academics who should be more accommodating, particularly in the area of teaching methods. In a military environment, civilian educators must adjust their notion of what a ‘proper’ academic lesson looks like. “Practitioners form a distinct type of student,” observes John Craig, “and the design of the learning experiences provided ←124 | 125→should reflect their particular needs” (2015, p.28). Even the highest levels of PME provided to senior officers at U.S. war colleges “are not designed to produce scholars and researchers; they develop operators and leaders” (Reed, 2014, p.15).

Although some would argue that the adaptation of traditional academic methods may compromise academic standards, this shows a lack of pedagogical imagination. Most importantly, we cannot indiscriminately impose the intellectual standards or pedagogic approaches from civilian universities upon military officers within a military environment. As Thomas Bruscino (2010, p.148) argues, “academic expertise will never be an appropriate standard to expect for members of the military”. Thus, educators should adjust their teaching methods according to the objectives of the course (Kennedy and Neilson, 1998, xi), rather than blindly hoping that officers will ‘step up’ to university standards. This may require greater investment on the part of lecturers and a reassessment of the value of traditional lecture-tutorial formats. Alternatives such as war games and crisis simulations have been found to convert disengaged officers into (pro)active learners (Lacey, 2016). More can be done by academics to conceive of and implement alternative learning methods such as these.

One current impediment for the implementation of alternative learning formats, is the ability to communicate the value of non-conventional teaching methods in terms suitable for both academic and military officials. The natural evolution of higher education in Singapore, however, provides room for hope. Universities, such as the Nanyang Technological University, are now encouraging the use of “Outcomes-Based Teaching and Learning” (NTU, n.d.), in which one must explicitly outline the relevance of a specific course or module for the career or skill-sets of the student. This method bears clear comparison to those used within the military environment. Under the Discretionary Admission scheme, Singaporean universities are also hoping to increase “holistic admissions” (Davie, 2017), by admitting more students who may not have met the academic admission criteria but have demonstrated talent in other areas. While the variance in ability will not be as wide as those in the TSWC, pedagogic approaches will have to be adapted to accommodate the changing profile of university students. Teaching military officers, therefore, provides an opportunity for academics to rethink how they approach classes in their own native ←125 | 126→teaching environment. Indeed, if we are open-minded, we may find that military officers are not the only students in the classroom.


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1 The other two are the Undergraduate Professional Military Education and Training (UGPMET) course and the Command and Staff Course (CSC).

2 It is useful to note that the rank structure of the SAF is unified across all forces. Thus, officials within the army, navy, and air force possess identical rank names and insignia.