Towards A United SAF

Having worked on cross-domain collaborations with unique individuals and teams across SAF, CPT Surya Bhat’s career has taught him the importance of considering different viewpoints while still being able to achieve cohesion.

What was your initial impression and/or understanding of a MINDEF/SAF career? What got you to join?

I had initially thought that a career in the SAF would entail a lot of action on the ground but realised that the ‘chiong sua’ required a lot of careful and critical thinking that may not be immediately apparent.

I was keen to join the Navy because I wanted an exciting career that would challenge me to grow in a unique environment. I wanted to see more of the world and play a part in cultivating defence relations, especially since I was very interested in foreign affairs. The Navy offered me a chance to contribute to this.

Tell us more about your roles in the Navy, day-to-day responsibilities and challenges.

I am currently on course at the Naval Warfare School but I was previously a Planning Officer (Sea) in the Joint Ops Department. My day-to-day responsibilities included conducting operations planning for the SAF on cross-domain issues that require collaboration between the four Services and whole-of-government agencies. I also worked on developmental workstreams for the future SAF, focusing on articulating the scope and substances of future operations.

Cross-domain collaborations often require a strong understanding of both policy-strategic imperatives as well as the tactical challenges on the ground. It takes effort and close attention to understand different viewpoints, as well as critical thinking to synthesise these into a cohesive whole. One must be able to see the big picture and translate that into the future operations of the SAF. It is easy to do things the way they have always been done but we must question our assumptions to ensure that the SAF is ready for tomorrow’s challenges.

How has a career in MINDEF/SAF changed your life and/or thinking?

It has made me more empathetic as an individual and a leader. The men and women who defend our everyday 24/7 are all unique individuals that bring their own motivations, aspirations and challenges to the table. Behind each person is a story that needs to be understood in order to lead effectively and create strong, cohesive teams. I have dedicated more effort and attention to understanding this and actively listening to each of them. This has made me realise that every viewpoint has value and needs to be taken seriously.

How is the MINDEF/SAF career a rewarding one?

On an individual level, each officer plays a part in the lives of their team members in countless ways, which are especially apparent when we sail together for extended periods of time. It is always rewarding to see growth in my team and to help to fulfil their aspirations. It is all the more rewarding because we play an active role in defending our everyday. Many sacrifices may go unseen to the public but we know that our efforts have made a difference in the lives of Singaporeans and in the continued peace of our nation – each small contribution adds up.

Transcend limits. How have you experienced this taking place in MINDEF/SAF, be it in personal and professional development, and/or as an organisation?

Personally, we all go through challenging times that force us to grow. For my team and I, that was the bilateral Exercise Pacific Griffin in 2021 (XPG21) with the US Navy which consisted of challenging multi-domain warfare exercises. We pushed the limits in what we could accomplish as a team, with 24/7 warfare exercises for a prolonged period, as well as for the SAF in terms of pushing our operational boundaries.

How would you say defence is transforming or has transformed and how does your role (and the roles of future personnel) play a part in it?

Organisationally, the SAF has grown from when I first signed on. The most obvious change would be the inauguration of the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) in 2022, which demonstrates how the SAF prepares itself for future conflict in emerging domains while ensuring the constant defence of Singapore. In the current age, threats are only becoming more complex and multi-faceted, from hybrid warfare to unmanned tech and cyberspace. The end-goal of the SAF to keep our nation safe remains unchanged but the challenges to doing so have increased. Each individual in the SAF plays a key role in developing themselves to learn quickly and adopt a flexible mindset to enable an outsized impact in the future.

What have you learnt from your MINDEF/SAF career?

Something I have taken away from my career thus far is that we cannot take commitment to defence for granted. Our continued peace and prosperity today cannot buy us security forever. An important element is the determination and sacrifice of Singaporeans to keep our nation safe; this refers to both the men and women in uniform as well as normal, civilian Singaporeans. We must continue to foster this commitment and if MINDEF/SAF needs to change to ensure this, then we must.

What’s your advice to aspiring scholars who wish to embark on a military career?

Have an open mind. It is hard to anticipate what a military career is like without going through it, especially compared to more mainstream careers, and the reality may differ significantly from what you expected. But it is a large organisation and a multi-faceted career – it’s important to have an open mind and find value in the things you end up doing.

Ask yourself what are the values and principles you hold dear and never stop re-visiting them and re-interrogating whether they are still important to you. Any challenging career, be it in the military or otherwise, requires commitment. It is through the process of re-visiting our values that we become sure of what is important to us and develop our clarity of purpose. Without this, it will be difficult to stand committed in any career, especially when sacrifices are demanded of us.

2015 SAF Merit Scholarship Recipient
Bachelor of Law, University College London
Now: Naval Officer, Naval Warfare School

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