She walked so others could run

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08 Mar 2024 | MILESTONES

She walked so others could run

This International Women's Day, we look at 10 inspiring servicewomen who stepped up to be the first in their fields.

// Story by Joshua de Souza / Photos by PIONEER photographers

English 华文

Some may think that the military is a "boys' only" club but, in fact, women have been a part of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as early as 1967 – the same year when the first intake of National Service enlistees began.  

The SAF had its first batch of three female officers then. Over the years, the number of women in the force has progressively grown. In 2022, defence minister Dr Ng Eng Hen said that more than 1,600 women serve in the SAF, comprising about eight percent of Regulars.

We look at 10 female trailblazers in the SAF: women who paved the way and inspired others to rise to the challenge and make their mark in the military.

1979: First female Commanding Officer in the SAF

MAJ (Ret) Agnes Fong Sock Har

Pioneers in the force: (from left) MAJ (Ret) Fong, CPT (Ret) Tan and CPT (Ret) Koh were the first women to step up and become female officers in the SAF.

Major (MAJ) (Ret) Agnes Fong Sock Har, who was a clerk in the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), answered the call to join the 2nd People's Defence Force School Army Officer Cadets (Girls) Course in 1967.

She was among the first wave of servicewomen in the SAF, along with Captain (CPT) (Ret) Nancy Tan Soo Keow and CPT (Ret) Patricia Koh Kim Toh. On 1 Sep that same year, these three pioneers became full-fledged officers.

MAJ (Ret) Fong (right) inspecting engine parts with her men. As CO of 1st Air Supply Base, she focused on optimising and ensuring robust logistical support for operations.

Twelve years later, MAJ (Ret) Fong took command of 1st Air Supply Base as its Commanding Officer (CO) on 1 Jul 1979.

Speaking on the milestone achieved as the SAF's first female CO, MAJ (Ret) Fong said: "I'll try hard to respond to the challenge. After all, I've more than my own future prospects to lose. This is the first time they're putting a woman to such a major test."

A test she clearly passed, as more women have gone on to rise through the ranks.

1979: First woman to qualify as an RSAF Pilot

LTC (Ret) Koh Chai Hong

LTC (Ret) Koh raised the bar sky-high when she became the first woman in the SAF to earn her pilot wings, graduating top of her class in the process.

Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) (Ret) Koh Chai Hong joined the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) in 1978, when the organisation first began recruiting women as pilots, air traffic controllers, and air defence controllers.

A young LTC (Ret) Koh (left) walking with fellow cadet Tan Bee Har – they were two of five outstanding female trainees selected for the pilot course.

Upon her graduation from Flight Training School in 1979, LTC (Ret) Koh had been awarded numerous trophies for being best in her class during the Basic and Advanced Training Phases, and in Aerobatics. Above all, she became the first female RSAF pilot.

LTC (Ret) Koh flew the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, as well as the Marchetti SF260 and Marchetti S211 jet trainers.

During her time in the RSAF, she focused her knowledge and skills on the training and development of the next generation of pilots, going from flying instructor to the first female Flight Commander and then Squadron Commander of Standards Squadron in Flying Training School. She also served as Wing Commander of the Aviation Wing in Air Force School before retiring in 2005.

PS. This overachiever used to be a national water skier and even won a medal in the 1987 Southeast Asian Games!

2000: First female naval diver

MAJ (Ret) Esther Tan Cheng Yin

MAJ (Ret) Tan's career has the makings of a movie plot, from becoming the first woman to qualify and join the elite NDU, to taking part in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. [Photo: MINDEF]

Standing at a petite 1.55m, MAJ (Ret) Esther Tan may not strike you as a tough figure at first glance, but she's proven that the strength and determination to succeed in any challenge comes from within.

MAJ (Ret) Tan enrolled in the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) in 1995, studying for a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Nanyang Technological University through the Navy scholarship programme.

MAJ (Ret) Tan (right) interacting with international officers on board RSS Tenacious. She was part of the SAF task group operating under a multinational counter-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden back in 2014.

In 2000, she applied to join the Naval Diving Unit (NDU), seeking a different course and wanting to push her limits.

Dubbed Singapore's GI Jane by media, the SAF's first female naval diver specialised in search-and-rescue operations and explosive ordnance disposal.

MAJ (Ret) Tan's career in the Navy also saw her participating in a three-month deployment on frigate RSS Tenacious to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden in 2014.

2003: First female fighter pilot in the RSAF

MAJ (Ret) Khoo Teh Lynn

Making dreams her reality: MAJ (Ret) Khoo's love of military jets landed her a seat in both the F-16 cockpit and in the history books as the RSAF's first female fighter pilot.

MAJ (Ret) Khoo Teh Lynn's love for flying started before she signed up with the RSAF in 2000 – the aviation enthusiast joined the Singapore Youth Flying Club during her first year in Raffles Junior College.

Her desire to fly the best "high-performance aircraft" in the RSAF then meant her sights were set on piloting the F-16 jet.

This is no easy goal, as fighter pilots must have both the physical and mental fitness to operate at a maximum of 9Gs (nine times the force of gravity), as well as knowledge and good reflexes to make critical, split-second decisions in the cockpit.

In 2003, MAJ (Ret) Khoo proved to herself and the women in Singapore that becoming a fighter pilot was not limited by gender, when she earned her Fighter Wings in France.

"I don't feel any different (from the guys). In this professional organisation, first and foremost in the fighter squadron, you are a fighter pilot. There is no gender prefix to it."

- MAJ (Ret) Khoo Teh Lynn, the RSAF's first female fighter pilot

2005: First female Colonel in the SAF

COL (Ret) Karen Tan Puay Kiow

COL (Ret) Tan shattered the glass ceiling when she achieved the rank of Colonel in 2005.

When Colonel (COL) (Ret) Karen Tan Puay Kiow joined the SAF in 1981, she had no idea how far she could go. What she did was to give her best – and these efforts did not go unrecognised.

Progressing through the ranks in the SAF, COL (Ret) Tan assumed the role of Commander of Central Manpower Base (CMPB) in 2005, along with receiving her promotion to the rank of Colonel.

Family matters: COL (Ret) Tan was surrounded by her family on the big day of her promotion, witnessing her making history as the first female Colonel in the SAF.

"I'm a people person. I believe in leadership by example, in earning respect and not commanding respect by rank… When I joined the SAF in 1981, I really did not know how far I could go. All I could do was my best."

- COL (Ret) Karen Tan Puay Kiow, the SAF's first female Colonel

2013: First female CO of a frigate

COL Jerica Goh

Life on the high seas: COL Jerica Goh made her mark in the RSN as the first female frigate commander.

COL Jerica Goh took command of RSS Supreme in 2013, becoming the first female CO of a frigate in the SAF.

She had been in the Navy for 20 years then, during which she was deployed to the Gulf of Aden twice as part of Singapore's participation in international counter-piracy efforts.

As CO of RSS Supreme, she helmed the frigate, alongside other RSN ships and RSAF aircraft, in the multinational search operations for the missing Indonesian AirAsia QZ8501 aircraft in 2014.

Another first: In 2016, COL Goh (left) became the first female Colonel in the Navy.

Three years after assuming command of RSS Supreme, she became the Head of Naval Training Department in the RSN, and was promoted to the rank of Colonel. She became the first female Colonel in the RSN.

2014: First female Red Lion

2WO Shirley Ng

2WO Ng saluting the audience after her NDP 2022 jump, which featured the largest Red Lion team in NDP history.

2nd Warrant Officer (2WO) Shirley Ng started her SAF journey in 1998 at the age of 20, joining as a rigger in the Special Operations Tactical Support Centre. Her role was to ensure the packing and maintenance of parachutes for the Commando unit – a task that requires a high level of diligence to ensure safety.

In 1999, she made her first freefall jump using the first parachute she packed as a certified rigger. This marked the start of her journey in becoming part of the SAF's elite parachutist team, better known as the Red Lions.

Selected in 2012, 2WO Ng became the first female to join the team. During training, she had to keep up with the rest of her male counterparts while carrying a 15kg parachute pack (reportedly more than 25 percent of her body weight at the time).

Second time's the charm: Her debut jump in 2014 was a year in the making, after the planned 2013 NDP Red Lion jump was cancelled for safety purposes.

She made her debut jump with the Red Lions in the National Day Parade (NDP) 2014, a year later than planned due to inclement weather. Her landing was met with loud cheers from the crowd.

2WO Ng returned in NDP 2020, landing in the heartlands of Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic as a salute to the frontline workers, and NDP 2022.

2018: First female Chief Warrant Officer

CWO (Ret) Jennifer Tan

It's in the blood: CWO (Ret) Tan was inspired to join the military by her father, who was a Military Policeman in the then-SAF Provost Unit.

Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) (Ret) Jennifer Tan first joined the SAF as a human resource administrator in 1984. In 1988, two years after the SAF opened combat roles to women, she applied and crossed over, joining the new wave of servicewomen in combat vocations.

Drilled to perfection: Years of experience as a sergeant major meant that then-MWO Tan was more than qualified to handle the role of NDP RSM in 2011.

In 2011, then-Master Warrant Officer (MWO) Tan achieved the milestone of becoming the first female Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the National Day Parade.

Rising through the ranks, she became the first female Chief Warrant Officer in 2018, holding the appointment of CO of the Armour Combat Training Centre.

Her trailblazing journey served as inspiration not only for her twin sons who joined the SAF, but also many other servicewomen.

A family that serves together: In 2018, CWO Tan and her twin sons received their promotions together on the same day.

"What we do is uphold standards. There shouldn't be any difference in expectations between genders… With my position, I hope to inspire more young women, and men, to have an interest in joining the armed forces."

- CWO (Ret) Jennifer Tan, the SAF's first female Chief Warrant Officer

2022: First female fighter squadron commander

SLTC Lee Mei Yi

From one generation to the next: SLTC Lee – who was inspired by servicewomen to join the RSAF – has also become an inspiration to other young women.

Giving back to the country is something Senior Lieutenant Colonel (SLTC) Lee Mei Yi has believed in since young.

When attending career fairs during her final year of junior college, she met various alumni who had joined the SAF, and was inspired by their passion to also pursue a career in the military.

Drawn to the RSAF because of her love for flying, she successfully earned her wings as an F-16 fighter pilot.

Celebrating Singapore's golden jubilee: SLTC Lee flew in the "50" formation flypast in NDP 2015.

In 2015, SLTC Lee became the first female fighter pilot to take part in the NDP aerial display. She participated in the "50" formation flypast, which celebrated the nation's Golden Jubilee and was the largest and most extensive aerial segment in NDP history back then.

Then-LTC Lee (right) receiving the Command Symbol from the outgoing Commanding Officer of 140 SQN. She took over command of the F-16 fighter squadron on 17 Jan 2022.

Nineteen years after MAJ Khoo became the first female fighter pilot, SLTC Lee would become the first female fighter squadron commander when she took command of 140 Squadron (SQN) in 2022. In that same year, she went on to lead the aerial display squadron at NDP.

While she never pictured herself achieving these milestones, she is grateful to the role models who came before her and showed what was possible.

"As pilot trainees, we looked up to our commanders and witnessed the positive influence they had on the men and women under their charge. I aspire to be like them."

- SLTC Lee Mei Yi, the SAF's first female fighter squadron commander

2023: First female Ranger

CPT Yap Hui Jun

Nothing is impossible: CPT Yap Hui Jun completed what many consider the toughest course in the SAF. She is now among the elite who have earned the right to wear the coveted Ranger tab.

Weeks of back-to-back missions while battling food and sleep deprivation. Carrying combat loads of over 30kg, including equipment like the Man-portable Anti-Tank, Anti-DOoR (more commonly known as the MATADOR) and General-Purpose Machine Gun (or GPMG).

To prove herself worthy of being a Ranger, CPT Yap Hui Jun went through the same operations as the men while carrying the same load.

She also had to shave her head for hygiene purposes – the sacrifice of her long hair was emblematic of her greater desire to complete arguably the toughest course in the SAF.

If at first you don't succeed: CPT Yap's graduation from the 50th Ranger course in 2023 is made sweeter after the pain of failure from her first attempt.

CPT Yap's journey was not without setbacks, as she had initially failed to make it past the second phase of the three-part 65-day course.

However, her commitment to overcoming challenges proved strong, and she re-enrolled for the course.

This second time, the Army Intelligence Officer prepared herself by improving not only her fitness, but also her planning skills and understanding of small unit tactics. This is because physical strength is not the defining characteristic of a Ranger – teamwork and the ability to learn from and support one another are equally crucial qualities that he or she must possess.

In October 2023, CPT Yap graduated as the first female Ranger in the SAF.

Blood, sweat, respect: CPT Yap carried her own weight, including the GPMG, during the gruelling Ranger course.

"You do the same amount of things the guys do – a 20km combat march is still a 20km combat march. You don't walk less, you don't carry anything less."

- CPT Yap Hui Jun, the first woman to complete the Ranger course in the SAF

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