LG Melvyn Ong, Chief of Defence Force, shares how the SAF kept its operations running while contributing to whole-of-government efforts to contain COVID-19.
As Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General (LG) Melvyn Ong knows the importance of a good defence strategy. From as early as February 2020, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had put in place strict safe management measures to minimise the COVID-19 transmission risk and to ensure continued training, operations and protection of Singapore's borders.
Training sizes were reduced to 40 per group, and those who were in operations had to adhere to two weeks of in-camp isolation before they could perform their duties for another two weeks after. The SAF also supported the government in contact tracing operations during the early phase of COVID-19.
"We managed to contain the clusters fairly well at the start, while trying to improve our understanding of the virus," LG Ong shares, adding that up to June 2020, there were no cases in the SAF's critical operations units.
Managing COVID-19 at the dormitories
However, outside of the SAF, the situation was looking grim. On 5 Apr 2020, LG Ong received a phone call from Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean to assist with the migrant worker dormitories, where COVID-19 was spreading fast. While analysing the dormitory situation, the SAF made two key realisations.
First, to contain the spread in the dorms, the SAF needed a care system to track and manage the migrant workers and their daily needs. Second, it was crucial for the SAF to understand the numbers and flows of infected patients, and to create facilities to house them in order not to overstress the healthcare system.
To address these two issues, the SAF set up multiple task forces to support national efforts on several fronts. For instance, with the Defence Science and Technology Agency, the SAF created a command-and-control system to monitor those infected, while the Medical Operations Task Force supported the Ministry of Health (MOH) with the analysis of patient flow entering and leaving the national healthcare system.
"Even though we did not know the [virus] very well, and were discovering new things every week, we learnt to be adaptable and were prepared to stop things which didn't work," LG Ong says.
"Go hammer and tongs at it"
To combat the spread of infections, the SAF implemented the daily use of pulse oximeters in the migrant worker dormitories. It also temporarily suspended non-essential In-Camp Training for National Service.
"Our team understood the severity of the situation. Once the purpose is clear, the SAF will go hammer and tongs at it," LG Ong shares.
He adds: "When [the government] needed 5 million masks for 1 million households, we packed them in three days. We did not ask why. We just went about it and when it was done, we got back to our jobs. No fuss."
Even though LG Ong understood the commitment of his team, he was careful not to overload them with unnecessary duties.
"There were many meetings [to attend to] during COVID-19, and I wanted to protect the task forces and not subscribe them to death by PowerPoint and meetings," he says. To do that, he assigned a group of officers to be the bridge between the upper management and task forces.
"There were a lot of issues the task forces had to deal with, both in the dorms and at the MOH, and I wanted to free them up for those operations," he says.
A mission-first mindset
LG Ong shares that some people have asked him: How did the SAF adapt to a problem that was seemingly out of its lane, and bring its ability to do operations from more conventional warfare settings into the migrant workers' situation?
It starts with a clear sense of one's mission or purpose.
"In the first few months of COVID-19, the purpose and mission were very clear to us. Keep the virus out of the SAF, so that we can continue to do operations and train safely," LG Ong says.
"Over the last two years, our servicemen have exemplified a certain mission-mindedness. And this mission-mindedness also extended to the way we worked with other ministries, especially with the Ministry of Manpower and MOH."
Staying together during the pandemic
Like many families in Singapore, LG Ong and his family had to stay home during most of the pandemic – and like most families, tried to make the best of the situation.
"The house was noisier, but it was a happy noise. We ate together more often; we watched more movies together. Like many families, we found ways to entertain each other at home," the father of three says.
He added that he and his family went for a lot more walks, exploring park connectors and other parts of Singapore. COVID-19 has definitely brought the family closer together.
"Now that the national COVID-19 posture has loosened, my children have reacquainted themselves with the programmes with their friends. But I do see that they still look forward to spending some time with us, which is nice."
Moving forward post-pandemic
While the pandemic is not yet over, and the SAF continues to stay vigilant, the SAF will also evolve to meet Singapore’s future security needs.
"From the pandemic, we now have a clearer sense of which parts of the SAF are more core than others, and how to make them more resilient to external shocks in order to be business-as-usual at all times," LG Ong says.
"We have also established good relationships with our whole-of-government partners, and I hope that we can continue to find ways to exercise these parts regularly."
One of the goals LG Ong has set for the SAF during the pandemic, besides keeping its operations and training running, was to look ahead and transform the SAF for a more complex and contested future operating environment.
To that end, the SAF has plans to build its new 4th Service – the Digital and Intelligence Service – to complement the Army, Navy and Air Force.
"The new service will defend the digital battlespace, which is the new frontier, and build new capabilities for a digital SAF," LG Ong shares.
[This article was first published by Public Service Division – Challenge on 6 Jul 2022]