First woman officer appointed to head SAF's Military Medicine Institute

Senior Lieutenant-Colonel (Dr) Shalini Arulanandam will also be promoted to the next higher rank of colonel. PHOTO: MINDEF

SINGAPORE - When Senior Lieutenant-Colonel (Dr) Shalini Arulanandam applied for a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) scholarship in 1998, the local study award for medicine was only for men.

In her interview for the SAF Merit Scholarship, she told the panel that she was interested in doing medicine, but was told it was not open to women.

But two days later, she received a call with an offer for the medicine scholarship, if she passed her officer cadet training and got into a medicine course, among other requirements. She became the first woman to receive the scholarship.

SLTC (Dr) Arulanandam, 42, continues to be a trailblazer as she becomes the first woman to be appointed the commander of the SAF Medical Corps' Military Medicine Institute (MMI).

She will also be promoted to the next higher rank of colonel, with effect from July 1, as part of the annual promotion exercise by the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and the SAF.

Asked for her thoughts on being the first woman to lead the MMI, she told reporters on Thursday (June 24) that it was "very sobering" to be given the opportunity to take on this responsibility.

"I don't see women as being any different in being able to take on certain appointments. So I think the barrier is within us. Sometimes, we tend to have some doubt over whether we would be able to do it, to do the same as the guys," she said.

"Say, when you're one of the first few ones, you look around you and there are not many working mothers, for example, high up in the hierarchy where you work, so you can feel a bit of self doubt. But I think that's the main challenge to overcome."

In her 23-year career, the ear, nose and throat surgeon has headed the Naval Underwater Medicine Centre and the Central Manpower Base's Medical Classification Centre, among hospital stints that trained her in her clinical speciality.

Most recently, she was seconded to the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) as chief medical officer. That, she said, was one of her most challenging appointments.

Ambulances that attended to 995 calls were part of her responsibility. Personal protection against Covid-19 had to be enhanced, and decontamination protocols changed so that servicemen could be kept safe, and no infections were transmitted between cases, she said.

The SCDF also conducted swabbing operations for Covid-19 tests, and trained private-hire drivers on how to don protective equipment and sanitise their vehicles, she said.

Senior Lieutenant-Colonel (Dr) Shalini Arulanandam receiving her promotion certificate from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. PHOTO: MINDEF

In her new role at the MMI, SLTC (Dr) Arulanandam, who is married to a fellow surgeon, will be in charge of the medical centres that the Singapore Army operates, as well as medical screening for servicemen.

She said: "I'm definitely very grateful for all the little accidents of fate that led me to this point. From asking for a scholarship that didn't exist for women, to saying 'yes' to the various postings, and even the unexpected challenge of Covid-19."

She said she has been through periods when she did not know whether she could cope with the demands of her career and being a mother to three young children, aged eight, 10 and 12.

"But I think I must say I have a lot of gratitude to the people who have helped me to get here."

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