Mindef clarifies its publicity efforts following debate on objectification of women in uniform

Military Expert 1 Gorgina Choo (left) and Captain Sengie Chong said that more attention should be given to their military achievements, rather than their looks.
Military Expert 1 Gorgina Choo (left) and Captain Sengie Chong said that more attention should be given to their military achievements, rather than their looks. PHOTOS: BENJAMIN SEETOR, FACEBOOK/SENGIE CHONG

SINGAPORE - Glamorous shots of military personnel do not dilute their contributions to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Ministry of Defence said on Saturday (Aug 18), after the issue of objectification of women in uniform was cast in the spotlight.

The matter was highlighted online after two Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicewomen spoke out against it on Aug 15.

Military Expert 1 Gorgina Choo and Captain Sengie Chong, both from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), said more attention should be given to their military achievements than their looks.

The debate comes after ME1 Choo was featured during the National Day Parade on Aug 9 and had comments made about her appearance on the HardwareZone online forum.

A post on the Alvinology blog also had a poll asking readers to rate five female servicemen on their attractiveness, including ME1 Choo and Capt Chong.

Online media outfit Rice Media then published an opinion piece on Aug 15. It criticised the SAF for using the "cheap hiring tactic" of putting attractive young servicewomen on display.

In response to Straits Times queries on this, Mindef said it regularly features its servicemen and servicewomen across various platforms and channels.

These pictorials may include glamorous shots of them in their civilian attire, taken with the approval of those featured, it said.

"This is standard commercial practice used by many organisations to highlight individuals in their multifaceted roles and attributes and in no way dilutes their contributions in the SAF," added Mindef.

In the online opinion article titled "Does the SAF Only Hire Attractive Women?", Rice Media described how the television broadcast of the National Day Parade zoomed in on ME1 Choo. She was one of the personnel in the RSAF Guard-Of-Honour contingent who spoke with President Halimah Yacob during the parade inspection.

"The SAF... regularly parades these attractive young women in front of thirsty male citizens in order to get them to sign on with the army," said the article.

"Seeing as most high-ranking military personnel are male, it wouldn't surprise me if it is these men who make the decision to put the servicewomen on display. That is without a doubt, quintessential male chauvinism."

The article has got more than 200 likes and more than 500 shares since it was posted on Facebook on Wednesday (Aug 15).

ME1 Choo and Capt Chong responded to the online article on the same day, saying more focus should instead be placed on what female personnel have achieved in the military.

Capt Chong's criticism, which she made on her then public Instagram account, extended to her feature on the monthly, SAF-published Pioneer magazine in April 2015, saying the way the Pioneer article was phrased was selective and superficial.

"Good looking - okay, I'll thank my mother for my genes, but really? Can these articles focus on something else like our military achievements instead of how we look good in front of the camera?" she wrote on Instagram Stories.

Although Pioneer magazine's back page - which started in 2009 - features mostly women, men and couples have also been interviewed before.

Capt Chong wrote: "We should nurture and strive for a culture where we are recognised for our potential and ability, not because we look better as a flower vase."

She added: "If (the) SAF really wants to use a pretty face to recruit people, then we should be getting paid for that. We girls definitely do not want to be your hot topic or make the headlines on gossip columns, or at least I'm speaking for myself."

ME1 Choo shared Capt Chong's post on her Instagram Stories, adding: "If (all of you) are following me because I inspired you one way or another, I thank you with all my heart but please stop objectifying women.

"Be it female officers, (specialists) or military experts, we are all here for the same objective, to serve the nation with our best capacity."

A check on Friday found that ME1 Choo's Instagram account can no longer be publicly searched for, while Capt Chong's account is now private.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng said of the matter: "For any organisation's publicity efforts, they would definitely look for people who are pleasant-looking as one of the key factors, because that generally appeals to readers."

Those who agree to be featured are also likely to be confident of themselves, or might have even volunteered for it, said Mr Baey, who was formerly managing director of public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

"So, it's a confluence of various factors, which might lead to what we think are certain stereotypes of faces or looks being featured. However, beauty is after all in the eyes of the beholder," he said, adding that a poster boy or girl can only do so much to attract attention or employees.

"One needs an appreciative employer, conductive working environment, good career prospects and fulfilling work to have a sustainable human resource practice."

Netizen Rykiel Rachael Ella wrote on Facebook that she agreed with the Rice Media article, adding: "Goodness knows the amount of derogatory comments women have to put up (with) in male dominant jobs."

But not all netizens were convinced that the issue was controversial.

Another Facebook user Jun Wei wrote: "It's almost as if attractive people...attract...attention."