S'pore's 1st chief of defence built SAF's values from trenches with his soldiers: Teo Chee Hean

Former Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo (left) with Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean at the launch of Mr Choo's memoir at Temasek Club on July 16, 2021.
Former Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo (left) with Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean at the launch of Mr Choo's memoir at Temasek Club on July 16, 2021.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The Republic's first and longest-serving chief of defence force Winston Choo shaped the culture and values of the Singapore Armed Forces - not by issuing orders alone, but by living and breathing these values, said Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean on Friday (July 16).

"Winston Choo epitomised the SAF and led by example," said Mr Teo at the launch of Mr Choo's memoir, A Soldier At Heart, at Temasek Club.

The 280-page book is based on new interviews, transcripts, speeches and writings by Mr Choo, who turns 80 this Sunday.

Mr Teo, a former navy chief before joining politics, also related how he had served under Mr Choo, and learnt from how the retired lieutenant-general led his soldiers as well as engaged with foreign leaders.

Mr Choo was 17 when he joined the pre-independence Singapore Volunteer Corps as a bugler, and rose through the ranks from private to military chief - an apex post he held for 18 years from 1974 to 1992.

After his retirement, he served as ambassador to various countries and was chairman of the Singapore Red Cross.

Mr Choo's most important contribution was to the development of the SAF, said Mr Teo, who described how he built national service as an institution and professionalised the three services - the army, air force and navy - among other feats.

The Senior Minister also lauded how Mr Choo formed relationships with generations of soldiers.

"He parachuted and dived, jogged with his men, and went into the trenches with them. He cared deeply about his soldiers, and spent long hours talking with them, listening to their problems, getting to know them and their families," said Mr Teo.

"I saw how he valued his soldiers, sailors and airmen, and engaged them easily. They trusted him because of his open and sincere manner."

These people skills also served Singapore well, through the warm ties Mr Choo developed with other armed forces in the region and beyond - which continue to be of great value today, said Mr Teo.

He noted how some of Mr Choo's peers had visited him when he was recovering from tongue cancer in 2017.

Mr Teo said he too had benefited from observing Mr Choo - in how he won trust and put forward Singapore's positions in a friendly but firm way, and advanced cooperation while safeguarding the Republic's interests.

"Today, I continue to meet many foreign leaders and officials whom I first met when I accompanied General Choo during his meetings with them," he added.

Speaking at Friday's event, Mr Choo acknowledged leaders like Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Old Guard minister Goh Keng Swee for giving him the opportunity to take on significant responsibilities and appointments, "without which, my story would not have been worth sharing".

"I am thankful for their faith in me, and for allowing me to walk in their shadow and benefit from their wisdom, their strength and their greatness," he added.

Mr Choo then announced that his share of proceeds from his book's sale would be donated equally between his church and the Boys' Brigade, which he had joined as a teenager.

Earlier, Mr Teo had concluded it was no exaggeration to describe Mr Choo as having had an impact on every Singaporean.

His memoir is more than the life story of a remarkable man, said the Senior Minister. "It also reminds us of how far we have come as a nation, and of the massive challenges that we had to overcome.

"This book is a legacy… to all Singaporeans, especially those who serve in General Choo's beloved SAF - past, present and future - to make Singapore more secure."

A Soldier At Heart is published by Landmark Books and available for $35 (before GST) at major bookshops.