From the people, for the people
Close to a year into his role as Chief of Navy, RADM Lai Chung Han talks about the people powering Team Navy, and how he keeps his team motivated.
Story by Clara Lock
Photos by CPT Leow Tien Leng and Kenneth Lin
Chief of Navy RADM Lai Chung Han doesn’t want people of the Navy to stand on ceremony around him.
He prefers, instead, to understand them.
When RADM Lai served as Fleet Commander from 2011 to 2012, he would accompany the engineers during their rounds when he sailed on various ships during the fleet exercise.
He would dispense with the Executive Officer, Coxswain and the rest of the crew who might be following him, and together with the engineers, they would go for rounds – crawling through passageways and engine rooms, checking dials and oil levels.
“I would say, let me see what you do. And one-on-one, in engineering spaces, they’re happy to tell you anything and everything,” he said.
He wants to understand his people because to him, they are like family – an extended family that he both gives himself to and draws strength from.
“Being Chief, you are responsible for the whole, but you are dependant on the parts,” said the 42-year-old.
Punching above its weight
He is dependant because the Navy relies on its people to do big things. Bigger things, it would seem, than the small defence force of an island nation should be expected to.
But RADM Lai said it is imperative that the RSN continues to punch above its weight.
“The only reason why people – the Americans, the Chinese, the Japanese will talk to us is that we have the capability. When they exercise with us, it’s not just notional or about defence relations. They get professional training from working with us… we become a partner of choice,” he said.
It is an important position to have as a maritime nation, in a maritime region, where a complex operating environment means the RSN must juggle multiple balls without dropping any of them.
There are piracy hot spots to patrol, maritime security to ensure, and search and rescue operations that Singapore contributes to.
To fulfil all these roles, the Navy demands much of the already leanly manned RSN, which has frigates run with just 72 personnel.
Most navies around the world crew ships similar in size and capabilities with at least twice that.
And declining birth rates in Singapore mean the pool of Full-Time National Servicemen that the RSN recruits from will decrease by 25% come 2025.
Meeting the Navy’s needs
Even as the Navy looks to double the current 7% of women in service, it must also make the RSN a conducive place to work by respecting the life cycle needs of existing personnel.
“In the past we used to say, get your professional development done in the first four, five, six years,” said RADM Lai.
But he now asks if the Navy can be more flexible and sensitive to servicemen – not just women – who are young parents.
Earlier shore postings are one option, but commanders on ships should also “make time and space” for people to attend to their families.
He is quick to caution that this is only feasible up to a “certain extent”. But he says it is important to offer servicemen flexibility in their career progression, because of what the Navy asks of them.
“Our jobs are demanding (and) our work takes us away from home,” said RADM Lai, who served on board the missile corvettes (MCVs) during his younger days.
To lead and serve
He speaks of resilience when he recounts his shipboard tours, of keeping his chin up when things are tough or frustrating – something many of his former ship crew can attest to.
SLTC Ong Chee Wei, Deputy Head Naval Operations, recalls a deployment to Guam they both took part in.
MCV RSS Valour was tossed about badly in waves measuring up to three metres, recalls SLTC Ong. The crew, most of them seasick, only stayed awake during their watches before retiring to their bunks to tide over the journey.
Only then-Executive Officer RADM Lai stayed up, poring over exercise instructions and manuals in preparation for a harpoon firing, one of the main exercise missions.
When the ship was eventually unable to carry out the firing because they lacked a clear range to fire safely, crew morale was low after the difficult journey they had been through to get there.
But RADM Lai said: “(When things don’t go right), I think the crew looks to you to see whether you are discouraged, whether you are disillusioned, whether you are dispirited, whether you show resilience.”
Resilience in tough times
Even today he can recall, verbatim, the message he received on the night Fearless-class patrol vessel RSS Courageous collided with container ship ANL Indonesia in the Singapore Strait, killing four Navy servicewomen.
‘Courageous is sinking,’ read the message, just after midnight on 3 January 2003.
MCV RSS Valiant was on standby that night and as then-Commanding Officer he drove from his home in the East to Tuas Naval Base, thoughts about the collision racing through his mind.
“It was a very low moment for the Navy, but you could also see the Navy coming together – to grieve for the families, but also to recover from the episode,” said RADM Lai.
But if there were dark days, there have been good ones, too, and there is satisfaction he derives from service.
When he meets the servicemen from the various units they share with him what defending Singapore’s everyday means to them.
It is defending this nation for their families, for their loved ones.
It is a cause that the father of two – RADM Lai’s daughter is 14 this year, while his son is 12 – can identify with.
During the week, his wife, a homemaker and former schoolteacher, takes care of their children, and on weekends it is RADM Lai’s turn to shuttle them to and from various activities and classes.
He cherishes his time in the car with the children, he says, because it is when they tell him things.
The couple, who have been married for 15 years, first met in secondary school.
They were both prefects – he, from Raffles Institution, she from Raffles Girls Secondary. They dated in Raffles Junior College, when both were in the Student Council.
Today he calls her his best friend, and soul mate; the self-assured speaker pausing in contemplation when he talks about his wife and family.
It is for them that he serves. It is through them that he finds meaning in service.
“For us (servicemen), we do what we do in service of the country. When you think country, you think family; you think about our way of life. You think about your children, you think about their future. You think about your fellow shipmates; you think about those who serve with you.”
You think – and he does, often – about your Navy family.