PHOENIX: Captain (CPT) Kwan Siew Ling, 30, used to be set on living a civilian life.
She had just graduated from the University of New South Wales with a degree in pharmacology, so she became a pharmacy technician, a job that involved checking prescriptions and dispensing medicine.
Fast forward almost a decade and it is hard to imagine that the diminutive, soft-spoken woman now works as a battery commander for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).
There are six HIMARS – making up one battery – participating in Exercise Forging Sabre, which the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is conducting this week.
In the sprawling Arizona desert, against the dull, sporadic thud of ongoing live firing, CPT Kwan recalled how she languished in her previous job.
"I joined because I had an interest in medicine and science," she said. "I enjoyed the job, but the job scope stagnated. Every day, I was doing the same thing." So, she decided to venture into other jobs that gave her "more opportunities to learn".
But why the military? CPT Kwan said it was partly due to her father, a retired Guardsman and warrant officer of 25 years.
He had tried persuading CPT Kwan to join the military fresh out of university, but she rejected it because she wanted to pursue her main interest. But when he learnt about how she was looking for a career change, he tried again.
CPT Kwan said her dad’s passion for the military turned her head. “It’s through how serious he is when it comes to his attire and work,” she said. “The way he talks to his colleagues too.”
Still, she saw how her dad went on many overseas exercises and regularly came home late from work, meaning he spent limited time at home. But that did not deter her from signing on the dotted line, as she left her pharmaceutical job after three years.
Now, she has been in the artillery for six years, where she was recently a fire direction trainer at the artillery institute before being posted as HIMARS battery commander.
In her new role, CPT Kwan has taken after her dad’s willingness to sacrifice a lot for military.
She has skipped multiple social events because of work, especially because she used to travel on four two-week work trips a year in her previous role as a trainer. She has been on more than 10 overseas exercises so far, to countries like New Zealand and India.
But because her dad was in the same boat, her family has gotten used to it.
"If I am not committed, I would not be able to convince the full-time national servicemen to be committed to defence if I were not a good role model myself," she said.
One of her biggest tests came in August this year. CPT Kwan’s grandfather had passed away, and his funeral was to be held on National Day. But because of HIMARS’ involvement in the parade, CPT Kwan absolutely had to be there. So, she gave the funeral a miss.
It was no doubt a tough decision, she said, stuttering and unable to finish her next sentence. After a brief pause, she explained that she attended the parade because that was what her grandfather would have wanted.
She did not think of him during the parade either, as she knew he would have wanted her to prioritise her job. “He definitely wanted me to complete it,” she said
ROCKETS GET IMPROVEMENTS
Back in the Arizona desert, CPT Kwan got on with her job. Up next was a media demonstration where HIMARS launchers would fire three dummy rockets at the same time. She had to leave the interview for a while because she needed to brief her crew.
As battery commander, CPT Kwan does not travel with the HIMARS vehicles. Instead, she sits in a jeep that stays close by. She also has the final say on all major decisions, including overriding a command to strike by the fire direction officer.
“He makes the final call unless things will affect operations in the bigger picture,” she explained. “If not, I will be at the back end monitoring the fire mission.”
The bigger picture includes mission plans, command post instructions and safety. For example, she can call off a strike if a friendly force is inside the HIMARS’ danger zone.
So does CPT Kwan face challenges as a woman issuing orders in a male-dominated environment? None at all, she affirmed. “I don’t feel any difference at all,” she said. “It’s unlike previously whereby there’s probably no female inside the organisation.”
She encouraged women who aspire to hold important positions like hers to “believe they can do it”. “If they have the passion and interest, nothing should deter them from joining this organisation,” she added.
While CPT Kwan acknowledged that she has an important role in the battery, she is far from being overawed. “As long as you know your stuff and you have ground situational awareness, that shouldn’t be an issue,” she said.
Her role has grown even more crucial with recent upgrades to the HIMARS. It now can make firing decisions on the go, allowing a quicker response on the battlefield. New software also allows it to fire at multiple targets.
“Operational-wise, it’s all digitalised, so it’ll be way faster and more efficient as compared to the old one,” CPT Kwan said.
The HIMARS’ battery command post has received a facelift too. Because it has in-built generators, it can deploy faster in four minutes, down from the seven minutes previously. It is also more spacious and conducive for conducting missions.
“I would say this exercise really helps us visualise a bigger picture,” CPT Kwan added. “Locally, we only train purely as a HIMARS battery, but here, there’s integration with the air force and our higher headquarters, so we really understand what all these sense and strike missions are about.”
The HIMARS personnel counted down from ten. On zero, rockets lit up the gloomy sky, screeching towards targets up to 70km away.
For CPT Kwan, her current job has brought her a lot of happiness.
"The organisation emphasises on training and development. I am constantly learning and being exposed to new things whenever there are opportunities," she said.
“I’m proud – the last time I was a pharmacy technician, now I’m a battery commander."