Close this search box.



Protecting the nation: How they keep our land, air and sea safe
SAF Scholarship
Colonel Muhammad Helmi Khaswan, Captain Nicole Tan and Captain Darren Chan are all recipients of SAF scholarships. PHOTOS: MINDEF

Despite different roles, these SAF Scholarship holders have a common goal: To maintain Singapore’s peace and stability

Training people to protect our land

A significant part of an infantry soldier’s career is spent outfield practising battle manoeuvres with his unit. 

But for Colonel (COL) Muhammad Helmi Khaswan, his professional career is more colourful than just camo green. 

For one, the SAF Merit Scholarship recipient has had opportunities to experience working life outside of soldiering, as an honorary aide-de-camp (HADC) to the President and as a deputy director at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

HADCs comprises regular officers from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the Singapore Police Force and the Singapore Civil Defence Force. They support and help their full-time aide-de-camp counterparts with official events and functions organised by the President’s office. 

More on this topic: These military soldiers play a big role in strengthening the nation’s defence

“The ability to organise ceremonies and activities to advance our diplomatic interests was one of the key skillsets I learnt from my time as a HADC,” says the 39-year-old, who served three presidents for 11 years since 2010, including the late Mr SR Nathan, Dr Tony Tan and Madam Halimah Yacob.

In 2020, he was seconded to MCI, where he was the deputy director of both the industry division and the strategic planning division.

There, he had a hand in developing information and communications technology as well as shaping media policies, as part of the budgets that were rolled out in response to the COVID-19 crisis, in support of jobs and skills efforts and to enable vulnerable groups like seniors and hawkers to “go digital”. 

Colonel Muhammad Helmi Khaswan, recipient of the SAF Merit Scholarship is the Commander of the 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade. PHOTO: MINDEF

“The secondment gave me not only an insight to the broader public service and to be more attuned to the needs of our citizens, but also the agile nature of digital technology and wider digital transformation needs and practices of the economy,” he says, noting that the stint “a very enriching learning experience” for him.

Life in green
While COL Helmi treasures his experiences outside of the SAF, he is a soldier through and through.

He enjoys his time spent with his men and making a positive impact on their lives. He recalls his time as Commanding Officer of 4th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (4 SIR) from 2017 to 2020. 

Mentoring his charges and even offering career guidance to those who are about to complete their national service (NS) were all in a day’s work, on top of the unit’s military training and drills. 

“It is not sufficient to lead and wield power only through command authority. It is necessary for officers to listen and seek to understand as much as we can.”

– Colonel Muhammad Helmi Khaswan, recipient of the SAF Merit Scholarship

“I want my men to go on to become good citizens, sons, husbands and fathers one day, and it really starts with small changes in behaviour such as placing the team’s interests and well-being above one’s own,” he says. “My time in 4 SIR has always been about familial ties. We may not be bound by blood but we were, and continue, to be a family to each other.”

Now as Commander of the 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade, he is in charge of commanding and training units of soldiers – under his charge to be operationally ready and developing capabilities for the next-generation SAF. These soldiers include regulars, full-time national servicemen (NSFs) and operationally-ready national servicemen (NSmen).

It is encounters with these men that continually impresses upon COL Helmi of the importance of his role as not just a battlefield commander, but also a mentor and guide.

“Knowing that my actions and decisions could potentially have a profound impact in the lives of my men, it constantly reminds me to always be better, so that I can be a good role model to them,” he says, recalling the many officers he has met since his days at the Officer Cadet School (OCS) during NS. 

“I was very inspired by their attention to detail, and especially their interests in the stories and lives of the soldiers they led,” he continues. “It reinforced my desire to want to make a positive difference in the lives of my own soldiers.”

It was also then when COL Helmi began to seriously consider following in the footsteps of these officers even though many of his seniors from junior college had previously encouraged him to pursue the SAF Merit Scholarship.

In 2004, he was awarded scholarship and went on to major in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the US. After three years of undergraduate studies, he went on to complete his master’s degree in advanced chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge in Britain in 2007. 

During his studies, he “appreciated the rigour that the engineering discipline afforded in terms of analytical skills and systems thinking”. 

“Over the course of my profession, I have found that the engineering discipline provides sound grounding to allow me to understand the SAF’s ecosystem as well as to analyse issues when shaping NS policies,” he adds. 

A ‘unique occupation’
Besides training troops to be ready to defend Singapore in times of need, COL Helmi also has had the opportunity to interact with military officers from various armed forces in the region and globally through professional exchanges, courses as well as bilateral and multilateral exercises. 

“Professional exchanges help assess the state of modernisation of our army, be it in terms of the way we develop our people, the way we operate, and the way we procure and equip our people,” says the infantry officer, who adds that one of the more memorable experiences he had was a 15-day, large-scale joint field exercise with the US Army in the US. 

As part of Singapore’s contribution to the multilateral effort against terrorism, COL Helmi also took part in peacekeeping duties in the war-ravaged town of Uruzgan, Afghanistan in 2012.

He has also undergone rare stints of overseas training at Warminster among UK officers as well as with the United States Marine Corps. 

“There was strong competition, and especially so, given that the US Marines emphasise holistic development across not only the academic aspects but also physical and combat war fighting abilities,” he notes. “The US Marine officers are so strong – both physically and mentally – and I was definitely pushed to my limits.”

To be a commander in the SAF, however, is a unique occupation because of its conscript soldiers, admits COL Helmi. 

“It is not sufficient to lead and wield power only through command authority,” he says. “It is necessary for officers to listen and seek to understand as much as we can.”

He is glad that over the years in the service, he has managed to hone his skills to facilitate constructive conversations with both NSFs and NSmen. 

“Often, I feel I learn more from them than they ever do from me,” he says. “I have truly learnt much both personally and professionally from them, and it has made me a better person and more effective leader.”

Keeping Singapore’s busy airspace safe and secure

When there are potential air threats, aircraft from the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) are quickly deployed to investigate and manage any possible incident.

But what about incoming friendly military aircraft? These include all RSAF aircraft as well as foreign military ones entering and exiting training areas within the busy Singapore skies.

The job of steering and guiding these aircraft falls on the shoulders of Captain (CPT) Nicole Tan and her team in 203 Squadron, which is in charge of round-the-clock air surveillance and air control operations of Singapore’s airspace.

Captain Nicole Tan is an air traffic controller with the Republic of Singapore Air Force. PHOTO: MINDEF

“The pressure on the seat can be very real, especially during situations when split-second decisions need to be made,” says the 25-year-old air traffic controller, who is in charge of the movement control of aircraft within the Paya Lebar Control Zone. 

“Singapore’s status as an air hub is contingent on it being able to provide safe and world-class air traffic services. On a day-to-day basis, my squadron works closely with our civil counterparts to ensure that traffic within our region flows smoothly and safely,” she explains. 

“Within the RSAF, the safe and efficient launch and recovery of our aircraft ensure that our fellow servicemen and women can achieve their mission safely.”

While CPT Tan spends most of her time in operations rooms and control towers, her job is not limited to Singapore’s shores. 

Last September, she travelled across the border to Kuantan, Malaysia, for the annual Search-and-Rescue Exercise Malsing, a bilateral training exercise between the RSAF and the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF). 

“Within the RSAF, the safe and efficient launch and recovery of our aircraft ensure that our fellow servicemen and women can achieve their mission safely.”

– Captain Nicole Tan, recipient of SAF Merit Scholarship

As the staff officer to the Chief-Of-Staff (Air Staff) for that exercise, it gave her a chance to learn from her counterparts in the RMAF. 

“I learned more about our neighbour’s search and rescue capabilities and operations, and could engage with fellow junior officers to learn more about their training and route of progression,” she says, adding that many of her Malaysian counterparts were also trained in air traffic control. 

Such learning opportunities did not only start after she joined the RSAF. As an recipient of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Merit Scholarship, she had earlier taken part in a two-week military scholar exchange programme with the Royal Brunei Armed Forces.

The programme, which took place in both Singapore and Brunei, was held during one of her term breaks of her undergraduate studies in biochemistry at Imperial College London. 

“Not only did I learn more about their country’s culture and military, but I was also able to forge close bonds with those who attended the programme,” she recalls. 

She remains friends with these Bruneian officers and even met up with them when they studied in London. 

After graduating from Imperial College, CPT Tan went on to pursue a postgraduate degree in philosophy and public policy from the London School of Economics. 

It is these opportunities to explore beyond Singapore’s borders that makes her appreciate what she has at home all the more. 

Every day, as she puts on her headset, she is reminded of the importance of her job – protecting Singapore’s skies from the potential threats that the nation-state faces.

She says: “Knowing that the job I do keeps my family and loved ones safe every day motivates me and keeps me going even when things get tough.” 

Defence and diplomacy across the seas

For Captain (CPT) Darren Chan, last year was definitely a highlight of his career with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

As the Navigating Officer on board the RSS Intrepid – a Formidable-class stealth frigate that weighs 3,200 tonnes and spans nearly 115 metres from bow to stern – he had to carefully analyse and plan the different routes the ship took to cross the Pacific Ocean.

The ship was deployed to participate in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in the waters off Hawaii. The whole return journey was over 90 days.

The world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise involved 38 ships, four submarines, multiple aircraft and about 25,000 personnel from 26 nations, including host the US, Australia and Japan.

The 26-year-old’s navigational skills were put to the test as he and his team had to chart how the ship travelled over 12,000 nautical miles to countries like Hawaii and Japan before finally returning to port in Singapore. 

Captain Darren Chan was the Navigating Officer of the RSS Intrepid. PHOTO: MINDEF

It also meant keeping a constant eye on the ship’s fuel supply and the movement of typhoons in the region – tasks that required him to make numerous on-the-ground adjustments.

“It really tested my ability to adapt and work with the rest of the command team,” he says. “Apart from navigating the ship, I also played a part in the successful firing of our Aster surface-to-air missile and interacted with fellow sailors from many foreign navies.”

But what made the RIMPAC exercise even more unforgettable for him was the experience of undergoing the various activities and challenges of the exercise with his crew. CPT Chan adds: “The camaraderie we shared both in and out of work made the experience the most memorable time in my career so far.”

It is these close family-like ties among the sailors in the RSN that he is most appreciative of. 

“I know that whenever I am in need of help, I can definitely count on them, and that makes me want to give my best every day too, so that they can count on me,” CPT Chan says. 

“A scholarship also leads to a career, so try to find out as much as possible about the job and the service you are interested in.”

– Captain Darren Chan, recipient of The SAF Scholarship

In fact, this camaraderie of uniformed service was what drew him to The SAF Scholarship – and the RSN – in the first place.

As a participant in the Mindef Experience Programme in junior college, CPT Chan had the opportunity to meet some SAF scholars for a dinner engagement – and one of them was instrumental in convincing him to join the RSN. 

“He shared that joining the RSN was like being a part of a family, and that I would be entrusted with the opportunity to make an impact on the people under my charge, which turned out to be the most rewarding part of the job,” he recalls.

CPT Chan read business economics at the University of California, Los Angeles before completing his master’s degree in management science and engineering at Columbia University in the US.

Choosing a scholarship is a big decision for most, he notes, and “it is much more than just a way to study overseas”.

“It also leads to a career, so try to find out as much about the job and the Service you are interested in joining as you can,” advises CPT Chan, who is currently a policy officer in the Defence Policy Office. 

There, he is in charge of formulating policies and engagement strategies for defence diplomacy as well as strengthening bilateral defence relations with various countries. 

“The nature of my current job is dynamic, and there is a need to have a good grasp of the nature of our relationships with each country, our key interests, and how we could either further or safeguard them,” he notes.  

In nearly four years with the RSN, he has navigated a powerful warship, represented Singapore’s defence interests at the international level and formulated key policies, all while learning from seniors and mentoring fellow young officers. 

“The RSN has undoubtedly sharpened my leadership skills and ability to manage people,” he says. 

“Looking back, I am glad to say that I have experienced first-hand the ability to make a difference, both towards the defence of our waters and also on the lives of the people whom I have worked with.”

About MINDEF/SAF scholarships
There are various scholarships offered by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). These include The SAF Scholarship (formerly known as SAF Overseas Scholarship) and the SAF Merit Scholarship. Open to application from both men and women, it allows scholarship recipients to receive sponsorship for up to four years of studies, inclusive of master’s degree if applicable, either locally or overseas. Through a series of command, instructional and staff appointments, scholarship holders will hone their skills as a leader, manager, planner and strategist.

This article is brought to you by the Ministry of Defence.

Back to main page