In this exclusive ahead of National Day, hear from LTC(NS) Goh Seng Wee, Commanding Officer (CO) of 761 SIR on the skillsets learned during National Service that he carried into his career as a venture capitalist. 

Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) held the annual SAF Day on 1 July 2020, and gave out the NSMen of the Year award, which recognised NSmen who have demonstrated excellent performance, and consistently set exemplary standards in training, discipline, and attitude. LTC(NS) Goh Seng Wee, Commanding Officer (CO) of 761 SIR, is one of the recipients of the award.

In his own words, NS has opened LTC(NS) Goh's eyes to people from different walks of life, and has taught him that nation building is indeed every citizen’s responsibility. Further, he firmly believes that the NS skillsets and values he has acquired have made him a better venture capitalist. 

As such, in his role as Managing Director of Brain-Too-Free Ventures, LTC(NS) Goh is always on the lookout to unearth innovation-driven startups led by exceptional leadership. LTC(NS) Goh quips that his knack for trend-and-risks spotting is the result of the countless sleepless nights during ICTs doing terrain analysis and wargaming exercises. 

In an exclusive interview with Human Resources Online, ahead of National Day on 9 August, we bring you a chat with LTC(NS) Goh on how he feels being one of the award recipients, and the skillsets he learned during NS that he has carried into his career.

To start with - National Service (NS) serves as an important fabric of Singapore. Why is NS important towards the country’s Total Defence? How have you seen it to evolve over the past few years in terms of managing NS talent?

Well, I am from Generation X handling a Millennial battalion within Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that is enlisting from Generation Z (born after 1995). Our communication styles, expectations and priorities are definitely different across generations. We have to adjust to one another as we co-exist in today’s SAF. However, there are also timeless values that will always hold true – having honest competent leadership, having a forward- looking culture that adapts to the world, and having respect for fellow Singaporeans regardless of their race, age, and religion.

The SAF certainly has to evolve in how it engages the abilities of the Generation Z – a generation that searches for the “truth”, and are digital natives who grew up with different information platforms that offer “multiple realities”. I strongly believe that the SAF has been and will continue to be an organisation led by upright top-class leaders who have a common aim of harnessing the abilities and talents of our national servicemen to the fullest. Honourable leaders will never be influenced by greed nor by fear.

I am probably among the 3rd generation of SAF servicemen serving Singapore. We have been successful for three generations, and I am confident that we will continue to be as outstanding in future generations as long as we hold dear to these timeless values.

As Commanding Officer (CO) of 761 SIR, which clinched three awards in 2019, including 3rd Division’s Best Combat Unit and Most Cohesive Unit, what are your secrets to leadership success in the army?

In 761 SIR, we make it a point to empower our section commanders. Section commanders make up around 10% of our battalion. Each section commander typically takes charge of seven men. Multiply that and you have around 70% of the battalion. Motivating and empowering this 10% will give you a 7x yield. Makes a lot of sense for me to keep the section commanders happy!

By doing the above, it frees me up to pay personal attention to what I call the “top” and the “bottom” of the battalion. The best performers have to be given recognition and this acknowledgement can very well drive the entire battalion’s highest standard bearers to achieve new heights. Those who find it tough to contribute to NS have to be given encouragement, and many times all they need is for the CO to help make some adjustments for them to bring out their strengths to perform their NS roles.

Along similar lines, how did you inspire and motivate NSmen of your company during their In-Camp Training (ICT)?

All NSmen spend 50 weeks a year as a civilian, and only two weeks serving ICTs. So, I reckon it is the wisest to let everyone be themselves. The only condition is that they have to be proficient in their respective roles – whether as a rifleman, a weapon operator, a storeman, a driver, an officer who makes decisions, or as a sergeant who instils discipline.

The NS experience can be really satisfying when everyone plays their roles well, and as a collective unit we can amaze one another how we can be operationally ready even though we handle the processes and weapons only once a year during the ICTs! 761 SIR is a mature battalion and we always make it a point to conduct our training professionally and safely. We train to waste no time, and we waste no time to train.

goh seng wee award

Do you consider NS records as an important employment criteria - why or why not?

Certainly! I believe that NS records are probably the most valuable proxy for any HR and hiring manager! You see, NS hones a person in a distinct manner that no academic education or job experience can. So yes, I would always make it a point to look out for good NS performance records as an indication and selection gauge - when hiring staff, when identifying the founders of start-ups, or when deciding business partners.

When a person overcomes his personal challenges - be it health, family, financial – to perform his NS duties exceedingly well, he would likely be able to perform consistently in any job in his professional life. This is especially crucial now as employers are looking for people with the grit to beat COVID-19.

Hence, to me, a Singaporean young man’s NS record is more telling than his academic degree(s) or his school testimonials! It is also with this belief that BTFV is an NS Mark (Gold) accredited company since 2018 which supports National Service and Total Defence; and BTFV is honoured to be recognised at the Total Defence Awards in 2019.

What are some of the skill sets that you learned during NS that you have carried into your career as a venture capitalist?

I am an infantry soldier. I take pride in being an infantry soldier because we are the underdogs that live with the mud, heat and rain. We have no comforts and have to learn to live without the necessities. We have only our bodies and willpower to overcome the terrain and weather. We have to give a lot without necessarily getting back much. If the need ever arises, we will pull out our bayonets and fight with our bare knuckles to survive.

The same goes for early-stage startups who are on bootstrap but trying to prove a point to the market, isn’t it? I always feel that being an infantry soldier for over 23 years helps me to empathise and relate to the discomforts which my startup founders are going through!

I have also learnt that in order to be successful – you do not necessarily have to be the biggest around, but you do have to be the fastest to adapt. The organisation must be led by honest and forward-looking leaders, who advocate continuous innovation with the dogged discipline to execute. Somewhere in the company culture there must be streaks of healthy disregard for the impossible – that steers the organisation from unknown territory into the known.

The SAF is also probably one of the largest organisations in the country that does most of its work away from the limelight. I adopt these same values when working with my startups as a venture capitalist.

As you're now immersed into the world of innovation-driven startups, what are some of your trend-and-risks spotting tips having done sleepless nights of terrain analysis and wargaming exercises in the army?

Winston Churchill once said, “The tank was originally invented to clear a way for the infantry. Now it is the infantry who will have to clear a way for the tanks”. I think the same can be said today for the dynamics between startups and traditional businesses.

As a CO, my main duty is to understand my division’s intent and work out details that can be executed on the ground by my battalion. Likewise, a venture capitalist’s job is fundamentally about having a view on how people will like to live their lives two-three years down the road and picking the best people to deliver and execute.

For any startup, the simplest part is getting a great idea. The toughest part is what to do with it and whether the timing of market entry is suitable. Just like in terrain analysis and wargaming exercises, the ground and weaponry are fixed variables whereas the opponent’s reaction and the weather are ever- changing. Your team needs to have better brains and better planning processes than your opponent. Your team needs to have the relentless stamina to execute, relearn and adapt on the ground. All these factors combine to determine the chances you have to be the last man standing in the fight.

At the end of the day, I think it all boils down to having brilliant people to lead, and placing courageous people in every role to try things out and to admit when things are not going right. I have met hundreds of startup teams – many have great ideas, some create them into great products, but very few end up in great businesses. I always go back to first principles. After meeting a founder and his team, I would ask myself the same four questions repeatedly – are they smart to relearn? Are they hardworking? Are they honourable? Are they making things more convenient and cheaper for their users? After all, brilliance and courage are never difficult things to invest into.

How do you feel about being one of the recipients of the NSmen of the Year award? What's your message to fellow NSmen and Singaporeans?

I am humbled beyond words. Though I have received this award, it is actually the cumulative result of every commander and serviceman of 761 SIR past and present playing their roles well as NSmen. This award comes at a timing when the world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, and I know of so many frontliner friends and fellow Singaporeans who are giving their all to get us through these difficult times.

In every ICT and in the past few months since COVID-19, I am continually reminded of how we are living in a small city- state that has people as its only asset. It is indeed heartening to see how NSmen and Singaporeans are stepping forward to do the many uncomfortable things for everyone else around us. All these cumulative self-sacrifices will ultimately prove pivotal in forging a resilient spirit to overcome adversities in Singapore’s journey.

“National Service is about doing the uncomfortable things for everyone else around you. A strong nation is marked by how many people there are to share these uncomfortable things.” 

Lead photo / Goh Seng Wee, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Brain-Too-Free Ventures (Photo Credit to Jeff Chang Studios)
In-line photo / Goh Seng Wee receiving the NSmen of the Year award from Chief of Army Major-General (MG) Goh Si Hou (Photo Credit to The Singapore Army)