What exactly does a Medical Officer in the SAF do?
How do Medical Officers decide who to "down PES"?
What happens to NSFs who try to "chao keng"?
These questions have probably crossed the minds of many Singaporean males who had to “report sick” to the medical centre at one time or another during their National Service.
I hope to share a bit more regarding this unique vocation in the military.
1. How does a Singaporean male become a qualified doctor in Singapore?
To better understand who SAF Medical Officers are and what they do, I'll begin by explaining the path that a Singaporean male takes to become a qualified doctor. This is because Medical Officers in the SAF are a subset of Singaporean doctors.
After pre-university education (either junior college or polytechnic), a Singaporean male enlists into National Service. This is also the time when he applies for University.
If accepted to study Medicine in a local university, there's an option to “disrupt” military service and return to serve the remaining length of time after completing Medical School. This is formally known as the Local Medical Disruption Scheme (LMDS).
2. Do all doctors in the army serve as SAF MOs?
This is when the confusion starts. Singaporean males who study Medicine overseas cannot disrupt their National Service. They often serve their National Service in their assigned vocation (eg. Infantry) before embarking on their university education.
This is the reason why some civilian doctors that you meet during your reservist are not serving in the capacity of a Medical Officer.
3. How does one become a Medical Officer in the SAF?
SAF Medical Officer commissioning parade
Back to the group of Singaporean males who “disrupted” to study Medicine. Once they've become a fully registered doctor, they'll re-enlist after 1.5 - 2 years of working experience, at the average age of 27 years old.
There are certain compulsory hospital postings that doctors must fulfil before re-enlisting - this includes postings such as Accidents & Emergencies. The purpose of these postings is to better equip doctors in their role as an SAF Medical Officer.
Upon re-enlistment, they'll undergo a 3-month Medical Officer Cadet Course, which leads to commissioning as Medical Officers in the SAF.
4. Who is a Medical Officer in the SAF?
Most Medical Officers in the SAF are NSFs (full-time national servicemen), just like you and I. Over the course of the Medical Officer Cadet Course, doctors learn aspects of military medicine, which helps them to transition from practicing medicine in the civilian setting to a military setting.
Apart from the traditional role of seeing sick servicemen, they're also trained to be leaders of the medical team consisting of medics.
The role of a Medical Officer differs during peace-time and combat. Peace-time practice of military medicine requires broad-based knowledge on diverse topics such as:
- Occupational medicine
- Sports medicine
- Infectious disease
Combat medicine, on the other hand, requires in-depth knowledge on trauma and pre-hospital acute care, along with military tactics.
Certain vocations also require further training. For example, Navy Medical Officers undergo training in underwater and diving medicine. This is also where you might encounter Singaporean doctors training and serving in an “unconventional” role.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a Commando Medical Officer, where I had the opportunity to undergo further cross-training to be a Commando.
5. What role does a SAF MO play in the army?
The day to day role of Medical Officers is quite varied, and can include seeing servicemen in the medical centres, as well as combat roles.
Consulting sick servicemen is a key role of Medical Officers in the SAF. However, the role of a Medical Officer doesn't end there. He's also involved in training medics, and overseeing operations in the medical centre.
Together with the medics, medical officers provide medical coverage as first-responders for military trainings and exercises.
Another role of the Medical Officer is the combat role. Combat-fit Medical Officers are leaders of the medical team that deploy together with the fighting force.
If you're in a combat vocation, this might be another time when you encounter the medical team. Alongside a team of medics, Medical Officers treat injuries sustained in the battlefield while coordinating military tactics with fellow commanders to ensure mission success.
6. What do Medical Officers do about NSF who are trying to "chao keng"?
Most servicemen under my care have genuine medical issues (commandos are pretty garang!), and I've never had to face such issues throughout my service as an army Medical Officer.
Suffice to say, it's pretty easy for a doctor to "sniff out a rat" if a service man is completely well, but wants to "keng" his way to an MC! This usually results in only a firm warning.
However, if it's a repeat offender and the Medical Officer has cause to suspect that a serviceman is malingering, they'd typically highlight this to the serviceman's commander for further investigation.
7. How do Medical Officers decide on who to "down PES"?
A medical board consisting of several doctors is required for an assessment of medical status.
The decision on who to down PES is made based on medical directives, which ensures fairness. Medical specialists may be required to provide additional input for more complex cases.
Suffice to say, being a Medical Officer in the SAF requires Singaporean doctors to multi-task and undertake diverse roles beyond the “traditional” doctor role of consulting sick patients.
In a country that practices conscription, it's a unique opportunity for Singaporean doctors to practice medicine in both civilian and military settings.
I'm sure that many Singaporean doctors have fond memories of their time as a Medical Officer in the SAF. Feel free to speak to any of them for better understanding!
Dr Justin Boey’s practice of Aesthetic Medicine centres around the busy modern individual. His special interests are scar treatments and non-surgical facial rejuvenation with Thread-lifts, Botox and Lasers.