Lim Sok Bee
First woman to command an artillery battalion
After practising law for two years, Lim Sok Bee decided law was not the profession for her. Looking around for a career that would be more rewarding, she learnt that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was looking for women officers. She jumped at the opportunity to enter a field that would challenge her in different ways.
Enlisting in 1991, outdoor-loving Sok Bee initially had to contend with some obstacles within the male-dominated organisation. She felt she had to put in extra effort and perform better than her male counterparts. But, as she explained in an interview in 2007, “you occasionally meet people who have to see what you’re made of first before they respect you. They have to test you, give you a hard time before they say ‘Ok, you’re one of us’. So I don’t think it's very different from anywhere else. Once you prove yourself, people respect you for who you are and what you do rather than for your gender.”
Sok Bee has more than proven herself. Over the years, she has held a string of important appointments. She was the first female commanding officer of an artillery battalion, leading hundreds of soldiers in the critical task of providing fire support for other SAF units. As a Wing Commander at the Officer Cadet School, Sok Bee’s role changed to that of training cohorts of future leaders of the SAF. She had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel by the time she retired.
While gender is increasingly a non-issue in the military, Sok Bee thinks there may always be the tendency for some men to assume that the woman officer is less capable. It is a perception problem that will take time to erase. Once they get used to it, the men realise that it is not so bad to be taking orders from a woman.
In fact, there are some advantages in being a woman soldier, Sok Bee feels. Men tend to think along the same lines, so when she provides her female perspective it can add a different perspective.
For example, when she was commanding officer of the artillery battalion, she proposed that the scheduled Family Day be turned into an Open House event, with a demonstration of how the battalion operated. This would, she felt, help the visiting relatives and friends understand just what the soldiers went through. Her staff and her immediate boss, all men, were skeptical but she persisted and it turned out to be a meaningful and empowering event for the battalion and their families and friends.
"Once you prove yourself, people respect you for who you are and what you do rather than for your gender."