Koh Chai Hong
Trailblazer in the Singapore Armed Forces
Koh Chai Hong made Singapore military history in 1999 when, together with another woman Major, she was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. They were the first women to reach that level in Singapore’s military hierarchy.
It was not the first of Chai Hong’s firsts – in 1979 she was the first woman to qualify as a pilot in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). Three other women subsequently joined her as the first generation of women RSAF pilots. She was the only one, however, to complete the advanced pilot training phase on jet aircraft. Then in 1997 she was the first woman to be admitted to the Singapore Armed Forces’ Command and Staff Course, the highest level of formal military training. The following year, she became the first woman Commanding Officer of Standards Squadron in Flying Training School.
Born in 1959, Chai Hong studied at Opera Estate Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls School and did her ‘A’ levels at Raffles Institution (RI). Chai Hong’s passion for flying was kindled when she attended a career talk while at RI. She joined the Junior Flying Club and received her private pilot license within seven months.
In 1978 the RSAF decided to open its doors to women and Chai Hong jumped at the opportunity to pursue her passion. She won her pilot wings in 1979 after a year and a half of intense training, which included gruelling physical training. This was not a problem for her as she had been an athlete at school and won colours in the women’s hockey team. She was also a national water skier and won a medal at the 1987 Southeast Asia Games.
During her pilot training programme, she beat the boys to win all three flying trophies - best in basic phase, best in advanced phase, and best in aerobatics. In 1981, she became a flying instructor and rose to be the first female Flight Commander and then Squadron Commander of Standards Squadron, training operational pilots to become flying instructors.
“I never expected to make a professional career out of flying,” she says. “Flying started out as a hobby, then became a passion and I just wanted to continue flying. I was fortunate and grateful that the air force, and especially Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister of Defence, gave me the opportunity to do so. Although I had to overcome initial parental objections when I enrolled to fly with JFC, my parents were later very encouraging and supportive when I signed up for a flying career with the air force.”
Chai Hong served as Wing Commander of the Aviation Wing in Air Force School before retiring as a Lieutenant-Colonel in July 2005. She remained in service until January 2008 as a contract flying instructor based at Tamworth, Australia. She is now employed by Lockheed Martin as a simulator instructor to train RSAF Basic Wings Phase pilot trainees at Perth, Australia.
“I never thought of myself as being in a male-female situation. Rather, I tried to focus on my strength as a professional pilot and do the best I can.”
“To me, it is more than just a flying job. It is the opportunity to directly influence the quality of RSAF pilots and train them to be competent for the defence of our nation”.