Alumni News


By Goh Eck Kheng (Class of 1971)

A Soldier At Heart CoverIf Winston Choo (Class of 1957) took the advice of Thio Chan Bee, his Principal in ACS, the history of the Singapore Armed Forces would have been very different.

He had gone to the Principal for a testimonial to join the Singapore Military Forces and was flatly told that good ACS boys did not join the army. But Winston Choo did not just join the army, he rose to the top post of Chief of Defence Force with the rank of Lieutenant-General. He shaped the values and culture of the SAF. He built National Service as an institution, professionalised the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as developed the Joint Staff and integrated the tri-service.

Thio Chan Bee was not the only one who did not think that Winston should pursue a military career. Winston’s father had hopes that he would one day be a doctor or lawyer. So, when he told his parents on Christmas Eve that he was going to military college in less than 10 days’ time, all hell broke loose. Winston’s reply was straight forward: “I am so sorry, but I want to be a soldier.”

 Winston was in Pre-U Two (Year 2 A levels today) in 1959 when he responded to an advertisement published by the Singapore Military Forces inviting applicants for an officer cadet course at Federation Military College. The medical test for the application fell on the day of two A levels exams, but he was so determined to be selected that he rushed through the History paper in the morning, went for the medical, then rushed back for the afternoon paper.

He had been interested in the military since secondary school, having been attracted to uniforms, outdoor life and discipline. His first attempt to sign up was by joining the Singapore Volunteer Corps corps of drums earlier that year. Although he became a bugler, his drumming skills were well developed.

Teo Hock Hye, a classmate, recounts how the class was jolted by a sudden racket from the back of the classroom as they were busy preparing for their Form 3 (now Secondary 3) final exams. “Turning around, I saw two boys beating the wooden top of the desk with two sticks – one was Winston and the other Teddy Yong – trying to outmatch each other with their drumming.”

Winston Choo joined ACS at Barker Road for his secondary education. He had transferred from Monk’s Hill Primary School, near his home, just escaping the secondary school entrance exams required only for government schools. It was his father who sent him to ACS, as his father and uncles went to the school to which his maternal grandfather had made a significant donation. Unlike the sons of well-to-do families who were driven to school by car, Winston walked from his home in Makepeace Road off Newton to Barker Road, saving 10 cents out of his daily allowance of 50 cents by not taking the public bus. A drink and noodles during recess then cost at most 20 cents. He used his savings to buy things like a torchlight or a penknife, but never books – although he did borrow comics from friends.

One schoolmate, Jimmy Ho Chee Meng, recounted how once Mr Earnest Lau spotted Winston browsing in a bookshop and remarked cynically, “So, is this the first time you are reading?” Winston, on the other hand, remembers Mr Gurdial Singh, his Secondary 2 Literature teacher. Mr Singh had awarded him a prize for an essay on “The Ladder of St Augustine” by Henry Longfellow. A line from the poem, which became Winston’s guiding light, foreshadowed his rise in his chosen career: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”

Although Winston enjoyed classes, he confessed that he spent more time in extra-curricular activities than studying. (He is known for borrowing notes and essays from female classmates in Pre-U when he skipped classes.) He loved sports and played individual games like badminton. He swam and ran. He also joined any team that was willing to take him. He was school football captain, and goalkeeper for the ACS and combined schools teams. When Earnest Lau formed the school rugby team, he sought out the non-reader and made him captain.

Winston ChooRugby has a special place in Winston’s heart. To him, it is a game for ruffians played by gentlemen. That is why when he was Chief of Defence Force, he made rugby compulsory for office cadets. He did it because rugby, involving physical contact like no other game, requires teamwork, guts and character, as well as quick thinking, strategy and tactics.

In Winston Choo’s own words: “I preferred team sports because I enjoyed the thrill and camaraderie of working together to achieve a common goal. I believe that team sports teach you to work together with people, help you to understand people, and provide opportunities to develop leadership skills. I reckon I did well later in military college because I was a sportsman. I could take the rough and tumble, I understood teamwork and could get people to work with me. The other thing about sports is the importance of sportsmanship, a trait that is so consequential in life.

  Winston Choo
Winston Choo, standing in the centre of the front row
among his ACS Form 2 schoolmates, 1954
Winston Choo
Mrs Choo congratulating Winston on his
promotion to Lieutenant-General, 30 June'88
Winston Choo
 With tactical HQ radio detachment at Tanjung Sedeli, Johor,
during a search-and-destroy operation. Konfrontasi, 1964
Winston Choo 
Winston being piped aboard during a visit to an RSN ship,1976

The bulk of the above comes from LG (Ret) Winston Choo’s memoir, A Soldier at Heart, which also covers his post-military career as Chairman of the Singapore Red Cross and a diplomat. Written with Chua Siew San and Judith d’Silva, and published by Landmark Books, it was officially launched at Temasek Club on 16 July 2021.

On the head table at the launch were two other ACSians, LG Melvyn Ong, current Chief of Defence Force (Class of 1992) and Peter Ho (Class of 1970) who was Permanent Secretary (Defence), then Head of Civil Service and Permanent Secretary (Foreign Affairs).

Guest-of-honour, Mr Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, said in his speech that he had the privilege to serve under Winston Choo’s command throughout his career in the SAF. “I observed him and learnt from him. I saw how he valued his soldiers, sailors and airmen, and engaged them easily. They trusted him because of his open and sincere manner. He believed that a robust esprit de corps was the glue that would bind the SAF and make it strong.… General Choo instilled in them a sense of mission to serve our young nation. He led and guided generations of SAF officers who helped him bring the SAF forward – our SAF forward.

In his reply, Winston shared that he had never intended and was consistently reluctant to produce his memoirs. He was persuaded by the publisher Goh Eck Kheng, Col (Ret) Ramachandran Menon, and the two co-authors, to seriously consider. However, it was his wife, and children who eventually changed his mind.

Winston’s grandsons Daniel Choo (Class of 2016) and Ethan Sum (Class of 2017), and granddaughter Dana Choo then read excerpts from the memoir. His son, Warren Choo (Class of 1986), also read on behalf of his daughter, Deanne Choo, who was away from Singapore for tennis training and tournaments.

Winston was surprised on arrival at the launch by a portrait of himself painted by Dana. It was a special gift for his 80th birthday on 18 July 2021.

A Solider at Heart debuted on top of The Straits Times bestsellers’ list for non-fiction. Copies are available in all major bookshops at S$35. 

Winston Choo
Three generations of ACSians and soldiers. From left: Ethan Sum,
Warren Choo, LG (Ret) Winston Choo and Daniel Choo
Winston Choo
Winston's granddaughter Dana (left) surprised him with
a portrait for his 80th birthday at the launch of his memior
Winston Choo
VIPs at the launch of A Soldier At Heart (from left): Mrs Katherine Choo,
SM Teo Chee Hian, LG (Ret) Winston Choo, LG Melvyn Ong and Mr Peter Ho
Photo courtesy of BG (Ret) Stephen Wang 
Winston presented a copy of his memoir
to SM Teo who responded with a salute
Back to Contents