Military Expert (ME) 6 Aaron Tan Thoo Liang is the Commander at Air Engineering Training Institute. He is a recipient of the SAF Engineering Scholarship and a graduate from Imperial College London.
The RSAF has some of the most formidable aircraft in the world, such as the F-15SG, F-16 and the AH-64D Apache Longbow Helicopter. While impressive on their own, these aircraft depend on the hard work and dedication of the Air Force Engineers (AFEs) on the ground to ensure that they are able to defend Singapore’s skies at all times.
Indeed, AFEs play a pivotal role in maintaining the operational readiness of the RSAF’s aircraft and weapon systems. They also have to solve complex engineering issues and spearhead engineering studies to develop maintenance solutions. Every single AFE undergoes rigorous and thorough training because there is no room for error when the defence of our nation is at stake.
For that, ME6 Aaron Tan is the man in charge. Currently, the 43-year-old is Commander, Air Engineering Training Institute (AETI), and is responsible for training all AFEs to take on diverse roles in the RSAF.
We caught up with ME6 Tan as he talks about his fruitful career with the RSAF and what has kept him going all these years.
What made you decide on a career with the Air Force 24 years ago?
I have always had an interest in aviation since young, and my passion for engineering fuels my interest in serving the nation as an AFE. While the learning curve has been steep for the various appointments I have taken on, I appreciate the challenges and am grateful for the opportunities given to me over these 24 years. The committed and professional individuals whom I work with to achieve the RSAF’s mission also help me in my development and to be the best that I can be.
You studied at Imperial College London. How has the overseas education equipped you for the job?
I have always dreamt of pursuing my studies overseas, even though my family could not afford it then. Therefore, I was thankful for the SAF Engineering Scholarship (SES) that the Air Force offered, which fully covered my university and living expenses in the UK. My day-to-day interactions with fellow students and professors from different backgrounds enriched my world view. I grew to be open-minded and flexible, and that helped me become a more effective leader when I returned to the RSAF to lead a team of AFEs. I was also able to adapt at a quicker pace when I was posted to the Peace Prairie detachment in the US and during overseas missions, where I was exposed to the different cultures of my counterparts.
Tell us about your progression within the Air Force.
I had the opportunity to undertake several command and staff appointments, from a Section Officer-In-Charge earlier in my career to my current role as the Commander of AETI. My time as the Commanding Officer of 508 Squadron also helped me realise the tremendous efforts that our airmen and women put in every single day to ensure that our airbase is always mission-ready.
All these experiences gave me a broader perspective, enabling me to see how the individual parts of the RSAF come together as a single entity to safeguard the nation’s peace. They also allowed me to better appreciate the workings of the organisation at a strategic level, so that I could better lead my team to meet the organisation‘s broader objectives.
Your current role is Commander AETI. What are your roles and responsibilities?
As Commander AETI, I am responsible for the basic training in aviation safety, engineering, maintenance and logistics for all AFEs. I am blessed to have a capable command team working with me to ensure the running of five different schools in AETI, each specialising in different engineering trades. They work closely with me to lead our instructors in providing quality training to the trainees who pass through our doors annually. To ensure that our curriculum is effective for our trainees, we have to be cognizant of generational differences in learning habits and continuously learn from our education industry counterparts to develop and implement innovative teaching and learning pedagogies for our courses. I also reach out to my team through lunch engagements and commander’s dialogue sessions to understand and help them resolve their challenges.
What is your leadership philosophy?
“Always do your best” and “treat others how you want to be treated” are the two philosophies that I hold close to my heart. They have guided me in how I have worked with different teams in my career thus far. I was also blessed to have worked under the guidance of sterling leaders like Brigadier General Gan Siow Huang, the first female General in the SAF. She inspired me to be the leader I am today – to lead by example, treat everyone with respect, and hold myself and my team to a high standard as professional airmen and women.
What is your most significant career achievement so far?
As a Military Expert (ME) myself, I was happy to be able to contribute to designing the Military Domain Experts Scheme (MDES) for all MEs. During my tour in the Joint Logistics Department, I worked with my counterparts from the Army and Navy to develop and implement the Route of Advancement (ROA) courses for all the Senior MEs when MDES was introduced in 2010. Other than ensuring the constant professional skills upgrading of MEs in the organisation, the ROA courses also served as a means to enhance the identity of the MDES corps.
How has the SAF Engineering Scholarship benefited you?
I have been given many opportunities to hone my skills, and learn and develop myself as an officer, engineer, and individual. While the various command and staff appointments were challenging, they taught me the importance of planning and being an effective leader, because I was responsible for the lives and livelihoods of the people whom I led. I also had the chance to be part of the secretariat team for the 2008 Global Air Power Conference (GAPC), which was attended by our partners from the international defence and security community. The event allowed us to profile our air power and capabilities in front of an international audience, and I was able to observe first-hand how the SAF safeguarded Singapore’s security through deterrence and defence diplomacy.
Share with us your goals for the near future?
As a senior commander in the RSAF, I believe that it is important to instil the right values and attributes in the hearts of the new AFEs and foster team excellence to achieve mission success. Our people are our most important asset, and we will be assured of continued mission success only if we invest in and train our next generation of leaders well.
What advice would you give aspiring MINDEF scholars?
Be genuine. Be yourself. Being authentic is vital to building trust in the many relationships we form in work and in personal life. When you are yourself, you are honest about your strengths and limitations; and only then will you be able to perform to the best of your abilities.