Mission first, people always

Christabel unfurls the Singapore flag at the 2020 USAFA graduation ceremony. Cadets sat and marched 2.4m away from each other during the ceremony due to COVID-19 social distancing measures

Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Lieutenant (LTA) Christabel Chai had a fairly ordinary middle-class Singaporean childhood filled with ballet and piano lessons, and swimming and gymnastics CCAs. She attended Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Primary School, did her O-Levels at Methodist Girls’ School (MGS) and her A-Levels at Anglo Chinese Junior College (ACJC).

Then on 18 April 2020, she made history by becoming the first Singaporean woman—and the first woman in Southeast Asia—to graduate from the prestigious United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado, and in the top 10 per cent of her cohort of 1,000 cadets, no less.

In an e-mail interview, Christabel, 24, who was then serving her Stay-Home Notice upon returning to Singapore after her graduation ceremony, was quick to eschew credit for her remarkable achievement. For her, God’s promise holds: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:10)

Humility, one of the values her parents had nurtured, was integral in bringing her through the tough programme of military training and studies at USAFA. She shares: “Since I was young, I have been taught to always be humble, and never overconfident in my own abilities. Instead, I should rely on God’s strength, and seek improvement from both my successes and failures, as there is always something I can learn from others, and from the situations I go through, to become a better person or leader.”

Humility, hard work and perseverance

Christabel was born into a Christian family and baptised as an infant at Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church, which her family still attends. Growing up as a Christian, it was routine to for her to attend church, read the Bible and pray. However, it was only during her MGS and ACJC days that she started hungering for God’s Word and learning what it truly means to be a Christian.

“I absolutely loved my time in all the schools I attended. I am extremely thankful for my Methodist education, as it definitely contributed to instilling good values in me, and helped to strengthen my character in my formative years. Having a good moral compass and a strong character is necessary in the profession of arms, and my Methodist education undoubtedly helped me become the person I am today,” Christabel writes.

When she was seven, Christabel’s parents realised that she had a talent for swimming and enrolled her in competitive swimming classes. On the swim teams in MGS and ACJC, she was appointed captain of both the school teams during her senior years. She was also on the MGS cross-country team.

Training as a school athlete helped develop the qualities of humility, hard work and perseverance that enabled her to become the soldier-scholar that she is today. Christabel still stays in contact with a few of her teachers, and some of the extremely close friendships formed in MGS and ACJC helped her to get through the four tough years at USAFA, away from home.

The soldier-scholar

After her A-levels, Christabel weighed the option of going to the UK, where her sister had studied, to read law, business or international relations. Instead, her interest in history during her secondary school and JC days spurred her decision to join the military.

She explains: “I realised that any kind of war, of any magnitude, is terrible. In addition, Singapore’s geographical location, as well as its lack of natural resources, meant that we could be vulnerable to aggressors if we do not have a strong military to deter aggressors, and defend our homeland and way of life. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, and do my part to keep my loved ones safe while preserving our way of life, which I hold dear.”

When she was offered the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Merit Scholarship, and after talking with her uncle, an RSAF F-16 pilot, she decided to apply to the USAFA.

She went through a gruelling process to get into the Academy, which has an acceptance rate of only a 10 per cent. Getting a nomination by Singapore involved receiving recommendations from her commanders, submitting applications and undergoing three rounds of interviews. After that, there was the USAFA selection process, as well as a series of interviews with the US Defence Attaché in Singapore.

The Academy takes in students not just from the US military, but also international cadets from countries as far-flung as Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Pakistan, Panama, the Philippines, Rwanda, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Tunisia. Christabel was one of 13 international students in her cohort.

Individuals admitted into USAFA start with the rank of “cadet” and undergo six weeks of Basic Cadet Training upon entering. During freshman year, all cadets have to get through Recognition Weekend—52 hours of intense training by the upperclassmen where they were tested physically and mentally.

Over four years, they undergo stringent military training (e.g. Basic Cadet Training, Expeditionary Skills Training, commissioning education, operational training and more) while juggling academics and athletics activities. Christabel had to take core classes in astronautical engineering, chemistry, economics, electrical engineering, history, and political science, among others.

Tough training

Typical training days at USAFA were hectic and regimented. As Christabel recalls: “It would usually start at around 0515 for me. I tried to do a workout or go for a run to kick-start my day. Our first morning formation was from 0630 till 0700. Breakfast was from 0700 to 0725. Morning classes ran from 0730 till 1130. At 1135, we had noon-meal formation marching practice till 1200. Thereafter, we had lunch from 1200 to 1225 and afternoon classes from 1230 to 1530. Afternoon PT sessions usually lasted from 1545 till 1700.

“From 1700 to 1910, we had time to relax, have dinner and wash up. From 1910 to 1950, we had military knowledge study sessions, military briefings and military administrative tasks to complete. 1950 to 2300 was our personal time, during which we caught up on homework, fulfilled additional duties and responsibilities, and relaxed after a long day.”

Not only did Christabel have to endure the harsh Colorado weather and deal with the rigours of her academic schedule, she knew that she was representing Singapore in everything she did and said. In addition, she had to balance the responsibilities of leadership roles such as Squadron Commander or Group Director of Operations, where she was in charge of more than 100 cadets and 1,000 cadets across all four classes respectively. She earned her US Jump Wings after completing five free fall jumps over the course of Fall semester in her senior year.

Her SAF training, which provided opportunities to hold several leadership positions during her Basic Military Training and her time at Officer Cadet School, taught her how to manage her time, pay attention to detail and always prioritise others’ needs above her own. “It takes a team to be successful,” she often reminds herself. “Never forget the people who helped you to get to where you are today.”

Christabel graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in behavioural sciences, with a focus in sociology. Of her cohort, only 20 per cent were female.

Not her own strength, but His

It was not easy being away from home, family and friends in an unfamiliar culture and environment for four years. “My family in Singapore provided me with unwavering support in my USAFA journey. In addition, God blessed me with great sponsor parents and sponsor families in the US who were extremely loving, supportive and giving. They helped me to get through the toughest times at USAFA, which allowed me to excel. My faith in God grew as I could feel God’s presence, love and grace from my friends and family in the US and back home,” she says gratefully.

Her time at USAFA among an international community has broadened her world view: “It is important, I believe, to recognise the diversity of thought and values, and treat others with respect even if we do not share the same beliefs.” That broad-mindedness is also an asset that enables militaries to ensure that there is peace between countries.

LTA Christabel is now back in Singapore, looking forward to wearing the uniform in which she belongs, and to continuing to serve and protect her nation as an Air Warfare Officer in the RSAF.

“As I begin a new chapter of my career, I hope to utilise my skills, leadership and knowledge gained over the past years to better lead the airmen and women under my wings. Being in the RSAF also means that we are a team dedicated towards protecting the sovereignty of our nation, and no particular person is more important than another.”

“It has been a humbling journey as a woman in a predominately male organisation,” says Christabel. “Sometimes, I question my own abilities and compare myself to many of my male classmates and colleagues. I am pressured to perform as well or better than them in order to prove my worth and show that I am equally capable. Ultimately, I focus on my own personal journey with God, and lean on my closest friends and family for support in my walk with Him.

“I know that I am, above all, a child of God, and He loves me despite my failures and shortcomings. God is my strength, and with Him, there is nothing that I need to fear.”

As a squadron commander, where she leads a march-past of over 100 cadets
(Fourth from left) With some of her ACJC schoolmates
With her parents at her BMT passing-out parade
(Fourth from left, crouching) With USAFA coursemates
(Seated, middle) With MGS friends in the lab

Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message. / Photos courtesy of Christabel Chai