S'pore's 1st Chief of Defence Force Winston Choo opens up about love & sacrifices in new documentary

"Sometimes duty takes priority over your likes and dislikes of your personal programme."

Julia Yee | February 01, 2024, 10:19 AM



Winston Choo is 82-years-old, and he's lived a thousand lifetimes.

Hailed as Singapore's first three-star general and Chief of Defence Force, whose name reverberates among the inner circles of the military, Choo's humble demeanour belies his grand array of accolades.

He was the first military aide-de-camp (ADC) to President Yusof bin Ishak following Singapore's Independence in 1965, the first professional Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier to reach the rank of major-general, and the country's first Chief of Defence Force, to name a few.

But there's more to his legacy than just triumphs.

In an upcoming documentary by Reel Lumina, Choo reflects upon the major events of his life that led him to where he is today, including meeting his wife when they were kids, "screwing up" on the job, and racking up an illustrious history of firsts in his 33-year-long military career.

Mothership sat down with the studio's managing director, Adrian Tee, to find out more about the film.

What it takes to lead

Titled "A Duty to Lead", the documentary follows the retired SAF general as he relives the moments that shaped him as a leader.

"The documentary is never [just factual], but the highlights — pivotal moments that shaped [Choo's] values," said Tee.

He described the film as a series of "touch-and-go" of episodes from Choo's life.

From getting into trouble for misplacing rifle magazines, to facing the hard decisions made in war, Choo explains why a sense of duty, courage, and integrity are the building blocks of a great leader.

Behind the scenes of "A Duty to Lead". Photo from Reel Lumina

The short documentary is shot cinematically with custom scored music, said Tee, who launched into an ardent spew about the power of storytelling.

Founded in July 2023, Reel Lumina seeks to tell the tales of leaders who have done "good and well".

"I think our society needs values-driven leaders more than ever... and the generation of our leaders that came before us have certain values worth preserving, worth telling about," Tee said.

Choo's story is the second of such works, the first featuring presidential election 2023 candidate and former GIC chief investment officer Ng Kok Song, which came out after the 2023 Presidential Elections results.

Tee said that he and his wife pay for the company's productions out of their own pockets.

They wish to immortalise their subjects' legacies, so "someone watching 100 years from now will be just as moved as someone today".

With their current self-funding, the company is able to churn out about four films each year.

Each production takes the team roughly three to four months to complete.

On set with "a good chap"

What does it take to be a good leader?

Choo, it seems, has given up parts of himself most people wouldn't fathom offering up.

He speaks candidly in the documentary, and shares the sacrifices he's made with regards to his personal life.

Like having to postpone his marriage after being chosen as the president's ADC in 1965, and not being able to speak openly with his wife while travelling with a driver and staff officer present.

Behind the scenes of "A Duty to Lead". Photo from Reel Lumina

Behind the scenes of "A Duty to Lead". Photo from Reel Lumina

But the retired general doesn't regret the sacrifices he's made for the country.

Neither does his wife, Katherine Seow, who understands Choo's call of duty — no matter how hard it might be to share one's husband with his job.

"Sometimes duty takes priority over your likes and dislikes of your personal programme," Choo stated simply.

Behind the scenes of "A Duty to Lead". Photo from Reel Lumina

As to how he managed to get the relatively private public figure on board, Tee disclosed that he was introduced to Choo via a mutual acquaintance.

He found that Choo's honorary status does little to overshadow the man's amicable personality.

"From the time you meet him to the time he welcomes you into his home, he's very warm, caring, and takes an interest in every single one of my crew members," Tee said.

"The film crew all left different people, they were really changed by him."

People like Choo rarely "shout about themselves", so capturing such snippets of their lives via film serves as a kind of "gift" to them.

Behind the scenes of "A Duty to Lead". Photo from Reel Lumina

Leaders can be found in the most unlikely of places.

It may be as simple as "giving hope" to the people around you, such as your friends and family, Tee added.

"Great leaders can be great as they are, where they are."

"A Duty to Lead" will be released on Feb. 2, 2024. The full documentary will be available on SMIX.

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Top photos courtesy of Reel Lumina and the Choo family