Review of PS3265 – Civil Military Relations

For other module reviews, please click here.

(Alternate Title: PS3265 – Who watches the watchers?)


When I was a wee kid waiting to matriculate and had drawn up a list of modules I wanted to take based of brochures from visiting NUS, this module had been ticked along with International Security. Such a title would draw most people in, after all, and when I found out I had the opportunity to take this module in Sem 1, I jumped at it immediately. It was somewhat awkward, but refreshing, to see Prof Lee (who had taught my International Security module) again, and I was eager to get started with whatever the module had to offer.

What I expected

I had been vaguely introduced to this concept of civilians and the military having some sort of relationship but there was a lack of clear understanding as to specifically what this relationship entailed. It was touched upon both in my Middle East CP module and African CP module but because both mods assumed you already had some CMR (civil military relations) background, they laid some points down and moved on. About all I knew was that this somehow involved coups (after doing a couple of readings about coup-proofing for my Middle East class that happily was also assigned here) but yes, that was where my knowledge ended.

What I got

A really insightful crash course into the many ways politicians, generals, leaders and philosophizers have tried to grapple with the CMR problematique that was central to this entire field. By crash course I mean that it’s a great foundational module for students lacking any idea of what this problematique is, so one wouldn’t be at too much of a disadvantage if they took this module and had no idea what CMR was about.

Beginning with an explanation of the central CMR (how does one retain a military willing and able to prevent others from taking over, yet ensure that the military itself isn’t willing and able to seize power if it desired?) problem and its associated counterpart (how to maintain civilian control of the military), various formulations are studied before theory comes in hard and heavy. Prof Lee adopts a very methodical approach to this field which was greatly appreciated – he matter-of-factly lays out the possible conditions for military intervention, perseverance and exit before spending the latter half of the semester analyzing a good range of cases in precisely this manner. For those that need structure in their content, he’s your man. His passion for this topic is also clearly evident in his teaching which combines anecdotal past experience in the field with wry insight and good efficiency when taking questions at the end of lectures, so yea, he’s good.

At the end of the module one definitely emerges with a better understanding of various theories and case studies that prove/disprove said theories – since he specializes in South East Asia, almost all the cases come from this region that has great variety and hence provides a good place for empirical collection. Similarly one better appreciates this nuance and how it has implications both at the sub-state and super-state (IR) levels.

[Webcasted?] Nope.

[Course Materials?] All PDF readings, yay for saving money!

Assessment & Workload

One is assessed as follows:

  1. Tutorial Participation: 20%.  I’d say this is fairly important but at the end of the day it really depends on how much you want it. Aside from sending in the mandatory two questions 24 hours before the class (for the teacher to work with/combine/ask questions), one will also be rewarded for making insightful forum posts and contributing productively to discussions. I didn’t do much of that, sadly, and so I did the bare minimum – a few forum posts here and there along with the mandatory 2 questions, followed by having lots of fun discussions in groups during tutorials (because the material’s pretty enjoyable).
  2. Essay: 30%. One is free to formulate their own question, so there’s a good deal of flexibility for creative students out there. Perhaps a bit too much for those preferring to answer to prompts, but treat it really as an independent research project: You’re given knowledge, time and resources to apply theories in the study of some region or problem that you’re interested in. Isn’t that pretty dope (cool)? And such a thinking helps one approach it more positively instead of seeing it as another assignment to be completed. At ten pages (~3k words), though, it’s not too demanding, so most should have little difficulty with this assignment.
  3. Finals: 50%. At 50% this is a pretty weighty finals but there’s hope: it’s only one short essay and actually has ID terms (8C5). With PYPs freely available one can look through past papers and see how questions are phrased – with a bit of preparation one can ace the ID terms section so that they have sufficient time for planning their essay and doing well in it as well. Again, it’s heavy, but it could be worse. It could be 6C3 essays in two hours for 50% – that would hurt quite a bit. Thankfully not.

The workload for this module is surprisingly manageable given, well, past experiences under IS with Prof Lee. Those expecting a killer load would see a welcome package of 80~100 pages every week which compares favorably to other modules reviewed. Some readings are fairly difficult to get through, though, so expect to spend maybe a couple of hours each week just for the readings. That said, doing the readings and attending lectures pretty much constitutes your tutorial preparations so essay aside, this isn’t too heavy a module.

Expected Grade

I had written an essay on a topic I found interesting and it was marked by Clara (his TA) instead of Prof Lee, so an A- seemed like a pretty good grade to receive for it. Given that an essay was weighted at 30% though, I saw maybe 50% B+ 40% A- and 10% A for post-finals grades.

Actual Grade

I received an A- which is pretty respectable. Either my finals didn’t do magnificently well or my lack of online forum participation pulled down my tutorial participation grades, but I’m happy with this grade nevertheless. In all things, TGBTG ^^

Conclusion & Tips

This module serves as both a primer to CMR studies in general and a good CMR of SEA regional module. Those interested in understanding how the state as a non-monolithical entity may be divided within itself, or how international relations are affected by domestic politics and vice-versa would find this module profitable for reading.

  1. Know what to consult about when coming for your essay consult. Most Profs don’t tell one what one should write about, but they’d be more than happy to point out trite research topics or let one know if their scope is too broad/narrow. Working with a list of, say, five to seven questions that one has done a little thinking about, pitching them to the Prof/TA and hearing their thoughts before deciding what to write on would help one fare a lot better than blindly writing on the first topic which comes to mind. In particular, those who lapse too easily into broad questions will appreciate being smacked by reality in these consults.
  2. Do the readings, because they’re really important for the module. Like duh, but if you don’t do the readings you don’t get the theory, and if you don’t get the theory you’re going to be a wallflower in tutorials especially when other students begin throwing around names and you’re just like “???”
  3. Prof Lee believes in giving you the raw materials and having you synthesize knowledge when it comes to the finals. You have the theory, you have the case studies, see which sticks to the wall and which doesn’t. Basically he doesn’t spoonfeed you with “this theory doesn’t apply here and here’s why” – it’s up to the hardworking student to draw connections and check with him/his TA if they’re on the right track regularly. Work on this basis for your finals preparation and you should do just fine.

No materials to preview unfortunately 😦

Here are my personal notes I’ve taken though ^^

2 thoughts on “Review of PS3265 – Civil Military Relations

  1. Pingback: Review of PS2248: Chinese Politics | Ramblings of Roe

  2. Pingback: Review of PS3257 – Political Inquiry | Ramblings of Roe

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