Sunday, September 20, 2009

Commitment to defence: How not to score own goals

If you want to be treated like a social pariah by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), bring a camera to its next open house and snap away like there’s no tomorrow.

Some people I know did just that at the recent Army Open House (3 to 7 September 2009, Pasir Laba Camp), and earned dirty looks and snide comments from some of the duty personnel.

The Singapore Army personnel who behaved in this fashion may not realize it, but they should show more racial sensitivity before unleashing their cutting remarks.

One visitor who bore the brunt of the dirty looks was a Malay.

Bowled over by the display of army war machines, he snapped away with glee.

Some army personnel did not share his enthusiasm. A Warrant Officer eyed him suspiciously and ordered his men to snap a photo of the over-zealous photographer in retaliation.

I felt disturbed when he related this story to me because I know the great lengths the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) takes in building commitment to defence issues by showing it is race blind.

Had he felt discriminated and spread his story among his friends, and his friends related it thereon, one can only imagine how the Malay community would feel.

Had a Singaporean Malay in the crowd witnessed the incident and jumped to conclusions, this incident could also unravel MINDEF’s outreach efforts.

The longevity of the negative impression that brusque behaviour stamped into the consciousness of those at the receiving end of the unkind barbs shows that the SAF sometimes scores own goals. It is instructive to note that among the comments netizens made about the open house are postings on the hostility of certain show ambassadors.

I was present when several members of the internet discussion group,, revisited the Army Open House on its last day. We were a multi-racial bunch and if we were more handsome, could be poster boys for a community relations campaign.

The militarynuts noted that the behaviour of the personnel on duty that morning was a stark contrast to the mindset they displayed days earlier.

They seemed to have ditched their aversion to cameras, were obliging, all smiles and courtesy. We had a great time.

One would hope that MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) would show stronger leadership in cultivating defence enthusiasts in Singapore.

While there are cynics who can’t wait to serve and forget, PAFF should regard the passion and keenness shown by defence enthusiasts as a strength and not a bugbear. Whether through cyberspace chatter or stories they share among family and friends, MINDEF can leverage on positive impressions from defence enthusiasts to tell its side of the story.

Lack of foresight or resources aside, part of PAFF’s hesitancy may stem from the tendency by Singaporean bureaucracy to treat everyone with a notebook and camera with suspicion.

Among my pile of media clippings is a full-page feature story on an Englishman who flew to Singapore just to look at merchant ships.

His hobby, shipspotting, is a close cousin to planespotting and the wartime fad made famous by the movie, Trainspotting. This is a hobby that outsiders would not undertand.

An extract from the article reads:

Military ships are the only vessels that do not make it into his notebook."People might become suspicious about your interest in them, especially after the 9-11 attacks."

A month after the New York terrorist bombing in 2001, he was shipspotting in Kusu with his friend when two policemen in plainclothes approached them. They had been alerted by coastal guards (sic) patrolling the waters.

“They asked us politely what we were doing. We showed them our passports and World Ship Society membership cards." The society, a global body dedicated to maritime and naval history, has more than 5,000 members.

Just as suspicious minds can poison community relations, confident and open-minded officers are the SAF’s best goodwill ambassadors.

In November 2008, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's Air Power Generation Command invited the militarynuts to witness the rehearsal for its Emergency Runway Exercise.

Present at the event was the RSAF’s Chief of Air Force, Major-General Ng Chee Khern.

Midway during the exercise, he walked across to the group of photographers to say “hi”. Everyone present at the VIP tent would have seen this. CAF continued the dialogue with the militarynuts after the exercise.

Here was an MG touching base with a defence-savvy group of Singaporeans – all of whom were Operationally-Ready National Servicemen, plus one officer cadet and one pre-enlistee.

All of us walked away with a feel good feeling and a positive impression of the RSAF, having seen what it could do to generate and sustain its airpower.

After the group debussed outside Tengah Air Base, we decided to snap one last group shot by the “F-16 tail” outside the base.

By then, our liaison officer had left and we were left on our own.

Lo and behold, it did not take long for this group to attract the attention of base personnel.

One of them, a Captain Jeremy, drove up to the group and eyed us from his car.

He barked a challenge after the group shot had been taken and ordered the photographer to delete the picture. His mannerism and tone of voice implied we all owed him money. We complied.

MINDEF and the SAF are certainly spot on in concluding that touch points with Singaporeans – which are defined as every instance when a Singaporean has contact with the SAF, be it in person or in cyberspace – are opportunities for changing mindsets.

What they also need to learn is that these touch points swing both ways

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