Monday, October 12, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 4

Dumb and dumber

An error no spell check could catch almost resulted in raised eyebrows among defence officials in Bangkok, Canberra and Jakarta, not to mention red faces on Level 5 at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

The honest mistake was spotted, the glitch rectified and thanks relayed to me by a grateful MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) Department. That incident took place years ago, before the current period of tension.



In an erroneous cover letter, a PAFF Media Relations Officer had said that joint Singapore-Thailand naval manoeuvres would take place “off the coast of Darwin”. Journalists unfamiliar with Exercise Sing-Siam and people who tend to place blind faith in government news releases are unlikely to have caught the mistake.

I was puzzled by that line but thought it sounded plausible as Royal Thai Navy (RTN) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) warships could indeed be exercising in international waters “off the coast of Darwin”. Passage exercises (PASSEX) take place on an opportunity basis around the globe regularly. So why not a PASSEX between Thai and Singaporean men-of-war off the great continent of Australia?

But something didn’t sound right, so I rang the MRO. He nearly fell off his chair when he called up the page on his computer screen and read that offending line. He gasped even before I finished reading the sentence aloud for his benefit.

Yes, it was dumb.

He explained that he took a previous cover letter for Exercise Singaroo as a template and forgot to erase the last part of the sentence. He was upfront about the mistake and took swift remedial action to ensure local and international media agencies were alerted.


The oversight that resulted from lax attention to detail is an example of poor staff work. But the officer learned from his mistake and never again let his guard down.

Had it been published in the 90 cents newspaper – Singapore’s paper of record – the story could have resulted in an embarrassing correction made on MINDEF’s account.

Australian defence officials from the lucky country may have laughed it off. The Thais may have displayed typical reticence. Imagine, just for a moment please, how Jakarta might have reacted to news of Thai-Singaporean war games on their doorstep. Indonesian papers would have had a field day.

But the problem was nipped in the bud.

I hope defence officials who claim the 90 cents paper hardly looks out for the interests of MINDEF and the SAF will think again before spouting such gibberish.


The glitch was fixed, pronto. Rather than incurring PAFF’s wrath, that incident drew us closer. PAFF knew I had the organisation’s interest at heart when I pointed out errors or raised red flags at things I was uncomfortable with. At times like this, it does pay to have inquisitive friends.

Years later, PAFF seems to have grown into a different beast.

How I misread the current PAFF’s psyche when I penned that Forum Page letter on the Land Rover training death. The fallout it generated was as unexpected as it was unwelcome.

How I underestimated the attention PAFF paid to the online comparison with the Army Information Centre on an online military forum. So we make our bed, we sleep in it.


I’m given to understand that certain quarters in PAFF were aghast I had the temerity to point out the error in September’s issue of PIONEER magazine. Feedback I received informally described the post as “unfriendly”.

I guess it’s about as “unfriendly” as telling a journalist turned commentator that he was welcome at the Army Open House 2009 media preview, only to pull that privilege that same morning. I hope those who hatched that plot squealed with delight. It was utterly childish and some people I know in the SAF were embarrassed to hear about the incident.

My response was to start this blog and the Blue on Blue commentaries. I’m hunkering down for an ops tempo of one Blue on Blue commentary a week for the next one-and-a-half years, until I get an apology for the Army Open House incident or till hell freezes over.

Comments and feedback I’ve received offline and in confidence agree with points I’ve made. I’m not reassured my line of reasoning gels with popular opinion. Frankly, I’m alarmed.

I worry that certain quarters from the defence eco-system – whom I shall obviously not name – share the sentiments expressed about PAFF – the one organization tasked to fight and win MINDEF/SAF’s info ops war. Egad, indeed.

If PAFF can’t get the small things right, then forget about aiming for the stars and nursing any ambition to be “world class”.

Getting the basics right is the baseline from which any publication or defence information organization improves and matures. If you can’t even do that, or if you don’t have the mindset for chatter you don’t like, then I surmise that the job fit may be the second mistake that people are too polite to point out.

In my opinion, the PAFF of yesteryear fostered a more permissive operating environment for journalists and a happier situation for MROs.

MINDEF MROs got the coverage they needed most of the time. What’s more, the MROs were not bogged down with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that were not only onerous, but in my opinion, impossible to achieve. I’m told one MRO broke down in tears after the person was ordered to “request” that a certain newspaper change its headline – at 1am in the morning when the paper had already gone to print. Yawn.

Here's the crux of the matter: I will continue pointing out mistakes and voicing opinions on various defence-related issues.

As the Exercise Sing-Siam episode proves, my inquisitiveness did not blossom overnight.

I could very well have typed out the Exercise Sing-Siam story with that erroneous venue for the naval war games, then sat with my arms folded, popcorn in hand as I watched defence officials from Bangkok to Canberra wonder if MINDEF had lost its marbles. I did not because the Director Public Affairs (DPA) at the helm was someone I respected. He’d looked out for me and I readily did the same.

The previous, previous PAFF leadership – being more open-minded, with a bigger heart and able to see the big picture – valued critical voices. Critical feedback gave PAFF a platform to redress misconceptions, debunk baseless chatter or fortify MINDEF/SAF’s position on certain issues.

If the current PAFF can’t weather criticism from well-meaning Singaporeans in peacetime, forget about being there to support the Third Generation SAF when the button is pressed.

This mindset will fail MINDEF.

And Singaporeans will pay the price. Does that mean you, dear tax payer?

Next week: Why I will not write the OBO book.

3 comments:

John said...

Thats because PAFF is only filled by LSA farmers and other local grad DXO. The entire government, not just Mindef or SAF, only places its farmers in its Public Affairs and Corporate Communications arms.

The government, unlike private companies do not require a slick PR machinery. The PAF or CC departments are no more than executers, do-ers, menial labour. When PAF or corp comm of any government body sends out an invite to the press for a ministerial conference, all the media have to cover it anyway. So there is no brains needed for PAF in government work at all. No need to place high-valued targets there, the government knows.

I have worked in Mindef before in my NSF days. And the only place they send their scholars (SAFOS) to is Policy Office on Level 5.

Btw, you may like to know that PAF is on the lowest floor. Not upstairs with the PS. Level 5 only cares about external relations. They can't give two hoots about the media.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

And frankly, I'm more amused by your blatant and shameless admission that you started this blog just to get back at PAFF.

to quote you below
"I guess it’s about as “unfriendly” as telling a journalist turned commentator that he was welcome at the Army Open House 2009 media preview, only to pull that privilege that same morning. I hope those who hatched that plot squealed with delight. It was utterly childish and some people I know in the SAF were embarrassed to hear about the incident.

My response was to start this blog and the Blue on Blue commentaries. I’m hunkering down for an ops tempo of one Blue on Blue commentary a week for the next one-and-a-half years, until I get an apology for the Army Open House incident or till hell freezes over."

Starting a blog (how much more juvenile can we sink to) to take revenge for being spurned is tonnes more childish than denying someone who is not a journalist, not part of the press entry to a press exclusive.

The size of the unjustified ego..good gawd. I can only believe what you went around spreading to your Mindef contacts about the offence you felt, and I can imagine them agreeing out of politeness and nothing more.

You do truly sound like an infatuated boy who's been in love with Mindef since you were 7, like you said, but by no choice of your own could not make into Mindef and hence eked out a living writing about Mindef in the state press. If you could have made it, why not be it? Why just write about it? It's like someone who wants to be a pilot, fails, and spends his life writing about flying instead of doing the doing.

PAFF does not have much significance in the grand scheme of Mindef.

In fact, if MIO (formerly JID) has been doing things right, which it has, under the great BG Bernard Tan and BG Tan Meng Dui, the information given to the press, won't be betraying even 10% of the true operational capabilities of SAF. (Now that's where they put their high-valued targets, if you knew a tenth of you believed you knew about SAF, you'd know what i'm talking)

Which makes your whole info-war rhetoric nothing but yakkity yak derived from a blend of delusions and misguidance. I really doubt Mindef ever made such pitches to you, at least not in these terms.

At the very most, its nothing more than information they WANT to give out to the public (whatever percentage hived out of the real amount of intelligence), through the press.

The real info war is done by MIO. The real big guns. The real deal. Against real threats. Not mickey mouse National Education lessons for national pride transmitted via reporters. Do you seriously honestly earnestly think that's very high-up the priority scale in Gombak drive? Goodness.

Which is why I found your parting shot especially cheesy and cringe-inducing, with your exhortations to tax-payers and all, very reminiscent of low class wayang party sites.

I expected more substance from an ex defence correspondent from our state press than I expected from the no-class, nothing-to-lose blogger losers. And here, you have narrowed the gulf between the two.