Monday, October 19, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 5

Why I turned down a book offer

Twenty thousand Singapore dollars is a tidy sum one can earn to write a book, but my credibility is worth more than that.

I turned down an offer to write a book about a series of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) operations overseas because I felt the system wasn't ready to tell a compelling story.

The Public Affairs Department (PAFF) at Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) asked me in March 2009 if I was keen to write a book on the operations.

I was definitely interested but wanted PAFF's assurance that access to interviewees and information would not pose a problem. The intellectual framework for the book should also reflect how participants felt and serve as a credible publication of record for the operation.

When one is engaged as a hired pen, you're essentially providing a service the buyer is paying for. So, if they want a Mickey Mouse book, that's what you should provide. The service should be provided under a willing buyer/willing seller relationship.

I wasn't a willing seller because at this stage of my personal development, I feel my name should only back book projects I believe in. Writing a book is a personal endeavour. Most writers would agree it's not a purely financial transaction where money changes hands after you whack out a chunk of text.

Some background is necessary at this juncture.

In January 2005 I agreed to write a book on the SAF's tsunami relief mission, Operation Flying Eagle (OFE). The book's production timeline was disrupted by issues related to information gathering. This is why I sought repeated assurances that there would be no issues with information access, or the availability of first order sources of information needed to narrate the story convincingly.

After my return to Singapore on 25 January 2005 aboard RSS Endurance, I took three weeks' leave to concentrate on the OFE book. Access was a big problem and information trickled in.

By 15 February, I had interviewed just seven SAF personnel - including the then Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Ng Yat Chung. (Interviews done on 11 and 12 Feb 2005 don't count as I cornered the interviewees at social events.)

Two weeks had been frittered away idling at home waiting for interviews and information. As MINDEF wanted the book out quickly and imposed deadlines for me to meet, I was annoyed with the delays.

During the book review meeting on 17 February 2005, chaired by the then Director Public Affairs (DPA), Colonel Benedict Lim, I was asked for a progress report on the chapters. I replied none were ready.

He was surprised, to put it mildly. An Armour officer by training, COL Benedict's response was indeed swift and decisive. He got things moving quickly and cleared the roadblocks. That the book appeared on time is due very much to COL Benedict's effort in getting things moving.

A day later, I interviewed 24 SAF personnel of all ranks who had served OFE in Indonesia, Thailand or supported the operation from Singapore. It was the most number of interviews I had done in a single day - proper sit down interviews, not street polls where you're after a one sentence quote. Interviewees varied from those bursting with stories to tell to the less chatty ones who had to be coaxed to share their experiences during OFE.

I remember the day well: 18 Feb is my birthday. I missed a steamboat dinner at Marina Square planned by some friends as I was in Dieppe Barracks chasing down OFE participants during their Chinese New Year celebration.

I did two more interviews on 19 Feb and augmented these with email replies from OFE participants who served in other theatres. This included the KC-135R tanker crew who flew the then United Nations Secretary General around the Indian Ocean.

The liaison officer assigned to assist me with this project and I were pleased with the information amassed and I got cracking with the stories.

MINDEF received one chapter a day, everyday, for about a week. Thereafter, the chapters were vetted in a process which isn't relevant to this post.

I'm told the production timeline for the OFE book - I had about a month to write it - was one of the fastest MINDEF had ever achieved. It could have been faster if my LO had the roadblocks cleared sooner.

Access was one issue I had with the book offer. Credibility was another.

I understand that the Republic of Singapore Navy went through a period of soul-searching in 2003. This followed a major incident that made the news. Some of you may know what I'm referring to.

In addition, the winter seas that the operation's participants had to operate in were quite unlike anything they had trained for in the South China Sea. I hear there were issues about operating in this environment and this caused some friction. I hear there were also issues related to concept of operations (CONOPS). Some tactics, techniques and procedures were drafted, refined, exercised and approved while one LST was en route to its area of operations.

Yes, there were hiccups and command friction issues. To their credit, the RSN personnel resolved all these issues. I wanted this reflected in the book but PAFF said no. To my mind, PAFF envisioned the book as PIONEER magazine on steroids.

Now for the point about access to information. All SAF personnel involved in operations would know there is something called an After Action Report (AAR) that records all facets of the operation. Depending on the authors, some AARs are better written than others.

I had requested access to these AARs and received abridged versions for the first three operations. About two pages of sparse text for each operation that was essentially a rehash of what you can find from the MINDEF news releases online.

I hear that the actual AARs were so detailed they even logged the number of panadols dispensed and the sea states the RSN personnel had to endure. They detailed the missions performed by the small craft, such as the Fast Craft Utility (FCU: a waterjet-propelled landing craft) sorties that went around inspecting and resupplying ships anchored in a cordoned area at sea called SMUG1. This is the sort of colour I sought from the AARs, but was denied.

What a pity. Books on operations by other military forces make compelling reads because of the quality of the raw data which authors translate into information, then knowledge.

I had offered to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) so that information security would be preserved. That said, I'm told that even with the NDA, the ops summaries were all MINDEF was prepared to share.

My friends told me not to waste my time.

They advised me that had I written the book as a public relations puff piece, the book would lack credibility. A number of them had served during the operation, which is why I value their opinions and bow to their wisdom.

Don't you find it ironic that military enthusiasts can go to the SAFTI Military Institute Library and find armfuls of books detailing operations on various wars on this planet, but will be hard-pressed finding any books on SAF ops?

I nursed a naive notion that the book would serve as more than a coffee table book. I had hoped it would pack stories that were gripping and reflect the pride that the participants gained during their overseas stints. As I said, it was a naive notion.

So I declined the offer.

The SAF ops book project is the second I've declined in as many years. In early 2007, I was approached to write a book on a former Cabinet minister who once handled defence, education and economic portfolios. My concerns were the same as those for the ops book: access to first order sources of information to write a credible book. I declined the project as I didn't feel comfortable with the scope of work. In hindsight, it was the right decision. Those of you who know why, would know.

Looking at PIONEER's writing style, I could have quite easily grabbed the ops book offer with both hands, delivered the mother of all PR puff pieces and requested my name be dropped from the book. But Singapore is a tiny place. I didn't want to disappoint people I know whom I regard highly.

A parting shot: MINDEF doesn't seem to treat its authors well.

After the OFE book was done, I wasn't invited for the book's launch on 1 July 2005. I had thought this would be a professional courtesy. I attended the ceremony as part of the 90 cents paper's team that covered the SAF Day Parade, then lingered behind to watch from the sidelines as President S.R. Nathan did the honours launching my first book.

How would you have felt?

After that experience, I decided to set certain benchmarks for future book projects.

If you've read my previous rants on quality control (QC) issues related to defence information management, you will get a sense of the QC I've set myself for any book project. If these benchmarks can't be met, I'll walk away.

All the best to whoever is writing it.

My friends and I look forward to writing a book review after it is published.

Advertisement: Commentaries in November will focus on an overseas SAF exercise. Please look out for these.


FIVE-TWO said...

I wish you to know that the OFE was very well written and in fact, dare I say, moving. All this was even before I joined Kacang Kementah and meeting with you at Ex Torrent VI.

It is sad, especially being an ex-member of the SAF, that they continue to publish coffee-table books, when in fact such books should not go so low to be placed on coffee tables and have glossy pictures. They should tell the story of a Force, the men and women and their leaders, their equipment, their training and their resolve to deliver the performance that the country expects. It should be a book from the heart and soul of the Force.

David Boey said...

Thanks for the comment 5-2.

Work on the book began even while I was in-theatre. The then DPA, COL Bernard Toh (he handed over his command to COL Benedict), spoke to me aboard RSS Endurance when he accompanied TCH on a visit to Meulaboh. He said MINDEF might want to chronicle the operation in a book and sounded me out.

I gave the book some thought and started taking more notes than was needed for a simple newspaper story.

The structure of the book came from a daily debriefing by COL Tan Chuan-Jin's team. One powerpoint slide summed up the mission under the headings of pre-planning, entry, stabilisation, transition and return and I felt that was a nice way to structure the book.

The initial info gathering phase wasn't easy because COL Tan's second-in-command didn't want me sitting in on the nightly debriefings. The debriefings were valuable, because how else would I know how the op was conducted? It took an Army Information Centre LTC to smooth things out for me. He now works for the Ministry of Finance.

The book was supposed to be much shorter (no budget) but COL Tan helped make a case for more pages - very tactfully, otherwise he won't be a BG today :)

Though he ran the show in Meulaboh, he was instrumental in making sure other elements of OFE in Indonesia (Banda Aceh and Medan), Thailand and S'pore got coverage they deserved.

BG Tan was at that 17 Feb 2005 progress review. When he heard I had problems, he offered to nominate ("arrow") a few of his Guardsmen as writers. I replied there was no need to, and rather brashly told MINDEF I could meet the deadline so long as I completed the interviews within the next two days.
COL Benedict's thunderbolt moved things and that resulted in concentration of 24 interviews the very next day.

MINDEF kept its word and I kept mine and we got the book out by SAF Day.

bdique said...

CJ, as much as I'm a tad sad that we'll have to wait longer to get more info on OBO, then again I'm glad that you didn't just jump in for the money, but you saw that there was bigger thing out at stake, SAF's credibility...

Why can't they go on with the interviews? Is trusting a fellow citizen, even though he is a civilian (and one they've worked with for a long time) that difficult?

It seems as if SAF is quite afraid to 'lose face'. But hey, admitting not everything's perfect is part of human nature, and its not like we left all the problems dangling and spent every day bungling things up. If they want to make a picture book of OBO, very well, but having been in an operation that could very well have flared into serious engagement, I think we should be progressing beyond that stage of mere pictures and captions. Which unfortunately the PAFF is hesitant.

btw I agree with 5-2, OFE was a splendid piece of work. It was always in the company line, and I have read it many, many times over, having enjoyed it very much during my NSF days :)

bdique said...

eh, how do I edit posts? typo, bigger picture not SAF's credibility (which is also at stake I feel), but yours...

FIVE-TWO said...

actually I did not realise that you wrote the OFE book. I went back to check and it took me quite a while to find the writer's name ;@(