The Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) has regular engagements with the Malaysian media aimed at cultivating goodwill and building strong rapport with the Malaysian military.
The MAF's investment in defence media relations underscores its recognition of the media's role in winning of hearts and minds of the Raykat. Hearts and minds forms a key component of MAF psychological defence operations promulgated under its HANRUH (Total Defence) concept.
The MAF's public relations machinery is spearheaded by its PR Department, known by its Bahasa Malaysia name as Cawangan Perhubungan Awam, Kementerian Pertahanan. The department is located at KEMENTAH's headquarters at Jalan Padang Tembak.
In terms of TOE and manpower staffing, KEMENTAH draws its Media Relations Officers (MROs) almost exclusively from the ranks of the three Services of the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM; the Malay term for MAF). All of KEMENTAH's MROs officers are effectively bilingual.
The Public Affairs (PAFF) directorate at Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has a larger headcount and more elaborate structure, which covers external and internal media, as well as community relations (they handle noise complaints etc) and media monitoring, among other duties. It also commands a huge budget for some events.
If asked to compare the two organisations, my sense of the matter would be that KEMENTAH has a stronger media relations arm. KEMENTAH puts in far more effort cultivating goodwill with the Malaysian and foreign media and has more field experience with media escort duties in the Lebanon, Timor Leste, Cambodia and in Bosnia.
Over in Singapore, the Boxing Day tsunami relief operation in 2004/2005, Operation Flying Eagle (OFE), brought into sharp relief the need for MROs who are trained and supported for field operations. Many of the MROs I worked with during Operation Flying Eagle made wonderful PR people during peacetime situations. But a fair number struggled to cope with the rigours of military life. The MROs aboard RSS Endurance were rotated three times during my 25-day embed with the SAF.
PAFF's MROs would have been combat ineffective had they been deployed to support a hot war scenario. KEMENTAH's MROs, on the other hand, are military officers and would be better suited to the demands of a military operation.
The Director Public Affairs (DPA) of that era recognised this weakness and began fielding uniformed Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers as MROs.
That effort has been compromised by what I see as a serious leadership issue within PAFF. In all my years of journalism, I have never seen the department so rundown. There are probably more PAFF staff who want to quit the department now than at any other time in recent memory. Those of you who know what's going on, would know.
At the most basic level, Malaysia's defence eco-system has a happier PR arm. Malaysian defence PR officers are treated as professionals and not shouted at with foul language like recruits when things go sour; their budget may be smaller than PAFF's but they make up for this with warmth and hospitality when hosting the media. They are open to suggestions and criticisms from the media and do not hide things from higher ATM leadership.
In my opinion, the Army Information Centre (AIC) is the strongest entity that MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) possesses should MINDEF/SAF be required to field MROs during an Operation Other Than War or short war scenario that KEMENTAH is prepared for.
It was AIC that provided the backbone for defence information ops in Meulaboh during OFE, with LTC Chin, MAJ Justin, CPT James providing the media with the pulse of the operation.
AIC has benefitted from having a previous Assistant Chief of General Staff, Operations (AC Ops), who previously held the DPA post. Colonel Benedict Lim was the first DPA to move to the AC Ops post.
The first two DPAs both retired from their post. The third moved to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. The fourth moved to the Singapore Discovery Centre and left from there. The fifth retired from the SAF and moved to SMRT. The sixth retired and moved to the National University of Singapore. The seventh DPA was COL Benedict, who was appointed AC Ops and has since moved on to head the SAF's Armour Formation as Chief Armour Officer.
Dzirhan Mahadzir has kindly shared his observations on defence media relations in Malaysia. His views are supported by feedback I've received in past engagements with friends from Malaysian defence publications such as ADJ and my personal dealings with KEMENTAH.
Malaysia Correspondent, Jane's Defence Weekly
From my personal observations, the Malaysian Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Relations (PR) and the three Services PR are very easy to approach.
In fact, we can even drop in to their offices without making an appointment and the officers are more than willing to attend to us if they are around and not tied up with work and meetings or at the least have a quick word with us as to our requests.
I have also noted that the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) Service Chiefs always ask journalists during events whether the media arrangements were satisfactory. I would say that although Malaysia is less formal and organised compared to Singapore MINDEF PR, they do a number of things which gives journalists a number of accessibility.
For instance, some of the yearly activities are:
Service Days and Armed Forces Day (Hari Angkatan Tentera): A dedicated press conference with the Chief of Service where you can ask any questions (can go on for 1-2 hours) followed by tea with the Chief, also one to one interviews arranged for TV and written replies given submitted to specific private questions by the media (for exclusive purposes).
Open days will also include specific media activity hosted by Chief of Service personally, Armed Forces Day includes media day activity hosted by CDF and organised by one of the service, Minister in attendance if schedule permits.
Mindef Media Night: Minister, CDF, Chiefs of Service and senior officers in attendance, open to all working in media, media heads at Minister/CDF table, Editors and senior journalists will sit at tables with top brass there. Awards given for Mindef coverage, performance by MAF personnel and media.
New Chief appointment: Official press conference in which the new CDF or chief of service introduces himself to the media and gives his vision/mandate.
Hari Raya Open House: No equipment, just a Raya open house to eat and drink but very good for meeting military officers informally and building rapport, all three Services and MINDEF hold their own open house at different times.
I have to say that the majority of the media and military here have a pretty good relationship that reporters often don't have to ask the military to go the extra mile for them because we already know that if we are not getting something, it's a given that it's not possible for various reasons rather than the military not trying or thinking about it. And we also get a heads up often from the MINDEF and Service PRs on upcoming activities even though a formal press release has not come out yet.
I think one of the main factors why military-media relations in Malaysia is pretty strong is that journalists and the military often meet because MINDEF and MAF have a lot of events such as cheque presentations ceremonies, veterans recognition, sports etc and media are always invited to cover even minor functions.
From what I see on MINDEF SG, most events appeared to be covered in-house. In Malaysia, while there is in-house coverage, the media is almost always invited, and even if there is little response, MINDEF PR Malaysia still continues to send out invites for such events in the future rather than be discouraged and discontinue.
On the rapport between Malaysian top brass and most journalists, I think what helps is that, unlike Singapore, where only the Chiefs tend to be in more contact with journalists, the MAF through various public and media events allows officers from Kolonel upwards to come into contact with journalists. In the MAF, promotions and age levels are not as quick as in the SAF, so journalists have more time to know MAF officers before they become the top brass of the MAF and establish a personal rapport.
One other thing is perhaps the fact that unlike Singapore, the MAF is a volunteer military and thus more open to public comment and criticism.
I presume perhaps it is because of Singapore's rigid and hierarchical system, plus the fact that male citizens all undergo NS, there's a mentality (not just in SAF but SG government) that citizens and journalists should not question the SAF.