Friday, December 4, 2009

Defence Media Relations in Singapore

Dear Friends and Frenemies,
This is the first in a series of commentaries on defence media relations in Singapore.

This piece sets the scene by looking at big picture issues that the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) deals with. It essentially answers queries from netizens who have asked why the system continues to putter on, despite the leadership issue at MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate and "reservations" (read: complaints) expressed by many journalists.

These commentaries augment the weekly Blue on Blue posts.

The SAF and the Media - The Events Calendar

When managing defence media relations, half the battle is won when the media is your friend.

Singapore’s military corners a significant amount of publicity every year in the Singaporean media, thanks to operational conditions that few other armed forces enjoy.

The Singaporean media dutifully reports news on Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) matters in spite of, not because of, the best efforts of MINDEF’s Public Affairs (PAFF) Directorate.

This is because the only English language broadsheet, The Straits Times (henceforth referred to as the 90 cents newspaper) is also the island republic’s “paper of record” and faithfully chronicles MINDEF/SAF developments.

Television channels are government-affiliated and the same allegiances can be found in the radio stations.

With this sort of firepower on call, PAFF officers have little problem showing MINDEF Headquarters and the army, navy and air force heaps of media clippings that show successful “hits” in the media.

The brutal truth is that news editors would have covered these stories anyway, so long as the news releases were churned out. These are events that the 90 cents newspaper will cover as a matter of record and to promote nation-building.

By setting the bar low and using coverage by the 90 cents newspaper as a benchmark, PAFF's leadership scores points with easy kills.

Though the operational environment is conducive for PAFF Media Relations Officers (MROs), these individuals serve a crucial role. I’ll come to this later after we examine Singapore’s defence information calendar.

To borrow military parlance, set piece battles that unfold every year include the following media engagements:

SAF Day Best Units: A series of stories that profile SAF units that ace the Best Units rankings.

SAF Day Interview with the Defence Minister: Timed to appear on 1 July, which is SAF Day, Singapore's Minister for Defence usually assess the priorities, achievements and challenges facing the defence community.

National Day Parade (NDP): Publicity kicks off as early as May to build up awareness of, and public excitement towards, Singapore’s National Day Parade which is held on 9 August.

Other high profile events include:
* the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security talks organized by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. The event is popularly named after the luxury hotel at which it is held rather than the acronym for its formal name, Asian Security Summit...,
* the biennial Singapore Air Show,
* Defence Technology Prize. This is spearheaded by the Defence Science & Technology Agency but MINDEF/SAF enjoys spinoffs from stories on award-winning projects that defence scientists and engineers worked on.
* Large-scale unilateral, bilateral and multilateral SAF war games such as Exercise Wallaby, CARAT and the FPDA manoeuvres.
* New SAF capabilities. Upcoming capabilities include the Project Peace Triton Seahawk commissioning, HIMARS rocket artillery commissioning and arrival of the Archer-class SSKs.
* Add in courtesy calls, visits to SAF camps by Members of Parliament such as the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs, and study groups such as the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (this serves as a sounding board for MINDEF/SAF on defence issues) and one has a packed media schedule.

In previous years when PAFF was more forthcoming with story ideas floated by journalists, MINDEF/SAF enjoyed additional positive publicity from these exclusive stories.

In May 2004, MINDEF achieved the rare distinction of cornering both Page One stories in the 90 cents newspaper. The stories were written by me.

The lead story of the day was the opening of the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) Changi Naval Base. The base was opened by then-Singapore Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong.

The second lead was a story on the death of a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilot, Lieutenant Brandon Loo (callsign: Chip) who died serving his country while flying his F-16C fighter jet on a night training sortie in the United States.

The 90 cents newspaper’s Page One on 21 May 2004 is an example of what journalists mean by stories that sell themselves.

The opening of a naval base by the Singaporean PM automatically elevates the occasion to a Prime News item.

The tragic story of LTA Loo’s death was also high on the schedule of newsworthy items. This is the kind of story I never like writing. But when called to do so, I tried to write the story with tact. Chip was the first RSAF pilot to die in training and he was also well-loved by friends and family. [Another F-16 pilot died during the SQ006 crash in Taiwan en route to the United States for training]

Though some stories “sell themselves”, PAFF’s Media Relations Officers nonetheless serve an important role.

MINDEF MROs should try to coax journalists to give value-added to their stories by venturing beyond the news release.

The SAF is now undergoing a complex transformation into a Third Generation (3rd Gen) fighting force. Many concepts and capabilities that sharpen Singapore’s deterrent edge need to be explained to the Singaporean public so they can better understand, appreciate and have confidence in their armed forces.

Such publicity should also educate a foreign audience. A clear understanding of the pace, direction and goals of the 3rd Gen SAF’s transformation goes a long way in helping foreign defence watchers make their assessment of the SAF’s revamped capabilities and state of operational readiness.

One would hope they are impressed. But defence watchers cannot be impressed unless they have credible articles or source material that would blow their socks off. As things stand, many local media reports look like rehashes of MINDEF/SAF news releases.

The third audience is made up of foreigners-turned-Singaporeans. Thousands of new citizens arrive in Singapore carrying historical baggage from their former home nations about the role of the military. Not all these views are flattering. Prejudices harboured by new citizens and the urban myths propagated by the ill-informed must be addressed before the sons of new citizens enlist for two years of full-time National Service. In many respects, dealing with new citizens brings MINDEF’s defence information network back to the SAF’s founding days when fears of NS proliferated when it was introduced in 1967.

The concerns and prejudices of new citizens are largely the same as those of Singaporeans of the 1960s, when Chinese parents viewed military service with disdain and high caste Indians did not like taking orders from those of a lower caste. Such views need to be fixed.

As the 3rd Gen SAF gains traction, PAFF will be in the forefront of this education effort.

With experienced PAFF officers leaving as a result of the situation I have previously written about, are MINDEF/SAF defence information needs best served?

You be the judge.


edwin said...

Your writings have usually been insightful and very well thought out, but in this case it seems like you are asking MINDEF PAFF, or other military officers, to leak 'juicy' bits of information beyond what MINDEF HQ has deemed safe to release without compromising security.

If that is so, either MROs commit a professional, moral and ethical error by leaking classified information to the media, or MINDEF PAFF looks sloppy for releasing an incomplete press release in order that it's MROs are able to leak the rest of the information? That doesn't seem like a workable suggestion to me.

David Boey said...

Hi Edwin,
There are follow-up stories to routine announcements or SAF open houses or unit anniversaries that MROs can coax journalists to write without compromising Opsec.

I am going to slice and dice this topic in a number of instalments so I hope you will visit again in the following weeks to see what I mean.


goat89 said...

In no way OPSEC must be violated. Mr Boey knows it better than anyone else, in S'pore anyway. ;) But the point is that the PAFF has not exactly been up to standards, in terms of the public.

edwin said...

Thank you for the clarification. Looking forward to your future instalments! :)

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