[Please scroll down to the kicker if you've no time to read a long posting.]
I always thought stories of how the system blackballs critics were sensationalised and overblown, until it happened to me.
My letter on training safety, published by the 90 cents newspaper's Forum Page, was a game changer - it apparently got me barred from the media preview to the Army Open House (AOH) 2009 and saw me waste a day's leave.
Granted, I am no longer part of the media. Neither is it my birthright to walk right into the AOH preview.
Seen in isolation, the excuse given by the Public Affairs Department (PAFF) of the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) sounded perfectly rational. A MINDEF press minder explained that as I was no longer a journalist, I could not attend the media preview as they wondered what other journalists might say. Mind you, I heard this explanation two weeks after I was denied entry.
I had taken a day's annual leave to attend the media preview on 31 August 2009 at Pasir Laba Camp and was only informed of the about turn that very morning by a curt SMS. It ruined my day. But, life goes on.
A week earlier, MINDEF allowed me to attend the media briefing on the Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicle on 26 August 2009. Information collected from that session was meant for a commentary on wheeled armour and the Singapore Army's experience with such vehicles since the V-200 Singapura series were acquired in 1968.
The briefing went well. Commander 9 Division/Chief Infantry Officer even scrolled back his powerpoint presentation by a couple of viewgraphs after I was whisked into the room slightly late. Yes, I notice these sort of things. It was a nice gesture on his part and I thank him for taking the initiative to do so.
So after requesting that I be allowed to attend Monday's AOH preview, and having received a reply in the affirmative, I applied a day's leave. Those who know me, SAF personnel and people from the defence eco-system who have hosted me previously would know I live for such events.
Sadly, that was not to be and the manner in which entry was denied ran counter to the amount and depth of access I had been granted previously.
In happier times, I'd attended Exercise Paradigm, which demonstrated the Army's Advanced Combatman System.
I'd reported on Exercise Top Deck, the capability demo by the navy's stealth frigate squadron. I spent two days and one night aboard RSS Steadfast. As I spent my birthday aboard the frigate, the embed was most memorable and meaningful for me. I thank the crew for their hospitality.
I had also attended Exercise Torrent VI, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Emergency Runway Exercise, plus the media day for the RSAF Open House, among other events.
I was even flown to St Louis, Missouri, to witness the roll-out of the RSAF's first F-15SG Strike Eagle in November 2008. I was very moved when the American audience, which included many Boeing F-15 assembly line workers, gate crashed the event and hogged the periphery of the official roll-out just to witness history being made. There was that lump-in-the-throat moment when the RSAF's "I am the wind" commercial was screened and the largely American audience applauded - applause that was neither auto-cued nor insincere.
Those were halcyon times.
So why the change of heart?
The issue here isn't about a ex-Defence Correspondent who demands unbridled access to SAF events. I have never asked for this. Neither do I quibble about the cursory manner in which PAFF plays with people's annual leave, although PAFF's customer service standards leave much to be desired.
I am of the opinion that sentiments I expressed in the Straits Times Forum Page letter plus a comment on the issue in militarynuts.com did not go down well with MINDEF PAFF.
If that is so, I feel it is a pity because the language used to frame the letter on the Land Rover death was calibrated not to upset confidence in or support for National Service or the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Read it, think things through and you will realise this.
My comparison between PAFF and the Army Information Centre, of which I held and still hold a favourable impression, was gleaned from my 25 days embedded with the Humanitarian Assistance Support Group. If ops experience doesn't count, what does?
Many SAF personnel familiar with media ops during Operation Flying Eagle felt the same way. I stand by those comments and I fear for the Third Generation SAF if the sensibilities are so fragile that assorted postings on the Internet can cause ruffled feathers.
I was moved to write the Forum letter as I felt very disturbed about the way the incident had been handled.
I want to now mention that I drive a Land Rover and have owned this quaint little vehicle since 1998. Some of you may have seen it. I know it doesn't take a recovery vehicle to rescue someone pinned underneath. Questions needed to be asked because I felt people needed to know and parents needed reassurance. Was this wrong?
Till today, MINDEF PAFF has held back replying to the points raised and, in my opinion, seen it fit to take punitive measures to shoot the messenger. The passive aggressive act of barring me from the AOH preview being a case in point.
At other occasions and for other issues, more than a handful of outspoken Singaporeans seem to have borne the wrath of reprisals from officialdom. Someone please add my name to the score sheet.
My view is that being economical with the truth is an artform. Singaporean bureaucracy has honed it with such finesse and precision that its drawer plan, when executed, is a sight to behold. One cannot argue with their excuses, because most sound logical seen in isolation. One cannot quibble with their train of thoughts, because they make dissenting voices sound out of whack with reality, prone to histrionics.
Then comes the character assasination.
Do take notes, watch and learn.
The drawer plans are distinctly similar, whatever the issue, wherever the ministry, whenever the time, and are rolled out with alacrity whenever the system is challenged.
But such miserable tactics scream of desperation. They are a blunt instrument and the punitive measures are risible because they reflect small-minded, almost childish attempts at inconveniencing dissenting voices.
I am of the view that the unseen damage such tactics cause lies with the erosion of public confidence. News of such reprisals chips away at people's confidence in the system's ability to take criticisms, comments or questions raised on matters of public concern.
It is a blunt instrument because the tactics do not distinguish friend from foe and can end up in Blue on Blue incidents. MINDEF and the SAF must rise above such petty tactics.
What I find disappointing about PAFF's behaviour is the lack of moral courage: I would have much preferred PAFF to have had the guts to tell me why I wasn't welcome, rather than being economical with the truth and coming up the flimsy excuse. Or perhaps PAFF only recently discovered I am no longer a full-time scribe with the 90 cents newspaper and, ergo, had no place at media events? In which case their house-keeping is way overdue?
I believe my decision to turn down an offer to write a book on OBO had something to do with the incident. I will address this in due course.
PAFF's act of skirting around the issue has made me wonder: Do they behave similarly with less informed Singaporeans? Do they take liberties with the heartlander's trust (or ignorance, call it what you will) and sell them red herrings when it suits them? Do they?
I ask because in the wake of the AOH incident, I am nursing some serious doubts.
If you think about it, a system that chops down dissenting voices is the very same kind of environment where brown-nosing thrives. They are two sides of the same coin. Especially in the uber competitive SAF system, one would not be surprised to see ambitious officers whisper into their bosses ears things they want to hear so long as it suits their career trajectory.
As a former journalist, I had ringside seats to such theatrics. One of my scoops, a Prime News story that revealed how the SAF Commandos had been banned from a Best Unit Competition for cheating, came from a tipoff from SAF Guardsmen. Ouch.
Moral courage aside, PAFF's apparent unhappiness over my comments on training safety makes me wonder if the organisation needs a more robust mindset and people who have the right temperament for information management and defence media relations.
I am so glad SAF Civil Military Relations battalions do not come under PAFF's opcon. The way PAFF rides roughshod over journalists feelings would reverse any positive effect the CMR battalions might have in winning the hearts and minds of the Rakyat in occupied territory.
I am reminded of a previous Director Public Affairs at MINDEF, who helped ensure I got the background briefings needed for my commentaries to pack more boomz. One officer, a former Director Policy, even entertained me in his home one weekend and briefed me on defence relations with an Asian country. The write-up that ensued was well-received. I thank the BG for his openness and for allowing me into his family home.
So here I am: standing alone, feeling like I've been blacklisted by MINDEF PAFF, unwelcome at SAF events despite the many positive things I had written in pre-ST Forum Letter days.
So be it.
I am not entirely sure how other Singaporeans who have had brushes with officialdom have reacted. There may be some who crumbled.
But my attitude will not change. If anything, my brush with boorish behaviour has convinced me that I must hold my ground.
I will continue to speak up when I feel the occasion demands.
A recent Total Defence campaign asked Singaporeans:"What will you defend?".
I will defend the right of all Singaporeans to grow up in a society, free from oppression.
I will defend myself when someone hits out at me.
And I am doing just that, right now.
Managing defence media relations is like being in a marriage: You have to know how to manage it well or, it will fail.
Acknowledgement: I thank my brother-in-law for his legal advice.