Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 2

Shooting the messenger

[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.

Caption: With SG1 in St Louis, Missouri, the day before her official roll-out. The flag I'm holding has accompanied me for every SAF operation I was sent to cover. It has been to Taiwan (Ops Lion Heart 9/21 quake relief), Timor Leste (Ops Blue Heron), the Northern Arabian Gulf (Ops Blue Orchid I) and Meulaboh, Indonesia (Ops Flying Eagle).

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.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 1

I have no confidence in the leadership of Darius Lim, Director Public Affairs (DPA) at the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

I write this having seen the working styles of previous DPAs at MINDEF, Colonel Kwan Yue Yeong, COL Ramachandran Menon, COL Lee Seng Kong, COL Chong Kim Chye, COL Goh Chee Kong, COL Bernard Toh and COL Benedict Lim.

That's all I need say, for now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sea sights

Spotted some concrete structures west of Sentosa island this morning during a site recce.

They reminded me of the concrete Mulberry Harbour caissons seen off the D-Day invasion beaches.

Have no idea what they're used for. Have asked the engineers on site to keep an eye on the strange structures.

Monday, September 21, 2009

9/21 earthquake remembered

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the "9/21" earthquake in Taiwan and we remember the victims of that disaster.

Will update this post with pictures of Operation Lion Heart'99 in Taichung Country after I get them scanned. These pictures have never been publicised before.

The entire 39-member Operation Lion Heart rescue team, plus three rescue dogs, from the Singapore Civil Defence Force assembles for a photocall on 23 September 1999. This picture was taken soon after the morning muster parade, which was done every morning to take stock of the team's operational status and taskings for the day.

Despite their high operational tempo, the SCDF officers placed a heavy emphasis on team discipline and morale. They had no problems with either.

People may wonder why this picture was taken in an ops area. It was done for the benefit of the Lin family (seen here), to leave them with a photograph recording their contributions to the Ops Lion Heart team. The family owned several units in the row of shophouses and allowed the Lion Heart team to use their premises as an advance staging area as it was close to a collapsed condominium development.

My first night in Taichung County was spent sleeping on the floor with the Lion Heart team in the shophouse here. Due to frequent aftershocks, several SCDF officers slept outside under an open sky. They explained that this would save them time in the event of serious aftershocks.

My roomates included SCDF medics, a doctor and members of the SCDF's crack Disaster Assistance Rescue Team. Their presence was reassuring and I knew I was in good company.

A view of the Golden Paris condominium where the SCDF team was deployed.

The shock of the temblor tore apart several condomonium blocks. Just out of frame to the left of the image is part of the condo tower which was left standing, while the block tilted at a crazy angle to the right is the portion that collapsed with residents still inside. When this picture was taken, SCDF officers and Taiwanese rescuers were tunnelling into the rubble.

Another view of a collapsed condominium tower. SCDF officers from the Lion Heart rescue team have just begun entering the collapsed structure. Aftershocks shook the neighbourhood often. Note how the building rubble hanging precariously above the team posed a risk to rescuers. The SCDF team did a thorough recce and risk analysis before any deployment on site.

The SCDF Lion Heart team assembles for a commander's briefing under the constant gaze of the Taiwanese and foreign media. SCDF rescuers, regardless of rank, knew they were "ambassadors" for Singapore and conducted themselves with impeccable discipline throughout the operation. As the Lion Heart team dug further into the rubble, they carried the hopes of scores of survivors who watched from outside the security cordon.

A Taiwanese television crew and myself representing the 90 cents newspaper get a closer view of the rescue operation. The condo tower had collapsed during the night while residents slept inside.

The media were hungry for any scrap of news of the Lion Heart rescue operation. Seen here is a media scrum that developed whenever an SCDF officer updated journalists. The Lion Heart team was self sufficient in terms of transport, as they arrived in-theatre with a Land Rover Defender and one Heavy Rescue Tender, plus rescue trailer.

This is how the 90 cents media team and the Lianhe Zaobao team slept during our two weeks in Taiwan. Furniture, the electric fan and some bedding was donated by Taiwanese residents. By this time, the Lion Heart team had relocated elsewhere.

We chose to continue using the shophouse as a base area and thanked the Lin family for their hospitality. They cooked a hearty dinner for us everynight, despite our many protestations that we didn't want to inconvenience them.

We'd seen the damage sustained by high-rise structures and decided that a stay in (largely vacant) hotels in the vicinity just wasn't worth the risk.

We kept the shophouse unlocked whenever we ventured out to do chase stories. From time to time, curious residents would come in to watch us at work, reading over our shoulders and gawking at the images as the photojournalists processed them.

Their resilience was comforting.

Seen in the image is Enrique Soriano (90 cents paper photographer), and Lim Soon Hua (LHZB). The corpse-like creature is Dennis Thong, the LHZB photographer.

Many journalists aspire to cover exciting stories in disaster zones, but few realise the difficulties scribes face in such areas.

I was totally unprepared for my first embed during an operation. I'd packed the way most people pack for an overseas vacation and didn't even bring a bath towel. The SCDF logistics specialist provided one.

I promised myself that I'd be better equipped for future missions.

I did not have to wait long. In October 1999, the 90 cents paper sent me to East Timor to write about security operations by INTERFET. My first experience reporting on military operations other than war brought yet another round of lessons.

I won a Newscom (newspaper committee) monthly award for Excellence from SPH for the coverage of Operation Lion Heart.

Check next month's update: 10th anniversary of Operation Blue Heron.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Commitment to defence: How not to score own goals

If you want to be treated like a social pariah by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), bring a camera to its next open house and snap away like there’s no tomorrow.

Some people I know did just that at the recent Army Open House (3 to 7 September 2009, Pasir Laba Camp), and earned dirty looks and snide comments from some of the duty personnel.

The Singapore Army personnel who behaved in this fashion may not realize it, but they should show more racial sensitivity before unleashing their cutting remarks.

One visitor who bore the brunt of the dirty looks was a Malay.

Bowled over by the display of army war machines, he snapped away with glee.

Some army personnel did not share his enthusiasm. A Warrant Officer eyed him suspiciously and ordered his men to snap a photo of the over-zealous photographer in retaliation.

I felt disturbed when he related this story to me because I know the great lengths the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) takes in building commitment to defence issues by showing it is race blind.

Had he felt discriminated and spread his story among his friends, and his friends related it thereon, one can only imagine how the Malay community would feel.

Had a Singaporean Malay in the crowd witnessed the incident and jumped to conclusions, this incident could also unravel MINDEF’s outreach efforts.

The longevity of the negative impression that brusque behaviour stamped into the consciousness of those at the receiving end of the unkind barbs shows that the SAF sometimes scores own goals. It is instructive to note that among the comments netizens made about the open house are postings on the hostility of certain show ambassadors.

I was present when several members of the internet discussion group, militarynuts.com, revisited the Army Open House on its last day. We were a multi-racial bunch and if we were more handsome, could be poster boys for a community relations campaign.

The militarynuts noted that the behaviour of the personnel on duty that morning was a stark contrast to the mindset they displayed days earlier.

They seemed to have ditched their aversion to cameras, were obliging, all smiles and courtesy. We had a great time.

One would hope that MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) would show stronger leadership in cultivating defence enthusiasts in Singapore.

While there are cynics who can’t wait to serve and forget, PAFF should regard the passion and keenness shown by defence enthusiasts as a strength and not a bugbear. Whether through cyberspace chatter or stories they share among family and friends, MINDEF can leverage on positive impressions from defence enthusiasts to tell its side of the story.

Lack of foresight or resources aside, part of PAFF’s hesitancy may stem from the tendency by Singaporean bureaucracy to treat everyone with a notebook and camera with suspicion.

Among my pile of media clippings is a full-page feature story on an Englishman who flew to Singapore just to look at merchant ships.

His hobby, shipspotting, is a close cousin to planespotting and the wartime fad made famous by the movie, Trainspotting. This is a hobby that outsiders would not undertand.

An extract from the article reads:

Military ships are the only vessels that do not make it into his notebook."People might become suspicious about your interest in them, especially after the 9-11 attacks."

A month after the New York terrorist bombing in 2001, he was shipspotting in Kusu with his friend when two policemen in plainclothes approached them. They had been alerted by coastal guards (sic) patrolling the waters.

“They asked us politely what we were doing. We showed them our passports and World Ship Society membership cards." The society, a global body dedicated to maritime and naval history, has more than 5,000 members.

Just as suspicious minds can poison community relations, confident and open-minded officers are the SAF’s best goodwill ambassadors.

In November 2008, the Republic of Singapore Air Force's Air Power Generation Command invited the militarynuts to witness the rehearsal for its Emergency Runway Exercise.

Present at the event was the RSAF’s Chief of Air Force, Major-General Ng Chee Khern.

Midway during the exercise, he walked across to the group of photographers to say “hi”. Everyone present at the VIP tent would have seen this. CAF continued the dialogue with the militarynuts after the exercise.

Here was an MG touching base with a defence-savvy group of Singaporeans – all of whom were Operationally-Ready National Servicemen, plus one officer cadet and one pre-enlistee.

All of us walked away with a feel good feeling and a positive impression of the RSAF, having seen what it could do to generate and sustain its airpower.

After the group debussed outside Tengah Air Base, we decided to snap one last group shot by the “F-16 tail” outside the base.

By then, our liaison officer had left and we were left on our own.

Lo and behold, it did not take long for this group to attract the attention of base personnel.

One of them, a Captain Jeremy, drove up to the group and eyed us from his car.

He barked a challenge after the group shot had been taken and ordered the photographer to delete the picture. His mannerism and tone of voice implied we all owed him money. We complied.

MINDEF and the SAF are certainly spot on in concluding that touch points with Singaporeans – which are defined as every instance when a Singaporean has contact with the SAF, be it in person or in cyberspace – are opportunities for changing mindsets.

What they also need to learn is that these touch points swing both ways

Friday, September 18, 2009

Good morning Vietnam: A word of thanks

I would like to extend my gratitude to the former South Vietnamese Air Force pilots who helped recount and piece together the air intrusion that took place at Paya Lebar Airport in the 1970s. Thank you for the valuable pictures and flight information.

Many thanks to the militarynut who brought this to my attention.

Viper52: Thanks for the rebro service. This tail number is for you: HCF 460.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hari Angkatan Tentera Malaysia yang ke-76

Today, 16 September 2009, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) marks Hari Angkatan Tentera Malaysia - the Malaysian Armed Forces Day.

As the MAF commemorates its 76th year, I wish all my friends in the MAF a meaningful and safe year ahead.

Taat Setia.

"Say again, over."

This blog isn’t about language matters. But the grammar police came out in full force after reading the post titled, Form over substance.

Good grammar, ungarbled sentence structures and proper pronunciation, they argued, are crucial in military operations.

One observer pointed out that one only has to listen in to a voice-tell during a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) exercise to see how well command decisions are relayed, understood and executed when the situation is “non standard”.

He added:“A simple description may have to be repeated several times.”

Officers who find it a pain when their superiors edit their drafts should understand that badly composed staff papers sent up to higher command reflect poorly on their Service, Formation, or unit.

When the SAF goes into operations, more than just bruised egos are at stake if SAF personnel cannot communicate intelligibly.

As the SAF exercises frequently with foreign partners, it is all the more important that SAF personnel learn to speak clearly and write well when the occasion demands. Are they speaking English? A comment from a South African.

The problems of communicating with the spoken word may be solved to some extent by datalinks, automatic target designation/handover and Red Force Marking. But non standard situations or fast-developing kinetic operations often call for voice-tell to convey command decisions rapidly.

When I attended Exercise Wallaby in Queensland, Australia, some years ago, I heard an instruction repeated nine times (we counted). The exchange revolved around a conversation where one callsign asked the other where Captain so-and-so's location was.

We had a good laugh, as one callsign struggled to understand the other in Singlish liberally peppered with “har?” and “say again”. The exasperation of the callsign become palpable over the airwaves as the instruction was repeated.

This was a peacetime administrative matter, yet it was so difficult.

One need only wonder what would have transpired if bullets were flying and clear comms was urgently required to save lives?

Furthermore, if the Australian Defence Force had been monitoring the ether, I wonder what their communications intelligence folks would have made of the exchange.

The point about PIONEER magazine forgetting the contribution of flag-carrying UH-1Hs at National Day Parades of yesteryear saw the spotlight cast on the SAF’s historical awareness.

A number of SAF retirees lamented how younger officers tend to forget or look down on contributions of those who have served before them.

I recently asked one retiree - until recently quite senior in the pecking order - if he would attend the Army Open House (3 to 7 September 2009).

He replied:”No. Not invited.”

I tried making him feel better by pointing out that he had attended the anniversary parade of an SAF Formation as a special guest.

Though he did not say it, I could sense his disappointment after he learnt that his invitation arrived in the mail only after the mass invites had gone out.

Looking at me straight in the eye, he gave a one word reply:”Afterthought.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wall of silence

MORE than two months have passed since the 90 cents newspaper published my letter that raised several points on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) - and no reply seems forthcoming.

It is regrettable, for a citizen's army which had previously pledged openness and transparency in training safety matters, to sidestep an issue of public concern by raising a wall of silence.

I was prompted to write the letter because signals I'd picked up from my former newsroom, plus my reading of media statements on the tragic incident, made me feel a sense of unease.

Feedback I'd received after the letter's publication indicated that not a few netizens and defence-conscious individuals shared those concerns.

And so we waited. In hindsight, in vain.

The lack of a formal response is troubling. It seems to indicate back-peddling by MINDEF wallahs of a previous practice of engaging all published letters within three working days of its publication.

Even if it was inappropriate to comment as investigations were underway, the defence ministry would say so. The reply would also signal the ministry's intent to get to the root of the matter, thus assuring parents and citizen soldiers that no cover-ups would be tolerated.

In crafting responses to training incidents, the choice of words and calibration of statements of intent are paramount.

I cite the unfortunate case of the August 2003 dunking incident as one instance where one word in a MINDEF news release roused the ire of several SAF soldiers. The statement claimed Second Sergeant Hu En Huai died after he "collapsed" during training Dunking Death: MINDEF's 1st statement.

Soldiers familiar with the matter were willing to risk court martial to blow the whistle on what they interpreted as an attempt to cover-up something sinister. They provided their names and contact numbers and were in auto strike mode.

Trust established with the MINDEF Spokesman of the day assured the media that nothing would be swept under the carpet. In the weeks that followed, MINDEF public relations machinery made good its promise.

Every generation of Singaporean citizen soldiers would have their own mental benchmark of what constitutes a training tragedy, either in scale of deaths or how the SAF personnel died.

That Singapore society has always picked itself up and moved on, after assimilating sometimes painful lessons, is an indication of the resilience and maturity Singaporeans display towards life's realities.

A society that doesn't mourn the deaths of its military personnel is one that will ultimately fracture under battle conditions.

Citizens will ask difficult questions, because they are the ones who need to know.

It is impossible to over-analyse the how's and wherefore's of a possible public response. Doing so would result in decision gridlock as bureaucrats err on the side of caution and decide to do nothing and say nothing.

Using the behaviour of Singaporeans during previous SAF training deaths as a template, it would appear that society has reciprocated MINDEF's previous forthright manner by trusting the system. 

I'm not sure how long Singapore has to wait before the coroner's enquiry into the Land Rover death is made public - if at all.

One hopes the MINDEF system will revert to the status quo ante, where its officers possessed the courage, tact and EQ needed to deal with thorny issues - however unpleasant they might be.

I remember watching a former MINDEF Director Public Affairs (DPA), Colonel Bernard Toh, address the nation in the wake of the RSS Courageous tragedy, holding back emotions as he updated a rapt television audience of the (ultimately futile) search for four women navy sailors. COL Toh's measured calm projected a picture of reassurance during a sad episode in Singapore's naval history.

He is, in my view, one of the best DPAs who ever served MINDEF. A consummate officer and gentleman, thoroughly sincere, hardly punitive in his media relations but one whose investments in background briefings and no-occasion time outs earned the trust of the Singapore media. He was also a straight-shooter and his word was good.

The bottomline is this: If MINDEF cannot handle the repercussions of a single training death in peacetime, I would not be too sanguine about its prospects of managing public relations during a hot war scenario where body bags would pile up by the hundreds.

Looking at the sensitivity of Israel towards battle casualties during recent operations in the Lebanon and Gaza, one could draw a similar parallel with the SAF's aversion to dealing with bad news. The sensitivity to battle deaths proved a centre of gravity that Israel's enemies exploited. More valuable than a hard kill of IDF soldiers was a single "live" catch that could be paraded on terrorist TV to humiliate a nation and frighten its citizen soldiers.

Are we similarly fragile? What signal are we sending to defence observers studying this episode?

The Straits Times,
Forum Page
July 8, 2009

Death of SAF officer: Remedy lapses and reassure loved ones

IT PAINED me deeply to read last Saturday about the death of 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Nicholas Chan Wei Kit ('SAF officer dies after jeep rolls over him').
While I appreciate that it may be inappropriate for Mindef to explain what happened until its investigations are completed, it would neither be unreasonable nor untimely for the ministry and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to reinforce safety messages, remedy safety lapses, and reassure loved ones of our men and women in uniform.
In particular, Mindef should explain the situations when assistance from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) might prove expedient. Surely a call to the SCDF's 995 emergency hotline would have summoned expertise that has helped free countless people trapped in similar circumstances, and in a shorter time than the 30 minutes it took for the SAF recovery vehicle to arrive to hoist the Land Rover?
Second, if someone is trapped and still has a pulse, and there are trained airport rescuers next door, can SAF personnel seek their help? Seletar Airport - which is next to Seletar Camp - has firefighters of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore who are trained, organised and equipped to deal with such emergencies.
Third, do motor transport officers work alone during vehicle inspections?
Even civilian drivers accompany their vehicles to Land Transport Authority inspections to ensure that demerits are justified. How long was 2LT Chan trapped?
Lastly, if the Third Generation SAF deals effectively with enemy units within minutes, how do we explain the time lag in calling up the recovery vehicle from within the same camp? The SAF support units are not the poor second cousins to combat units and must be given equal emphasis. If their ideas and proposals are always placed at the back of the queue, operational shortcomings may be exposed.
I am sure 2LT Chan's colleagues did all they could to save him. The issue is not about laying blame at anyone's door, but to glean lessons that could save lives. Failure to learn from 2LT Chan's death would make the young officer's loss doubly tragic.
David Boey

Friday, September 11, 2009

Form over substance

Magazine revamps should not put form before substance.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) monthly magazine, PIONEER, fell short in its September 2009 issue with a couple of glaring lapses. The errors contained in the September issue, which was the second edition to carry the revamped format, were oversights that no spell check engine could catch.

In its feature on the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) Super Puma fleet, the magazine mentioned that the Super Pumas took over the "flying of the state flag during National Day Parade from the Alouette III helicopters".

It added:"In recent years, the Ch-47 Chinooks have been performing this duty."

Apart from a grammatical lapse, which was the missing "the" before National Day Parade, one wonders why 120 Squadron's UH-1Hs were forgotten for their NDP flag carrying duties. Have the flag carrying contributions of scores of UH-1H pilots, aircrewmen and ground crew been forgotten so quickly?

There's also a stylistic lapse: CH-47 should be written with the "CH" in superscript rather than "Ch".

These are errors that no spell check engine will catch.

One would hope that the Third Generation SAF would polish its historical records so new cohorts of staff officers performing mundane tasks like vetting magazine drafts would have sufficiently strong institutional memory to pick up errors of fact like those mentioned above.

Despite the disclaimer in the magazine, readers regard PIONEER as the voice of the SAF.

PIONEER should make the goal of providing accurate, relevant and timely information a primary focus. Everything else - the engaging headlines, insightful articles, well-composed images and text - must support the magazine's role as a reliable information resource and publication of record for SAF related news.

Granted, the nit-picking should not detract from the fact that PIONEER's makeover has kept the magazine in step with what the MTV generation demands.

But without attention to detail, defence observers might wonder what sort of archives the SAF keeps. If not nipped in the bud, sloppy editing would snowball over time, as people regard PIONEER as a magazine of record and take the information presented on its pages as statements of fact. Errors could also be repeated in term papers, essays or academic exercises.

Details matter.

It's akin to someone reading a wonderfully written expose on the RSAF, marvelling at the author's depth of research and familiarity with the Singapore air force's order of battle - only to come across that one line that calls the RSAF the Royal Singapore Air Force. That glitch - one word among the hundreds penned - instantly knocks down the credibility of the article by several notches.

One would hope that the Alouette III glitch was an, ahem, honest mistake that isn't reflective of the state of the 3rd Gen SAF's historical awareness or attention to detail.

Because there's an old saying that you won't know where you're going, unless you know where you came from.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

MID life obsession

"Sedikit sedikit, lama lama, menjadi bukit"
(A Malay saying which means:"Little by little, over time, build a hill.")
Years ago, when I interacted with the Defence Attache (DA) at a foreign mission in Singapore, the army officer recounted how his country's database of military vehicle number plates proved useful.
As defence attache in a regional country, he observed how units from his host nation were deployed to quell demonstrations in the country's capital.
The crackdown that summer was bloody and resulted in an international outcry.
Thanks to years of meticulous data compilation, the DA was able to identify the units that took part in the operation.
He did so by comparing the number plates of military vehicles such as trucks and tanks seen in the streets with vehicle numbers in his little black book. The database had been compiled, checked and verified over the years.
It was an interesting anecdote.
It goes without saying that, as a Singaporean, I did not reciprocate with stories of how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) assigns number plates to its vehicles.
Just as keen-eyed observers who jot down aircraft serial numbers with obsessive zeal can name you the tail numbers assigned to various aircraft, the same can be said of Singapore Army vehicles.
I cannot explain why this weird activity turns me on.
But I'm gratified that there are like-minded individuals who stalk public transportation for the latest models of SBS buses and bus number plates, not to mention the strong plane and ship-spotting community worldwide.
I remember seeing my first military vehicles at the SAF Display as a seven-year-old at Changi Air Base.
My dad had explained that MID stood for Ministry of Interior and Defence. I found that factoid fascinating and was hooked from then on.
I started my index in my teens. I scribbled down my first number plate (it was an SAF Iveco-Fiat 3-tonner turning out of Telok Kurau Road onto East Coast Road) onto the back of a bus ticket (it was Bus 155. Strange, how people remember such trivia) one day and the ball started rolling from then. 
Data collection stopped during my time as an NSF. My intent when I started my index was to find out how many number plates I could collect by spotting SAF vehicles in the open. It's like fox hunting. There are rules to follow.
As the SAF had yet to commercialise its transport requirements, annual events such as National Day Parade rehearsals resulted in a bumper crop of numbers. I loved the NDP rehearsals and would make time every weekend just to stalk the vehicle convoys.
Some of these vehicles are long gone, having been decommissioned and sent to the scrapyard. But it brings back a sense of deja vu whenever I look at the list and recall when/where I met interesting number plates.
High points in data collection include seeing 1 MID and just this week, 99001 MID at the Army Open House 2009. These vehicles carry the smallest and largest MID numbers I've ever seen. :)
Out of sheer idle curiosity, I did a stock take one day.
I stopped counting when I hit 5,000.....
Postscript - As an aside, I should mention that the attache spoke fluent Mandarin. He also taught me the importance of being able to read books upside down - so you could glance at documents on someone's desk and read its contents without giving the game away by involuntarily cocking your head to one side. He was quite a character.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crisis communications 101

From time to time, some of you have asked why I moved from the 90 cents newspaper to a gaming resort.
Here's the statement we crafted for Exercise Northstar VII, held in July 2009.
The freesheet, my paper, carried a story on hotel security based on this statement, as did Today.  
It should give you a better idea of some of the pre-opening activities that keep me busy.
I think some of the terms and catch phrases MINDEF/SAF use to describe the Third Generation SAF have cascaded to the Malaysian company I work for. : )

"July 2009 - The terrorist attacks on hotels in Mumbai in November 2008 are a stark reminder that the leisure and hospitality sectors cannot take security for granted.

As one of the region’s most high-profiled resort destinations, Resorts World Sentosa will do our utmost as well as work closely with the government to ensure the security of our visitors, guests, staff and physical assets, which include our mega-attractions, casino, hotels and entertainment venues.

The Resort’s security masterplan is drafted using a ‘security and defence-in-depth’ concept to raise, train and sustain capabilities needed to protect and fortify the entire 49-hectare resort and to safeguard lives.

Close attention has been made to hardening key infrastructure at the Resort, including the use of blast-resistant glass at our hotels, providing multiple fail-safe access to essential services like power, and structural reinforcements such as hardened basement columns.

These protection measures at Resorts World Sentosa are complemented by round-the-clock security sweeps, resort-wide electronic surveillance as well as close cooperation with Singapore authorities. The Resort also employs impressive state-of-the-art technology for its security-manning systems to deter, detect, deny and thwart any criminal intent within its premises.

The Resort also works closely with Singapore authorities, particularly Home Team agencies and Ministry of Defence, to keep ourselves abreast of security threats and concerns.

In addition, ‘Red Teaming Exercises’ – which simulate security issues and emergencies a world-class resort may face – will be carried out to help test, review and strengthen our security arrangements.

The success of all these plans is also tied to a Resort-wide business continuity plan.

Above all, with a training programme that will have its security team members trained, vigilant and ready to assist our guests help make a visit to the family destination resort a safe and enjoyable one."

Ops Flying Eagle Media Management

Received the following observation by private email in response to my previous post.

I'm sharing the comment with the permission of the sender.

The observations are note-worthy. The fact that the sender has three crabs is incidental.

"I don't think the MINDEF InformationOps during the 2004 Tsunami did that well, sorry to say. The SAF were in there long before the Aussies and the US but CNN only showed the western forces in its news reports. MINDEF could have stamped its mark on the news by engaging CNN and BBC, in addition to CNA and a much more aggressive MINDEF News website."

BBC: British Broadcasting Corporation
CNA: Channel News Asia, Singapore-based regional TV channel
CNN: Channel News Network, a US-based satellite TV channel

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) tsunami relief mission was carried out under Operation Flying Eagle.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Army Open House 2009

Exercise Bold Warrior video

Things to look out for:
55 secs BX 2MT drifting
1 min 17 secs RC M113 Remote Controlled Weapon System
1 min 25 secs RC M113 LAMBE

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Raising the bar at the Army Open House

[As I write this, I've yet to visit AOH 2009. I'm on duty this weekend as my current place will open in the months ahead. Will pen my thoughts on AOH 2009 in due course. HQ SCE has done pretty well too, I reckon]

The amount of publicity the 90 cents paper devoted to Army Open House (AOH) 2004 stands as an example of the value of a well-timed defence media relations effort.

The week-long blitz remains unsurpassed to this day - which is a point of pride for those of us involved in the publicity drive .

Looking back at the pile of AOH newspaper clippings brings to mind the amount of work that the Army Information Centre (AIC) and Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs invested to promote the event. Their investment paid handsome dividends in more ways than one (please fast forward to concluding paragraphs if too lazy to read).

That year's event was organised by a team led by Brigadier-General Bernard Tan. Those who've met him would probably find him an articulate, charismatic and likeable officer. As Chief Armour Officer, BG Tan (his dad was also an Armour officer) was determined that Headquarters Armour bring the Army's engagement with Singaporeans and defence observers to a new level.

HQ Armour's AOH 2004 Exco performed its task brilliantly.

The fact that subsequent Army Open House events followed the template set by AOH 2004 five years on speaks volumes of their success in raising the bar.

Among their ideas:

1. Themed zones: BG Tan felt that the public would have a better grasp of equipment, capabilities and the Singapore Army's ethos if these were throughfully displayed in several zones. The easy way out would have been to order participating units to sprawl their armaments within a defined piece of real estate, and set up information boards telling people what they were loooking at.

AOH 2004 wanted something better.

Hence the theme park concept. It came complete with a Main Street Parade and the ground-breaking live-firing display in the SAFTI live-firing area. The experience was titled the "Live-firing Safari". This idea was subsequently expanded into the various "worlds" we see at the AOH.

2. Brand ambassadors: Everyone detailed for duty at AOH 2004 would recall that they had to sit through a briefing and role-playing sessions that taught them how to engage and interact with the public.

This move helped SAF servicemen deliver a high standard of service. The effort resulted in knowledgeable and self-confident servicemen who were taught to understand, emphatise with and appreciate how a visitor to the event might want to be treated.

Visitors went home with positive impressions of the Singapore Army, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and defence eco-system after these brand ambassadors - many of whom were auntie-killers : ) - were let loose on the unsuspecting public.

3. Queue lines: BG Tan's team implemented a theme park concept that helped people in the queue know how long it would take to reach the front of the line just by looking at markings beside the queue line.

The AOH 2004 Exco was conscious of the transport woes that dogged the Navy Open House earlier. Not only did they indent a large number of buses, the AOH 2004 Exco commanded a strategic reserve of buses which they could mobilise, and timed the bus routes and estimated boarding/debussing times. The result: hassle-free transport.

4. Info boards: BG Tan wanted placards and information board calibrated such that anyone with a Secondary Two level of education would understand the information presented. During the vetting process, he threw out jargon and made officers rewrite text that was clumsily drafted. It was a pain, but everyone took the vetting process in the right spirit.

5. Media relations: The Exco wanted a week-long blitz in the 90 cents newspaper ahead of the weekend when the event would be open to the public.

They got hits everyday, save Friday, as veteran Singapore politician Mr Goh Chok Tong announced he was stepping down as PM on Thursday 2 Sept 2004. A story on the main street parade display was canned as the 90 cents paper scrambled to make space for that announcement.

Here's the coverage the AOH 2004 team scored in The Straits Times:

Monday 30 Aug: Army open house to have live firing display
Tuesday 31 Aug: SUVs join military ranks
Wednesday 1 Sept: SAF gets new battlefield radars, Home One Photo of Arthur.
Thursday 2 Sept: Try your hand at shooting down mock terrorists, Pg 1 photo with Prime News story
Thursday 2 Sept: Future soldiers to fight better with less
Friday 3 Sept: -
Saturday 4 Sept: New light and lethal Matador does job of two
Saturday 4 Sept: Army Open House 2004 - 10 things to see and do. Full page, full colour with info box.

The amount of coverage that the Army Information Centre and MINDEF PAFF cornered would probably do any public relations company proud.

It came about because BG Tan and Colonel Bernard Toh, then Director Public Affairs at MINDEF, and AIC, decided to engage the 90 cents paper weeks before AOH 2004.

They did so by talking to, cultivating and hearing journalists' views on what would work, and what wouldn't pass muster with the Newsdesk. COL Bernard Lim from AIC was also instrumental in making sure I didn't drop the ball.

The AOH 2004 Exco even issued me a pass to facilitate my entry to their meetings at SAFTI MI.

My personal contribution to the event was spotting several typos in the AOH 2004 map - among other things, Pasir Laba was spelt as Pasir Labar - and tightening the text of the handouts and map.

I also threw in several suggestions on what people might like to see.

One suggestion that matched what the Combat Engineers had in mind was this: Rather that have the M-728 Combat Engineer Vehicle (CEV) as a static exhibit, we had it demonstrate its Pearson Engineering Track Width Mine Plough by raking up the ground. This was a first for HQ SCE and I think it was a crowd-pleaser.

The short of it all is that defence media relations hinges very much on far-sighted personalities.

The trust built up between the 90 cents paper and MINDEF PAFF in 2004, over the course of various SAF events, helped both sides build a sense of rapport, understanding and a spirit of give-and-take.

Shortly after the event, the rapport we built proved crucial in a way that none of us imagined.

In December 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami struck.

MINDEF Public Affairs and AIC were to face their biggest media relations challenge ever with the launch of tsunami relief missions to Indonesia and Thailand under Operation Flying Eagle.

The friendship and goodwill forged many months before that calamity paid off.

This was capped by the book on Operation Flying Eagle - produced within two months so it could be given out to OFE participants on SAF Day 2005 - which was a joint effort between the usual suspects who were behind the AOH 2004 publicity.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Third Generation information warriors

HANDS up those of you who remember some of the points made by Singapore’s Chief of Army in August 2007 in conjunction with that year’s Army Open House.

Now ask yourself if you remember the incident where a full-time National Serviceman ran away from his camp with an assault rifle and ammunition.

It’s a safe bet that the second incident will trigger a better recall rate than the first, though they both took place around the sametime.

As the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) transforms itself into a Third Generation fighting force, so too must the Ministry of Defence’s Public Affairs Department up its game – because bad news has a long lifespan.

And while the large crowds expected at today’s Army Open House (held from 3 to 7 September 2009 at Pasir Laba Camp) testifies to Mindef’s Public Affairs machinery’s ability to excite the masses , a 3rd Gen PR apparatus must strive for greater things.

These include the ability to support the SAF’s information management needs during operations, and be regarded by Singaporeans as a credible first stop for information during a crisis.

Above all, Mindef’s Public Affairs Department must make up for lost time because the military operated without a public affairs arm for more than 10 years.

The trust that Mindef failed to cultivate during those years probably accounts for lingering suspicions of cover-ups in SAF mishaps.

From the time the SAF was formed till March 1980, when Mindef’s Public AffairsDepartment was set up, more than 50 SAF-related deaths and suicides were reported in The Straits Times.

Without a proactive PR set up to tell the SAF’s story, Singaporeans gravitated towards whatever the rumour mill churned out.

As many NS enlistees in the 1970s are fathers to today’s cohorts of NSF, it is easy to see how negative impressions from yesteryear have cascaded to 3rd Gen soldiers.

Can you blame the skeptics?

The challenge of defence information management is compounded by the fact that defence organizations tend to be institutionally averse to openness. This is best summed up by the adage: “The essence of successful warfare is secrecy. The essence of successful journalism is publicity.”

Some SAF officers are temperamentally unsuited for media relations work. Their obsession with secrecy, mistrust of the media and insensitivity to news deadlines are common bugbears for journalists who cover defence.

The SAF, being a citizen’s army, must work hard to overcome such institutional resistance.

Mindef’s decision to appoint a “press officer in charge of aircraft accidents” in August 1971 was a tacit admission of the importance of news management. That post was held by Group Captain Keith Martin, then on loan to the SAF from the Royal Australian Air Force.

It was only in August 1989 that Mindef first appointed a Director of Public Affairs – a post held by eight Colonels since then.

The first Director Public Affairs/Mindef Spokesman was Colonel Kwan Yue Yeong, who incidentally was the SAF's first Sword of Honour winner.

Building on the outreach effort set by COL Kwan, it was during the tenure of the second DPA, Colonel Ramachandran Menon, that Mindef made proactive efforts to reach out to the foreign media from 1991. It did so by inviting foreign journalists for visits, mailing them news releases and slides of SAF events (no digital images in those days). This outreach effort - quite a bold step in the pre-Internet era - rewarded the SAF with a strong presence in many defence publications and formed an important tool in defence diplomacy and deterrence.

Eight DPAs on, the post is still held by an officer of Colonel rank. In the meantime, the job scope has expanded vastly, with the proliferation not just of local newspapers and media channels (look at the growth in the number of newspapers, TV and radio stations), as well as new media like Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

The creation of two deputy DPA positions is positive, as it reflects the vast increase in job scope, responsibility and Mindef's outreach efforts using non-traditional media sources, like video clips uploaded on Youtube.

Shortcomings in Mindef PR’s machinery were exposed during the 2005 tsunami relief operation in Indonesia and Thailand. Civilian media relations officers (MROs) embedded aboard a navy ship struggled to adapt to life aboard a warship while performing their information management duties. (The MROs were changed three times during my embed aboard RSS Endurance off Indonesia.) Two years after that operation, every civilian MRO had quit, taking with them precious operational experience and institutional memory.

As Mindef makes up for lost time, it must keep an eye on staff retention and deploying officers hardened to the rigours of military operations.

Having a citizen’s army (where almost everyone knows something about the SAF), frequency of overseas training (which foreigners can see) and an internet savvy population make it imperative that Mindef’s information management cycle moves at a decisivepace.

Mindef has much to gain when the Singapore media is first to report on defence developments.

There is no better mouthpiece, so to speak, than print or broadcast media Singaporeans are familiar with – and trust.

The alternative: Relinquishing the initiative to foreign publications and letting them set the agenda. The fact that there are more defence publications based in Kuala Lumpur (including Southeast Asia’s oldest defence journal) and Jakarta underlines why Mindef needs to be more generous with defence news.

The deterrent value of the 3rd Gen SAF will be enhanced with a PR apparatus that is ready to support SAF operations. Such an apparatus would signal to outside observers that the SAF is serious about telling its side of the story, and packs the wherewithal to bring journalists to crisis areas.

Mindef Public Affairs needs information warriors to fight its battles. Truth, after all, is the first casualty in war.