Saturday, January 9, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 16b

The Lost Years

Why does bad publicity for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) seem to resonate more vigorously than the good news?

Stories about SAF deaths or misdemeanours by its servicemen - for example, when Dave Teo ran away from camp in 2007 with a SAR-21 assault rifle and 5.56mm ammunition - are talked about with greater interest than, say, a Service chief's comments on defence readiness and military modernisation. *Yawn*

Apart from the human interest factor, I surmise that the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF continue to be dogged by the 10 years when it had no public relations cover. MINDEF and the SAF did not buff up its public image till 10 years after the SAF was formed. By then, damage had been done.

I call this period the Lost Years. At present, whenever MINDEF and the SAF have to deal with bad news, the negative publicity is compounded by a decade's worth of negative mindsets.

Here are two reasons why good publicity is so easily swamped by the bad news:
a) The 30 and 40-somethings who are the more vocal critics and cynics were children of the 1970s who grew up during the period when MINDEF and the SAF ceded the PR battlefield completely. Their early impressions of MINDEF and the SAF would have been forged from coffee shop talk, rumours and cynical comments during the time when MINDEF Public Affairs did not exist. Such mental constructs are carried on into adulthood.

b) The fathers of today's Third Generation SAF full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) were conscripts in the late 1960s and 1970s. Again, this was the period when MINDEF did not have a PR apparatus. The urban legends picked by the 1st Gen SAF soldiers and PR bungles will be spread as well meaning advice from father-to-son as the current generation of NSFs step forward to serve our country.

Are you surprised that urban myths refuse to die?

One popular misconception centres around how the SAF covers up training deaths overseas. One only has to google popular military discussion sites such as or to see postings by netizens claiming that deaths in places such as Taiwan (Republic of China) and Thailand never made the news. It disappoints me when I read such posts, because my table of SAF deaths shows that the deaths were reported.

Such enduring misconceptions explain my strong rebuttal to the current day Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF), when it appeared to dally over the death of Republic of Singapore Air Force regular, Corporal Ricky Liu Junhong in November 2007. It is tragic that one man's misplaced vanity in trying to keep the death tally low can backfire and end up damaging the very system he is trying to protect.

The Lost Years underline the amount of work that PAFF needs to do to mend fences and reinforce public confidence in the defence apparatus.

PAFF cannot do so when its own cheer leaders are poorly motivated and look towards the door as a solution to the nonsense from its higher leadership. I wish I could share some of the stories that have filtered my way, but I will not do so as some were shared in confidence while others will essentially expose the whistle blowers.

I know there are some MINDEF and SAF staff officers who follow this blog who deal with PAFF. You guys would know the state of play in PAFF and I thus need not elaborate.

I am guessing - I stress again, guessing - that MINDEF's higher leadership on Level 5 doesn't know about some of the postings on this blog, because they are probably removed from the daily summaries circulated to the L5 bosses. If that is the case, the self-censorship mode speaks volumes about the kind of mindset that runs PAFF. This is why I pointed out months ago that someone does not have the temperament for public affairs work.

It pains me to see how years of hard work and mission planning by previous PAFF staff can be undone so quickly.

The 1980s era Total Defence tagline is spot on. It is true that a generation's effort can be wiped out in days.


Anonymous said...

Field Marhsal Boeeyman, as an ex-journalist, what about some balance in your accounts?

edwin said...

Mr Anonymous--you have been trolling for awhile now. Don't you think that it is time to stand up for what you believe in rather than hiding behind anonymity?

Great post as usual, and I'm inferring here, from your criticism of the PAFF as it is now, PAFF in previous years have presumably been run to a higher standard. Yet the rumors that you mentioned still dog the SAF. Is there a way for these perceptions be changed or are these attitudes already ingrained into those generations of people?

Anonymous said...

You are the troll edwin. A stupid one that does not know what you are talking about.

David Boey said...

Hi Edwin,
Urban myths, rumours and cynicism don't evaporate the moment a hugely popular Director Public Affairs (DPA) takes command. Your can have an tremendously open DPA with auntie-killer looks who is a media darling, but negative mindsets will prevail.

If I could package a solution to changing mindsets via a blog entry, I'd be the first to patent and market this defence information strategy. :)

Mindsets take time to correct. The long term nature of changing perceptions, plus the fact that PAFF has to undo the wrongs of the Lost Years means PAFF must maintain the initiative and never lose sight of its bigger mission.

The PAFF of yesteryear did not cherry pick Forum letters to craft replies to. Every letter merited a reply and there was a time window set (usually three working days) for replies to be drafted and cleared by MINDEF's higher leadership.

It did not foment suspicions among RSAF servicemen by sidestepping a training death just because the serviceman died in hospital days after he collapsed at Paya Lebar Air Base.

The way PAFF is run today, the current period adds several more lost years to the lost decade.

re: Anonymous trolls. My approach is to ignore flame bait.

Anonymous said...

Another anonymous person who questions Boeyman and his approach. So, this is getting interesting.

My point is that Field Marshal Boeyman may be correct in some instances but he can be as blind as the person he is criticising. Since, Field Marshal Boeyman sees this as flame bait, that is just too bad then. He really can't see, can he?

Anonymous said...

Surely, as a journalist, he understands what balance is.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but there is more than a hint of monomania here from ... never mind then.

Anonymous said...

Since you are thin-skinned and cannot take criticism, then forget it.

Anonymous said...

I'll worship you like the rest of your cronies. Great well-written article! Pulitzer worthy exposé!

FinalFive said...

David, I must commend this post - I also want to add another two potential reasons why good publicity is so easily swamped by bad news:

1. MINDEF and homefront crisis agencies are mentally psyched and tuned in towards identifying security threats 24/7. That's their job. For years, the constant theme in MINDEF media campaigns (or a key facet) has been a 'strong SAF is the bedrock of a secure and successful Singapore'. The public unfortunately, don't see it that way - To the general public, what security threat exists? I'll take a bet with anyone reading this that the Average Singaporean rates loan shark harassment as higher risk than war/terrorism. The public scoffs at terrorism campaigns, and the idea of war simply bewilders most of us. So when you don't believe in the purpose of MINDEF/MHA, then you begin to believe that they are a waste of resources. And then you begin to nitpick at all their flaws - Beginning with the most emotionally scarring one, training deaths. The constant refrain of 'I send my son for NS, and you send back to me his body' is the easiest crack in MINDEF's armour to be exploited.

2. Some of the comments and rumours are true. If someone in PAFF could be so flawed and terrible, that's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of flawed characters in the organisation. You see, the media isn't the only channel whereby MINDEF flaws are exposed. Most men in Singapore can strip and clean an M-16/ SAR 21 easily. We've all seen the system, and regardless, are bitter at the loss of our glory years... No amount of Army LIVE 'positive experience' can change that fact. The best result a good DPA can hope for is neutrality amongst the public... the worst, well. 1 MINDEF Spokesperson's voice versus 700,000 mildly disgruntled NSmen. The odds don't speak well for MINDEF, really.

FIVE-TWO said...

A short comment on FinalFive's statement "and regardless, are bitter at the loss of our glory years...".

I, for one, do not consider the time spend in active service and reservist as a loss. Instead I see it as an opportunity to develop and enhance one's character development and other life experiences not easily available to the average civilian.

Are people like me really in the minority?

Wocelot said...

52, I am disheartened to say that only a small minority of us see active and reservist stints as fruitful ones.

The reason, i believe, is the lack of pride inside the uniformed services. A plethora of reasons can be behind this.

One reason is that the way SAF (and possibly PAFF) SOP is pertually flawed. There can be no perfect system but no a best system. Yet this best system needs to update itself continuously, if not, it risks begin outdated.

People working in an outdated system will go into monotony. From then on, pride really thus becomes "People Rest, I Do Extra".

Lawrence said...

+1 Five-Two

David Boey said...

I found my NSF stint meaningful.

I served in MINDEF Public Affairs under Colonel Kwan Yue Yeong (the first Singapore Armed Forces Sword-of-Honour winner - but he NEVER mentioned it himself or boasted about the achievement) and COL Ramachandran Menon.

Personality wise, they were as different as chalk and cheese but both would not have tolerated the way the current day PAFF in led.

My NSF service include postings in PIONEER magazine and the Media Relations Branch.

FIVE-TWO said...

My foreign talent friends will know me as an enthusiatic recuiter. I also do my best to assure the mothers that being enlisted is the best thing that can happen to their sons and almost no other country would offer their sons this wonderful opportunity. And to the boy, I always tell them to make full use of their time in the service to do things they will otherwise never get to do in life.

Wayne said...

Although I would like to congratulate David on a good post. The diagnosis is technically flawed.

It's got nothing to do with PAFF or the lost years. Bad news just simply sells and there are just too many skeptics and cynics around. Coupled with the Internet and one-man publishing, everyone can put forth their opinion a be an opinion leader.

In one conversation that I had with Joi Ito (from the Creative Commons), he says there is no way and it is simply a war of ideas and opinions.

Establishment bashing in the web just happens to be a popular sport everywhere (except Japan where interestingly it was a strong advocate of the LDP while the official media (4 out of 5 papers in Japan) supported the opposition DPJ)