Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 17

Back to basics

"Letters, both critical and friendly, from members of the SAF, will be welcomed." - Ministry of Defence, November 1970

Even without information warriors, the First Generation Singapore Armed Forces (1st Gen SAF) did not neglect the battle for hearts and minds.

The tough restrictions that today's generation of SAF active and Operationally Ready National Servicemen (Note to foreign readers: ORNSmen are what some countries term "reservists") have to abide by when it comes to defence information are a legacy left by staff officers who served during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Everyone who has served in the SAF would know they must handle sensitive military information with extreme care.

But defence enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF also pushed for more transparency in defence information, even as it worked to plug the leaks.

Nearly 40 years ago, SAF servicemen were free to write about their grouses in Singaporean newspapers. In the words of former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, SAF servicemen "joined in the fray with great zest".

At the time, MINDEF had no Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF). The Internet had not been born. Dirty linen was aired in the letters pages of The Straits Times and other Singaporean newspapers, and through noisy gossip in coffeeshops around the island.

Dr Goh put a stop to that.

On 5 November 1970, The Straits Times ran a story with the headline "Soldiers warned: Stop writing to the Press". Dr Goh had told Parliament a day earlier that soldiers who communicated military matters to the media would be held to account.

"Many servicemen - both conscripts (Note: full-time NSmen) and regulars - have been airing their grouses in The Straits Times and other newspapers in recent weeks.
"It is understood that the Defence Ministry is reviewing existing machinery to ensure that SAF members have adequate channels to thrash out their grievances without breaching regulations."

A day later, Dr Goh got MINDEF to pressure forward.

On 6 November 1970, Singaporeans woke up to read this headline in The Straits Times:"Soldiers who write to newspapers 'Editors must tell' law"

Not content to stop typewriters from chattering, MINDEF reminded newspapers that they must unmask their sources when "required" by the Government.

The Page 1 article said:"If they fail or refuse to do so, they are liable to a fine of up to $4,000, or jail of up to one year, or both.
"The SAF member, who breaks the silence imposed on him, is also liable to a fine of up to $2,000 or jail of up to six months."

Bear in mind that in then-year dollars, anything above S$1,000 was considered a princely sum.

The measures were harsh, but Dr Goh had the foresight to realise that he would push dissent underground if SAF servicemen did not have an outlet to voice their unhappiness.

That outlet was PIONEER magazine.

That same month, The Straits Times published a story titled "Gag is off, but only in SAF paper".

As PAFF was not destined to exist till 1979, the magazine was published by the Education Branch of MINDEF's Manpower Division. While the 1st Gen SAF lacked the comprehensive set up of today's PAFF, it more than made this up with strong leadership and the guts to take in good news and bad.

The 3rd Gen SAF does not lack strong leaders, save for PAFF which - I stress I am guessing here - appears to be so sensitive to outside critique that it systematically weeds these out in daily summaries to the Level 5 bosses. This is a pity. MINDEF/SAF leaders rely on PAFF to serve as their eyes and ears, reading the pulse of public sentiments towards a host of military-related issues. I will leave it at that but those of you in the loop will know the point I am driving at.

PAFF should take a look at what the 1st Gen SAF intended when it balanced the gag order with a call for SAF servicemen to engage PIONEER magazine as a forum.

The November 1970 story said:"National PIONEER's new section will be called 'The SAF and You'.
"Letters, both critical and friendly, from members of the SAF, will be welcomed.
"No letters will be accepted unless they are signed and bear the names, NRIC numbers (Note to my foreign readers: this is the identity card number all Singaporeans above 12 years old are assigned) and the units to which the writers belong.
"This will ensure that genuine and legitimate complaints are not lost among anonymous and frivolous letters.
"However pen names can be used by those writers who wish to remain anonymous."

In the years that followed, the spirit of openness seems to have be forgotten. The revamped PIONEER magazine that we see today - bright, colourful and cheerful - has won acclaim among readers, many of whom state that the magazine at least makes it out of the wrapper.

That said, almost every piece of feedback published in PIONEER's letters page is a facsimile of the previous month's mailbag. Readers will gush about the months-old revamp (which was a good effort), with some comments bordering on the obsequious.

The $60 voucher for every published letter is indeed a wonderful incentive. Ask yourself how many letters would stream into PAFF once that incentive is axed?

Readers who have been following this blog would know that I once wrote that transparency is no talisman against bad decisions, mishaps or training accidents. But transparency and trust is vital, especially for a citizen's army that relies on NSmen to answer the call to arms when the balloon goes up.

As I've said in an earlier post, the transformation of the SAF is taking place amid demographic changes never before seen in independent Singapore. The views, fears and prejudices of new citizens towards National Service must be addressed alongside cynical voices from Singaporean families.

Blue on Blue is not about establishment bashing. Those of you who earned a star, multiple crabs or bars who engaged me in one-on-one coffee stirring sessions to find out what PAFF is up to would have heard the lowdown.

Disregard the barbs from this blog. Look at the talent attrition at PAFF and that would tell you the full story.

If this is how PAFF is run, I'd opt for the PAFF-less public affairs set up of the 1st Gen SAF any day. At least the leadership of the time got their basics right.

[A note to the academics: I'll get the newspaper articles cited here scanned next week]


bdique said...

Thank you for sharing what I felt was a really interesting piece of history that I have not heard of, and I dare say most of my age peers might not have heard of as well :)

Just curious, is the fine still applicable today, and if so, what's the new inflation-adjusted figure? :P

David Boey said...

There's more in the pipeline. :)

I felt it's important to remember that while Dr Goh Keng Swee pushed for tighter control of defence information, he balanced this by pushing MINDEF and the SAF to deal with criticisms and complains openly.

This is something the current generation of PAFF officers - not all of them but you now who I am referring to - appear to have forgotten.

The inflation adjusted figure is a max fine of $20,000 and a jail term not exceeding 14 years!

edwin said...

Another great article, and interesting facts about the founding of Pioneer. I wonder though, how effective was Pioneer in soliciting viewpoints? Especially since you have also said that PR has been poorly handled in those early days.

Anonymous said...

As an aside, the quality of the articles published in early issues of Pioneer (and its predecesor, the National Pioneer) is quite remarkable. They were also frank, and very reflective. I can't blame Pioneer for going down the route it has because it has to appeal to an incredibly broad base. Back then, if you spoke English, you generally were middle-class or higher, and were writing for members of your societal class which wasn't as big as it is now. A big pity though that Pioneer has lost much of its depth.

Anyone who has a chance should have a look at these early issues. They're available in the National Library. Very refreshing!

Anonymous said...

On the topic of opinions, have a look at this:

It seems there is some interest among the SAF's own ranks in speaking up.

David Boey said...

Speaking of back copies of Pioneer magazine... before I left for the UK to further my studies under Tim Huxley, Colin Gray and Eric Grove, I did the some of my research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) Library at Heng Mui Keng Terrace.

A full decade passed before I toured the library again in 2007.

I was aghast to learn that all the old copies of Pioneer had been junked, save for the first two years and the most recent copies dating back two years.

The ISEAS Librarian said the bound copies were thrown away to free up space. What a pity. I would have gladly bagged all copies they could spare.

re: Standard of Pioneer. Like all magazines, it has to evolve with the times.

Methinks Dr Goh was ahead of his time in the 1970s. When he welcomed critical comments from letter writers, but asked them to identify themselves, how many had the mindset back then that they could do so without reprisals?

We're in the 21st century and the current Director Public Affairs wasn't too pleased with the Forum Page letter I wrote on the SAF Land Rover death. How progressive is that?

So the blog plays on. :)

Hi Edwin, will respond to your query later. Am doing this in between shift duty at the IR!

David Boey said...

Hi Edwin,
I'm of the opinion that Dr Goh Keng Swee was let down by the lack of a PR apparatus to carry out his ideas.

He didn't head MINDEF throughout the 1970s as he had pressing economic issues to deal with, so the push for transparency suffered accordingly.

I also feel his call for letter writers to identity themselves when critising the system pre-dated the SAF's readiness to do so.

In years that followed, the system fine tuned Dr Goh's gag order to perfection.

Most of us would have been warned of dire consequences of speaking to the Press during out NSF days, but what about the avenues to blow off steam? The letters page faded away from lack of readers' support.

Look at the Pointer letter. Not one of the Pointer readers who were cited in the letter on the Pointer's editorial stance were named. Was this such a hot potato?