"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".
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]