Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 18

Open season

The Defence Minister who banned Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel from writing to the Press was the same voice who urged the military to embrace a spirit of openness.

It may appear schizoid, but Minister for Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, had the foresight to bring SAF personnel under a tight rein in the early 1970s to ensure comments would be made responsibly.

There's a big difference between Dr Goh's decisions on defence information management and someone who muzzles dissenting voices without giving aggrieved parties an outlet to vent their feelings.

This explains the twin track approach adopted by the First Generation SAF in the early 1970s. On the one hand, MINDEF barred SAF personnel from writing to newspapers. On the other, it coaxed unhappy SAF personnel to pen their grouses in the SAF's monthly magazine, PIONEER, and trained paracounsellors to suss out problems.

A report in The Straits Times published in November 1970 said:"... servicemen have another avenue for bringing up their problems. There are no fewer than 45 regular officers and men whose full-time duty is to find out grievances in all units.
"They move among men, usually incognito and unobstrusively, determine what shortcomings or complaints servicemen may have.
"Their reports are compiled and studied at MINDEF each month and where indicated, corrective action is taken."

Bear in mind, dear netizens, that the care and commitment Dr Goh showed towards his troops pre-dated the Care for Soldiers core value by several decades.

Newspaper reports from that era made it clear that criticisms and complains were welcomed and pen names would be allowed.

The only caveat the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) imposed was for SAF letter writers to state their name, identity card number and military unit. This discouraged frivolous comments and time wasters, or weak minded rabble rousers who drew dutch courage by hiding behind a mask of anonymity. MINDEF's call for writers to identify themselves encouraged SAF personnel to take a stand on issues they believed in. The MINDEF of the early 1970s was prepared to hear dissenting voices. All it asked for was for letter writers to have the intellectual courage to take a stand.

Dr Goh's next move was to push the SAF to dispel ignorance and misconceptions about the military. Public relations professionals and defence information officers will probably identify this move as a strategic one which ensures the news maker holds the initiative in shaping public perceptions on, knowledge of and attitudes towards, Singapore's fledgling armed forces.

Addressing a commissioning parade at Gillman Barracks in 1971, Dr Goh said:"Army units can regularly receive groups of community leaders, professionals, academicians and others (emphasis mine) and brief them on how the battalion is organised, how it trains and how it fights."

[Note: I presume his clarion call was meant for personnel from all three Services, viz, the Singapore Army, Singapore Air Defence Command (the Republic of Singapore Air Force wasn't formed till 1975) and the Singapore Maritime Command (the precursor to the Republic of Singapore Navy)]

The Straits Times report said:"Dr Goh cited the example of a woman interviewer who expressed surprise during a radio programme when told that the SAF Goodwill Expedition had 14 officers and non-commissioned officers on the trip."
The woman asked what would happen to the department.
"Of course, if it were the Broadcasting Division of the Ministry of Culture, the loss of 14 officers may well reduce the organisation to a state of paralysis," Dr Goh said.
"However, the SAF has more than 7,000 officers and NCOs. The departure of 14 makes little difference."
"While in this instance no harm was done, it was easy to imagine a more serious consequence of public ignorance, said Dr Goh."
*Cue: Rapturous applause*

Had Dr Goh been in charge of MINDEF today, the Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) would be a very different creature.

To be sure, many officers in the Third Generation SAF have embraced the spirit of Dr Goh's remarks and proved open and forthcoming.

Netizens from the discussion forum will probably support this point by citing visits organised to the RSAF Emergency Runway Exercise, guided tours aboard the RSN's Formidable-class stealth frigates during the past two IMDEX naval shows and assorted excursions hosted by the Singapore Army as examples of this mindset.

At this juncture, it is worth remembering that PAFF did not want the militarynuts to attend the runway exercise. A somewhat embarrassed PAFF officer (who has since quit the directorate) gave the lame excuse that it was due to "lack of space" (when the runway is nearly 2km long??). At that juncture, the Air Power Generation Command took the lead and cleared 18 Operationally Ready National Servicemen and one teenage student for the exercise. I am very grateful to APGC for paving the way to the visit and to the former RSAF Chief of Air Force for meeting the group during the exercise.

The visit to the frigates was organised by Naval Operations Department, as I had pointed out in an earlier post.

Why has PAFF's leadership, supposedly the subject matter experts on PR matters, displayed more close minded behaviour than operational SAF combat units?

Years after Dr Goh Keng Swee stepped down from politics, he continued to walk the talk as far as openness was concerned.

I know that for a fact. More than a decade ago, when the dear politician was compos mentis, I met him for a four eye meeting.(Not quite four eyes, because his wife was also present).

He lived in a house down the road and my mum mentioned one day that she thought she saw Dr Goh walking around the estate.

I felt the only way to find out was to pop a note in his letter box asking the household if the elderly gentleman was indeed the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence.

For my trouble, Dr Goh invited me over one Saturday morning.(Which minister today would do that?)

I treasure that encounter and will remember Dr Goh's take on a number of issues we talked about. One of the takeaways from that meeting was the importance of not keeping quiet when I saw that something needed fixing.

PAFF needs fixing.


superspitfire said...

I believe in the fact that grievances must be heard, addressed and responed in the best and most profressional way but I also believe in bringing it up the chain. However, if one is broke, then all is for nought. Especially if the root cause is ignorance and nonchalance on the part of the party who is receiving the grievances.

Very interesting and eye-opening insights, David. Looking foward to discuss this when we meet up next week.

FinalFive said...

I think there are 2 things we need to keep in mind here:

Firstly, the information environment in the 1970s was much simpler. MINDEF could rely on the Straits Times alone to deliver its responses and key messages. Together with a smaller captive audience and the relative lack of unmonitored avenues for releasing grievances and complaints (think Internet), I would say that Dr Goh had a much easier time in not just responding, but detecting, and separating the chaff from the wheat.

Also, in terms of concerns, it was much simpler then. You had a domestic audience that was constantly uncertain about conscription- That was then your all-encompassing problem. Bring all your resources to bear on solving confidence and you would have met the key performance indicator. Think of today, where every message you send is read in not a single colour, but in shades of communicating deterrence, confidence, belief in nation, and even international relations... and one wonders what is the right message to say.

In fact, because of all this, can the right message be said when the time comes?

edwin said...

Good point FinalFive, not to mention that conscription and the need for a strong armed force is still a relevant issue with the public- and arguably still the core issue that we have to deal with.