Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 19

Space cadet

Spin Masters: On the sidelines of Asian Aerospace 1992, Colonel Bey Soo Khiang, Commander Paya Lebar Air Base, COL Ramachandran Menon, Director Public Affairs/MINDEF Spokesman, host foreign aviation and defence journalists at the Jet Apron, PLAB. The speed of the RSAF's transformation is underlined by the fact that by 2010, six of the eight flying machines - from left the UH-1H, SF.260W, A-4SU Super Skyhawk, Skyvan, F-16A, and AS.350B Ecureuil - in the picture have been replaced. The C-130 Hercules transport and F-5 fighter jet have been upgraded and remain in frontline service.

Once every two years, the world's best aviation and defence writers flock to Singapore to write about the republic's airshow.

The gathering of scribes is a networking opportunity not to be missed and previous generations of public affairs officers at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) recognised this. They must have set the bar pretty high, because their outreach efforts have not been surpassed in recent years.

The picture you see above shows the Singapore Armed Forces Media Reception which was held on the sidelines of Asian Aerospace'92.

In days gone by, public relations (PR) professionals at Asian Aerospace (AA) would work their media calendar around MINDEF's reception. The reason was simple: MIINDEF's invitation would empty the AA exhibition halls of aviation and defence journalists, such was the influence of the MINDEF Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) in those days. Indeed, the reception was one of the highlights of the airshow's press calendar.

The picture's composition is poor - it was taken from a cherry picker and the people in the photo should have assembled much closer to the photographer. But it does show clearly the amount of effort that MINDEF/SAF invested to make the media reception worth the while of visiting foreign journalists.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) displayed one example of every warplane, helicopter, trainer and transport aircraft in its inventory, along with air defence radars and a menacing assortment of anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles pointing skyward at imaginary threats. You did not have to be a defence expert to realise that Singapore's skies were one of the most densely-defended. The foreign journalists could see it for themselves and behaved like kids in a candy store. Score 1 for MINDEF.

The payoff for such events was measured by the column inches that aviation and defence magazines devoted to the media reception. The short-term payoff was represented by the steady stream of news stories and features that were published weeks and months after the event. It gave tiny Singapore a presence in influential defence journals and a editorial footprint far ahead of other ASEAN armed forces.

This was crucial as the Lion City was then busy engaging itself with defence officials worldwide. Having pictures and stories of the SAF grace the covers of major defence publications meant that MINDEF officials had less explaining to do when introducing themselves to foreign defence heavy hitters.

That such intense coverage also sent a deterrent message to would-be aggressors goes without saying.

One long-term immeasurable was the goodwill that PAFF established with the world's most influential defence writers and commentators. In times of crisis, PAFF officers could - and did - speak frankly with defence journalists to ensure that Singapore's side of the story was told fairly.

Foreign journalists pride themselves in editorial independence but many paid back MINDEF's friendship. In some cases, MINDEF would not have been aware of this fact because troublesome revelations never made it to print in the first place.

One British defence editor told me he intentionally omitted stating that the Singapore Army uses a particular missile system because he valued ties with MINDEF and the SAF and felt that factoid might upset the delicate relationship. While touring an Army unit, the eagle-eyed scribe spotted the name of the missile marked on one of the ammunition storage boxes of an SAF war machine. He got this fact verified later with the missile's maker. Incidentally, that war machine has yet to be seen in public....

Another long-term payoff from such receptions came from introducing SAF officers to the intricacies of defence information management. Many SAF officers assigned for duty at the media reception recognised their visitors by their bylines. The opportunity to put a face to a name helped them understand the work of defence journalists firsthand and they gained a deeper understanding of how journalists angle their stories.

Do remember that many SAF combat officers spend their time behind razor wire fences, working with files that have security messages stamped on their covers and warnings about communicating with the Press drilled into their psyche. To the military, the world of defence journalism is shrouded in mystique. Exposing SAF officers to the media helps tear down misguided mindmaps and makes them more confident when dealing with the media.

During one such reception, the commander of the RSAF's Paya Lebar Air Base led the visit and fielded a barrage of questions from curious journalists. Is the RSAF buying such-and-such a weapon? How many (insert name of weapon platform) does the RSAF operate? Who is Singapore's enemy? Touchy questions on training in Taiwan and Singapore's relations with "Mexico" were also popular topics. : )

That base commander was Colonel Bey Soo Khiang. Years later, he earned his general's stars and rose to command the SAF as its Chief of Defence Force (CDF). His exposure to defence information management was indeed valuable and as CDF, he radiated a ready confidence when dealing with the media.

It goes without saying that it takes a great deal of effort to coax the air force to open up its shop window. The officers who held the job of Director of Public Affairs pushed MINDEF HQ very hard. Budgets were tight in those days and it took DPAs like Colonel Ramachandran Menon - a fiesty officer who argued his position strongly - to make the show-and-tell a reality.

The visit to PLA used to be a staple at Asian Aerospace. Foreign journalists would visit the air base for an update on the SAF, hear more about RSAF developments and tour Singapore Aircraft Industries (now Singapore Technologies Aerospace). For half a day of their time, journalists could gather enough material for feature length stories on the SAF and Singapore's defence industry.

Journalists who made the trip at two-year intervals could see for themselves the part SAI served in supporting the RSAF. During one visit, SAI's hangars was crammed solid with A-4 Skyhawks as the RSAF turned its fighter-bomber planes into Super Skyhawks. Fast forward a couple of AA shows and it was the turn of the F-5 Tiger fighter jets.

Journalists who wrote about Singapore's defence industrial capabilities were MINDEF/SAF's best ambassadors. Their take on Singapore's defence scene were not regurgitated from MINDEF news releases, but came from a firmer understanding of the various opportunities, challenges and constraints that dictate Singapore's security, survival and success.

In recent years, the media receptions have been downsized into meet-and-greet events held in an airshow chalet. What a pity. About the most interesting takeaway from such sessions was the quality of the buffet line or the door gifts given out at the end of the reception.

SAF officers and PAFF staff would stand in awkward knots in corners of the room, eyeing the journalists nervously like dance floor virgins on prom nite. A few would venture forward, try to make small talk. Name cards would be exchanged and that was it.

This wasn't a problem during those years when the DPAs willingly engaged and courted defence journalists. Ties were forged and issues trashed out professionally - foreign journalists will always push the boundary and the respective DPAs were in any case constrained by how much they could say about weapons acquisitions, the SAF's wish list and Singapore's defence posture.

The interactions were valuable because the DPA could drive home the message that PAFF was always there for the journalists.

The current DPA will have his work cut out for him when foreign journalists descend on the Singapore Airshow 2010 this coming week.

The receptions have more of less morphed into facsimiles of the previous event, done along roughly the same template as (new) PAFF staff officers dust off old files and copy what was done previously.

It took strong leadership to push MINDEF HQ to support the show-and-tell in the 1990s. Once PAFF lapsed and staff officers took the path of least resistance, the media receptions became progressively downsized and less ambitious in scope and scale.

As stated earlier, this wasn't an immediate problem when the DPAs had the right temperament, mindset and flair for winning the media's trust and respect. Things will start to go belly up once journalists sense they are being led round and round the mulberry bush by a space cadet, or have to deal with a media relations team that is in such a state of flux that name cards become collector's items because the Media Relations Officers drop like flies.

Many of the journalists are old hands in the business. Some of them have dealings that pre-date the appointment of COL Kwan Yue Yeong as MINDEF's first DPA and have written about the SAF since the late 1980s. Their institutional memory and domain knowledge is far, far superior to the current generation of SAF officers - many of whom would have been junior officers when that photo was taken in February 1992.[Indeed, one junior officer who was at the 1992 reception as the most junior pilot officer among the RSAF Black Knights, rose from LTA to COL and has moved on to a second career. Yes, I'm getting old too...]

They have long memories and are likely to compare what they see this week at MINDEF's chalet with service standards in days gone by.

Early DPAs set the bar high and the current one has big shoes to fill.

1 comment:

Rocky said...

hi david,
have been reading your blog and found my name mentioned few times.

enjoy your insights both current and of the past. must say that Mindef has come a long way in media management since the old days esp with new available tools.

best wishes,
kwan yue yeong