Sunday, April 18, 2010

Institutional memory

A lot of ink has been spilled by newspaper commentators on last Monday's rugby match dust-up between teenaged Singaporean students.

As one commentator after another rolls out calls for fair play, sportsmanship and match safety, we tend to forget that the worst fears of parents, educators and media commentators - that a student will die if match violence is not stopped - has already happened.

Years ago, the 90 cents newspaper published a Page 1 story on a schoolboy from St Joseph's Institution (writing from memory, I think it's SJI) who died after being headbutted during a rugby match. He died young from internal injuries to his abdomen.

His death provoked intense soul-searching on the state of play of rugby in Singaporean schools. Questions were raised on match safety and the values that young Singaporeans carried to the sports field.

Years later, no one seems to remember that sports tragedy. The loss of institutional memory in our school system and the media has an immediate parallel with the loss of long-serving expertise in our armed Services. But more on that in awhile.

The boys involved in the sports tragedy are young adults today. Many will probably follow media coverage on the fracas between St Andrew's Secondary and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and recall the sense of loss they felt during their school days.

The final whistle that sealed ACS(I)'s win against arch rival SAS on Monday 12 April 2010 triggered a pitch invasion by rival school suppporters, parents and teachers.

An SAS student is said to have slugged a ACS(I) player half his size, after taunts were allegedly made against the SAS boy.

The unruly melee that ensued cast the media spotlight on a secondary school rugby match, which in and by itself was an unremarkable event on Singapore's sporting calendar. You can bet the media will turn up in full force the next time these schools face one another on the rugby pitch.

And so the soul-searching began: in letters to the press, through social media and from one newspaper commentary after another.

I am waiting for the first intrepid journalist to track down the dead boy's parents to hear their views on the current situation.

That interview would be the proverbial "wake up call" for school boys from both sides of the pitch too immature to control their thoughts, emotions and actions. It would be doubly tragic for so educated a society like Singapore's for people to bury the hatchet only after they attend the funeral of a schoolboy killed by match violence.

The lack of institutional memory has an important lesson for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as it cleans house amid a dynamic transformation effort.

The old Enciks (Warrant Officers) and old officers who are outranked by younger scholar types are repositories of the SAF's institutional memory.

Granted, the SAF scholar officers and young, fresh-from-polytechnic Specialists with their newly-minted diplomas outgun the old soldiers in terms of career end point. They may be able to rig up a flashy Powerpoint presentation with all the bells and whistles, know how to compile an impressive Excel spreadsheet and speak and write better than the old birds. But their knowledge base in poorer.

I welcome the SAF's move to retain its officers and WOSE (Warrant Officer and Specialists) Corps through the Military Domain Experts Scheme. By adhering to the longer career use by date, these officers and WOSEs can strengthen the armed Services with their institutional memory.

Those of us familiar with the information-gathering cycle would know this hierarchy: Data -> Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom. It may take a lifetime serving an organisation to progress to the top of the ladder and mere vocational skills cannot grant one wisdom overnight.

For example, you have to pay anything between $5,000 and $7,000 to enrol yourself for a "casino course". These courses teach you how casino games are played. They are also an utter waste of money, unrecognised by the IR I work for. The wisdom that old casino hands possess which allows them to advise Management on the type and number of table games a casino should be fitted for (some games are more profitable than others, but you can't pack a casino with too many of these or players won't come because they keep losing), gaming promotions and market segments the casino should target go beyond what these "casino courses" can teach. You and I can learn how to play Blackjack or Bacarrat from the net.

As the SAF's transformation rolls along, one should not forget the value of wisdom that Singapore's huge base of veterans possess. More than 700,000 Singaporean men have gone through National Service or served the SAF at one point or another. The experiences they lived through and stories they can tell all contain valuable learning points for the currrent Third Generation SAF warfighters.

I am grateful to the many old warfighters from the army, navy, air force and defence eco-system who have been my mentors, guiding me along and giving a novice an unclassified (repeat: unclassified) understanding of the intricacies of the profession of arms.

Thank you all for the lessons, the guidance and advice. I hope I have been an attentive student and the essays on this blog attest to the value of our many informal coffee-stirring sessions. I have enjoyed every moment hearing your old yarns. : )

One should not underestimate the value that old war stories bring to the table.

During operations, a slip or glitch by SAF planners won't result in a one-death scenario like that ill-fated rugby match eons ago.

At stake: the lives of thousands and the security of the Lion City. Think about that.


Anonymous said...

"(repeat: unclassified) understanding of the intricacies of the profession of arms."

Yeah, right.

edwin said...

Keep the commentaries coming along! In the meantime, I'm not sure if you know about the recent hullabaloo in the milblog community surrounding Michael Yon, but I thought that you might be interested.

David Boey said...

Hey Edwin,
Michael Yon was in Singapore some months back.

We met and one of the Milnuts (satphone SME)provided advice on satphones. A tiny Singaporean contribution to his Afghan posts.