It is regrettable to see a good idea like the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA) letdown by confusing and contradictory messages from a poorly-conceived defence information management plan (if you can call it that) and an incomplete notion of the NSRA's terms of reference.
And if you follow the issue from print to screen, the gulf in opinions voiced by the mainstream media (MSM) and the blogosphere makes one wonder if the commentators are even on the same planet. Unctuous praise on the one hand, fiery condemnations worthy of a Pyongyang communiqué on the other.
The system has itself to blame for the public relations shambles.
When Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the NSRA last Sunday at the National Day Rally, Singaporeans probably had the award’s $9,000 dollar value ringing in their ears at the end of his speech. Not surprisingly, journalists picked this up and the dollar value made headlines in the MSM the next day.
Here’s where the messaging went askew. It seemed to flip flop between publicising the award’s monetary value as something meaningful (a “substantial sum” gushed one editorial on the $9k sum), to the lofty and philosophical basis for the NSRA.
Then the name calling began. NSRA supporters took potshots at critics by asking if they would give up defending Singapore just because the $9,000 was insufficient. Singaporeans from opposing camps cast aspersions on one another with debates on loyalty, sense of nationhood (New Singaporeans versus the oldies) and money face politics fuelling the biggest debate on NS in recent memory.
Two days after the announcement, the NSRA was variously described as a “token” or “signal” or “gesture” to recognise the sacrifices and contributions of every Singaporean son.
In my opinion, one loses PR and political mileage when financial expediency takes precedence over a fair and even distribution of goodwill.
If the NSRA was conceived to thank NSmen, then the decision to give it to some and not to all speaks volumes of its misfired intent. The pain is keenly felt when Operationally Ready NSmen from the SLR and AR-15 generation learned that the NSRA is merely a token of appreciation – and they aren’t even worth that. It’s like being at a party when gifts are doled out only to some and not all. Ouch.
Indeed, in parceling out the NSRA selectively and hiding behind bureaucratese (government policies are not retroactive), MINDEF’s spin doctors have ignored two of the three key tenets of NS. These are the principles of universality and equity, which means the system is a fair one which treats all equally. The remaining principle is one of national need.
In my opinion, the system should have decided to bite the bullet by granting the NSRA to all NSmen in a one-time show of goodwill. Future generations of NSmen would then earn that $9,000, ermmm, windfall?
This exercise would have cost a heap of tax dollars. But calculations of how much the government pays to sustain the NSRA annually miss the point entirely when they don’t factor in how much the economy benefits from the protection and security rendered by a combat-ready Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team. Furthermore, dare anyone calculate the economic opportunities lost by the 15,000 or so Singaporeans who enlist for full-time NS every year and thus do not have the chance to enter the workforce or further their studies?
The NSRA publicity plan is like a war plan with no point of main effort. To me, it had a fuzzy schwerpunkt.
The award was first described as something that can help pay for one’s education and home. Then it became a signal/token/gesture. Appeals were made to look at the signal it sent to Singaporean citizens who served NS. But wait, this signal is meant for some and not all.
So it’s no surprise that misgivings have been expressed. One of these was published by the Today newspaper today. I can assure you that citizen Mr Chin Wei Chung isn’t alone in feeling this way.
If the NSRA’s $9,000 cash quantum will break the bank, then more thought ought to have been given to the shape, form, timing and intent of the NSRA.
There's already active speculation about how the system will claw back the money NSmen will pocket. Some have talked about a hike in university fees (probably during a term break when undergrads are away), or a spike in the Goods and Services Tax or (please fill in your favourite government charge). When that day comes my fellow Singaporeans, all the goodwill the NSRA generates will disappear faster than a foreign talent fleeing with a foreign passport.
Would a medal for NS have sufficed? What about a personally-signed letter? How about a tee shirt similar to the Finisher tee shirts so coveted by marathon wannabes? People are known to bid ridiculous amounts on certain websites so they can bluff other people that they took part in an certain endurance sport.
Whatever one’s political persuasion, we should remember that from the many opinions raised about the NSRA, the majority of Singaporeans did not turn their back on the need for a strong defence. People did call into question the part New Singaporeans (aka foreign talent) serve in the defence eco-system. Ample opinions have been raised in the new media. Please check Google.
In an ideal world, Singaporeans will understand the philosophical motives behind the NSRA and remain committed to the defence of their city-state even if they don't pocket a single cent. But such philosophical ideals fly over the heads of the average Singaporean because most are unaware of the drawer plans that other countries have for bullying the Lion City by military or non-military means.
In my opinion, these are some reasons why the NSRA has triggered more jeers than cheers.
When I served my full-time NS in MINDEF’s Public Affairs Directorate, we were keenly aware that we had to run faster and work harder and smarter to close the 10-year gap in lost PR guidance. All officers and NSFs from the early 1990s era, when MINDEF appointed its first and second Director Public Affairs/MINDEF Spokesman, knew that defence information management plans could fall flat because some misconceptions about defence are deep-seated. Mind you, that was years before the Internet came along.
In those days, media to PAFF meant local or foreign media, print or broadcast. The permutations were finite. One could rely on the MSM to voice official opinions as people relied on - and trusted - this medium as the main source of news.
Things are vastly different today.
Add three more years of weak leadership to the 10-year gap (which MINDEF is still chasing) and you can well understand how the NSRA publicity plan rapidly lost focus.
Coming from the gaming industry, I know full well there’s no such thing as a sure bet. But I’m willing to punt that we haven’t heard the last of the NSRA.
Anyone game enough to bet against me?