Sunday, December 26, 2010

Defence Information Management: 6th Anniversary of Operation Flying Eagle

Among the dozens of news stories, features and one book written on Singapore's 2004 Boxing Day tsunami relief operation, the best-remembered story is one which mentioned naval divers playing mahjong aboard a navy ship.

Never mind that it was a mere one paragraph with a grand total of 24 words in an otherwise neutral/positive news story on the operation, dubbed Flying Eagle by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

This is one story which elicits an opinion from almost all MINDEF/SAF officers who read it. In case you missed it, please read it for yourself below.

Source: The Sunday Times, 2 January 2005

The longevity of that remark baffles me.

It may surprise critics to learn that the original draft did not include the mahjong remark because the story was already tied up with the "Life Goes On" tagline. In journalistic parlance, this is known as a kicker - a device which attempts to wrap up a story on a punchy note.

Discerning readers will notice there are two kickers in the above story. One touches on the Naval Diving Unit (NDU) mahjong players. The second picks on the ironic tagline for the Cactus brand mineral water.

The Sunday Times news editors that weekend were the ageless Ms Helen Chia and Ms Tan Hsueh Yun. They made a dynamic duo and were a pleasure to work with; each complemented one another and one hardly ever saw them flustered no matter how tight the deadlines or how tough the news assignment.

As I was the sole 90 cents representative aboard RSS Endurance, Hsueh rather considerately asked how I was coping. I said things were fine as the operation had yet to get underway and I had sailed with the same tank landing ship (LST) exactly a year ago in the Persian Gulf during Operation Blue Orchid I. In the email exchange, I casually remarked about the noise from the neighbouring cabin which apparently indicated a mahjong game in full swing. The players themselves were quiet, but the shuffling of the tiles was unmistakeable.

Hsueh asked if that could be added to the story and I gave the go ahead. That fateful decision resulted in the best-remembered story I had written about OFE.

From what I gather, all hell broke loose after MINDEF/SAF types flipped open their copy of The Sunday Times and read that remark.

I am reliably informed it was a talking point at Changi Naval Base that Sunday, when a command group supporting OFE met to discuss the operation.

The Major in charge of the NDU detail aboard Endurance also had some explaining to do.

Years later, I still meet MINDEF/SAF officers who talk about the piece.

Some prattle on, berating this writer like a school teacher counselling an errant child. There are others who talk about the "mahjong story" and dissect it like a post mortem at a media management class, only to admit sheepishly that they had never read the piece in the first place but had reacted on hearsay.

Others go into finger pointing mode whenever I step aboard their decks, whispering like gossipy kids. I may be myopic but I am not deaf and I do have friends in the Navy who pass on the fleet's scuttlebutt.

I worry for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) if its ranks are populated with weak-minded individuals who apparently cannot tell the forest from the trees.

Indeed, while in-theatre, a CO of one LST even suggested that I may have mistaken the sounds from an operational man-of-war, like dripping water (I kid you not), for a mahjong game in full play. He may have looked at me with condescending eyes, perhaps unaware that I have sailed aboard more warship classes than most RSN servicemen. So I let it pass.

This is the sort of mindset that underscores how ill-prepared some of our warfighters are to face up to adversity.

This could result from a society where the media is tightly-regulated. It leads to some MINDEF/SAF officers confusing the role of internal media such as Navy News and Pioneer magazine with that of the local media.

While the internal and national media are all in the same boat, figuratively speaking, defence information management officers must impress upon warfighters that the media can and will write about SAF matters with its own editorial judgement.

It baffles journalists whenever MINDEF/SAF trawls up a bitch list of alleged editorial transgressions, nitpicking and harping on issues which are clearly an editor's call and forgetting the plus points in defence media relations.

If reactions from the mahjong story are anything to go by, there are a number of Navy officers who are not mission ready and will not be able to cope during operations should the tide swing against them.

Navy officers who get worked up just because of that one paragraph that mentions mahjong should consider how more established naval forces dealt with the media following incidents such as the Tailhook scandal, the USS Vincennes vs Iran Air airbus tragedy and Admiral Jeremy Boorda's suicide.

In time to come, I would hope that SAF officers will develop a mindset that shows they are not so thin-skinned or what the Cantonese call siew hei (a term that defies literal translation. It means having a mindset that is not fragile).

To its credit, there are Navy officers who talked about the mahjong story and commented that their fellow officers had created a storm in a teacup.

And despite negative reactions from some quarters, MINDEF/SAF granted me some latitude and allowed me to stay aboard Endurance till she returned to CNB some 25 days later.

While certain individuals are the weak links, the system as a whole appears to take a more liberal attitude towards media relations - provided the right men are at the helm. That said, constant dialogue is needed to ensure the media and DIMs do not end up misreading one another or reacting to petty irritatants.

The Cactus brand water sums it up nicely: Life Goes On.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Season's Greetings 2010

Dear Friends and Frenemies,
I thank everyone who has visited this blog for their thoughts, ideas and constructive criticisms which have helped promote better understanding of defence and security matters.

I am grateful to those of you who rallied behind the cause to improve defence information management. You know who you are and the contributions you have made. For that, I am ever thankful.

To the outgoing DD, adieu.

We continue to watch, with keen interest, our defence matters.

Sharp-eyed netizens might want to examine the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Christmas card (above). Will be interesting to see who is the first to spot the interesting collection of weapon platforms selected for the card. The Primus SSPH and Formidable-class stealth frigate I can understand. But the choice of warbird?

Check Six!

Season's Greetings.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The war college the SAF will never get to attend

If only Hezbollah warfighters ran their own staff college, then the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would be able to study a new model of deterrence.

Reformed and rearmed, Hezbollah's Lebanese fighters have won grudging respect from Israeli defence planners, one of whom conceded this week that "Israel does not know how to beat Hezbollah" (please see article below).

It is likely that Hezbollah's battle strategy is being closely scrutinised not just by Israeli defence planners, but by armed forces professionals who face an Israel Defense Force (IDF) type threat.

Regardless of one's political leanings, one should recognise that Hezbollah's ability to absorb an IDF assault and resist vigorously is noteworthy.

As has been widely reported by staff journals, Hezbollah engaged the IDF in the summer 2006 war with the IDF commanding air and naval supremacy, and an overwhelming advantage in armour and tube artillery. The IDF's order of battle occupies several pages in military balance tables while that of Hezbollah is but a paltry footnote.

All these counted for nought against Hezbollah.

Indeed, defence professionals from countries who have served with United Nations peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon are likely to have returned with firsthand lessons and impressions of the Hezbollah versus IDF battle.

The impact on conventional armed forces is not likely to be seen till several years downstream. This is because it will take time to revise doctrines and concept of operations that armed services are trained to adopt. It will also take time to change mindsets and overcome longstanding unit traditions and loyalties to craft a new paradigm that guides the use of war machines in the battlespace.

For example, a conventional army may resist suggestions to strip away its Armour battalions in favour of raising rocket artillery units with a TO&E unlike any other conventional artillery unit.

Furthermore, the idea that a defending army should allow an aggressor's manoeuvre forces to penetrate one's homeland is unlikely to go down well with commanders who demand that every inch of homeground must be defended. The temptation, both politically and militarily, to demonstrate the defending army's resolve by placing its main line of resistance too close to the border must be tempered by the realisation that an invader will be more vulnerable once its forces have been sucked into one's home ground.

Air force commanders who suggest that long-range strike aircraft should be moved away from a hotspot to serve as a force-in-being during a period of tension may also be chided for cowardice.

Hezbollah's robustness must be seen beyond the tactical, operational art and strategic level of war.

Hezbollah understands how to engage and hurt the National Service-based IDF, which hails from a casualty-averse society which has banked on using plasma to keep its foes at bay.

If Hezbollah could fend off the IDF in 2006, so too can Hezbollah's mimics against an IDF mimic.

Israel can't defeat Hezbollah: Israeli expert
16 Dec 2010, 7:40 am ET

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel cannot defeat Hezbollah in a direct engagement and the Lebanese guerrilla group would inflict heavy damage on the Israeli home front if war broke out, a former Israeli national security adviser said Thursday.

Though outnumbered and outgunned, Hezbollah held off Israel's advanced armed forces in a 2006 war and fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israeli territory. The group has a domestic political base and has since bolstered an arsenal that Israel describes as a strategic threat.

Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah's Iranian and Syrian backers have stoked expectations of renewed violence in Lebanon.

"Israel does not know how to beat Hezbollah," said Giora Eiland, an army ex-general who served as national security adviser to former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

"Therefore a war waged only as Israel-versus-Hezbollah might yield better damage on Hezbollah, but Hezbollah would inflict far worse damage on the Israeli homefront than it did 4-1/2 years ago," he told Israel Radio.

Echoing serving Israeli officials, Eiland said:"Our only way of preventing the next war, and of winning if it happens anyway, is for it to be clear to everyone ... that another war between us and Hezbollah will be a war between Israel and the state of Lebanon and will wreak destruction on the state of Lebanon.

"And as no one -- including Hezbollah, the Syrians or the Iranians -- is interested in this, this is the best way of creating effective deterrence."

Except for a deadly August skirmish between Israeli forces and the regular Lebanese army, the border has been mostly quiet.

But Israelis have been watching for signs that Hezbollah, should it be named in an impending U.N. indictment over the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, will push back by consolidating power in Beirut.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has argued that Hezbollah's role in governing Lebanon would make the country fair game in any future war involving the Shiite militia.

Eiland said such a scenario would have "the entire world crying out for a ceasefire within two days," which would be more in the Israeli interest "than having to deal directly with every one of (Hezbollah's estimated) 40,000 rockets."

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Michael Roddy)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

WikiLeaks Singapore: Singapore diplomats' frank assessments on Southeast Asia

To netizens who have been following Singaporean defence and security issues, the WikiLeaks expose on comments allegedly made by Singaporean diplomats contain nothing new.

It merely confirms coffeeshop talk that the way Singapore sees its position in the region has stayed the same despite recent chumminess with its neighbours.

A cable, said to have been trawled from the American State Department's communications in 2008, credits former Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary, Mr Peter Ho, for his take on Malaysia's political scene.

"As for... Najib Razak, he is an opportunist. Although he has not been critical of Singapore, he will not hesitate to go in that direction if it is expedient for him to do so," Mr Ho reportedly told United States official of Tun Najib Razak, who is now Malaysia's Prime Minister.

Is this earth shattering news?

Probably not, as Singaporean ministers openly admit that the island Republic's take on geo-politics borders on being paranoid. This explains Singapore's energetic diplomatic efforts with its neighbours through official and unofficial channels. Such outreach continually underscores the view that a prosper thy neighbour approach, where Singapore's neighbours are prosperous and stable, is one sought after by the Lion City.

On the defence front, this includes participation in social outreach programmes alongside the Indonesian Navy, codenamed Bhakti Surya Bhaskara Jaya (SBJ), and Singapore's readiness to assist its neighbours through fund raisers and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

But while the Wikileaks expose doesn't plow new ground, neither will the expected reactions from neighbouring countries.

As we wait for the other shoe to drop, Singapore can expect the more vocal quarters (north and south) to repeat the same tired arguments. The barbs will come from the usual suspects and the lines used are likely to be a rehash of diatribes launched during past hiccups in bilateral ties.

We probably won't have long to wait before various parties dust off old files to pick their stock phrases. Inflammatory comments are likely to be made and newspaper editorials will propagate whatever viewpoints will push street sales.

Each side must calibrate its responses carefully because a botched public relations and information management strategy is likely to provide a bonanza of material for a Total Defence campaign - on both sides of the Causeway.

In my opinion, stunts like flag burning and terse communiques only provide rich material for Singapore's next campaign to drum up support for activities which support security, survival and success. Such acts beat all the taglines that Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) copywriters can think of.

Jingoistic statements are just the thing MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would love to hear. Make no mistake, with Singapore's budget season looming on the near horizon, neighbours who engage in sabre rattling will unwittingly justify big ticket purchases for FY 2011/12 and beyond.

At the same time, Singapore must be mindful how it describes the realpolitik of foreign relations in Southeast Asia. All too often, we get our foot in the mouth with blisteringly frank descriptions of events or situations while underestimating the readiness of the rakyat to hear such points of view.

If Mr Ho was accurately quoted, the realpolitik the former permsec alluded to is a reality that will stay with Singapore, regardless of who is in charge of running the country. As defence-aware netizens will probably realise, the little red dot has had its resolve tested on several occasions in the past, a noteworthy example being heightened military tension over the CIQ issue.

Perhaps its high time such debates be done in an open forum so younger Singaporeans will learn and appreciate why the SAF maintains its high state of defence readiness. Singaporeans must also understand that a call to arms cannot be taken lightly because many things could go wrong during operations. What Singapore may view as a option of last resort may seem to neighbouring countries as an unsettling option for a first strike, such is the asymmetry of military forces.

Propose such a dialogue with Malaysians and you may be surprised that their defence thinkers and commentators are more rational than you imagine.

And with the Republic's proactive push to punch above its weight class by taking an active part in international fora, from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Asia, the Gulf Dialogue in the Middle East to the Werkunde Conference in Europe, we must expect Singapore's name to pop up in future WikiLeaks-style releases.

The comments made thus far are not necessarily a bad thing for Singapore. It would have been far more damaging, not to say embarrassing for Singapore, if her diplomats were exposed as bumbling idiots whose viewpoints were sought after only for comic relief. Thankfully, these WikiLeaks exposes have shown that behind closed doors, our diplomats do shine.

Though the comments said to come from leaked diplomatic correspondence make controversial reading, the crux of the arguments are nothing which heartlanders on both sides of the Causeway don't already know.

Indeed, in hush hush diplomacy as in real life, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Remembering 10 December 1941

10 December 2010 makes it 69 years to the day since HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk off Kuantan by Japanese bombers; the shock of war that led to the Fall of Singapore.

The book, Sailors' Tales: Life onboard HMS Repulse during World War II by Alan Matthews (now out of print) gives riveting first person accounts not found elsewhere of the men who served aboard the battlecruiser.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

With Pride We Lead: Gays in the Singaporean military

[Please take part in the latest poll on the right]

The current debate over gays in the United States military is irrelevant to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) because universal conscription is a great leveller for the SAF.

The role homosexuals serve in Singapore's defence eco-system is a taboo topic and precious little open literature can be found on this subject. This is a pity because the contribution and attitudes of gays towards military service is an important yet little known facet of Singaporeans' attitudes and commitment to defence.

My interest in the subject was triggered by a suggestion some years ago that my research on minorities in the SAF go beyond the obvious categories of race (principally Malays) and gender (women SAF regulars). Someone in a working group I had convened to informally review the contents of a private research project suggested that the research look at homosexuals and national defence.

And so it began - a thorough, objective look at the subject.

If one goes by the guesstimate that some five per cent of a given population is homosexual (whether by choice or by birth is a discussion we'll leave for another day), and when one bears in mind that some 700,000 Singaporean males have served National Service since 1967 when NS began, this means that some 35,000 gays served or are currently serving in the Singaporean military.

Going by numbers alone, this amount of defence manpower is enough to fill the order of battle for two reinforced SAF Combined Arms Divisions.

As my interlocutor put it, what was interesting about homosexuals in the Singaporean military was not the widely known yet little acknowledged fact that they even exist, but the fact that a good number go on to serve in command appointments.

Indeed, going by the sighting reports listed on a local gay portal, the prevalence of gays in the SAF appears to be a tri-Service phenomenon. All declared units in the SAF's order of battle, every air base, army camp and naval installation, plus a fair number of operationally-ready NS battalions, can be compiled from page after page of discussions as gay SAF servicemen gush over the cuties. If the information posted is to be believed, gays can be found in almost every SAF combat formation and combat service support unit and every vocation you can think of.

Homosexuals in command appointments are the minority worth studying because they face being ostracised by a defence eco-system dominated by alpha male, uber high achiever personalities. These gay-unfriendly personnel tend to demonstrate a harsh, morality police mindset that keeps gay officers in the closet.

Many SAF officers are homophobic. The notions they hold over homosexuality run the gamut from perverse views of gay and lesbian lifestyles to crass steoreotypes of homosexual behaviour. They tend to look at homosexuals as a subculture of lustful, over-sexed beings just waiting to bed the next cute NSF who strays within reach.

Despite knowing they will discriminated harshly when "outed", many gays (and lesbians) step forward to serve in uniform. Why?

The idea that a young, gay Singaporean might aspire to serve as an officer or Specialist because he shares the same conviction to Singapore as straight officer candidates is, alas, alien to the homophobes.

After some coaxing, some gay officers opened up. They shared that their convictions towards national defence and commitment towards defending Singapore are no different from every Singaporean son.

The research examined how they dealt with their sexuality in a predominately male environment and looked at conflicts of interest when executing command decisions. For example, how did they deal with CO's Night when everyone was expected to show up with their beau? Would they hesitate sending their men in harm's way or certain death during operations? Did their superiors or men under their command know? Did their men continue to respect them? These are issues that could impact an SAF unit's combat effectiveness and efficiency.

Those that gunned for a command appointment did not appear to let their sexual orientation get in the way of their determination to serve Singapore as best they could.

And while serving in command appointments, many were put in charge of fresh faced teenagers serving as full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) without any sexual tension coming between executing the responsibilities of command and their gender preference.

Among the officers who opened up, duty to country came first.

Gays in the SAF bring a fresh spin to the old SAFINCOS* motto, With Pride We Lead. All Singaporeans should be proud of them.

* SAFINCOS: Singapore Armed Forces Infantry Non Commissioned Officers' School, now replaced by an institute for Specialists.