Sunday, March 13, 2011

Who watches the Watchers?

Among the comic capers national servicemen are capable of pulling off, the one where Singapore Army soldiers turned a car yard into a Daytona circuit while deployed for Operation Bascinet must rank as a classic.

This incident shows that despite all the high tech wizardry of the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the drive to develop the SAF's people, warfighting concepts and defence technology counts for nothing if warfighters entrusted with national security operations treat their time on duty as a joke.

The nocturnal adventures at Sembawang Wharves, where factory fresh cars offloaded from Ro-Ro carriers are temporarily stored, came to light last week when their court hearing was reported by the Singaporean media.

Here's what we know of the case:
The soldiers were assigned protection of installation (POI) duty to guard Sembawang Wharves. This former Royal Navy dockyard is classified as a key installation as the RN has berths there and United States Navy personnel use facilities at the sprawling yard on the northern shore of Singapore island.

On the night of Friday 6 August 2010, Army regular Third Sergeant Chiam Toon Chong, 24, and full-time NSmen (NSF) Lance Corporals Tan Yong Cheng and Tan Fu Ning, both 21, were on duty near the car yard where new Kia Koup cars were parked with doors unlocked.

This was no ordinary Friday. It was the eve of a long National Day holiday weekend when corporate Singapore would have shut down for a long weekend.

3SG Chiam is said to have suggested that the trio play with the cars. Press reports state that the group took three Koups on a 15-minute joyride, during which two collided.

3SG Chiam returned to the sleeping quarters around 10pm but the NSFs went for another joyride in two cars. They are said to have gone for a third spin and it was then that the wheel of one Koup was damaged when it went into a drain.

The soldiers returned the cars to the yard and parked the damaged cars out of view. But their game was up when a wharf employee reported the night time antics.

In December 2010, the trio were slapped with detention sentences ranging from nine and 15 months.

From a defence information management perspective, mitigating potential public relations damage from this incident goes beyond ensuring that Army recruitment ads do not coincide with coverage of the case.

One would hope that every serviceman and servicewoman deployed for Ops Bascinet will not fall prey to vigilance fatigue.

The run up to major national holidays must be seen as a critical time for our security forces. Just ask the SAF serviceman who served during the Malindo Darsasa 3AB period of tension in August 1991. There was no time for fun and games.

As the SAF guards against intruders, one cannot realistically expect warfighters to remain on heightened alert for days on end for that one time breach of security that may never come. With nerves kept taut, SAF servicemen may end up like a watch spring that is wound up too tightly - they will feel the strain and eventually break. This is why security battalions and combat units deployed for POI duty should be regularly renewed to keep morale and alert levels high.

Antics among NSFs are not confined to the SAF. The Home Team has its fair share of personnel who make the news for all the wrong reasons.

Managing public perceptions must therefore take into account how our neighbours will view Singapore's NS system.

Many officers in the Malaysian Armed Forces I have spoken to have a high regard for the SAF's battle technology. But when the chit chat shifts to defence manpower matters, that's when their perception of the SAF as a citizen's army of soft city boys sometimes clouds their analysis.

We find the same behaviour among the Indonesians. At the Safkar Indopura war games, TNI warfighters love showing off their jungle survival skills and this includes macho displays of killing and eating assorted jungle wildlife - the kind of stuff known to make some city boys cringe.

The Sembawang Wharves incident makes sad reading because it shows the amount of work needed to ensure that those watching out for us are really doing their job. It would almost be funny if translated into a movie storyline and reading about the case gives one a mental picture of how vigilant that unit really was.

I have heard stories of how guard duty at Changi Airport is sought after by SAF servicemen because they prowl the airport terminals in air conditioned comfort. Another perk: they get to ogle at eye candy as Singapore Airlines flight attendants in tight sarong kebayas saunter past.

The Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should keep their morale up by ensuring their essential duties are properly publicised from time to time.

When I was an NSF with PIONEER magazine, we received a letter from a group of storemen whose sole responsibility for 2.5 years was to make wooden pallets. It was dreadfully boring. They felt overshadowed by the frontline roles and asked if PIONEER would consider writing about their low profile role. The magazine obliged and the short story boosted recognition for their critical role in supporting the shipment of SAF material.

During my time with 90C, a photographer and I spent New Year's Eve on Jurong Island with troops on POI duty. We had a warm reception at each guard post we toured and the next morning's newspaper run was something the soldiers looked forward to. It was apparent during the interviews that many of the soldiers had never ushered in a new year away from family and friends before and that point was reflected in the 90C story. That morning's press call and the impending visit by then Chief of Army to Jurong Island made New Year's Eve special for those on the duty roster.

With this argument in mind, the stories showcased by PIONEER about lesser known SAF roles such as vehicle mechanics and air force navigators are welcome. The tricky bit comes with sustaining reader appeal with fresh angles, pictures and perspectives so that the umpteenth behind the scenes story doesn't end up as a page turner as readers second guess what the story is trying to say.

The final point about the Sembawang Wharves incident touches on the SAF's people.

The SAF's value as an instrument of deterrence and as an operationally ready fighting force is only as strong as its weakest links.

On Friday night on 6 August last year, the three SAF servicemen at Sembawang Wharves showed that even those watching out for us, need to be watched sometimes. At that point in time and space, they were the SAF's weak links and they have paid a price for their folly.


Ben Choong said...

Nice article! I've always believed that recognition is the tricky thing that makes or breaks people. When it comes to national defense, SAF has a near-paranoid approach to ensuring the hardware is cutting edge, but the 'heartware' development is still rather patchy sometimes.

My fear is that this would just increase more checks on personnel, which would generate more frustration in the guards. I know this, thanks to a particular Dave Teo Ming.

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

Umm... what if the fact is that actually POI duty is pointless ? If your threat is a "conventional" enemy, i.e., a special forces attack team, a millitary guard makes sense. If the threat is "terrorists", police or even private security are more appropriate. I have to ask whether the deployment of SAF resources to this kind of duty is driven by the fact that NSFs are "free", or by politicking between police and SAF on the ratio of NSFs that each are entitled to.

Anonymous said...

I've thought long and hard about this one, especially since the "ring leader" was a regular. That instinctively prompted me to think about the quality of the regular NCOs the SAF was hiring.

But I've concluded "a few bad apples, a bad batch does not make." There will always be a few black sheep, and especially so in a huge organisation like the SAF where a sizeable number of personnel are conscripted NSFs. There's no quality control there - you have to take all able-bodied males. It's written into the law. Most of the joyriders @ Sembawang were NSFs.

There's also a tendency to only remember the last bad thing done, not all the good things that have been done before. Perhaps the SAF deserves more credit than it receives. Considering the types of questionable activities that have been conducted by ill-disciplined troops in both professional and quasi-professional militaries, joyriding arounding a port in new cars seems pretty mild.

The servicemen guilty of that should be punished. But I can think of worse situations. We shouldn't think the sky's falling just yet.

Re: paying attention to the small guy doing the small job, a military tends to be a reflection of the society it serves. Until we Singaporeans give the small guys working the menial jobs amongst us the attention they deserve, why should we expect the SAF be any different?

Similarly, Singaporeans love technology. Just see how IT fair rake in record-breaking sales. Well, the SAF loves technology too! No surprises there.

Wocelot said...

Actually, doing 2weeks is psychologically taxing enough and the POI battalions are doing it out for a month.

That is not a healthy sign. While other battalions do help out, mental fatigue is sure to set in. With a strict shift work pattern and constant need for vigilance (not to mention taking safety and peace for granted), means that alot of incentives are needed to keep these men going. I seriously wonder if ABSD or commanders (aka higher ups) do realise such a situation, i hope they do now.

Anonymous said...

Frankly and sadly, they aren't. I was from 6 SIR - one of the earlier batches, and I know what it's like to be doing all that duty. It isn't rewarding to be carrying out all that stuff, burning weekends, public holidays and festive seasons only to end your OPs and be told that you have to do conventional training.

Granted, POI duty would be called 'slack' in contrast to outfields, but it is the mental side of things that eat into you. What I'd say is - take that POI unit and use them solely for POI. Give them the recognition and reward they are entitled to for sacrificing their weekends and public holidays for the sake of duty. The thing about SAF is that we soldiers aren't motivated enough. Why is this so? It's simple. Those of us that have been through all that would know - they always promise you something, then they will come up with reasons why you're not getting it after you meet their objectives. It's sad but true. How would you feel about doing all that duty only to go back to camp, told that you still have GUARD DUTY, or told that in a weeks time you have field camps? That was what I was put through and frankly, I and my buddies didn't like it one bit.