Duty personnel aboard KRI 593 Banda Aceh did a headcount and herded the Singaporean NS men to the quarter deck. An officer soon appeared and took charge of the situation immediately.
After some initial probing ("Where is your RSN liaison?"), TNI gunnery officer Captain Marvil realised we were just warship nuts and brought us on a somewhat comprehensive tour of the brand new LPD.
He gave a running commentary in good English of the LCM and two pilot boats in the LPD's tank deck, led the group to the tank deck where he fielded questions from NSmen from Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Armour units, then up to the galley (yes, the crew were still having lunch), meeting room, wardroom and the bridge.
The KRI Banda Aceh was berthed at Changi Naval Base this past week as part of the Indonesian military's contribution to the IMDEX 2011 naval show (18 to 20 May 2011).
By the end of the visit to Banda Aceh, we had a better idea of the LPD's role in protecting the Indonesian archipelago and in anti-piracy sweeps in the Indian Ocean when paired with a Sigma-class corvette.
The LPD's crew had justifiable reason to be proud of their warship. It was kept spick and span, the hangar deck was hand-polished for an evening reception for the Singaporean Navy and build quality was commendable*. The ship also cherished its pioneer batch and had a plaque engraved with the names of all TNI personnel involved with the ship's construction and ICIT.(*Having been aboard many men-of-war, you soon get to know what a poorly-built ship looks like.)
The officer's apology at the end of the trip was as unexpected as it was sincere. CPT Marvil was sorry for the initial hesitation in welcoming the group and wanted to make amends.
And the Singaporean NSmens' unscripted and near simultaneous responses said it all. His apology triggered a chorus of assurance from his visitors that no apology was necessary. Score one point for the TNI.
Back on Singapore soil, across we went to see the stealth warship our tax dollars helped pay for.
Again, smack in the middle of lunch time and we were told to come back at 1400H. It was a 45-minute wait, which was no big deal.
With time to kill, we asked if we could photograph the Seahawk on the helideck and the answer was no. There was no attempt to compromise, exercise some flexibility or engage the group.
Sure, the ship would be open to visitors 45 minutes later. It was not an arduous wait and visits aboard warships are always a privilege, not a birthright.
As the NSmen gathered for an impromptu conference pierside, along came some VIP visitors who were whisked up the gangway and piped aboard with stiff formality.
At that point in time, almost everyone walked away disappointed as we realised the ship had smoked us.
We would have much preferred a straight and direct answer from the warship's crew - that the ship was closed because VIPs were on the way.
And if the message was late in coming - because VIPs being VIPs tend to show up at awkward moments - then one gets the impression that the 3G-ness of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) does not include keeping the
One also wonders why the RSN was so unprepared to host visitors throughout IMDEX show times. Would staggered meal times have thrown the ship's duty roster for the day out of whack? If other ships can do so, was it so hard to plan for and execute? If the TNI could exercise some initiative to foreign guests, was it so difficult for the best little navy in the world to show even a smidgen of hospitality?
Sure, we could have waited. But after being brought onto an emotional high by KRI Banda Aceh's warm and friendly welcome, the NSmen were given a sharp reality check by their own navy.
We felt this ship wasn't worth the wait and we trooped off and left Changi Naval Base.
Do not expect NSmen to suffer fools. After 45 years of nation-building, thinking soldiers expect and are entitled to seeing competent and confident officers and ratings in the RSN. Singaporeans will prefer a no bullshit, direct answer rather than an excuse that cannot hold water. Dancing around an issue sinks the Navy's credibility and makes one wonder how the organisation is really run.
With the SAF hardwired with this sort of mindset, it will clearly take more than headline-making calls for the civil service to open up and engage Singaporeans before the SAF walks the talk.
And if the RSN feels enthusiastic visitors are not worth cultivating, it may one day realise belatedly that preaching to the converted is a much preferred option to the hard task of engaging the apathetic.
Why bother wasting tax payers money on expensive public relations campaigns to shore up commitment to defence when straight talk and commonsense would do the job?
And you wonder why the Singapore government's attempts to "engage" Singaporeans (engage = a new buzzword) fail so miserably.