After 45 years of National Service, the death of a son of Singapore still causes the same grief as military deaths long forgotten by our island nation.
For today's wired generation, news of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training casualties spreads as fast as one can type out the message and is received as quickly as you can scroll through your tablet PC. (Indeed, many of you would probably read this off your mobilephone handset or while on the move using wireless.)
There are few better examples of how the job of explaining SAF training deaths has been made more challenging than the newspaper article above, published in September 1970. The choice of words used, story structure and the unpolished delivery of hard truths ("...any soldier is assured of a coffin from the SAF when he dies." and this gem "If the family of the dead soldier wishes to carry out its own funeral arrangements it is free to do so but the SAF will still pay for the coffin.") will not sit well with today's parents of the Gen Ys and strawberry generation.
That said, Singaporeans serving the Third Generation SAF cannot escape the statistical reality that every calendar year will claim around one training death every three months or so.
Should the September 1970 article be written for today's audience, the following guidelines might help deliver a more socially acceptable story.
MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) news release
Word on SAF training incidents are usually disseminated via a new release (NR) issued by PAFF. In most cases, a brief, straight-to-the-point NR is all you will get out of MINDEF.
Exceptions are made for stories that demand frequent updates because of the way the story unfolds. For example, the search-and-locate operation following the collision between the patrol vessel, RSS Courageous, and a container vessel that resulted in staggered recoveries of the dead servicewomen and updates following the ROCAF F-5F crash in Taiwan resulted in multiple NRs issued over several days.
As the template-style write-up from PAFF may be softened with a quote from your superior or camp mate, it is always good to leave a lasting impression so they will have something good to say about you without lying through their teeth. The NR issued on 26 October 2009 to report the death of Army First Warrant Officer S. Thivvianathan is believed to have kicked off the new template which includes a quote from someone who knew the deceased serviceman.
Over-used template phrases include "our hearts go out to xxx" - a soppy, try-too-hard line from officialdom that only states the obvious.
Picture and Internet presence
Calibrate your signature and be mindful of your footprint in cyberspace. Journalists will trawl every source possible for the your picture. If the picture of you clowning around is all that is available on your unprotected Facebook page, you can bet your last dollar that will be the one gracing the story. Make sure pictures are properly labelled so there's no ambiguity: The 90 cents newspaper once published the wrong photo for a story on someone who died during an open water swim at East Coast Park, ending up shocking not one but two families. Yes, this happens.
In this regard, MINDEF/SAF's move to photograph recruits professionally is a positive move. With the right search engine and key strokes, anyone searching for pictures of recruits from recent graduation parades should have little problem finding the individual they are after. For many full-time National Servicemen, that photo session will mark the first time being photographed in their Number 4 uniform and Singapore flag.
The absence of images from the family or online resources is likely to push mainstream media to rely increasingly on this repository of NSF images.
In some cases, families may argue whether or not to release a picture. Fathers usually relent. Mothers tend to cling onto every vestige of privacy, when there is really none because of internet forensics.
Intermediaries like trusted friends or relatives may help defuse such situations. In one story on the death of a Singapore Army warrant officer, it was his sister who persuaded the WO's widow to pose with her children in a solemn, dignified way. It took almost two hours for the widow to relent but the Home 1 cover that appeared the next day portrayed the husband/father as a strict disciplinarian who cared deeply for his family and showed his love and concern in other ways.
The thing to note for grieving families, many of whom have never been thrust into the media spotlight before, is this: Almost all newspapers in Singapore will write a piece about the dead person that will skew towards the positive. Even for the most basket case of emotional misfits and hopeless soldier, there is some silver lining that a good reporter will tease out of the family.
The sudden intrusion of privacy may be untimely, unwelcome and an absolute pain to deal with. PAFF may frighten NOKs into silence by describing horror stories of how the feral press forces quotes out of grieving relatives. This, in my experience, does not happen (at least during my time) and the IOs who pull this sort of stunt do the NOKs a grave disservice by robbing them of an occasion to recollect the best times of their loved one's life.
Almost every family covered by the media will cut and keep the newspaper articles that appear the next day. These often represent the last keepsakes with their last ones. Some even compile them into scrapbooks to reflect upon in years to come.
On a related point, the commitment of the Singapore Artillery formation in remembering its dead gunners who died serving their country during the first Thunder Warrior live-fire exercise in New Zealand is both commendable and touching. Fifteen years have passed since Third Sergeant Ronnie Tan Han Chong and Lance Corporal Low Yin Tit died while manning their FH-2000 155mm gun. But the simple, dignified obituary has kept appearing year after year, long after that fateful date.
The Singapore Artillery officers and men who were directly involved in that incident would have long gone on to other postings in the SAF or left the military. And NSF gunners who served alongside the two men would be in their mid-30s by now. But the Singapore Artillery has somehow internalised the incident and future generations in HQ SA have never forgotten to place the newspaper obit on the death anniversary.
Not the name, the acronym which means Shock, Anger, Rejection, Acceptance, Help. Some psychologists use Denial, Anger, Fear, Bargaining and Acceptance or some other similar permutation.Whichever line of reasoning one subscribes to, the central point for crisis situations is acknowledging the roller coaster of emotions people naturally undergo when faced with stressful life events.
Being self-aware is vital during such situations - not just for the NOKs for obvious reasons but also for journalists covering the story. The scribes must resist growing so close to the tragedy that the grief somehow percolates into their psyche. I know journalists who covered the SQ006 crash in Taipei in October 2000 who cried openly on the tarmac during the memorial service.
Being emotionally detached from a story is easier said that done. All of the above did not prepare me for the situation in 2005 when I had to explain to a 13-year-old how his father died while on a tsunami relief mission to Krabi I helped organise. The death of former RSN officer Fong Peng Khoon was a painful lesson for me in mission preparedness and contingency planning. Till this day, I occasionally ask myself whether - with 20:20 hindsight - the mission should have been scrubbed by giving all sorts of excuses and by not giving the donation drive the publicity in the 90 cents newspaper and Channel i. But that's life and as one's mind rolls through denial to acceptance of fact, one hopes the right lessons are picked up and rigorously applied.
Having attended more wakes for strangers during my time with the 90 cents newspaper than many of you will during your entire lifetime, I found my defence mechanism was to treat the story clinically with mental fact boxes to be filled during the interview: Name of deceased, age, unit, appointment, if NSF when he enlisted/ORD date, if regular when he joined, NSF's plans for the future, former school, how many siblings, father's name/occupation, mother's name/occupation, gf's name, quote from NOK, ask for a picture from the family album and so on.
That said, I do remember certain dates well. Try as I might with the standoff, unemotional approach to news-gathering, some incidents do tug at the heartstrings. The date 26th March may not mean anything to many of you, but it does to me (and a handful of you out there) and not just because of Ops Thunderbolt. If you know, you know.