Sunday, November 25, 2012

Alert Always: Israel's Iron Dome survives trial-by-fire - A view from Singapore

[Please note: This post will be updated in the second quarter of 2013.]

To defence professional tasked with defending Singapore, Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system may seem just the thing needed to keep our homeland from being cratered by artillery fire.

Iron Dome is not fool-proof - no defence system in the world ever is - but the anti-missile missile system survived its first major trial-by-fire this month by whittling down the effectiveness of rocket fire from Gaza.

Deployed for real ops where the lives of their citizens were at stake, Iron Dome had its mettle tested at an intensity unmatched by any operational test and evaluation. This weapon system is worth reading about.

Results of the battle underscored the potential that active defences like Iron Dome, which give the defender the unprecedented ability to use guided missiles to destroy incoming artillery projectiles, have for strengthening defences for urban areas.


Active defence joins passive defences
The Israeli's new active defences were complemented by a decades-long programme aimed at building passive defences such as hardened household shelters in Israeli homes. Alongside investments in hardening infrastructure, Israel also invested in a public warning system (PWS) to alert civilians of impending trouble.

While Israeli border towns and inland cities have been in the impact zone of rocket fire on previous occasions, augmenting passive defences with active defence gave Israeli defence planners a new game plan. Early accounts indicate that Iron Dome is a game-changer.

Israel's active defence against rocket attacks gave its population a reassuring capability to deal with persistent and indiscriminate attacks from unguided munitions aimed at area targets (i.e. border towns and cities).

Indeed, if Youtube clips of Iron Dome intercepts are anything to go by, Israelis rejoiced in seeing Iron Dome missile batteries reach out and touch incoming Qassam rockets. The Qassams still exacted a price in blood. But without Iron Dome, the death toll and corresponding fear factor could have been far higher than the five deaths Israel suffered this month over eight days of the rocket war.

Threat from unguided rockets
Rockets fired from Gaza appeared to be launched with little or no central coordination by the rocket squads. Fired from spot-welded ramps propped up and pointed north, each launcher was difficult to detect particularly when deployed from the urban sprawl of Gaza or fruit orchards. The false alarm rate from decoys also appeared to be high.
 

The Palestinians also did not have eyes on the impact zone to correct the aimpoint for follow-on barrages. Apart from a lucky strike, the unguided rockets had little hope of hitting high-value point targets such as Israeli military installations. That said, Israeli defence officials had to contend with reassuring thousands of civilians at the receiving end of unguided rocket fire at area targets (like a sprawling town or city) that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was doing its utmost to protect civilians.

In this war, the Iron Dome enjoyed a high profile in traditional media sources and also social media. For a country paranoid about national security, it was interesting to note that IDF military security authorities adopted an unsually lax wartime stance against home video footage of Iron Dome batteries in action. It was almost like the IDF wanted maximum awareness that fire unleashed by Palestinian rocketeers was futile.

Against Qassam rockets fired singly or ripple fired in weak volleys, Iron Dome appeared to have little problem swatting down the aerial intruders in Israeli airspace. Iron Dome was smart enough to calculate where rockets might land. Rockets destined to make holes in open areas were left unmolested. If one believes the IDF, this explains why a small number of rockets fired against Israel were marked for destruction.

Threat from multiple rocket launchers
It would be a different story if Iron Dome was pitted against a conventional army trained, organised, equipped and supported to fight and survive a high intensity hot war scenario.

In such a case, an Iron Dome fire unit could find itself overwhelmed by the sheer weight of fire from hostile multiple rocket launchers (up to 40 tubes in the case of the Russian BM-21 system) if the opponent's rocket artillery batteries coordinated their bombardments - which they are likely to do.

This explains why the IDF never intended Iron Dome to fight as a standalone system. On paper, each 20-round Iron Dome missile launcher is outgunned by most conventional MRLs armed with tubes for medium calibre rockets of around 122mm.

It also emphasizes why Israel has invested in passive defence like hardening critical infratructure and defence facilities to withstand the first strike and a counter-battery capability to destroy the launchers. Such infrastructure does not pop up overnight. It takes decades to develop and refine under an operational master plan designed to reduce the vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

In practice, MRLs can be addressed in many ways. The package could be sent via artillery, attack helicopters, orbiting warplanes or UCAVs. This in turn assumes the defender has a concept of operations (CONOPS), training and tools on hand to translate paper plans into action.

Radars scan the battlespace to detect incoming tube and rocket artillery, automatically computing their point of origin to unmask the launch site. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide persistent awareness, keeping potential launch sites under visual surveillance.

With the first salvo, the MRL's launch signature will be unmistakeable. Weapons to kill them can come not only from counter-battery fire which will take minutes because of the time of flight of artillery projectiles. UCAVs hovering above will pin them down with missiles within seconds of launch and slow down their escape for the counter-battery fire (delivered by tube or rocket artillery) to arrive.

Even with all the hardened structures and underground facilities built where the sun doesn't shine, mission critical infrastructure like radars and communications aerials must remain exposed during operations. One could retract a radar, but this is akin to taking the system offline and has the same (albeit temporary) effect of having that emitter taken out by a rocket strike.

So even if one has passive defences and a CONOPs for dealing with MRLs, what about the threat from low-cost Qassam-type rockets? Cheap rockets are not accurate enough to be used to take out high-value assets. Though the probability of a disabling hit is low, it cannot be discounted and active defences like Iron Dome or massed low-level AA guns (like the Dover Barrage versus German V1 flying bombs) will still be needed.

Every system deployed by itself had its drawbacks. But when orchestrated to play as one, it sounds a death knell for war mongers.

The Summer 2006 war took 33 days to reach ceasefire. The November 2012 Gaza war saw guns fall silent after eight days of violence.

While the Israeli army emerged from the November 2012 war as a benchwarmer, some 75,000 IDF reservists were mobilised and primed for a land operation in Gaza. If rocketeers continued to rain their deadly hail on Israeli civilians, public pressure for the IDF to do something about it would have been tremendous.

If not for Iron Dome's ability to blunt rocket attacks, the IDF may have had little option but to push into Gaza. Looking at the urban density of Gaza city, in which Palestinian defenders will fight from prepared positions with a homeground advantage, this urban op would not have been a walk in the park for the IDF.  

Strategic leverage
Iron Dome's contribution to the IDF war effort was thus more than the tactical, zonal defence action of taking down incoming rockets. The active defence gave Israel time and space to weigh other diplomatic and military options as they now had the muscle to dilute the effectiveness of rocket fire with anti-missile missiles instead of going after the launch sites with air strikes, artillery bombardments or a land incursion.

In MRL versus active defences, it is a race for each side to complete the kill chain before the other can react.

As technology matures, it may become technically and operationally feasible to detect, designate and destroy airborne projectiles before the MRL can displace and move to another location using contemporary shoot-and-scoot artillery doctrine. This knowledge that launch means certain destruction must weigh heavily on the minds of MRL forces and rein in bellicose talk from being translated into military action.

For this to work, defending forces must ensure that its sensors and shooters can work well and work fast, under pressure and under fire.

The number, accuracy, lethality and battle readiness of shooters must also prove overwhelmingly superior to the aggressor because the aggresor wields the initative by being able to chose the time, place and method of attack.

In this regard, defence technology can give the defender a force multiplier effect by being able to achieve a higher weight of fire with less manpower. For example, a fully automated truck-mounted tube artillery system manned by two gunners could replace towed 155mm heavy artillery howitzers, with the manpower intensive function of arming and loading shells and laying the guns done by an automated loader slaved to a computerised gunfire control system.(This presupposes that the automated loading system must be reliable as a mechanical breakdown will render the truck-mounted gun useless.)

In the event that rounds impact the target area, passive defences would complement active and could reduce the destructiveness of hostile action. In simple words, casualties would be reduced.

This in turn requires that the defender has in place a far-sighted, nationwide building programme that promotes the introduction of household and communal shelters as newer real estate replaces the old. It must also be tied to a PWS that warns the population of impending trouble.

With the Gaza war in November 2012, we have seen an active missile defence called Iron Dome deployed for action in an intensity unprecedented in previous industrial-age warfare. It is a precursor of things to come.



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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths: Proactive, preventive action speaks louder than words

As long as mindsets do not change, neither will the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) record for training safety. The result: More citizen soldiers will die needless deaths.

In an effort to be seen to be doing something in the wake of the debate in Parliament on SAF training deaths, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF have stepped up the call for every serviceman to be aware of and compliant with the SAF's training safety regulations (TSR), protocols and guidelines.

To drive home the gravity of this safety first mindset, MINDEF/SAF recounted how individual actions that went against TSRs had fatal consequences.

* Six smoke grenades were thrown instead of two by an infantry officer, resulting in the death of 21-year-old full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Private Dominique Sarron Lee Rui Feng from the 3rd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment.

* A jeep driven by a soldier without a driving license overturned, resulting in a passenger, Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng, sustaining pelvic injuries which he subsequently died from hours later. The 21-year-old NSF was said to have taken his last vehicle ride without a helmet and was not strapped in with a safety belt.

The safety first message is an important one we all should heed.

But while much ink has been spilled underscoring an individual's responsibility to safety, one must not miss the forest for the trees: MINDEF/SAF and the entire defence eco-system must pull its weight too.

Painful lessons
Having individual soldiers, sailors and airmen 100% compliant with the SAF's safety regulations will not save our fellow citizens if entities elsewhere along the chain of command fail in their duty and responsibility.

In March 1997, NSF artillery gunners Third Sergeant Tan Han Chong, 21, and Lance-Corporal Low Yin Tit, 18, did everything by the book as they prepared their FH-2000 155mm heavy artillery gun for a fire mission in New Zealand. They both died despite 100% compliance with TSRs. But for a faulty fuze, made in China instead of the United States as pledged by the vendor, these gunners might still be alive today. The 155mm shell exploded in the gun's breach, killing both and robbing their parents of a lifetime opportunity seeing their sons grow up. MINDEF/SAF has since introduced mandatory inspections of all shell fuzes and tightened procurement processes to ensure we get what we pay for. We paid a heavy price to learn this lesson.

NSF naval officer Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh Chuan Rong, 20, and his shipmates could not have known the Fast Boat they were assigned on 26 February 2001 was not shipshape and was, therefore, unsafe to use. The hydraulic fluid in the boat's steering mechanism had not been topped up. When the crew wanted the boat to go astern, it instead accelerated. In the ensuing collision with a Missile Gunboat, 2LT Loh was thrown offboard and crushed between his Fast Boat and the MGB. He died of his injuries. Till today, the Loh family mourns his loss even after 11 years.

New SAF Inspectorate
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen has sketched out how an SAF Inspectorate reporting directly to the Chief of Defence Force (CDF), the SAF's most senior officer, will "set the safety culture across the entire SAF and oversee the individual inspectorates of the three services".

If safety inspectorates for the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force missed the ball because of systemic and individual safety violations, the new SAF Inspectorate will not innoculate the SAF against similar lapses.

Indeed, it may set public expectations high when the reality is that the SAF's safety net is only as good as the individuals who are entrusted with the safety of their fellow citizen soldiers.

As we have seen in previous cases, lapses up and down the chain of command have caused immense grief to families across our island at various points in time.

The late Private Dominique Lee's mother wrote:"We cannot be mere bystanders when our sons are conscripted into NS. We cannot allow for our sons to be at the mercy of the training officers, be it the platoon sergeants or commanders, who are very often, little older and none the wiser than the boys they are tasked to oversee, boys whose lives often depend on the decisions that they make."

Another layer of bureaucracy
Bureaucracy alone will not fix the safety glitch.

If this SAF Inspectorate fails, what's next? Will MINDEF/SAF add another layer to the cake with another watchdog body, this time reporting to the Minister for Defence? And if that fails, yet another reporting to the President?

In light of the SAF's safety record after 45 years of national service, a more prudent safeguard would be to make all in the command chain fully accountable for their actions. In my opinion, we do not see this happening enough.

Heads must roll, rice bowls broken. Token acts like removing officers from command will simply not do because apart from the loss of face, they still get their pay at the end of the month.

You will be amazed how the awareness of the cause-effect dynamics will spur the SAF into action, once militarymen realise they will have to make severe lifestyle adjustments should they fail to take care of their soldiers properly.

There's is also the issue of transparency, which is so crucial in securing the trust of Singaporean families who contribute their precious sons to their country's citizen's armed forces. Take the recent cases when MINDEF/SAF tried to show it means business by removing officers from their command. Where do they end up? Do high-ranking individuals work in a silo, all alone with not a single soul at their beck and call so they won't end up killing other people's children through negligence? If that's the case, is it reasonable and worthwhile for Singaporean tax payers to continue paying the salary of these flunkies?

The Ministerial Statement on training deaths makes sorry reading because when one joins the dots, one gets the impression that the organisation failed to demonstrate 100% best-effort in accident prevention that could have saved lives.

That best-effort from everyone up and down the command chain is what's needed to step up SAF training safety, not adding yet more bureaucracy to MINDEF/SAF.

To squeeze that best-effort from the SAF, make the army, navy and air force report to the people of Singapore for all training deaths.

The collective conscience of citizens will be the most demanding and harshest check and balance that the SAF has ever had, after 45 years of National Service.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths: Views from a father of one of the fallen

After last week's debate in Parliament on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces, Lawrence Loh wrote to The Straits Times newspaper's Forum Page to share his opinion that the safety review in the Singaporean military should go beyond just being an academic exercise.

The Straits Times declined to publish his letter.

Mr Loh looks at the SAF training safety issue from the eyes of a parent who lost his son to a safety lapse 11 years ago.


By Lawrence Loh
It was deja vu when I read the story "Realistic training need not be unsafe" (Straits Times 15 November 2012). I was immediately transported to February 2001, when my older son died in a training accident at Changi Naval Base.

After several months of enquiry and investigation, the Republic of Singapore Navy briefed me on the findings, conceded that there were procedural lapses, and bore full responsibility for the accident.

As is normal, the staff involved were either demoted, re-deployed, or taken off their appointments.

I was told that procedures would be thoroughly reviewed, and training safety tightened, to ensure that similar incidents would not recur. To this, I told the then commanding officer who came to visit my family that identifying the causes of the accident would be an academic exercise unless it presented learning points which would prevent future occurrences.

Less than two years later, in January 2003, a collision between one of our naval ships, RSS Courageous, and an Indonesian merchant ship, resulted in the deaths of three women officers, and one gone missing.

So what happened to the supposedly thorough review of procedures?

This time around, it is heartening to note the Minister for Defence assuring again that there will be zero tolerance for training safety lapses. We can only hope that the commanders and men are constantly reminded to take this seriously.

I felt rather uneasy though when MP Lim Wee Kiak* commented on TV yesterday that our casualty rate is far lower than those of other countries. Are we supposed to be consoled by this? Let us not forget that ours is a peace-time military. Our men, including the career soldiers, have never gone to war. Hence, there is no excuse even for a low casualty rate. We need to guard against complacency. We need to be serious. There is no room for compromise.


* Dr Lim Wee Kiak is Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs

Friday, November 16, 2012

PAP Member of Parliament Alex Yam Ziming's words of wisdom versus Internet noise

Member of Parliament Alex Yam Ziming has entered the Hansard as the first MP to raise a point about Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) deaths on Fridays.

The point Mr Yam trawled up would be familiar to readers of this blog: Fatal Friday was mentioned a year 10 months ago in a post titled "Singapore Armed Forces training safety audit: SAF deaths from 2001 to 2010".

The January 2011 post said: "In the decade just past, 42 servicemen and women died serving their country.

"Friday proved the deadliest day for the SAF. Why? I have no ready answer. From 2001 to 2010, 14 SAF servicemen died on a Friday. Could the promise of a weekend out of camp make SAF personnel let their guard down on the last day of a work week?"

In the Singaporean Parliament on Wednesday, Mr Yam said:"Since 2001, 16 SAF servicemen have died or encountered accidents on Fridays. Is it possible that safety is lax because this is the last training day of the week?"

What is more surprising than hearing Internet noise repeated in Parliament was the response from Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen.

He said:"About Fridays - I have to check that up. But if it's true, I think that's a useful point."

As Mr Yam, MP for Chua Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency, sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence & Foreign Affairs, it is likely his access to defence data goes beyond what you and I can get our hands on.

But why does it take a debate on deaths of Singaporeans in the military to bring up a point netizens mulled over and debated nearly two years back? Are we a society that acts decisively only after somebody dies?

The MIW's views on Internet commentators have never been flattering. Netizens have been accused of making more noise than sense. Bloggers are said to nurse partisan views.

If that's the case, I would be most keen on learning why the dear Member of Parliament's personal research - assuming he compiled the death statistics by himself - mirrors the training audit timeframe cited in this blog? Why not take it a step further by astonishing us with research that stretches from the first year of compulsory National Service (NS) to the 45th anniversary of NS, which is this year?

The lives of Singaporeans and the need to tighten safety in the SAF are surely worth that extra research, is it not?

Why has Mr Yam's observation about Fridays come to light only now? Anyone who googled "SAF" and "training safety" wouldn't fail to find this blog.
What is more baffling is the Defence Minister's response. Don't his staff officers update the Minister on trends in death statistics?

Granted, a blog on Singaporean defence matters attracts only a niche audience.

But surely the subject of SAF training deaths safety is grave enough to command the attention of MPs who stand in the House championing the values and way of life we all hold dear?

As the author of the January 2011 post, I am quite happy even if the post inspired a thought driver for a point raised in Parliament. Am also assured that the baseline research proved accurate.

One nonetheless hopes that the nagging suspicion that the original post was plagiarised milked for talking points, refreshed with updated training stats and paraded in Parliament to serve a political agenda is totally unfounded.

Whiter than white? Hrmmm.....


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Singapore Armed Forces training safety audit: SAF Deaths from 2001 to 2010. Please click here.
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Sunday, November 11, 2012

A hard act to follow: BBC editor-in-chief quits over "unacceptable journalistic standards"

In losing its director general, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has shown why it is the gold standard that newsrooms around the world aspire to achieve, but few ever attain.

Taking the fall for a television programme whose content he probably was not au fait with is a tough act to follow because not all newsrooms will operate with the same conviction.

George Entwistle, former director general of the Beeb, tendered his resignation after an investigative journalism programme, Newsnight, alleged child abuse by an unnamed Conservative party politician. This later proved unfounded.

Just 54 days in the job, Mr Entwistle's resignation gives him the dubious honour of being the Beeb's shortest-serving DG.

He said in a statement:"In the light of the fact that the director general is also the editor-in-chief and ultimately responsible for all content, and in the light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2 November, I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of director general."

The Beeb's former boss told BBC News that when he was appointed to the role, he was confident BBC trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post and the "right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead".

"However, the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader," he said.

While there is (thankfully) no episode in the annals of Singaporean journalism that parallel's Mr Entwistle's experience, there are several episodes where the mainstream media ended up on tender ground.

Local scribes with long memories will probably recall the front page story published by a local tabloid in 1991 that claimed a former Cabinet minister had been arrested for a hit-and-run accident. The reporter whose byline accompanied that story lost his job. That painful lesson seems to have been remembered well: In 2009, when netizens were agog over reports that a certain Ho Ching had been charged in court for molest, nothing sensational appeared in the mainstream media....

Another report that ruffled feathers was the one that emerged during a ministerial visit to Brunei. Up-and-coming politician was reported as having failed to hit his target, even after spraying the target with an Ultimax 100 light machine gun. Rumour has it that the report proved the proverbial last straw and the journalist - a respected newsroom personality - subsequently made his exit from the mainstream media.

If you keep your own file of newspaper gaffes, you may discover that the newspaper business is a difficult one indeed.

Grappling with non-negotiable print deadlines, tending to newsmakers who may at best be incoherent or slow to respond and at worst, obstructive/vindictive, and a shorthanded backend of copy eds means that newsroom checks and balances may not always work as intended.

Red faces ensued when the Page 1 picture of a man who died during a race turned up to be someone who was still alive. A Page 1 apology followed promptly.

There was that Money Page story of economic figures, complete with quotes from analysts, which said that a certain sector's performance went one way. Alas, the tiny What It Should Have Been correction that was subsequently published confessed that the sector's peformance had actually gone the other way.(Hopefully, stock market punters did not lose money on that story.)

It will be interesting to speculate how Singapore's mainstream media might react had a Newsnight-type gaffe been made on local television or in the pages of *name your favourite newspaper*. Would the axe fall on the lowest minion in the newsroom's chain of command or would the Beeb's example be replayed with the same vigour?

What about the government sector and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)? Do they practice a blame culture by passing the buck to the lowest life form in the organisation or.....?

Play out this scenario and you will realise why the Beeb's newsroom standards are a tough act to follow.

"To have been the director general of the BBC even for a short period, and in the most challenging of circumstances, has been a great honour," the Beeb's outgoing DG said.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people of the greatest talent and the highest integrity.
"That's what will continue to make it the finest broadcaster in the world."

Primus inter pares.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Where talk is cheap: Rushed start for Our Singapore Conversation puts it on a weak footing for public engagement

With Singapore's reputation as a smart planner, why did the national conversation start off the way it did?

Flip flops over public positions (first saying there are no sacred cows, then quickly backpeddling), indecisiveness over the role of bloggers and Opposition parties (first stigmatising both for their partisan views, then claiming "no one has a monopoly on wisdom") make one wonder if the people responsible for steering the national conversation can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Given time, the public relations (PR) blunders that dogged the national conversation could have been avoided if care had been taken to place substance over form.

So why the rush?

Clarion call
A possible reason is the Establishment's recognition that it urgently needs to reshape public perceptions that it is out of touch with the views of Singaporeans. Make no mistake, the unprecedented loss of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) during last year's General Elections (GE) has stoked fears that more dominos will fall come GE 2016. The loss of heavyweight ministers, toppled from Aljunied GRC, was a clarion call that something had to be done to soothe simmering discontent.

Had the Establishment's feedback process not been so dysfunctional, we would not need a national conversation in the first place because the Establishment already has ample avenues to hear and respond to your views and aspirations on hope, heart and home.

* The NTUC trade union and grassroots body, the People's Association (PA), make no bones about being firmly in the MIW camp.
* There are weekly Meet the People Sessions (MPS) chaired by Members of Parliament, which allows MPs one-on-one face time with their residents.
* There is the feedback portal called REACH, which is a clever acronym which stands for reaching everyone for active citizenry @ home.
* Most government ministeries have a feedback unit, and a No Wrong Door policy that ensures public feedback reaches the desk of the right ministry.
* MIW MPs can draw feedback from their respective Facebook pages.
* We have a compliant mainstream media who operate within out-of-bounds (OB) markers drawn up by the Establishment.

Adding the national conversation to this massive hearts and minds machinery will count for nothing if the system's well-known intolerance for feedback it doesn't like to hear does not change.

Well meaning Singaporeans will be hesitant to step forward as they have seen how the system treats outcasts and people it deems as political or security risks.

Indeed, word has it that some universities in Singapore require undergraduates to submit their questions to the moderator before questions can be raised with certain invited guest speakers. This is a departure from the previous practice during Q&A time when anyone who has something to say simply walks up to the microphone and fires away. The new guideline was possibly introduced to avoid a repeat of the situation when a guest speaker of some standing was flummoxed by sharp questions from the floor.

The ground is sweet
At the other extreme, lick spittles will migrate to whichever platform is the flavour of the day. They will do their utmost to ensure obsequious praise and finely calibrated accolades reach the right ears, at the right time and place.

A jaundiced view of real world issues, fanned by a coterie of advisors who have a personal agenda to advance is, in my view, one chief reason why MIW big shots get so blindsided with tactical, granular issues that irk heartlanders. This is why the ground is always sweet: No one dares to be the bad guy to pop the news that may anger their political masters.

In the larger scheme of things, the lack of a Red Team who can serve as rigorous sparring partners to Establishment thinkers is one weakness the MIW have yet to fix.

So while a MIW candidate may dominate when it comes to crafting grand strategic issues like foreign policy, that same strategic genius may be clueless about everyday, bread and butter issues that worries households at the tactical level. And the price exacted during a GE is a heavy one indeed.

National effort
To their credit, the folks who named the national effort to get Singaporeans to think and articulate the future that they want did a splendid job calling it the national conversation, which is officially known as Our Singapore Conversation (Our SG Conversation).

Elevating it to a national platform ennobles the talk shop.

It gives it a gravitas and prestige that grassroots dialogues held in community centres simply cannot match.

Branding it as something "national" is doubly smart because cynics and critics who want no part of the national conversation risk casting themselves as self-centered, uncharitable spoilsports with no community spirit who turned their backs on a national-level initiative. It is like turning away the tissue paper auntie at hawker centres who is trying to eke out a living selling packs of tissue that you may neither need nor want: Banish her from your table and you will be seen as a cold-hearted, pitiless, tight wad.

After 47 years of having their lives dictated by the Establishment, Singaporeans will need some convincing that what they express during the national conversation really counts for something. From reports in the mainstream media, participants are not short of ideas and feedback, as evidenced by hand drawn mind maps and suggestions compiled during sessions held thus far.

Heaven only knows whether these ideas end up on the next trash barge to the Pulau Semakau landfill, or whether the Establishment will think through, reflect upon and implement your ideas that have bubbled up from the ground.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The magic of 2016: Winning hearts and minds for General Election 2016


myPaper, 22 November 2011

If you have even one atom of awareness about Singapore's political landscape in your veins, the numbers two, zero, one and six - arranged in that order - should resonate with weighty significance as it casts the spotlight on the year by which the next General Elections (GE) should be held.

Whether by accident or design, the year 2016 pops up with intriguing regularity as the project completion end point for big ticket items paid for by tax payers.

For Singapore watchers, this means the lead up to and entry into Year 2016 will be peppered with media events such as opening ceremonies, ribbon-cuttings and speeches for high-profile projects to crown the project's completion.

These opportunities should be clear to anyone who tracks expected end dates for high-profile items, because the end points for more than a handful of projects converge in and around 2016.

Accuracy and validity
True, one would need a lot more than accurate observations to validate the hypothesis that there is something sinister an invisible hand that is seeding the path towards Year 2016 with media moments.

But even if these projects are part and parcel of nation building and the Year 2016 is mere coincidence, one should take note that these projects represent a public relations (PR) bonanza for politicians eager to polish their image in the eyes of voters.

When one project after another makes newspaper headlines as we approach 2016 and as new services earn smiles from heartlanders who use such infrastructure, that feel-good sentiment, those positive vibes will do wonders for any re-election campaign.

The Straits Times, 1 November 2012

Hearts and minds 101
A successful track record is the bedrock for a hearts and minds campaign that wants to anchor itself on something more substantial than platitudes, forced smiles and hot air (which political speech writers are not short of). By having something to show and by giving heartlanders something they value (like brand new commuter trains), an opening ceremony/ribbon-cutting gives the astute politican a platform to bask in reflected glory.

Such events serve as a report card for progress. They are deliverables that innoculate politicians against accusations of making empty promises; a tangible example of foresight and planning which distinguishes a leader from his followers.

And opportunities abound as every sunset brings us inexorably closer to the year by which the next GE must be called.

By Year 2014, Singapore should have a new Sports Hub comprising a 55,000-seat capacity stadium. Never mind that the much-delayed project will give our city state a stadium with the same seating capacity as the 1970s era National Stadium that was torn down to make way for the new one.

Sports Hub ribbon-cutting will be followed by regional games in the said arena. With thousands of students and Singaporeans roped in to help with the event, this sense of common purpose should generate oodles of goodwill - if the project is executed properly (PR gaffes like complains over sub standard duty meals for the Youth Olympic Games and expired tickets to thank YOG volunteers spring to mind).

In Year 2015,  we can expect National Day celebrations the likes of which we've never seen before as Singapore marks 50 years of independence.

Coupled with initiatives by government-linked companies to introduce new services, Singaporeans certainly have much to look forward to in hardware and heartware improvements in coming years.

Cuts both ways
To be sure, shrewd campaign managers of all - repeat all - political leanings can capitalise on such opportunities to maximise PR mileage. By scanning the horizon, campaign managers can engineer occasions for their master to talk about the need to improve (pick your favourite bugbear) before the official announcement makes it a media event.

In doing so, even an underdog can make it seem like a new service was delivered in response to constant and unflagging calls for better services or infrastructure. It would steal the thunder from the official show and underscore that the underdog is on top of the situation, not as clueless or uncoordinated as their ballot box opponents make them out to be.

One warning about engineering publicity: Politicking is high risk, high reward.

If done ineptly, a blinkered PR strategy could backfire spectacularly because you can't fool all the people, all the time.