No single document has done more to suck the life out of Commitment to Defence (C2D) than the Population White Paper.
Dampened sentiments is a red flag for hearts-and-minds planners and the string of clarifications from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong down shows they recognise danger when they see it. Good.
Already burdened with the downstream impact of poor immigration planning, the Government's projection that Singapore's population could hit 6.9 million by 2030 has created a restive buzz among our citizen soldiers. As of June 2012, the total population was 5.31 million.
Many are uneasy over the forecast that in 17 years, Singapore citizens will make up just over half of the Lion City's total population.
When that day dawns, just whom will Our Army protect?
NS cohort in 2030
The good news for the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is the fact that Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen; i.e. reservists) and full-time National Servicemen (NSF) in service around 2030 are too young to understand what today's fuss is all about.
The NSFs who will enlist in 2030 as 18-year-olds are one-year-old babies this year.
The NSmen about to complete their 10-year NS cycle in 2030 are now on the cusps of teenhood. Some will be old enough remember. But here's where their status as crusty old soldiers - "lao jiaos" in local dialect - in 2030 will count against them: Our young NSFs may seem them as cynical, old gas bags. Hard to please and always complaining.
As for the rest of us who may have served with the First or Second Generation SAF or are serving the Third Generation (3G) SAF, our voices, however strong and strident today, will fade into nothingness by 2030. Our numbers will be smaller and the once sharp tongues and razor wit of others blunted with age.
MINDEF/SAF mindshare building
You can bet MINDEF/SAF will waste no effort in sugar coating the bitter pill and the stark reality that the NSF cohort of 2030 will be defending a Singapore with a completely different population dynamic as compared to their father's and uncle's generation (which is us).
If MINDEF/SAF get their act together, years of indoctrination will pay dividends. If they can get buy-in from these youngsters from an impressionable age, the system would have won.
The outreach could be masked innocuously under happy, feel-good events like National Education (NE) shows from primary school years. School literature is likely to be seeded with subliminal messaging of how the SAF is so important to the defence of Singapore etc etc.
But from now till 2030, officialdom cannot ignore ground sentiments. An assertive electorate and active Opposition means the prospect of landslide victories by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP, also known as the Men In White) cannot be assumed anymore.
If today's population of citizen soldiers are unhappy, something must be said or done to soothe their angst.
Coming back to this philosophical notion of C2D, let us be very clear that no measure in the world, no emotionometer can accurately forecast how the Singapore Soldier will behave during operations.
If our country faced a clear and present danger here and now -whether it's SARS redux or a military emergency - I am willing to bet that many of these same cynics will don their Number 4 uniform and report for duty. And should the need arise, many would be prepared to pay the ultimate price.
What hurts C2D is the feeling that NSmen and NSFs are being taken for granted.
We must never ever give citizen soldiers the impression their contributions count for nothing. We must guard against undermining their dedication by making it seem they are protecting a country with no future or defending a hopeless cause.
That hurt is amplified by blatant attempts by foreign talent to come to our little city-state as nothing more than social parasites, economic migrants who use this place as a springboard to Australia, Canada, the United States or elsewhere. Some try to cheat NS by wriggling out of the system (see above).
To be sure, officialdom has done its best to soothe these sentiments. That 6.9 million number is not a target, we are told, but more a planning parameter.
The projections in the White Paper - while well-intended in showing what could be - are nonetheless unsettling for many NSmen who are struggling with the here and now.
We have to juggle daily realities like cost of living gone crazy, bank loans that need servicing and the stress of simply being able to get to work without being crushed like a sardine.
Clarifications by assorted politicians are compromised by the fact that when Singapore introduced stealth immigration in the last decade, Singaporeans were not informed, consulted or warned.
We are very lucky that stealth immigration did not tear apart the Lion City. If these million-plus "New Citizens" had not adjusted well and if riots broke out (Chinese, Malay, Eurasian, Malayalee, Tamil, Singhala, Sikh and other minority Singaporeans versus Foreign Talent), the resulting chaos would have damaged Singapore's social fabric severely.
"Didn't have 20/20 foresight"
So long leadtime public transportation infrastructure like our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system suddenly had to deal with more than one million additional souls. Housing prices have gone red hot and the mea culpa that the Government "didn't have 20/20 foresight" makes struggling heartlanders wonder: What are we paying you for?
The 76-page Population White Paper is therefore being showcased as a sign of forwarding planning and transparency.
The document concedes things could have been planned better. It notes:"To avoid falling behind in our infrastructure again, we will plan well in advance, strengthen coordination with Government, and implement these plans in a timely and effective manner." (PWP, Page 56)
To borrow a military analogy that visitors to this blog can relate to, statements like the one above and catch phrases from MIW politicians on forward/strategic/long-term planning make them look like the general who trains desperately to win the last war. It is now fashionable to spout Management 101 mantras like forward planning.
Realising they dropped the ball by failing to plan adequately for transport, housing and other public infrastructure, oodles of public money is now being shovelled into massive infrastructure development projects from the upsized MRT to 700,000 new flats to spanking new expressways costing billions in tax payers' money.
After-action review needed
No one would argue if they calibrate things right, if the manpower projections prove spot on and our quality of life is uplifted from all this forward planning.
However, the credibility of their messaging has been damaged by their failure to plan in the last decade or late last century.
What went wrong? Was it groupthink that led to this population snafu?
Hubris? That the best brains in our nation cannot possibly get things wrong?
Economic growth at all costs, damn what people may say?
An honest mistake based on wrong assumptions?
In this sad episode, lack of 20/20 foresight resulted in everyday inconveniences which we all have learnt to live with and tolerate (to varying degrees).
Had the lack of 20/20 foresight been responsible for botched defence and security decisions, the consequences for Singapore and her neighbours could be potentially disastrous. For example, in a Period of Tension (POT), should one activate the SAF's Full Force Potential or is the Enemy merely posturing with no real hostile intent? Do we strike first during POT or will deterrence work? Once the SAF goes into action, what is your conflict termination plan?
The politically-aware among you would realise that the Minister for Manpower at the time of stealth immigration - which triggered the painpoints we feel today - is now your Minister for Defence.
On a personal note, I trust Minister's judgement in defence affairs - for now. But this stems from the benefit of knowing people with firsthand experience working for him and hearing assorted gossip. MINDEF/SAF needs to do a lot more to ensure citizen soldiers feel the same way.
I hope you sleep well at night.
* Mending the credibility gap in Government communications.
* SAF 2030