Two official clarifications to a single newspaper story in three days. You don't have to be a media analyst to sense something is not quite right.
The 23 October story by The Straits Times (ST), Singapore's only English language broadsheet, titled "SAF soldiers' IPPT likely to change" has got Singaporeans abuzz on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Individual Physical Fitness Proficiency Test (IPPT) that citizen soldiers have to take annually.
To cut to the chase, the SAF has made no decision on changing the IPPT system. Please click here for the Singapore Army's Facebook post on the matter.
If and when a decision point on the IPPT system is reached, citizen soldiers can expect to be informed in a timely and systematic way which gives everyone a heads-up in good time. This isn't a motherhood statement:
Case study: September 2010 announcement of Standard Obstacle Course redesign
The Singapore Army did precisely that in September 2010 when it unveiled changes to the Standard Obstacle Course (SOC) - a test of combat fitness which full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) and Regulars would probably regard as more physically demanding than the IPPT.
Back in September 2010, articles in Singapore's mainstream print, broadcast and online media, magazine features in SAF publications like Army News and Pioneer magazine (the SAF's monthly magazine) and a list of 30 Frequently Asked Questions posted on the Army Fitness Centre website (click here) helped to generate and sustain a healthy awareness among Singaporeans of the SOC's new obstacles. The Singapore Army went a step further by giving explanations on new obstacles that informed citizen soldiers why such obstacles were introduced.
The Singapore Army's improved SOC didn't pop up overnight. According to the Army Fitness Centre, the project involved two years of trials. These are likely to have involved citizen soldiers whom the Army engaged to test and refine proposed obstacles - in short, to gather feedback from soldiers before proposals were finalised.
The effort to explain the SOC redesign typifies the type, depth and extent of engagement the Singapore Army readily fosters with its soldiers.[Note: There's an even earlier example which demonstrates how the Singapore Army works with citizens soldiers before effecting organisational change. This was the project which experimented if the Army could reduce its Section from nine to seven men. But we'll leave this story for another day.]
Looking back at the information management plan with the benefit of three years hindsight, the lack of
Reactions to the IPPT story
As part of the SAF's constant review of training systems, it is likely that any review of the IPPT would have involved citizen soldiers - just like the SOC redesign project.
Throw in fitness test items like a longer run (3.2 km up from the current 2.4 km), add the likelihood of removing dreaded test stations like the Standing Broad Jump (SBJ), which in turn points to the prospect of more NSmen earning monetary awards for their IPPT, do all this amid a climate of increasing discussions with Singaporeans on NS matters (thanks to the Our Singapore Conversation effort) and one can naturally expect the trials to become a talking point among NSmen.
Furthermore, while everything NSmen do within the fence line of an SAF camp is covered under the Official Secrets Act and the more draconian Essential Regulations Act, the innocuous-sounding subject matter of IPPT trials *yawn* may have lulled a handful of trial participants into thinking this topic is kosher for outside conversation.[Note: Our NSmen can be trusted to keep their mouths shut when it comes to operational matters like weapons, tactics and doctrine. A good example being a Singapore Army capability which entered service and was decommissioned with not a word leaked out. HIMARS replaced this capability. This was from a background brief and this is all I can say about this.]
Loose lips may have contributed to the speculative ST article which is peppered with circumspect phrases from the headline down. Phrases such as "likely to", "may be ditched", "may have to undergo", "are expected to", "could kick in" make clear nothing is definitive.
Alas, the prominent positioning of the story on page 3 of the main paper, the somewhat authoritative manner in which IPPT test stations are described, including the killer line that "changes could kick in as early as next April" triggered a buzz among Singaporeans. In the past few days, many NSmen mentally projected their 2.4 km running pace to the 3.2 km distance to see if they would make it. Just today alone, I overheard two separate conversations in the gym about the 3.2 km run.
Our reactions are not surprising, given the impression among some Singaporeans that the mainstream media is *ahem* "government controlled". So some readers took the story at face value.
At the other end of the stick, there are readers who lambasted the story as an example of poor reporting standards by the MSM, having read, understood and accepted MINDEF/SAF's clarification that no decision has been made to change the IPPT system.
As a media relations case study, the IPPT story is fascinating. It indicates the extent to which mainstream media journalists are sometimes prepared to push the boundary. In this instance, the newspaper ended up with a misfired story after officialdom issued one clarification after another.
The Singapore Army reacted swiftly. The same day the ST story appeared, it posted a clarification on its Facebook page. This in turn led to some Facebook members saying more about the IPPT trials than was published in the ST article.
This morning, ST readers flipped open their newspaper to find a letter in the Forum Page titled "NS panel not reviewing IPPT specifics" signed off by the Ministry of Defence Director, Public Affairs. In return, the ST Editor added a note of his own.
So what are the rest of us to make of this exchange between ST and MINDEF/SAF? Should NSmen crank up the pace to 3.2 km? Celebrate the ousting of the SBJ?
The answer lies in the Singapore Army's Facebook reply of 23 October, which states firmly that no decision on the IPPT has been made. The answer also resides in replies to the same Facebook post, which suggests that trials of new IPPT test items did indeed take place. This in itself does not mean the IPPT format will change, as the SAF has not reached a decision on the matter.
ST's story would sit on firmer ground had it informed readers that while trials took place, no decision has been reached.
Instead, the story's description of likely changes has given rise to undue concerns among some NSmen who think it's a done deal, making them wonder why they have to learn about this from a newspaper article and not their NS unit.
While the concerns are unfortunate because they have made some NSmen unnecessarily upset, it is good that MINDEF/SAF staff officers experience how to address such matters by wielding non-traditional methods like Facebook to the tried-and-tested, such as firing off a letter to the Editor.
We can take the example of the SOC redesign as assurance that the SAF implements changes carefully, particularly those that impact our citizen soldiers fitness-wise, and that Army planners are fully aware that NSmen used to a certain IPPT test format cannot be expected to change gears just like that.
Trust the system.
NS panel not reviewing IPPT specifics
26 October 2013 Saturday
WEDNESDAY's article ("SAF soldiers' IPPT likely to change") was speculative and misleading.
The Committee to Strengthen National Service will not be reviewing specifics of the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT), which is a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) matter as it deals with the combat fitness of our soldiers.
The SAF does review its training programmes periodically, including those for combat fitness, but has not decided on any changes to the IPPT format.
Kenneth Liow (Colonel)
Director, Public Affairs
Ministry of Defence
Editor's Note:Our report on the likely IPPT changes did not say these were linked to the work of the Committee to Strengthen National Service (CSNS). The report appeared, however, on the same page as another story that quoted Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen's comments on CSNS deliberations.