Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 6(c)

Please read Parts 6(a) and 6(b) before reading this commentary.

A tribute to Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh
8 February 1981 to 26 February 2001

Every Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training casualty touches the hearts of many Singaporeans beyond the immediate family members of the fallen warrior.

Singapore's tiny size, high population density and the acceptance of National Service (NS) as part of life in Singapore mean that the pain felt by the next-of-kin is a shared burden. Many Singaporean households have family members who had served NS and these households feel the sense of loss along with families whose loved ones died while in uniform.

The Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has never shared the full extent of training casualties in the SAF.

But that should not stop us from appreciating and embracing every casualty as a citizen who died defending the very freedom we all enjoy and sometimes take for granted.

The dry-as-dust MINDEF news releases on SAF training accidents and the aversion of the Public Affairs Department (PAFF) to media coverage of such situations seldom allow fellow Singaporeans to appreciate this fact.

The Loh family has very kindly shared pictures of their late son, Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh, so you'll see him as a naval officer and a son, brother, friend and comrade who paid the ultimate price serving the SAF.

Daryl (seated, third from right, jersey No.1) with the Raffles Institution softball team. His leadership potential was apparent during his school days. He was captain of the team. The boys in this picture would be around 29 years old today, some quite likely married with children.

 Daryl as a midshipman with RSS Endurance, a Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) tank landing ship.

2LT Daryl with his hard-earned "bar". It's a proud moment for any SAF officer. He won the Sword of Merit during his MIDS course. Daryl's father tells me that Daryl never got to see this photo as it was given to the family on the day of the funeral.

2LT Daryl's funeral was held on 2 March 2001. His coffin sits atop a 25-pounder gun. The RSN mounted an honour guard to send off one of its own. Daryl's brother, Clarence, holds his portrait. Clarence was so affected by the loss of his brother he stayed away from home for four months because going home brought back sad memories of his only brother. When Clarence enlisted for National Service that same year, the RSN brought Clarence into the Navy Family so it could look after him.
I find the sense of responsibility displayed by senior RSN commanders at the time very heartwarming.

This is what journalists mean when they use the phrase "there wasn't a dry eye in the room".

Former RSN Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral Lui Tuck Yew, presents the Singapore flag and 2LT Loh's peak cap to Lawrence Loh, Daryl's father. The Loh family have said RADM Lui's support was exemplary.

No amount of training in a staff college or public relations grooming can prepare senior officers for that golden moment when they will meet the next-of-kin, in the presence of their grief-stricken troops, and must demonstrate the presence of mind to say something meaningful without breaking down.

In my opinion, senior commanders may show they are moved by the moment but must maintain their composure at all cost.

In emotional situations like this, people look up to senior SAF commanders for firm leadership, guidance and moral support. This is when outstanding officers distinguish themselves from the mediocre.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 6(b) - A Father's Pain

Please read Part 6(a) before reading the commentary that follows.

Eight years after losing his eldest son, Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh, in a naval accident, Lawrence Loh speaks about the loss of a son.

I thank Mr Loh for his courage in sharing his thoughts so other Singaporeans, be they parents, full-time National Servicemen or Operationally Ready NSmen, may know how long the grieving process stretches.

Every training death brings reminders to the Loh family and over a hundred Singaporean families who had to cope with the loss of a son or daughter every since the Singapore Armed Forces was established.

A Father's Pain
By Lawrence Loh

WHEN I read stories of SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) deaths, I will think of my son Daryl. He died in a naval accident in February 2001.

In an interview I gave to The Sunday Times in January 2003, I spoke of a deep-seated sadness that will never go away. (This was after four Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) women sailors died after RSS Courageous collided with a merchant ship.)

We’re now in 2009. We have moved on, but memories of my family’s ordeal remain as fresh as the day the accident took place.

Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF personnel will never know the anguish that families who have lost their loved ones have to endure whenever we read about a training death. People in charge of handling training accidents must know that many more families will feel the hurt and the pain, other than those of the next-of-kin of the latest accident that makes the news.

I don’t believe in grieving alone which is why I’m sharing our experience. It is a form of emotional release.

The 26th of February 2001 was the day my life turned upside down.

It was a Monday and I was walking back after lunch to my office at Paragon Shopping Centre when my wife called at around 2pm. She said Daryl had fallen into the sea.

It came as a shock and she had to repeat the Navy officer’s telephone number three times before I got it down.

I called the officer and learnt that Daryl had fallen into the sea 40 minutes earlier. Naval divers were looking for him.

I was in a daze and went back to work.

My wife called me and asked me to go home immediately. That’s when the seriousness of the news sank in.

At home, the wait for the Navy’s call seemed like an eternity.

The Navy called me back around 3:30pm asking me to go to Changi General Hospital. I was in no position to drive, so my sister-in-law drove us there.

When I peeked into the resuscitation room, I saw the doctors pumping away trying to revive Daryl. At around 4pm, I identified his body.

His body was placed on a gurney, covered with a blanket and with only his face exposed. He looked like he was asleep.

My wife and I were devastated and we couldn’t eat for several days.

We had to decide whether the wake would stretch for three or five days. We decided on five because Daryl’s friends were overseas and his girlfriend was in Cornell. They needed time to fly back to Singapore.

The next day, I was anxious to see what The Straits Times had written about the accident. It was a very moving article.

My mind was in a daze. On Tuesday, friends said I had not placed an obituary and helped to arrange for one in the newspaper. I took a day to write the obituary for Daryl. I had always thought he would be writing my obituary.

(The Loh family’s tribute to Daryl read:“Daryl, you are our pride and joy. We love you and will miss you dearly. The emotional pain we are going through is indescribable.”)

You know, we may be Catholics but we’re still Chinese and the Chinese believe parents should not send off their children at funerals. I said we must be there for Daryl, so we all went to his funeral.

The real pain came after the funeral and I was on an emotional roller-coaster.

During the grieving period, every trigger point brings a flood of memories.

I remember our last dinner at the Island Club where Daryl ordered a club sandwich. It was our last meal together and I still keep the receipt. For a year, my wife refused to return to the club as that’s where we last saw him alive.

It took me about six months to get over the intense grieving. My wife took about a year.

I wrote to Dr Tony Tan (then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence) to request an exemption for my second son Clarence. MINDEF said the Enlistment Act did not permit this, but offered to downgrade him to a non-combat vocation. You know, before Daryl’s accident, I actually wanted to put Clarence through a rigorous regime as I felt it would be good for him.

Lui Tuck Yew (Rear Admiral, then Chief of Navy) offered to place Clarence in the Navy so the Navy could look after him. I took up his offer.

Admiral Lui visited my family regularly during the wake and for many years after the funeral. Rear Admiral Tan Kai Hoe also provided much needed emotional support, for which we are grateful.

It has never occurred to me to close up. I’ve kept all the obituaries, friends’ emails, SMSes, condolence cards and stories from newspapers in a file.

I try to get over the tragedy by talking to others and hope the findings from the accident can be used to prevent future accidents… I don’t think I will ever get over it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 6(a) - A Father's Pain

The Hurt Locker: A Father's Pain
This is a true story. I wish it wasn't.

In February 2001, the Loh family made a supreme sacrifice when their eldest son, Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh, died in a training accident while serving his country. He was just 20 years old.

Daryl’s father, Lawrence, shares his thoughts on why the system needs more heartware and compassion when dealing with family members of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel who die in training accidents.

The letter you see below was sent to The Straits Times Forum Page. It never saw the light of day in the 90 cents newspaper.

Mr Loh then sent it to Today, a Singaporean English language free sheet. Today published it in its online Voices page, which is a section set aside for readers’ letters. Online letters have less visibility compared to those that appear in the print edition.

I received the letter from Mr Loh recently.

I am sharing the letter here with the hope that Singaporean society will – someday - show proper respect to fellow Singaporeans when the occasion demands. If you're a person in authority, or a young SAF officer who will one day rise to one, please bear this incident in mind should you have to deal with next-of-kin someday.

I’ll share my thoughts in a follow-up commentary.

I thank the Loh family for their courage in speaking up. Stout hearts.


By Lawrence Loh
It started with MP Seng Han Thong being set on fire. Then came MP Denise Phua who was threatened by a rag-and-bone man. Now it is MP Cynthia Phua who was subjected to a display of violence by a constituent.

Although these incidents are disturbing and a cause for concern, I wonder whether the constituents are solely to be blamed.

Allow me to relate my personal experience.

In February 2001, my older son died in a naval accident whilst serving National Service. In that year, my younger son was due for enlistment. A friend, a very active grassroots member, suggested that I approach my MP, for help in exploring the possibility of getting an exemption for my younger son. I was reluctant but he went ahead to fix an appointment for me at the Meet-The-People Session (MPS). I subsequently relented and he accompanied me there. It was in March 2001. That was my first appearance at a MPS, and it was to be my last.

I waited until midnight before I could meet the MP. Prior to this, he was given the case paper which detailed the objective of the meeting and the circumstances of my case.

When I entered the room, his first remark was “Yes, what can I do for you?”. There was no attempt at offering a word of sympathy or condolence. I then related my situation and said that both my wife and I were very traumatised.

His next remark was:“What traumatic? After two months, you won’t be traumatic.”.

With that, I decided to end the meeting. And with that, my respect for him hit ground zero. I was too stunned and grief-stricken to react. Someone who was less-controlled and less-measured than me could have flown into a rage and become violent.

MPs are elected or appointed to serve the constituents. People who attend the MPS are those who have real problems and need help. In a lot of instances, they are stressed, distressed and troubled.

What they need is a caring soul, a helping hand, a gentle voice, and words of hope and encouragement. To dispense these, MPs need good interpersonal skills and a high EQ. Arrogance, a patronizing, chiding and belittling attitude, aloofness and lack of empathy will only trigger acts of rashness and violence.

Many of our politicians have a high IQ, some are scholars. However, a high IQ is not the only attribute needed in a political career. A high EQ is equally, if not more critical, especially when it comes to dealing with the constituents.

In my case, I would have felt good if my MP could have been a warm and caring person. If he could have been empathetic, consoling and helpful. All these qualities can only come from the heart, not from the mind.

How many of our MPs can stand up and be counted for this?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Work sights

Hi Everyone,
This is my work place. It's the Universal Studios Singapore theme park at Resorts World Sentosa. Yes, it's quite a jump from the 90 cents newspaper. I joined Resorts World in May 2008 and moved to Genting Bhd some months later. Genting has seconded me to Resorts World to finish the project.

Seen in the distance is the Battlestar Galactica Dueling Coasters. The blue one is a suspended coaster (i.e. the track runs above you and your legs will dangle) that will clock +4.6Gs and -0.6Gs.

You can also see part of the lagoon that is the roof of the basement car park.

P.S. I'll organise a group outing to give you folks a sneak preview of the theme park. Should be in late December 2009.

Blue on Blue: Part 5

Why I turned down a book offer

Twenty thousand Singapore dollars is a tidy sum one can earn to write a book, but my credibility is worth more than that.

I turned down an offer to write a book about a series of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) operations overseas because I felt the system wasn't ready to tell a compelling story.

The Public Affairs Department (PAFF) at Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) asked me in March 2009 if I was keen to write a book on the operations.

I was definitely interested but wanted PAFF's assurance that access to interviewees and information would not pose a problem. The intellectual framework for the book should also reflect how participants felt and serve as a credible publication of record for the operation.

When one is engaged as a hired pen, you're essentially providing a service the buyer is paying for. So, if they want a Mickey Mouse book, that's what you should provide. The service should be provided under a willing buyer/willing seller relationship.

I wasn't a willing seller because at this stage of my personal development, I feel my name should only back book projects I believe in. Writing a book is a personal endeavour. Most writers would agree it's not a purely financial transaction where money changes hands after you whack out a chunk of text.

Some background is necessary at this juncture.

In January 2005 I agreed to write a book on the SAF's tsunami relief mission, Operation Flying Eagle (OFE). The book's production timeline was disrupted by issues related to information gathering. This is why I sought repeated assurances that there would be no issues with information access, or the availability of first order sources of information needed to narrate the story convincingly.

After my return to Singapore on 25 January 2005 aboard RSS Endurance, I took three weeks' leave to concentrate on the OFE book. Access was a big problem and information trickled in.

By 15 February, I had interviewed just seven SAF personnel - including the then Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Ng Yat Chung. (Interviews done on 11 and 12 Feb 2005 don't count as I cornered the interviewees at social events.)

Two weeks had been frittered away idling at home waiting for interviews and information. As MINDEF wanted the book out quickly and imposed deadlines for me to meet, I was annoyed with the delays.

During the book review meeting on 17 February 2005, chaired by the then Director Public Affairs (DPA), Colonel Benedict Lim, I was asked for a progress report on the chapters. I replied none were ready.

He was surprised, to put it mildly. An Armour officer by training, COL Benedict's response was indeed swift and decisive. He got things moving quickly and cleared the roadblocks. That the book appeared on time is due very much to COL Benedict's effort in getting things moving.

A day later, I interviewed 24 SAF personnel of all ranks who had served OFE in Indonesia, Thailand or supported the operation from Singapore. It was the most number of interviews I had done in a single day - proper sit down interviews, not street polls where you're after a one sentence quote. Interviewees varied from those bursting with stories to tell to the less chatty ones who had to be coaxed to share their experiences during OFE.

I remember the day well: 18 Feb is my birthday. I missed a steamboat dinner at Marina Square planned by some friends as I was in Dieppe Barracks chasing down OFE participants during their Chinese New Year celebration.

I did two more interviews on 19 Feb and augmented these with email replies from OFE participants who served in other theatres. This included the KC-135R tanker crew who flew the then United Nations Secretary General around the Indian Ocean.

The liaison officer assigned to assist me with this project and I were pleased with the information amassed and I got cracking with the stories.

MINDEF received one chapter a day, everyday, for about a week. Thereafter, the chapters were vetted in a process which isn't relevant to this post.

I'm told the production timeline for the OFE book - I had about a month to write it - was one of the fastest MINDEF had ever achieved. It could have been faster if my LO had the roadblocks cleared sooner.

Access was one issue I had with the book offer. Credibility was another.

I understand that the Republic of Singapore Navy went through a period of soul-searching in 2003. This followed a major incident that made the news. Some of you may know what I'm referring to.

In addition, the winter seas that the operation's participants had to operate in were quite unlike anything they had trained for in the South China Sea. I hear there were issues about operating in this environment and this caused some friction. I hear there were also issues related to concept of operations (CONOPS). Some tactics, techniques and procedures were drafted, refined, exercised and approved while one LST was en route to its area of operations.

Yes, there were hiccups and command friction issues. To their credit, the RSN personnel resolved all these issues. I wanted this reflected in the book but PAFF said no. To my mind, PAFF envisioned the book as PIONEER magazine on steroids.

Now for the point about access to information. All SAF personnel involved in operations would know there is something called an After Action Report (AAR) that records all facets of the operation. Depending on the authors, some AARs are better written than others.

I had requested access to these AARs and received abridged versions for the first three operations. About two pages of sparse text for each operation that was essentially a rehash of what you can find from the MINDEF news releases online.

I hear that the actual AARs were so detailed they even logged the number of panadols dispensed and the sea states the RSN personnel had to endure. They detailed the missions performed by the small craft, such as the Fast Craft Utility (FCU: a waterjet-propelled landing craft) sorties that went around inspecting and resupplying ships anchored in a cordoned area at sea called SMUG1. This is the sort of colour I sought from the AARs, but was denied.

What a pity. Books on operations by other military forces make compelling reads because of the quality of the raw data which authors translate into information, then knowledge.

I had offered to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) so that information security would be preserved. That said, I'm told that even with the NDA, the ops summaries were all MINDEF was prepared to share.

My friends told me not to waste my time.

They advised me that had I written the book as a public relations puff piece, the book would lack credibility. A number of them had served during the operation, which is why I value their opinions and bow to their wisdom.

Don't you find it ironic that military enthusiasts can go to the SAFTI Military Institute Library and find armfuls of books detailing operations on various wars on this planet, but will be hard-pressed finding any books on SAF ops?

I nursed a naive notion that the book would serve as more than a coffee table book. I had hoped it would pack stories that were gripping and reflect the pride that the participants gained during their overseas stints. As I said, it was a naive notion.

So I declined the offer.

The SAF ops book project is the second I've declined in as many years. In early 2007, I was approached to write a book on a former Cabinet minister who once handled defence, education and economic portfolios. My concerns were the same as those for the ops book: access to first order sources of information to write a credible book. I declined the project as I didn't feel comfortable with the scope of work. In hindsight, it was the right decision. Those of you who know why, would know.

Looking at PIONEER's writing style, I could have quite easily grabbed the ops book offer with both hands, delivered the mother of all PR puff pieces and requested my name be dropped from the book. But Singapore is a tiny place. I didn't want to disappoint people I know whom I regard highly.

A parting shot: MINDEF doesn't seem to treat its authors well.

After the OFE book was done, I wasn't invited for the book's launch on 1 July 2005. I had thought this would be a professional courtesy. I attended the ceremony as part of the 90 cents paper's team that covered the SAF Day Parade, then lingered behind to watch from the sidelines as President S.R. Nathan did the honours launching my first book.

How would you have felt?

After that experience, I decided to set certain benchmarks for future book projects.

If you've read my previous rants on quality control (QC) issues related to defence information management, you will get a sense of the QC I've set myself for any book project. If these benchmarks can't be met, I'll walk away.

All the best to whoever is writing it.

My friends and I look forward to writing a book review after it is published.

Advertisement: Commentaries in November will focus on an overseas SAF exercise. Please look out for these.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tackling Unknown Unknowns: The Vetting Process

I'd like to thank everyone who gamely joined the mock vetting discussion on the page you see above. The comments elicited mirror what goes on during a vetting process when creative ideas are thrown onto the table, debated and improved upon.

I liken the vetting process for creative ideas as a battle against unknown unknowns. The committee won't know what errors to look for (first unknown entity) or how many mistakes they must find (second unknown entity).

There's no model answer to refer to at the end of the vetting process and one hopes that the collective wisdom of the vetting committee would hedge against mistakes. Most times, this works.

As editors in charge of daily newspapers will tell you, slip ups are part and parcel of the job. People do drop the ball despite the best systems and intentions because the production of an editorial product, like a parade programme, is essentially a human enterprise.

Blast from the past
The image you see was not doctored. It was scanned from the National Day Parade 1991 (NDP) programme.

When the freshly printed NDP programmes were delivered to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Department (PAFF) back in August 1991 - ahh, it didn't take long for me to cast the spotlight on them - I was given a copy as a souvenir. I served PAFF during my full-time National Service.

One of my quirks is that I'm hardwired to look for errors in other people's printed work. Funny thing is, I can't catch my own speling errors, but can usually sniff out glitches that other people make.

While flipping through the 36-page programme, the image of the Colours Party caught my eye. I felt something wasn't right. So I went to look for Senior Warrant Officer Sng (can't remember his full name), whom I regarded as MINDEF's subject matter expert on such matters. I didn't make an appointment as SWO Sng was friendly and approachable and in those days, he had an "open door" policy.

I cracked the NDP programme to Page 8, the one with the picture you see above, and asked for his comments. I watch his studied gaze as his eyes shifted from one image to another.

SWO Sng then half-closed the programme to look at the cover and opened it again to Page 8.

He spotted the error immediately. The wattage from his smile when he beamed at me could have lit the whole office. He knew someone had messed up.

By then, more than 55,000 copies of the NDP programme had been printed. When I brought the error to the attention of my superior officer, he was baffled initially. As he was a Non-Uniformed Singapore Armed Forces (NUSAF, later renamed the DXO scheme), I think the error didn't quite register. He then sought the opinion of an Army officer in PAFF and that officer backed me up.

Here's what happened next: The NUSAF officer asked me who else I had spoken to about the issue (only SWO Sng) and ordered me keep it quiet. If I blabbed, I would be put on charge (!).

Now, when you're a lowly NSF and your superior officer threatens to put you on charge, this sort of episode gets seared into your memory for life. That's why I recall that episode so vividly till this day.

Vetting Exercise Takeways
I found the mock vetting exercise interesting because an error that eluded an entire NDP EXCO in 1991 also escaped the attention of many netizens - many of whom weren't even born in 1991. : )

Just look at the comments it elicited. One discussant found the image odd. And it took a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Second Lieutenant to point out the error. Good job.

As I work for a gaming company, I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of NDP'91 spectators would not have spotted the laterally inverted picture. You're also probably right to point out that the glitch wasn't a show-stopper.

I'll be the first to concede the error is minor.

On the whole, I feel the NDP'91 EXCO did a fine job given the constraints on time, resources, funding and political considerations. Iraq invaded Kuwait a year earlier in August 1990 and MINDEF was aware that the show in 1991 had to send an even stronger message of deterrence. This was a new inject the NDP'91 EXCO had to grapple with and they did so very well.

The whole point of this exercise is to underscore how errors make their way into cold hard print.

Vetting Process: The Systemic Flaw
Thinking back, the vetting process had a systemic flaw. Images in the pre-digital photography era were reviewed using slide projectors. The EXCO members would have had the draft parade programme printed out for them in A3 format - but in black and white with pictures appearing as a blurry mess thanks to early 1990s xerox technology.

The EXCO had 36 pages of mock ups to run through. As 136 images made it into the programme, common sense says that a larger number would have been flashed on screen because not all proposed images made the grade. The images would have been reviewed one at a time with the help of those pathetic A3 mock ups.

Remember the unknown unknowns? The NDP EXCO watching that slideshow were literally combing in the dark to weed out glitches. Vetting editorial copy is never an easy task. This is why the job of newsroom copy editor is often a thankless one.

There's another systemic flaw: most people in the sub-committee that vetted the programme were, by and large, very senior officers. So while an RSM might have zeroed in on the wrong positioning of the Colours, this boo boo probably escaped notice by the senior officers.

Can you see how the vetting process dropped the ball?

In the larger scheme of things, slip ups while vetting other types of MINDEF and SAF material has provided me with a fair bit of intel on items that would otherwise be considered S or TS. I will not highlight these as this will compromise operational security (OPSEC), but mistakes have been made and I think I've made my point.

But there are numerous things in my little black book I can, and will, share with you.

I've highlighted this example and the previous one involving the erroneous venue for Exercise Sing-Siam to demonstrate why staff officers must pay great attention to detail.

These are examples that many of you are probably reading about for the first time. In my opinion, this is probably because MINDEF and the SAF tend to shy away from learning from past mistakes. We do not make enough effort sharing how errors were made and have a tendency to sweep things under the carpet.

Case in point: the misfiring of the fireworks curtain from the Sheares Bridge during NDP 2007 was edited out of the television footage during the repeat telecast of the parade, as was the mistimed Fire of Joy during an earlier parade at the Padang. In time to come, people forget. Future generations viewing such footage without the benefit of institutional memory (for example: access to NDP after action reports) would not know about such glitches as everything looks picture perfect.

What has been carried forth through the years, however, is the punitive mindset.

To be fair, it's my view that this isn't peculiar to MINDEF or the SAF. Try criticising other parts of the system and see the reception you get.

When I pointed out the error in September's issue of PIONEER magazine, PAFF reacted in much the same way as my superior officer did way back in 1991. From what I hear, certain individuals were miffed.

Rather than getting their house in order after learning about the Alouette III error, the feedback seems to have generated mainly negative emotions.

I got not one word of thanks. Not a word.

Somehow, the deafening silence didn't surprise me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Singapore-flagged container ship, Kota Wajar, hijacked

A Singapore-flagged ship, Kota Wajar, was hijacked in the Indian Ocean on Thursday 15 Oct 2009 off the Seychelles. On board were 21 crew, including two Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs).

Kota Wajar, callsign Sierra Six Bravo Tango (S6BT), is a 184-metre long container ship en route from Singapore to Mombasa, Kenya. Note the generally low freeboard that would have facilitated boarding of S6BT from small craft.

The hijackings of two Malaysian ships off Somalia in August 2008 took about a month-and-a-half to resolve and saw the deployment of the frigate KD Lekiu and landing ship tank KD Inderapura with PASKAL special forces embarked. The deployment was called Operation Fajr (Arabic for "Dawn").

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Defence Info Ops Exercise

For exercise, for exercise, for exercise.

Mock NDP Vetting
You are the Chairman of the National Day Parade (NDP) Executive Committee (EXCO).

The following page for the NDP programme has been sent to the EXCO for vetting.

Review and comment on the image and lead the discussion as you see fit (in the comments box please).

I'll post my comments this weekend.

Weapons free.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 4

Dumb and dumber

An error no spell check could catch almost resulted in raised eyebrows among defence officials in Bangkok, Canberra and Jakarta, not to mention red faces on Level 5 at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

The honest mistake was spotted, the glitch rectified and thanks relayed to me by a grateful MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) Department. That incident took place years ago, before the current period of tension.

In an erroneous cover letter, a PAFF Media Relations Officer had said that joint Singapore-Thailand naval manoeuvres would take place “off the coast of Darwin”. Journalists unfamiliar with Exercise Sing-Siam and people who tend to place blind faith in government news releases are unlikely to have caught the mistake.

I was puzzled by that line but thought it sounded plausible as Royal Thai Navy (RTN) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) warships could indeed be exercising in international waters “off the coast of Darwin”. Passage exercises (PASSEX) take place on an opportunity basis around the globe regularly. So why not a PASSEX between Thai and Singaporean men-of-war off the great continent of Australia?

But something didn’t sound right, so I rang the MRO. He nearly fell off his chair when he called up the page on his computer screen and read that offending line. He gasped even before I finished reading the sentence aloud for his benefit.

Yes, it was dumb.

He explained that he took a previous cover letter for Exercise Singaroo as a template and forgot to erase the last part of the sentence. He was upfront about the mistake and took swift remedial action to ensure local and international media agencies were alerted.

The oversight that resulted from lax attention to detail is an example of poor staff work. But the officer learned from his mistake and never again let his guard down.

Had it been published in the 90 cents newspaper – Singapore’s paper of record – the story could have resulted in an embarrassing correction made on MINDEF’s account.

Australian defence officials from the lucky country may have laughed it off. The Thais may have displayed typical reticence. Imagine, just for a moment please, how Jakarta might have reacted to news of Thai-Singaporean war games on their doorstep. Indonesian papers would have had a field day.

But the problem was nipped in the bud.

I hope defence officials who claim the 90 cents paper hardly looks out for the interests of MINDEF and the SAF will think again before spouting such gibberish.

The glitch was fixed, pronto. Rather than incurring PAFF’s wrath, that incident drew us closer. PAFF knew I had the organisation’s interest at heart when I pointed out errors or raised red flags at things I was uncomfortable with. At times like this, it does pay to have inquisitive friends.

Years later, PAFF seems to have grown into a different beast.

How I misread the current PAFF’s psyche when I penned that Forum Page letter on the Land Rover training death. The fallout it generated was as unexpected as it was unwelcome.

How I underestimated the attention PAFF paid to the online comparison with the Army Information Centre on an online military forum. So we make our bed, we sleep in it.

I’m given to understand that certain quarters in PAFF were aghast I had the temerity to point out the error in September’s issue of PIONEER magazine. Feedback I received informally described the post as “unfriendly”.

I guess it’s about as “unfriendly” as telling a journalist turned commentator that he was welcome at the Army Open House 2009 media preview, only to pull that privilege that same morning. I hope those who hatched that plot squealed with delight. It was utterly childish and some people I know in the SAF were embarrassed to hear about the incident.

My response was to start this blog and the Blue on Blue commentaries. I’m hunkering down for an ops tempo of one Blue on Blue commentary a week for the next one-and-a-half years, until I get an apology for the Army Open House incident or till hell freezes over.

Comments and feedback I’ve received offline and in confidence agree with points I’ve made. I’m not reassured my line of reasoning gels with popular opinion. Frankly, I’m alarmed.

I worry that certain quarters from the defence eco-system – whom I shall obviously not name – share the sentiments expressed about PAFF – the one organization tasked to fight and win MINDEF/SAF’s info ops war. Egad, indeed.

If PAFF can’t get the small things right, then forget about aiming for the stars and nursing any ambition to be “world class”.

Getting the basics right is the baseline from which any publication or defence information organization improves and matures. If you can’t even do that, or if you don’t have the mindset for chatter you don’t like, then I surmise that the job fit may be the second mistake that people are too polite to point out.

In my opinion, the PAFF of yesteryear fostered a more permissive operating environment for journalists and a happier situation for MROs.

MINDEF MROs got the coverage they needed most of the time. What’s more, the MROs were not bogged down with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that were not only onerous, but in my opinion, impossible to achieve. I’m told one MRO broke down in tears after the person was ordered to “request” that a certain newspaper change its headline – at 1am in the morning when the paper had already gone to print. Yawn.

Here's the crux of the matter: I will continue pointing out mistakes and voicing opinions on various defence-related issues.

As the Exercise Sing-Siam episode proves, my inquisitiveness did not blossom overnight.

I could very well have typed out the Exercise Sing-Siam story with that erroneous venue for the naval war games, then sat with my arms folded, popcorn in hand as I watched defence officials from Bangkok to Canberra wonder if MINDEF had lost its marbles. I did not because the Director Public Affairs (DPA) at the helm was someone I respected. He’d looked out for me and I readily did the same.

The previous, previous PAFF leadership – being more open-minded, with a bigger heart and able to see the big picture – valued critical voices. Critical feedback gave PAFF a platform to redress misconceptions, debunk baseless chatter or fortify MINDEF/SAF’s position on certain issues.

If the current PAFF can’t weather criticism from well-meaning Singaporeans in peacetime, forget about being there to support the Third Generation SAF when the button is pressed.

This mindset will fail MINDEF.

And Singaporeans will pay the price. Does that mean you, dear tax payer?

Next week: Why I will not write the OBO book.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

RSAF's aborted flight to Padang: MFA explains

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) replied to Mr William Teo a day after the 90 cents newspaper published his letter which related his experience in the quake ravaged Indonesian city of Padang.

Kudos to MFA for its speed of response and clarity of reply.

One nit pick: MFA's letter doesn't tackle Mr Teo's claim that he was told the RSAF planes were "circling in the air for three hours waiting for approval to land".

But at least MFA is, in my opinion, more transparent than MINDEF which cherry picks its Forum Page responses and metes out petty inconveniences to letter writers it doesn't like.

The Straits Times
Forum Page
Oct 10, 2009

RSAF's aborted flight to Padang: MFA explains
WE REFER to Mr William Teo's letter yesterday, 'Sad Singapore story out of Padang, in two parts...'. When the earthquake struck Padang on Sept 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and our missions in Indonesia immediately reached out to Singaporeans who had registered with us as being in Padang, to ensure their safety as well as to ascertain if they needed any assistance.
It was fortunate that when we contacted the registered Singaporeans, we were told of the presence of Singaporeans who had not registered. This included the group that Mr Teo was in. We immediately contacted these Singaporeans, including Mr Teo's group, and were informed that they were safe. We kept in close touch with Singaporeans who had indicated that they would like to leave Padang as soon as possible. Understanding their anxiety, various options were considered.
When the Indonesian authorities welcomed our offer of assistance, the possibility of using the turnaround flights of the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C-130s ferrying Singapore's Dart team to Padang opened up. Arrangements for Singaporeans to leave Padang by RSAF C-130s were made on this basis. Unfortunately, after these arrangements had been set in motion, and just as our C-130s were about to take off for Padang, the Indonesian authorities informed us that they were not yet ready to receive foreign rescue contingents.
The planes were thus never 'in the air for three hours', but still in Singapore waiting for landing approval from the Indonesian authorities. This was conveyed to the Singaporeans on the ground in Padang and publicly by MFA press statements.
We are glad that Mr Teo returned safely to Singapore and would like to take this opportunity to remind all Singaporeans travelling overseas to eRegister with MFA at
Sudesh Maniar
Public Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Friday, October 9, 2009

Padang quake relief'09 Part 2

My earlier post makes a case for not taking the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) airlift capabilities for granted.

Scroll down to read a letter from a Singaporean who was recently stranded in Padang.

Hopefully the powers-that-be see merit in responding to his letter professionally and not by dancing round the issue.

If you've the opportunity to witness military forces at work during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions, you may come to realise that accurate yet perishable information as well as incomplete or conflicting information - what Clausewitz might dub the fog of war - often clouds attempts at maintaining situation awareness during HADR ops.

My sense of the matter is that the impression that either MFA or the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) got its lines crossed lines must be addressed thoroughly. At stake is the RSAF's effort to coax Singaporeans and defence observers into acknowledging that it is a 3rd Generation Air Force that can deal a swift and decisive blow during operations.

Along comes Mr William Teo and his party of shutterbugs, who felt stranded at Padang while a ghost plane circled the airport for three hours. Can you sense the exasperation in his letter?

Had a reporter been allowed to accompany one of the C-130 relief flights, that journalist would have been able to file a firsthand account of the difficulties and challenges involved in flying the Singapore-Padang air bridge. But I guess it's safer for MINDEF's Public Affairs Department (PAFF) to stick to a tried-and-tested, albeit predictable, CONOPS for HADR information management.

When the Air Power Generation Command (APGC) was unveiled, journalists were trying to figure out how APGC fitted into the way the 3rd Generation RSAF carried out its business. The Padang mission, being the first mercy mission flown by APGC's Transport Group, would have been an ideal platform to showcase how APGC is mission ready, round the clock. Anchored on a real mission, Singaporeans could have been informed and updated on APGC without the rhetoric that PAFF trots out in its news releases.

While PAFF (hopefully) gets its act together, do remember that these flights by 122 Squadron are no milk runs.

Airspace over disaster areas is usually congested with airspace management done on a "see and be seen" regime when air traffic controllers are over stretched. This happened in Banda Aceh after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which is why the RSAF sent its Mobile Air Traffic Control (MATC) cabin to the city's damaged airport.

Factor in damage the airport runways may have sustained, unpredictable after shocks, crowded taxiways and the need to get aid supplies off the ramp quickly and one can imagine the enormity of the tasks that 122 SQN personnel performed in Padang.

PAFF's use of the New Media as a means for rapidly disseminating information is praise-worthy. But if you strip away the story datelines and names of interviewees, stories on the Padang mission might sound like clones of previous quake relief operations, such is the similarity of medical cases treated in such situations.

Absent thus far are stories on how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) medical team remains mobile, on the Civil Military Relations aspect of the operation that explains where and how the team leader conducts his operations with the TNI, and stories on how the team sustains itself in theatre thanks to a logistics chain that stretches all the way to the MSA in Singapore.

It takes some brainwork to engineer this sort of publicity and the United States have fine tuned its gig over numerous missions.

In contrast, we in Singapore tend to score own goals. The dynamics of the rivalry between the SAF and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) in cornering media attention often results in attempts at one upmanship.

I sensed similar rivalry during the Tekong manhunt years back when the SAF and Singapore Police Force jostled for airtime and newspaper space. And we appear to be seeing such dynamics at play right now in Padang.

This rivalry probably explains why coverage of the return of the SCDF's Lion Heart team to Singapore glossed over that all-important ride provided by the C-130 drivers. There would be no quake relief forces without the SCDF. But remember there would be no Lion Heart mission without those C-130s.

Perhaps next time, RSAF C-130 drivers should install a taxi meter in their glass cockpits (upgraded by ST Aero, but I digress), slaved to fuel consumed by the transport's four T-56 turboprops and calibrated according to the number of air miles chalked up. Present the bill upon arrival to the SCDF team and ask if they'd like to pay by cash, NETS or credit card. Charge extra for outsized cargo.

In the meantime, the US military has chimed in by taking an active part in operations around Padang. The fact that US armed forces personnel hit the ground days after other Asean countries sent aid isn't relevant to telling a good yarn. Who keeps score anyway?

In such situations, being first on scene is often secondary to being seen as doing something. And when the US flexes its military might, it usually does so in a headline-grabbing way.

It won't be long before international news wires file first person accounts from ride-alongs with US helos or transport aircraft. Throw in the obligatory picture of an American serviceman cradling an infant and their PR coup would be complete.

So, we live and learn. Hopefully....

The Straits Times
Forum Page
Oct 9, 2009
Sad Singapore story out of Padang, in two parts...

I WAS one of 11 Singaporeans caught in the Padang quake while we were in Sumatra for a photography trip. Our priority was to get the first flight back to Singapore on Sept 30.

As Tiger Airways had a scheduled flight the next day, we called to ask if we could get on the flight. We called repeatedly, but to no avail.

Although we heard that all flights were cancelled on Oct 1, we went to the airport anyway and were surprised that other commercial flights were operating as usual.

We managed to get 11 tickets from AirAsia, although we were booked to fly out on Tiger on Oct 3. We had no choice as there was not a soul at Tiger's booth at Padang airport. But that was not the end of our Singapore story. After we had booked our Air-Asia tickets, we received a call from a representative from the Singapore Embassy asking us if we wanted to be evacuated from Padang by a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) plane, which was leaving Padang at about 8.30pm on Oct 1. We gladly accepted the offer and arrived at the airport an hour before the scheduled departure.

But no RSAF plane was in sight. At 9pm, we received a call telling us the plane was circling in the air for three hours waiting for approval to land. Just before midnight, another call informed us that the evacuation had to be aborted because approval to land was not given.

After our arrival in Singapore, we were told that the plane did not even take off that day. We are puzzled as to why we were told the plane was in the air for three hours, and hope the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will enlighten us.

William Teo

My Landy

A number of you have wondered what my Land Rover looks like after reading the earlier post on training safety. Here she is.

I bought her in 1998 and have done quite abit to get her to look the way she does today.

I've a drawer plan for emergencies that would see her receive several modifications over a span of three weeks. These include wire mesh screens for all the glass as well as ballistic panels and other add-ons that would make her non-LTA compliant. : )

Please don't run me off the road when you see me or scratch her paintwork.

[For foreign readers, the LTA or Land Transport Authority is the national authority on transportation issues]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 3

Going Global

I had the pleasure of meeting American war correspondent, Mr Michael Yon, during his stopover in Singapore today.

A war correspondent of rare pedigree. Check out his blog here.

We talked over lunch on the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, and defence information management issues and challenges. Before we parted company, I got him to sign his latest book, Moment Of Truth In Iraq, which I bought from a month back. See reviews of the book here.

Will update this posting later.

Michael, thanks for reading my earlier Blue on Blue post. Yes, I know the experience...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Padang quake relief '09

With the school examination season in full swing, scores of school children who are the sons and daughters of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel are soldiering on without moral support from daddy.

These are children from military families whose fathers have responded to a call to action for the quake relief mission in Padang, Indonesia.

At home, wives are promoted to head of household – albeit temporarily - juggling multiple and largely unpaid responsibilities as home-maker, mother and military wife. If you think this is easy, try it yourself.

Alas, there are no medals to be earned. No hardship allowances to apply for and no off-in-lieus to hanker over by family members when duty calls.

The unspoken cost of an SAF career is offset to a large degree by the support network forged between spouses of SAF personnel who fuss over and look out for one another. In recent years, this network has started to include a small but growing number of husbands as more Singaporean women come forward and choose a career in uniform.

Helping ease things along are the Family Liaison Officers (FLOs). Their brief is to keep family members updated with the pulse of the SAF overseas mission or training attachment and ensure the household is in order. Great tact is needed by these liaison officers as they have to make the transition from erstwhile stranger to family friend and confidant. They must be embraced by the household as a guardian who pries into a family’s activities, making sure all’s well. Many of such chit chats take place after normal working hours – the concept of union hours being totally alien to those who serve in uniform.

If the FLOs are lucky, they might even be allowed to claim transport cost. If you're one of those who thinks fuel is free, please step forward to sponsor an FLO.

When I reported on the SAF’s tsunami relief mission in early 2005, I met several SAF personnel who were almost never found in the queue line for the satellite phone. With some tact, I asked them why they never courted the satellite phone.

They replied that as phone services in the area of operations might be erratic, they did not want to worry their family excessively by promising to call at a certain time interval. It made perfect sense: phone coverage could be down for several reasons (overload of the base stations, lack of power, damage to the phone network) and “no news is good news” formed the SOP for a number of SAF families. If they didn't call, they were OK.

As the SAF mission in Padang unfolds, let us not forget the supporting cast who make it all possible.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) ground crew who made C-130 Hercules transport aircraft mission ready, the logisticians who planned the type, amount and loading sequence of relief cargo are some of the vital cogs in the wheels that scarcely earned a mention in Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) news releases on these missions.

The C-130s are more than a taxi service. But readers of the 90 cents newspaper could be forgiven for forming that impression from the paucity of information on the squadron’s role in flying the air bridge between Singapore and Padang.

For the record, the squadron typically flies the Singapore Civil Defence Force's Operation Lion Heart rescue team into its area of operations too. But reading local newspaper reports might give people the impression the team was suddenly teleported into theatre.

Living close to the flight path leading to WSAP allows me to see or hear almost everything that goes in and out of Paya Lebar Air Base, including the unusual drone that sometimes flies in the dead of the night.....

Pilots and aircrew from 122 Squadron evidently had a busy spell on Friday evening (2 Oct 2009) and Saturday afternoon (3 Oct 2009) and I watched the afternoon flights depart on Saturday, two C-130s at a time in trail formation. Next stop: Padang.

It's at moments like these when MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) should be more proactive, in my honest opinion. I know of journalists who would have readily joined the relief flights but were brushed off by PAFF with what I feel is a somewhat high-handed retort "If we need you to go, we'll call you". So a ready-made story on a real SAF mission got canned. Pity.

This was no Berlin Airlift. But in the context of the RSAF, having nearly half of its C-130 fleet made mission ready for Padang at short notice speaks volumes of the dedication of the RSAF personnel. It is an achievement that should not be taken for granted.

A first hand account by journalists aboard one of the relief flights would drive home the point that RSAF C-130s are no fetch and drop off service. It would also emphasize the point that the earthquake relief missions are multi-faceted and complex, involving far more than the medical aspect. Last week's airlift was, in my view, the largest relief flights since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

The Sing-Padang Air Bridge effort should have merited more than a cursory mention in PAFF news releases. But I'm no PR experten, so perhaps PAFF had its reasons for glossing over its significance.

Alas, PAFF's drawer plan for HADR media management seems to follow a one size fits all template.

In that aspect, PAFF is utterly dependable.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Operation Blue Heron: 10 years on

Operation Blue Heron I:
Timor Leste October 1999
Photo essay and reflections of the October 1999 embed with 1st Media Support Unit (1 MSU), Australian Defence Force to follow. These pictures have never been published.

With Lieutenant-Colonel Lee Chong Kiat, a Singapore Army liaison officer attached to the Internet Force for East Timor (INTERFET). LTC Lee, a Commando, played an active role in keeping an eye out for the Singaporean media group in Dili, the capital of East Timor, during our embed there.

We met on the streets of Dili. I spotted a Mercedes-Benz MB240 scout jeep and my heart jumped when I saw that its numberplate was 35xxx MID. I was aware that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had LOs with INTERFET but did not know they brought their own vehicles.

So I hailed it like one would hail a taxi.

The street was almost deserted, apart from military personnel, and when the scout jeep drew alongside, the vehicle commander spoke to me.
LTC Lee:"Singaporean?"
CJ: "Yes, I am." I showed the officer my ADF press accreditation pass.
Lee:"Get in."

As I was in the middle of an unfamiliar town, I hopped aboard and had to perch atop jerry cans and assorted stores in the back of the vehicle.

LTC Lee rode in the vehicle commander's seat with his P-226 pistol in his hand and its muzzle just out of sight below the window frame. I asked why he did so and he replied that if he needed to take immediate action, he would probably be shot before he could draw his pistol if it was holstered. That's why he travelled, weapon drawn during that trip.

A word on the "Red Cross" stickers on the MB290 minimog behind us. These were originally stickers of the Singapore flag. On arrival in Dili, the Singaporean ground commander felt they looked too similar to the Indonesian flag and improvised. He got his men to cut the stickers and form them into Red Cross symbols. This explains the one-off, non standard vehicle markings. The Singapore Army troops were in full accord with all international conventions on the conduct of war as the personnel who used these vehicles were doctors or combat medics.

LTC Lee's scout jeep carried no insignia, apart from the MID numberplate.

Reflecting the multinational nature of INTERFET, a Royal Canadian Air Force C-130 flew me from Darwin to Dili. The transport's engines were kept running throughout its time on the ground and the aircraft started taxiing to the runway the moment the loadmaster indicated that the last cargo pallet had been safely lifted off the ramp. The morning silence that replaced the roar of the four turbo-props was eerie.

Except for soldiers and a handful of civilians from non governmental organisations, Komoro Airport was deserted. Journalists sent to cover military operations would do well to remember to pack sensibly for such embeds. There are no airport trolleys or porters to move your kit. What you pack, you carry yourself. Shortly after this picture was taken, liaison officers from the Australian Defence Force escorted me and a French LTC who was a military doctor to Dili with an armed escort.

These are some of the scenes that greeted me in Dili. Indonesia had long lost the "hearts and minds" campaign with East Timorese and the resident population made its feelings felt with graffiti. The impact of what appeared to be a coordinated and systematic scorched earth policy by pro-Indonesian militias was clear to see. All concrete buildings had been torched and buildings with thatched or tiled roofs had these removed. A United Nations compound had been sacked and the burnt-out remains of Land Rover Discoverys left behind.

Towards the end of my embed, East Timorese residents who had taken refuge in the hills around Dili began slowly streaming back into the town. Note the scale of the scorched earth destruction.

When I arrived, the town was pitch black after sundown.

Journalists covering similar situations must take note of the sunset time in their area of operations and make allowance for getting back to a safe area well before nightfall. My allowance was two hours of daylight. The only occasion when Jerome (the photographer) and I returned after dark was the day trip we made to Suai with the World Food Programme.

Though Dili was gutted by mobs, the TNI barracks was left untouched. Homes and buildings owned by people with connections to Indonesia were also unharmed. The banner hung above the street was a belated attempt at shoring up pro-Indonesia sentiments. It was also ineffective - a number were illiterate while most Timorese who had lived through the civil disorder had lost faith with the Indonesians.

In my opinion, Indonesia lost political mileage in the international community after the TNI apparently stood idly by while Dili was sacked by mobs.

The 1st Media Support Unit (1 MSU) of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) operated from Hotel Turismo, a beachfront hotel. The hotel had been looted and stripped of furnishings. Electricity was provided by ADF generators but the electricity supply was intermittent.

General Peter Gration (facing camera, fourth from left) calls a commander's conference after meeting the media. He is seen in conference with 1 MSU Media Relations Officers. Note the smoke trail from the burnt out generator room.

1 MSU required all journalists to sign a five-page Press Accreditation form which indicated, among other things, that journalists agree not to write anything prejudicial to ADF operations during the embed. In return, 1 MSU provided the media field essentials such as access to power, fresh water and rations. 1 MSU had its own television studio and dark room transported to the field in NATO standard shelters.

1 MSU was well-geared for info ops and it showed a high degree of trust, at least to the 90 cents paper. There were no minders who shadowed us, no requests for Q&As to be done in writing, no attempts at massaging journalist's copy by asking what tomorrow's headline and photo would be - which unbloodied media ops officers may tend to do.

ADF officers and men, and women in uniform, gave their views freely and did not abuse the trust their commanders placed in their hands in saying the "right thing".[Or perhaps it was because I didn't ask difficult questions....]

Ten years after OBH, the Singapore Army's Army Information Centre (AIC) is the closest match with the capabilities demonstrated by 1 MSU a decade ago.

In my opinion, if today's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Department (PAFF) were tasked to execute a 1999-era Timor embed with its current mindset on defence media relations, PAFF would collapse.

By serving as a media hub, Australia ensured journalists' copy swung in her interest. Control over media access to RAAF Darwin and the military shuttle flights between Dili and Darwin provided a convenient way of cherry picking the media agencies it liked or felt it could cultivate. I did not see a single Indonesian journalist during my two weeks with INTERFET. The ADF showed it understood the operational art of defence media relations and backstopped this with cultivating the media using various tactical issues to cement goodwill.

At this juncture, the reader should bear in mind that the effort Australia made in courting international opinion was not aided by censorship. My stories were passed without censorship and so were all of Jerome's pictures, including those photographed in Suai when ADF troops came under fire from shots that appeared to have come from across the border.

While more timid defence media relations set ups might gravitate towards censorship, 1 MSU's approach in trusting journalists to do their jobs objectively gave the Australians more credibility than any stage managed media event could hope to achieve.

I am of the view that this is an attitude and approach to defence information management many in Singapore would do well to heed.

This is how 1 MSU was resupplied every morning with potable water. Soldiers in the field will seldom say no to an offer to help them with fatigue party duties and I made it a point every morning to help the water party carry 20 litre jerry cans. The gesture built goodwill and helped Jerome and I get better access than other scribes who treated Hotel Turismo like, well, a hotel, with 1 MSU as its service staff. The hotel was a staging area for a military operation other than war - those journalists who adopted this mindset adapted to the situation better and could do their jobs more effectively. There were a number of diva journalists who stayed a night, didn't like it and left on the next available flight.

Field humour shown by soldiers in Dili. Journalists reporting on assorted wars around the globe would be familiar with this sort of dark humour. In the early days of INTERFET, the situation remained volatile and troops were on guard against Indonesian saboteurs who might try to sabotage the military build up.

At the gates of Hotel Turismo with a ballistic vest - part of my "hostilities only" gear that appears only on selected assignments. A very senior contact at the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) personally helped me pick out what I needed for the embed. I remember that during our intelligence preparation of the battlefield, we debated the threat situation and the merits of heavier protection, heat stress and mobility. One option was to go in with all the bells and whistles, ceramic armour and all. In the end, we reasoned that the biggest threat was from some crank taking potshots at foreigners using 9mm handguns or home-made firearms firing .38 or 9mm rounds. The vest I'm wearing was meant to be concealed and protected against 9mm gunfire.

Preparing to move out with the 5/7th Battalion (Mechanised) Royal Australian Regiment. During my trips outside the hotel perimeter, I made sure my backpack came with me at all times. Inside was one day's worth of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) rations, provided by LTC Lee, 1.5 litres of water, US dollars and Indonesian Rupiah in small denominations, a Pelican flashlight, plus the usual stuff journalists carry. I did not have a digital camera in 1999 and had to ration my film.

Before the trip, I acquired a CamelBak water bladder but ditched it on the advice of the SAF medical team. The MOs had reservations about hygiene issues (those were the early versions of the CamelBak), especially the drinking tube that was hard to clean.

On a mechanised patrol with the ADF. The M-113s were complemented by wheeled Light Armoured Vehicles and that was my first exposure to mechanised infantry operations in a built-up area. M113s were noisy and announced their presence to the whole neighbourhood whenever they operated in a built-up area.

Troops from the Royal Thai Army man one of the many vehicle check points in Dili. About the only vehicles on the streets were INTERFET or TNI vehicles, or those run by non governmental organisations (NGO) such as the World Food Programme or Medicins sans Frontieres. The Thai troops were the same ones I met in RAAF Darwin during my morning departure.
We were at the base around 4am as our respective flights had pre-dawn departures timed such that the flights would arrive just after sunrise. The Thai troops had their regiment flag hoisted on a flag pole as the troops sat cross-legged in neat lines by platoon order. As I passed their Colours party, I bowed in respect as this flag would have been consecrated by someone important, perhaps the Thai King himself. Most of the soldiers saw me do that.
When I met the Thai troops in Dili, some remembered me and I had no problems at all at their checkpoints.

This picture was taken in Suai, a town close to the Indonesian border. The 45-minute flight by a World Food Programme MIL-171 covered a distance that would take about a day or more by a 4WD vehicle, such was the condition of the roads outside Dili. Jerome Ming, a 90 cents newspaper photographer, and I were the first Singaporeans to venture so far outside Dili on our own. As the WFP chopper was fully loaded, several sacks of rice had to be offloaded before we boarded the chopper in Dili. This was my first chopper ride.
I made a mental note that our assignment in Suai should not be a wasted effort and that we should try to tell the world what the WFP was doing.
We were still objective in our business, but there's no denying that journalists in conflict zones build rapport with organisations that help them do their jobs or show a little empathy.
It was at Suai that I wrote a story on an alleged massacre and pointed out that shell casings I found carried the PT PINDAD stamp - the hallmark of an Indonesian arms factory. That report was carried by several NGOs and can still be found on the web. See ST article: Signs of a massacre
Journalists who want to report from conflict zones must be prepared to read up and be familiar with the intricacies of military operations and politics of the area. Such knowledge would help them pick out details that will help them tell a more compelling story.
I am still learning, after all these years.

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) sailors deployed for Operation Blue Heron I may remember the heavy swells in Dili harbour. This picture was taken during a visit by the SAF Chief of Defence Force. The Lianhe Zaobao photographer nearly died when he lost his footing while trying to climb aboard the side ladder and was nearly crushed between RSS Intrepid and the FCEP land craft. He pulled both legs up in the nick of time just as the hulls slammed against one another. The visit marked the only time the Singapore Ministry of Defence engaged the 90 cents newspaper while we were in theatre. Operationally, it did not affect our news gathering as there were heaps of stories to write.

So near yet so far, RSS Intrepid and FNS Siroco, anchor offshore. MINDEF PAFF did not have a ground presence in Dili, apart from the in/out visit by CDF. This explains why almost all the stories I filed were on contributions made by other countries, particularlythe ADF effort. The seaside looks pristine, but a week after our departure we read about an INTERFET soldier who was attacked by a saltwater croc.

Here's part of the Operation Blue Heron 1 medical team who set up a medical post alongside the ADF at a museum between Komoro Airport and Dili. During our entire embed, Jerome and I wrote only two stories on the SAF contribution - not through our lack of interest. One story was on CDF's visit to Dili and the other talked about how the old LSTs contributed some 60 per cent of INTERFET's sealift effort between Darwin and East Timor. The second story was basically from our own effort as MINDEF did not assist.
The SAF did not send any Media Relations Officers (MROs) and the team was reluctant to talk to us for on-the-record interviews without an MRO. Jerome's attitude was "fine, let's leave" and we ended up covering other stories. And there were plenty.
If you trawl through copies of the 90 cents paper to find stories we filed in October 1999, you will discover that the vast majority of stories were on non-SAF topics.
I personally feel it's a loss, not for us but the OBH 1 team, as the 90 cents newpaper failed to properly record their contributions to INTERFET.
Here's some trivia: the OBH 1 team had limited access to the Internet in those days and kept in touch with their loved ones through snail mail. The day before Jerome and I returned to Darwin, I offered to bring their letters home as our trip home served as one extra mail run. They had one night to write their letters and I returned the next day to collect the post. I received a stack of about 20 letters from the team leader, which I put in the front pouch of my ballistic vest for safe keeping. To my surprise, the stack of letters came with Singapore postage stamps which they had brought to Dili!

Meet Louis, the motorbike rider I engaged throughout my stay in Dili. Ten days in theatre and the strain has begun to show. I treated him as best I could and shared rations and drinking water with him during our trips in Dili. Journalists who have never worked under such conditions may find it difficult empathising with colleagues deployed for overseas assignments where everyday conveniences such as mobilephone coverage are hit or miss affairs.
The day before I left Dili, I gave Louis a US$20 ex gratia tip as a gesture of appreciation. I didn't claim that sum as part of my trip expenses. That said,  I was astonished when the bean counters at Singapore Press Holdings queried my trip expenses and asked for a receipt for the motorbike rides that I took during the Dili assignment.(The going rate was 8,000 Rupiah per trip).

After about 10 days writing without a break, I told my editor, Felix Soh, that I needed a one day break as an operational pause to rest and refit. I spent that day exploring Dili on my own. The town's former police station had piles of stuff left strewn on the ground. It took me awhile to enter the place as I checked all door frames and walk areas for booby traps and trip wires and retraced my steps on my way out. Yes, it sounds loony but in those early days, no one knew what state the town was left in after the riots.
This picture was taken using the self-timer with the camera balanced on a broken chair. Note the rattan riot shields leaning against the wall on the right. I picked these out as among the best of the lot and was determined to bring them home. Louis (the motorbike rider I hired as a means of personal transport) and I had to make two trips between the Hotel Turismo and the police station, with me balanced precariously on the back seat with a shield clutched in each hand.
Thinking back, it was a silly thing to do. : )

Here's one that got away: an unknown type of field gun outside a wrecked building (not the TNI barracks). I had thought of persuading the LST to liberate the gun by storing it in her vehicle deck and I'd collect it from Tuas Naval Base later but this effort was unsuccessful. My ties with the RSN grew stronger over the years and if we repeated that mission with some officers and WOSEs whom I know from 191 SQN, I'm pretty confident we'd get that gun home. For those who may be wondering, the box on wheels to the right of a gun is/was a sewing machine.

I found it ironic that I had to sleep on the ground without a mattress on my first two assignments covering military operations. The first one was in Taiwan (please see the post dated 21 Sept 2009) and the second time was in Dili in a hotel that had all its mattresses and furnishings stolen. I used my backpack as a pillow.

This was my room at the Turismo. It looks a mess as I'd just come back from the field and stripped off the ballistic vest and shirt (on the bed frame in the background) and left my kevlar helmet and Pelican flashlight on the bed in the foreground. The grey object to the left of the helmet is the towel which I had loaned from the Singapore Civil Defence Force during the 9/21 quake relief assignment.

I made it a practice to check my room for booby traps whenever I returned. It may sound paranoid but one can never be too careful in a lawless place like Dili during October'99.

During my first nights at the Turismo, I slept with my boots on in case we had to move out at night. Helicopter resupply flights took place mainly at night and light sleepers had a tough time catching some shut eye.

A few words on those riot shields. I managed to bring them home, all four of them. Those of your familiar with Aussie immigration would know they frown on the import of wooden objects, so I was worried that my efforts retrieving the shields would end up with them confiscated. I managed to stash the four shields somewhere on my return C-130 flight and somehow got them off the aircraft and past customs at RAAF Darwin. : )

The Bushmaster was then undergoing trials and two were sent to Dili. The ADF quite happily allowed me to inspect the vehicle and see it "in action" during its patrols in Dili. It was little more than a battle bus.

The hands-on experience with ADF motorised infantry operations 10 years ago provided a mental benchmark when Commander 9 Div/CIO introduced me to his Terrex ICV. This would have provided material for a commentary on wheeled armour, but I scuttled plans to write this after the AOH incident signalled the start of a period of tension.

P.S. Jerome and I won a Newscom (newspaper committee) monthly award for Excellence from SPH for our coverage of INTERFET operations.

Check out my post in December: Tsunami relief mission, Operation Flying Eagle, five years on.