Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 10 The weakest link

If the Lion City has to defend itself against external aggression using battle manoeuvres demonstrated during the Forging Sabre and Wallaby war games, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will need a more effective spokesman to plead its case.

The full force potential of the SAF – which essentially means its fully mobilised strength – must be complemented by a proactive and convincing "hearts and minds" campaign that will tell the international community Singapore’s side of the story.

As things stand, I feel the Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) is not ready for this fight.

The directorate’s weaknesses are exacerbated by what I see as the most serious morale crisis in recent memory. It has been triggered by an impoverished management style that has led many talented staff officers to call its quits. PAFF is being hollowed out.

The directorate has the organizational framework to excel. Its TO&E outweighs that of its counterpart in the Malaysian Defence Ministry’s Public Relations Department.

But the Malaysian defence information apparatus has on call several advantages that could catch PAFF wrong-footed during a battle for public opinion.

The defence information set up at Malaysia’s Kementerian Pertahanan (KEMENTAH, an acronym used henceforth to distinguish it from its Singaporean counterpart) knows that Malaysian journalists cultivated during peacetime are the same ones who will write stories giving the Malaysian point of view during a crisis.

The wide base of support for KEMENTAH’s media outreach effort can be seen by the strong turnout at its regular ATM Bersama Media events, which the three Services of the Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (Malaysian Armed Forces) take turns to host at least once a year.

Key dates to remember include anniversaries for Angkatan Darat (Malaysian Army Day, which falls on 1 March), Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Navy Day, 27 April), Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Air Force Day 1 June) and ATM Day (16 September, which incidentally is also the birthday of Singapore’s elder statesman, but I digress). The ATM Bersama Media events are staged close to these anniversaries, subject to operational requirements and the availability of the respective Service chiefs.

In Singapore, journalists assigned the defence beat are invariably male, all of whom have National Service (NS) liabilities as Operationally-Ready NSmen (i.e. reservists).

Should a hot war scenario require the mobilisation of the SAF’s full force potential, these same individuals will disappear from various newsrooms.

This begs the question: Who then will support MINDEF/SAF coverage during the time it needs credible journalists to do so? The ones left to pick up the slack will probably be the non defence-inclined journalists in the newsrooms who will probably call every warship a battleship, every armoured vehicle a tank and can’t tell an MCMV from an MCV.

Across the Causeway, the staffing levels in Malaysian newsrooms will maintain their status quo ante bellum. This gives KEMENTAH’s public relations officers a sense of stability as the strengths, writing style and temperament of each journalist is already known to Malaysian spin doctors.

It is not generally appreciated that Malaysia publishes more defence journals than Singapore. The Lion City used to count Aerospace Asia-Pacific, Asian Aviation and one other defence journal as home-grown titles. But all are now defunct.

The ones now flying the Singapore flag are Defence Review Asia (DRA) and Asian Defence & Diplomacy (ADD).

DRA is owned by Australian shareholders but was registered in Singapore as a marketing strategy to give it a more Asian voice.

ADD was registered in Singapore for the sole purpose of cornering ads from Israeli companies. Under Malaysian Federal law, Malaysian magazines cannot accept ads from Israeli companies. While ADD skirts that legal roadblock with a Singaporean address, it remains a Malaysian magazine at its heart.

Climbing down to the tactical level of defence information operations, KEMENTAH’s media relations team has more experience than MINDEF media relations officers.

After the tsunami relief operation in 2004/05, the erstwhile Director Public Affairs, Colonel Bernard Toh, realised the need to have SAF officers trained for media escort work during SAF operations. His successor, COL Benedict Lim set up a system where SAF officers from the three Services were trained for media relations work.

Alas, since the regime change, these SAF officers have quit one by one leaving a Republic of Singapore Navy officer as the sole uniformed MRO. Few junior SAF officers actively seek a posting to PAFF because they know it will be a career-killer. (Indeed, I'm given to understand that the staff officer from the Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts who helmed the MINDEF Media Relations Branch was barely on talking terms with a certain senior officer prior to her departure, such is the state of affairs at Public Affairs.)

One Singapore Army captain asked to be posted out of PAFF. Of the two Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) MROs, one quit to join the banking sector while another quit without a job. In my opinion, the latter’s departure was a loss to MINDEF as he had just returned from a year’s job attachment in Florida. He was also no lightweight as his essay on defence information management won a prize in last years’ Chief of Defence Force Essay Competition. [Militarynuts will probably recognize the American state of Florida as home to the United States Central Command, but that’s a conclusion that I will not assert.]

Another factoid that Singaporean defence planners should not discount: Kuala Lumpur is home to the regional bureau for the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel.

One only has to look at the proactive, 24-hour satellite reports broadcast by Al-Jazeera during the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) operations in Gaza to realise what the SAF may be up against during large-scale operations.

In my opinion, with PAFF rundown, the Singapore Army's Army Information Centre (AIC) will have to hold the fort should the SAF be tasked to execute a Wallaby or Forging Sabre-type scenario.

Malaysia’s national news bureau, Bernama, is another triumph card KEMENTAH can wield. Bernama, whose name is formed by the acronym BERita NAsional MAlaysia (Malaysia national news), is unabashedly pro-Malaysian. News agencies who pick up the Bernama news feeds know this, just as China-watchers rely on China Daily for the quasi-official Chinese point of view. There are advantages pinning one's colours to the mast and Bernama knows this.

Singapore’s 90 cents newspaper sometimes has an identify crisis. It pays the price of allying itself too closely to the Singapore establishment by losing touch with Singaporeans, some of whom feel the paper lacks an independent voice. Bearing in mind Singapore's national ethos and sensitivities relating to reports on race and religion, keeping the main English broadsheet newspaper on a tight lease is not necessarily a bad thing. But the establishment sometimes confuses the role of a newspaper with that of a government news agency and this has a detrimental impact on the paper's credibility. This is a point I will pick up in a future Blue on Blue commentary.

In a full contact slugfest, KEMENTAH will likely rouse the Rakyat and garner international opinion on its side.

The fact that the SAF will likely operate on foreign soil counts instantly against it. If you feel such operations are unlikely, then ask yourself why the SAF spends millions of dollars every year training so intensively in far-flung locales such as the Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

The international community is unlikely to be swayed by arguments that a forward defence is necessary for Singapore’s continued security, survival and success.

Attaching Defence Information Television (DiTV) teams for coverage of certain phases of SAF operations would, in my opinion, serve as a counter-productive effort. While the intent may be to underline the fact that SAF’s operations do no harm to civilians in occupied territory, such TV footage may backfire by fanning the ire of international viewers who question why the SAF is there in the first place.

The IDF learnt this the hard way in the Lebanon and in Gaza.

SAF planners also have to reckon with the fact that KEMENTAH may use its media apparatus to mobilise thousands of civilians to block their axis of advance. The British Expeditionary Force and French Army learnt to their cost during the opening phase of the German invasion of the Low Countries how civilians disrupted the march order of their forces. How the Rakyat would behave in a hot war scenario is something no SAF exercise has replicated.

KEMENTAH knows this.

Some of the points you see here were gleaned during my study visit to Malaysia in 2007 during my three months of unpaid leave. This included a visit to Al-Jazeera’s studio in KL to see firsthand how they operate. The visit to Al-Jazeera pre-dated IDF operations in Gaza and the channel's coverage more or less supported my thoughts on how it would function in a Malaysian setting.

My notes have since been updated by fresh information about PAFF and how the directorate is being ground down.

Are we ready yet?

Looking at the talent erosion PAFF is enduring, the answer is no.

Singapore’s Total Defence advertisements of yesteryear got it spot on. A generation’s effort can be wiped out in days, or in PAFF’s case, after the regime change.


goat89 said...

Never knew so many left... wow...
Good post Mr Boey!!

edwin said...

Great article as always. I was wondering, given that Singapore would probably employ pre-emptive measures, how any form of media dominance could be achieved, regardless of how good the relationship with members of the press are.

Wocelot said...

Lol, The weakest link, is at the top of the hierarchy, what an irony. Good one.