Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 8(b) The Write Stuff

Please read Blue on Blue Part 8(a) before coming here.

Serious defence matters were discussed over dinner. One of the topics du jour being the death of a Singapore air force doctor in Australia.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) doctor had been found dead after he was declared AWOL – Absent Without Official Leave – and my dinner partner apparently had a low impression of the deceased officer.

In my opinion, the public duel between the dead doctor’s family and the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), fought in the pages of Singaporean newspapers, did not endear the family to my dinner partner.

He seemed visibly agitated when he said that if that officer were alive, he would charge him for deserting his post. He repeated the phrase “he deserted his post” twice for effect.

Leaning over the table, he whispered a suggestion that the young officer had contracted AIDS.

Intelligence preparation (IPB) of the info-ops battlefield, like all other IPB processes, calls for decision-makers to examine all intel at hand. The situation report, prepared from the best available information, helps decision-makers deliberate the Enemy’s Course of Action and Own Course of Action, weighing the pros and cons of various decisions and the probable outcomes. All information warriors do this.

So it was no surprise that gossip about the RSAF doctor would have been picked up by anyone who followed the case closely.

It was not what was shared, but the manner in which the remark was made that saddened me deeply.

The senior Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officer seemed almost smug, sneering at the misfortune of a dead RSAF medical officer when the situation called for sympathy with the family during their time of grief. To be sure, the officer’s parents had disputed MINDEF’s account of events. But they had lost a son. Considering the tragic circumstances the family was grappling with, I strongly believe that such behavior should not be construed as hostility. Why get angry with the family?

In my opinion, it looked as if my dinner partner was gloating that the AIDS rumour had suddenly cast a cloud over the dead doctor’s character. Did the AIDS rumour suddenly make the dead man appear less than virtuous and his family’s arguments, ergo, less worthy of serious debate?

I made a mental note that if this officer was ever miffed with me, this sort of attitude would probably discount any previous goodwill I had with the system once he swung into character assasin mode. Sadly, events have validated this hypothesis.

This attitude probably explains the verbal sparring that I'm told took place at this year’s SAF Day Media Reception.

The annual affair is valuable as it gives defence professionals and the Singaporean media an informal setting to put a face to a byline, build rapport and sort out misunderstandings.

I’m given to understand that a local newspaper used the occasion to discuss several issues directly with a Deputy Secretary from MINDEF. He proved a most attentive and understanding arbitrator. The paper’s news editor and reporter aired their views on how MINDEF’s response to a certain story could have been handled better.

This wasn’t a bitch fest. Both sides appeared keen on ironing out issues that hamstrung defence media relations.

I hear that the reporter had put in a request to write about a certain defence issue. Weeks after the request was tabled, MINDEF promised a response. The story was put on what newspaper folk called a "sked" - or schedule of stories due for publication. From hearsay, MINDEF's reply came in after midnight. This delay caused the newspaper to miss offstone - which is newspaper-speak for its print deadline.

[Note: This is serious as it has a knock on effect on the time at which newspaper subscribers receive their morning paper. What's more, if the paper arrives past a certain time, some advertisers will be compensated because their potential audience would have left for work without seeing their ad.]

A scribe who witnessed the midnight theatrics in the newsroom recalled: "MINDEF's PR people only came back with their reply past midnite when questions were sent to them weeks ago. This caused the paper to bust offstone. The Night Editor was livid and screamed at the reporter so loudly the roof could've collapsed."

As the journalists described the story's painfully long gestation to the DS, it did not take long for the officer’s antenna to pick up the conversation. True to form, he glided over to his boss. He immediately went on the offensive and said in front of the DS that the reporter had been rude to his media officer.
I'm told by a third party that the senior officer later berated the reporter (not the editor, who would have scolded him back pronto) and exclaimed how he had to step in as the reporter was “yapping like a puppy” to his boss.

If MINDEF/SAF isn’t ready for feedback at such events, the system will never improve. Are you surprised at the drop in morale at MINDEF's Public Affairs (PAFF) directorate?

Alas, it wasn’t always like this.

Years ago, I attended an SAF Day Media Reception and spoke to then Deputy Secretary (Policy), Mrs Chua Siew San, for the first time. At the time, I was a journalist with the Business Times.

I went up to her to say hello. After the usual pleasantries, Mrs Chua cut to the chase and brought up a heap of past issues that bugged her – that I had stalked RSAF air bases (guilty as charged), that I had watched one of the SAF's beach landing exercises with a foreign DA (ditto) and was generally a nuisance because of my inquisitiveness.

The conversation was emotionally charged as Mrs Chua and I made our points in such a forthright manner that everyone else at the event left us alone to sort things out. I’m told this went on for about half an hour.

As expected, everything Mrs Chua had heard about me probably came from her military security watchdogs. So I used the opportunity to give my side of the story.

After our first conversation, Mrs Chua said I could contact her directly whenever I had problems.

That direct line was most appreciated. In hindsight, I should have used the courtesy more often.

In early 2003, when the 90 cent paper’s Editor-in-Chief, Mr Cheong Yip Seng, proposed that I transfer to the paper as its Defence Correspondent (the paper’s Home section was being revamped, this was post 9/11 and they wanted to boost coverage of defence and security issues), Mrs Chua was the first person I wrote to. Mr Cheong noticed my work as I had contributed a number of commentaries to the 90 cents paper while I was at BT - one debunking Malaysia's reading of a book written by my university tutor, Dr Tim Huxley.

I had asked for Mrs Chua's frank views and she did not disappoint. Indeed, I contacted her even before I told my own mother I was going to write for another paper.

I'm grateful for Mrs Chua's support.

My move to the 90 cents paper was the start of a wonderful run of defence stories by the newspaper.

By early 2004, the 90 cents paper had published a series of stories on SAF Elite units. Interestingly, the Singapore Police Force got wind of it and jumped in with their Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR) unit, which is why the STAR unit may look out of place juxtaposed with crack SAF combat capabilities.

We had our issues. There was hell to pay after the 90 cents paper reported that Singapore was prepared to send SAF troops to Iraq.

The story appeared the day that the President of the United States, George W. Bush, visited Singapore, so the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. Yes, alamak. I received a terrible shelling from MINDEF.

It was a result of ambiguous guidance from the then Director Public Affairs, Colonel Bernard Toh, when I asked him if the thrust of the story was accurate (the MFA statement about Singapore’s intention to send forces to Iraq was regrettably vague).

I can tell you now that COL Toh and I didn’t speak to one another for days. He initiated a meet up, we revisited the issue to troubleshoot the mistakes and decided to move on. We both apologised. He was a consummate officer and a credit to MINDEF/SAF’s defence information machinery.

The winning of hearts and minds is a long-haul process that calls for a tremendous amount of empathy, patience and the ability to give ground when the occasion demands.

This is why I stated in an earlier post that some officers may not have the right temperament for public affairs work. This is not to say such characters make poor officers. Aggression, a certain shrewdness in forging alliances – whether on the battlefield or in MINDEF - and stubbornness in sticking to one’s point of view even when your troops think otherwise and despise you, may be traits that will help your command from disintegrating into a disorganised rabble.

In peacetime situations, such mindsets may even help you win one of those shiny Best Unit Trophies and all the bragging rights that come with this achievement.

But defence public affairs and defence information management is a whole new ball game.

Some officers are naturals and excel at winning hearts and minds. Others have ample room for improvement, failing to even win the hearts and minds of their own officers.


goat89 said...

Good post Mr Boey. I still have those newspaper cuttings you wrote on those military 'specials'... like the SOF kill house, where you were in the chair and not allowed to take pics as they stormed in, due to the fact that they reacted to flashes. :P I missed the RSN submarine ones though. >< Good post again. Will be eagerly waiting for the next one

FIVE-TWO said...

you are absolutely right it takes a certain type of people to handle PA. I know of one officer from PLAB who would certainly not qualify for PA work. A PA-esque person would have approached the group of people (who are all clearly his senior in age and hence part of the ex-SAF family) standing in front of the F-16 tailfin, and explain nicely why they should not have a souvenir photograph taken.

Instead, he managed to pissed the whole lot of visitor and certainly sullied the good efforts made by the RSAF during the entire morning of Ex. Torrent VI.

Unknown said...

Sad to say, this kind of attitude is not restricted to SAF. Civil servants are the same; and they can't even claim "national security" interests (though of course, most claims of national security are bogus). It's all about protecting their backside and protecting their bosses (hmm... wonder what that implies ?)

Anonymous said...


I have been following your blog with much interest. Below I have listed an incident which illustrates the importance of good media relations.

Today in the Straits Times, there was an article about a cancer patient who received an overdose of drugs. I believe the hospital did the right thing by being open about the error and fully detailing the processes that were done to correct it. This would certainly have helped to reassure the public.

Link is below