Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 15

SAF Death Tally for 2009

Singaporean military deaths in 2009 soared to a 30-year high of 10 reported fatalities, according to my records.

Compared with a year ago, the year's death tally represented a 2.5 fold increase from 2008's tally of four reported deaths.

In the area of incident reporting, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) appeared to introduce a fresh approach in late 2009 by incorporating quotes from the deceased serviceman's superiors.

This was evident from news releases issued from 26 October 2009 onwards on Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths. As expected, the Singaporean media carried these quotes almost in their entirety. This is hardly surprising considering the time pressure journalists face when writing their stories, the paucity of information released by MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) and difficulties contacting next-of-kin or friends of the deceased for comments.

The PAFF news releases for the deaths of First Warrant Officer S. Thivvianathan on 25 Oct 2009, Lieutenant Chee Zhi Hao on 15 Nov 2009 and Lance-Corporal Mar Teng Fong on 21 Nov 2009 all contained accolades from their respective superiors.

This new defence information tactic means the factor of time pressure is also faced by reporting units as MINDEF cobbles together its statement of facts. When future incidents occur, SAF Commanding Officers must be wary of recycling tributes to the deceased in the interest of expediency. People who track the form and make up of news releases will almost certainly sense quotes made by COs who go through the motions. Let's be frank and admit that not every commander knows all the people under their command well enough to pen a convincing death tribute without using throwaway lines like "was well-liked by everyone".

In the absence of familiarity, a quote from the dead person's closest pal would suffice. But these frills should not detract MINDEF from addressing public concerns over the SAF's training record.

It has been noted that PAFF responded to a Forum Page letter on Recruit Liam Kai Zheng's death in May this year even as police investigations were underway.

That spirit openness evaporated in July when PAFF failed to respond to my Forum Page letter on 2LT Nicholas Chan Wei Kit's demise. I was duly informed PAFF could not comment as police investigations were underway - an excuse that lost them credibility as evidenced by their earlier response to the Forum Page letter as well as responses in previous years to serious accidents that rattled the Singaporean public.

Looking at the SAF's safety record, it is evident that the frequency of fatal incidents plays a significant part in jolting the system into action.

The spacing out of deaths in this grim year - only 1979's record is deadlier - quite possibly explains why there was no training halt or time-out on physical and endurance training for MINDEF and the SAF to reflect on what went wrong.

In contrast, two consecutive deaths in June 2008 brought the SAF's physical training schedule to a grinding halt. On 10 June 2008, Recruit Andrew Cheah Wei Siong died at the Basic Military Training Centre. The next day, Officer Cadet Clifton Lam Jian Hao died in Brunei (he was promoted posthumously to 2LT). The three-day training halt took effect from 12 June.

No such training halt was reported in 2009. It is worth thinking about how MINDEF and the SAF would have reacted had the year's 10 fatalities occured one after another over a span of, say for the sake of argument, 10 days, instead of having been spread out over the year. My sense of the matter is that MINDEF/SAF would have reacted with alarm to this macabre death roll. Quite possibly, military careers would have been sacrificed to appease public anger.

As we usher in 2010, the following Singaporeans remain on eternal duty. They are not with us, but we remember their sacrifices in the service of our country.

21 Nov 2009 (Sat): Navy full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Lance-Corporal Mar Teng Fong, 20.

15 Nov 2009 (Sun)/(16 Nov 2009 1120H): RSAF Regular Lieutenant Chee Zhi Hao, 21.

25 Oct 2009 (Sun)/(26 Oct 2009 Mon, 0531H): SAF Regular First Warrant Officer S. Thivvianathan, 51.

3 Jul 2009 (Fri): Army NSF Second Lieutenant Nicholas Chan Wei Kit, 21.

15 Jun 2009 (Mon): SAF Regular First Sergeant Ang Joo Pin, 30.

21 May 2009 (Thurs): NSF Recruit Liam Kai Zheng, 19.

20 May 2009 (Weds): SAF Commando Regular First Warrant Officer Tan Poh Eng, 53.

24 April 2009 (Fri): RSAF Regular Second Warrant Officer Poh Eng Ann, 36.

17 April 2009 (Fri): RSAF Regular Master Warrant Officer P. Jegathesan, 45.

13 March 2009 (Fri): SAF Regular Second Warrant Officer Lim Kian Hong, 52.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Essay on SAF deaths

I wrote this essay for 90C more than a year ago without the support of the Singaporean Ministry of Defence's (MINDEF) Public Affairs Directorate. Everything came from my notes.

I hope that elements that want to pull MINDEF back to the dark ages will mull over the following paragraph.

"The latest deaths underline the importance of transparency. In the Internet age, government agencies that keep mum will surrender the field of public opinion to Internet chatter. The accurate and timely information that Mindef provided in the recent cases was essential in ensuring confidence that there was no cover-up."

Taking stock, not letting down its guard

Straits Times, The (Singapore) - June 17, 2008
Author: David Boey , For The Straits Times

TWO military deaths in as many days saw the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) suspend training last week for three days - an extreme measure not taken since April 1997.

In the 11 years since the last training halt - also three days long - several SAF personnel have lost their lives as a result of accidents or health-related issues.

Recruit Andrew Cheah Wei Siong and Second Lieutenant Clifton Lam Jia Hao were the latest to make the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. The two, both 20, died in separate incidents last week, triggering an outpouring of sympathy and a fresh debate on SAF training safety.

The halt in physical and endurance activities in all SAF units reflects the military's sensitivity to casualties. But it should not be seen as a sign of weakness. SAF units on operational alert remain ready to deploy at a moment's notice. The training halt does not mean the SAF took a three- day corporate retreat.

Singapore has endured previous incidents of SAF deaths and come out stronger. The social network that has supported the SAF over 41 years of National Service has, time and again, proven resilient and robust and an immeasurable source of solace for bereaved families.

In April 1984, three SAF soldiers died over a span of 10 days. Recruit Sim Keat Kee, 19, collapsed after a 2km run. Lieutenant Koh Meah Wan, 23, was killed during an exercise at Sungei Gedong. And Recruit Bak Yow Hock, 17, died at the School of Naval Training.

In January 2003, a navy ship, the RSS Courageous, collided with a merchant vessel, killing four women officers (Author's note: Wrongly edited as "officers". The four women were specialists.). It was the navy's worst accident in 27 years.

Despite all these tragedies, families continue to entrust their sons and daughters to the SAF.

The SAF's deadliest accident took place on Jan 24, 1987, when six lives were lost in a helicopter crash. Staff Sergeant Goh Kim Loong, Corporal Ramiya Mohan, Lieutenants Ng Soon Hup, Siow Poh Guan and Wee Tong Leong and Captain Lakbir Singh died after an air force UH-1H Huey crashed 14 nautical miles south-east of Brunei International Airport.

Yet, many Singaporean teens continue to dream of becoming air force pilots - among them, Second Lieutenant Clifton Lam.

Singapore Artillery gunners Lance Corporal Low Yin Tit, 18, and Third Sergeant Tan Han Chong, 21, died in New Zealand in March 1997 when a faulty fuze caused a 155mm shell to explode prematurely.

A month later, Private Tan Chin Seng, 21, died after the warhead of a light anti-tank weapon blew up. These deaths triggered the three-day training halt in April that year.

Apart from old soldiers with long memories, many Singaporeans would probably not have heard of most of these incidents because death was a taboo subject for Mindef. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find open analyses of past training deaths, especially in the early years of the SAF.

But the SAF has made immense progress since the first reported training death in October 1968. In that incident, Recruit Allen Tan Chong Huat, 19, was stung by hornets in the Chua Chu Kang forest. He was rushed to Taman Jurong Camp but there was no doctor on duty there ( military doctors then clocked an 8am to 5pm shift).

What's more, the garrison's ambulance was out on another call. So Recruit Tan's officers rushed him to the main road to flag down a passing vehicle. It took an hour to get him to hospital.

The SAF's medical coverage has improved by leaps and bounds since then. Headquarters Medical Corps is given all the support it needs to provide soldiers with top- notch medical care.

The latest deaths underline the importance of transparency. In the Internet age, government agencies that keep mum will surrender the field of public opinion to Internet chatter. The accurate and timely information that Mindef provided in the recent cases was essential in ensuring confidence that there was no cover-up.

We should remember though that the lifting of the training halt last Saturday does not mean the SAF has found a panacea to prevent future training casualties. Tough and realistic training is the hallmark of the third generation SAF. Despite the best efforts to ensure safety, military activities can result in casualties.

Come July 1, at the annual parade to mark SAF Day, military personnel will observe a minute of silence to commemorate the sacrifices of those who died serving their country. It will be a moving and symbolic salute to the fallen.

The other moving moment - and this is something one has to see to appreciate - will come when the Chief of Defence Force leads his troops in reciting the SAF Pledge.

Wait for the last line when the assembled soldiers, sailors and airmen pledge to 'preserve and protect the honour and independence of our country with our lives'.

This is the SAF spirit: Uncowed, unbowed, first and foremost in the defence of Singapore.

The writer is the former defence correspondent for this newspaper.

Monday, December 28, 2009

SAF deaths: A quick update

With 10 deaths on record, it seems that 2009 is turning out to be the worst year for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) deaths since 1979.

The 11 SAF deaths 30 years ago includes four pilots killed when three A-4 Skyhawks crashed in the Philippines, one boxing match death, one shooting incident, one PTI who died attempting a somersault on a high vault, plus a few running deaths. The last cause of death includes one soldier who died of heat exhaustion after he went for PT with a fever (he was on MC).

It's high time the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) ramped up its safety awareness drive. Some recent losses, such as the RSAF serviceman who died in a road traffic accident after failing to fasten his seatbelt, were totally preventable if the safety message was forced home with greater tenacity.

I hope the souls of those departed rest in peace.

As the custodian of MINDEF's defence information apparatus, the ministry's Public Affairs Directorate must show stronger leadership in promoting a higher level of safety consciousness among SAF personnel.

That leadership is sorely lacking for reasons which I have spelt out months ago.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 14

28 Dec 2009 Update: Jermyn Chow from 90C has kindly pointed out that the tally for 2009 is 10 deaths. We went through the list line by line and I've found that I missed one incident. This post has been updated.

SAF death tally for 2009 highest since 1987
The 10 deaths reported by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) this year are a grim statistic unmatched in at least 22 years, according to my records.

Greater transparency in reporting SAF deaths will do nothing to arrest this heart breaking trend, but a lack of transparency will almost certainly damage public support for National Service.

At a micro level, it is likely that most Singaporeans would show only cursory interest in the military's safety record. Some would venture to make sympathetic noises, pen heartfelt notes on various discussion boards and go on with their lives.

Cue mental checklist: Yet another SAF death, so young, how sad, I don't know him.

But unless one lives in a social vacuum with no relatives, friends or people you care for, it is quite a challenge living in Singapore without knowing anyone who serves NS as a full-time NSman or an Operationally Ready NSman (i.e. reservist).

It is the mark of a maturing society when Singaporeans look out and care for one another. This includes keeping tabs on the SAF's safety record, especially in a less-than-stellar year like 2009. In a tightly-knit society like ours, every SAF death hits Singaporeans far beyond the immediate pain felt by the dead soldier's next-of-kin. Death is a shared burden.

There are Singaporeans who scrutinise the SAF's death tally not because of a morbid fascination with military deaths, but out of a desire to ensure the system is accountable for the lives of Singaporeans who step forward to serve in uniform. Many of you who follow this blog fall into this category. One would hope that lessons learnt from each tragedy would cascade to all ranks so that future incidents can be prevented. This is the defence mechanism, the mental image that many people nurse to numb the pain and sense of loss that someone died in vain.

In the larger scheme of things, it's worth noting that the fathers of the current cohorts of NSFs inducted into the Third Generation SAF came from the 1st Gen and 2nd Gen SAF. They served Singapore during the time when training deaths were either hushed up or poorly reported.

The Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) may have grown more transparent over the years, but all it takes is ONE public relations (PR) gaffe to undo years of fence-mending. This is because you can bet some fathers of our 3rd Gen NSFs will be there to pass on stories of cover ups to their sons, thereby perpetuating a mindset MINDEF/SAF have taken decades to erase.

In my view, the way in which MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate (mis)handled news of the death of Republic of Singapore Air Force serviceman, Corporal Ricky Liu Junhong, is an example of how PAFF dropped the ball. Please see:  How Today uncovered CPL Ricky's death

I emphatise with Singaporeans who wonder how many SAF deaths have been hushed up. Looking at the track record of the current leadership at PAFF, I have been asking myself precisely the same question.

For a citizens' army, public support for the SAF is vital. The SAF will remain a hollow force whose order of battle is impressive only on paper if NSmen do not heed the call to mobilise when duty calls. In peacetime, ill-motivated NSmen will probably continue reporting for duty because the threat of a fine or time in prison is a great deterrent to defaulters.

Imagine a hot war when soldiers might reason that spending a limited time in prison is preferable to an eternity in a coffin. The Israelis have discovered that it will take more than the threat of an all-out Arab invasion or terrorist rocket attacks to motivate some of their reservists to report for duty. The number of Israeli reservists drop outs, though small, is sizeable enough that a term has been coined for them. They have been labeled refuseniks.

Would the same happen in the Lion City? How many refuseniks would the SAF have?

The influx of foreign nationals to our shores provides an added challenge for MINDEF on the public relations front. Many of our new citizens harbour the same prejudices, ignorance and fears towards military service as Singaporeans did in 1967 when NS was first introduced.

There is thus a disjoint between the attitudes of new citizens and the existing population base. This disjoint means a one-size-fits-all PR campaign may hit one target audience at the expense of another.

It is only a matter of time before a new citizen is added to the tally of SAF deaths. This is a statistical reality that we all cannot run away from. When that day comes, MINDEF will need a transparent and trusted reporting mechanism to handle the inevitable fallout. I wonder if the current PAFF leadership is up to the challenge?

To be sure, one would be silly to cling onto the notion that transparency will serve as a talisman against SAF accidents. It won't. But the manner in which MINDEF/SAF deals with its dead is looked at not only by Singaporeans, but by defence observers farther afield.

Lack of transparency can be viewed as a sign that we are casualty averse - which is a weakness that shrewd opponents will exploit.

Whether real or preceived, any foot-dragging or unwillingness to discuss training deaths openly and responsibly can be touted by hostile elements during their psychological indoctrination of their own forces. Hostile psyops can rally their forces by portraying the SAF as an army of city folk with a low tolerance for casualties.

In 2009 alone, they had 10 opportunities to monitor our responses and do just that.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

An open letter to the 24th Battalion, Singapore Artillery (24 SA)

Many of you are too young to remember Staff Sergeant Lee Guek Sin.

He was a gunner with your battalion who died in New Zealand more than 10 years ago when his Land Rover overturned during the work up period for Exercise Thunder Warrior.

Upon his death, his wife became the head of household who had to bring up two daughters and one son.

She did not have to do it alone. Gunners from 24 SA rallied behind the Lee family and started a donation drive. This wasn’t a one-off effort triggered by a burst of transient sympathy.

The gunners were determined to help SSG Lee’s children complete their education and they accomplished this mission commendably more than a decade later. I am told the children's education expenses were paid by their father's former comrades. Gunners dug into their pockets and contributed to the Lee family's education fund every year since that fateful day robbed the family of their 36-year-old father but won them many doting godfathers.

I understand that earlier this year, Madam Lee informed the gunners who had been supporting the family that their task was done. The family had saved enough from all those years of donations.

To the best of my research, this act of goodwill was never publicised in any Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) publication or made known to the Singapore media. I understand the news blackout wasn't due to national security reasons. Put simply, it was an act of goodwill performed by a group of soldiers to help a family in need.

The gunners did what needed to be done. Publicity was neither courted nor needed nor was any publicity plan required to sustain donor stamina all these years. That the fund raiser went on for years is, in my opinion, remarkable and heart warming.

I believe more should know about this deed because the fund raiser shows that your battalion and the Singapore Artillery has a long-standing tradition of caring for its soldiers.

That spirit and tradition is precisely what’s needed as 24 SA undergoes a period of soul searching after the Best Unit incident.

Just a day before the Singapore Artillery held a change of command parade to welcome its new Chief of Artillery, your former Commanding Officer, S3 and artillery specialist stood before the SAF military justice system. They paid a price for lapses in judgment.

Gunners, it is now time for your battalion to move on.

The incident will stay with your battalion for years to come just as the 1st Commando Battalion has to live with the stain of the 2003 Best Unit incident.

But even as the Commandos weather jibes and unkind remarks, those in the know will probably concede that the Commandos are the best warfighters the Singapore Army has in terms of fighting spirit, aggression and combat capability. The Commandos don’t need a Best Unit trophy to underline that fact.

Every year, more than a handful of SAF Commanding Officers sit through the Best Unit award presentation with absolutely no vested interest in the annual competition's results. Their units have not been barred from the contest. Combat capabilities in their respective battalions and squadrons add to Singapore’s deterrent edge by sharpening the island republic's secret edge capabilities, which, alas, cannot be talked about.

Like the Commandos, officers and men from these units do not need any Best Unit trophy to verify their combat prowess.

In my view, 24 SA is unique. Your battalion is the only one in the Singapore Artillery that will go into action without big guns to pound the enemy. Swift and precise battlefield information is your weapon.

Long before the SAF made a big deal about using information as a weapon, the battlefield radars fielded by your battalion were doing just that. Be proud of this legacy.

Some of 24 SA’s artillery hunting radars are now deployed on the frontline overseas. Combat experience your gunners will bring home will serve as a rich and invaluable source of combat intelligence on mortar and rocket barrages. The operation is not without risk and the dangers your gunners face daily in the combat zone of operations is not something a Best Unit assessment can quantify.

I have learnt that many defence observers view your unit’s capabilities with pride - even with full knowledge of the recent Best Unit fiasco. They are confident 24 SA will deliver and respect the decision taken by your former CO.

As you move on, resist the urge to sweep things under the carpet by erasing all institutional memory of the recent Best Unit incident.

Future gunners - not just those who serve 24SA - must learn from it and the Singapore Artillery will come out better off.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mystery boat: An Update

Some years ago, at a time when bilateral ties between the United States and Singapore weren’t as rosy as today, a small snippet was leaked that underlined the special defence relationship between the two countries.

The American Embassy apparently operated a boat for intelligence duties out of Singapore.

The boat you see in the picture stalking Indian Navy warships is the craft that was mentioned. The American Embassy boat was photographed while she was giving the Indian Navy destroyer, Delhi, a once over by inspecting it from bow to stern.

You won’t find this craft in Jane’s Fighting Ships. Many other vessels used as sentinels by the world’s intelligence services have also stayed below the radar of Jane’s, maintaining their anonymity as they snoop around the world’s sea lanes on special missions.

The craft was once anonymous. The lack of proper registration turned out to be a liability because she stood out when sailing with properly marked civilian craft. She then received Singaporean civilian registration, which was changed at least twice.

When you consider that Singapore sits astride sea lanes through which passes a third of the world’s trade and half its oil, the value of this photo intelligence boat becomes clear.

One of the US Navy officers who served aboard the boat became one of my two academic referees who supported my application for study in the United Kingdom years ago. The other referee was British author, Paul Beaver. I'm forever grateful for their support and friendship.

Revenge killing after anti-drug raid in Mexico

Failure of operational security?

"Angulo was also the only marine whose identity was made public of the more than 60 who took part in the operation... Mexican troops never have their names or numbers on their uniforms to protect their identities.

The Mexican government, eager to announce its victory, was unusually open about last week's raid, much of which was filmed by local media."

Slaying of drug war hero's family shocks Mexico

By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, Associated Press Writer E. Eduardo Castillo, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY – Assailants on Tuesday gunned down the mother, aunt and siblings of a marine killed in a raid that took out one of Mexico's most powerful cartel leaders — sending a chilling message to troops battling the drug war: You go after us, we wipe out your families.

The brazen pre-dawn slayings came just hours after the navy honored Melquisedet Angulo as a national hero at a memorial service.

"The message is very clear: It's to intimidate not only the government but its flesh and blood," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexican expert on drug cartels. "It's to intimidate those in the armed forces so they fear not only for their own lives, but the lives of their families."

Federal officials had warned last week's killing of drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, known as the "boss of bosses," could provoke a violent backlash from smugglers, who have gone after federal police in the past following the arrest of high-ranking cartel members.

Beltran Leyva was among the most-wanted drug lords in Mexico and the United States, and was the biggest trafficker taken down by President Felipe Calderon's administration so far. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials blamed his cartel for much of the bloodshed across Mexico.

Even so, the country was shocked by the brutal slayings of Angulo's family at their home just hours after the fallen marine's mother, Irma Cordova, 55, attended his memorial service in Mexico City, where she received the Mexican flag covering his coffin.

His brother, Benito Angulo, 28, his sister, Jolidabey Angulo, 22, and aunt, Josefa Angulo, 46, also were killed shortly after midnight when gunmen wielding assault rifles broke down the door of their home. His sister, Miraldeyi Angulo, 24, was reported in serious condition at a hospital.

The family's home in southern Tabasco state was littered with more than two dozen bullet casings.

Hit men linked to Beltran Leyva's cartel have a strong presence in Tabasco, a Gulf state bordering Guatemala, and were suspected of being behind the attack. State and federal forces searching for the assailants set up roadblocks across the state Tuesday.

The navy did not say whether it was taking special measures to protect marine families, including Angulo's two children, ages 3 years and 16 months. Authorities did not say where they or their mother were when their relatives were slain.

Calderon called the attack "a cowardly act" and vowed to press forward in his war involving more than 45,000 troops.

"We will not be intimidated by criminals without scruples like those who committed this barbarity," he said Tuesday. "Those who act like this deserve the unanimous repudiation of society and they must pay for their crime."

While the armed forces have led Calderon's crackdown against organized crime that has seen more than 15,000 people killed by drug violence since it began in 2006, direct attacks by cartels on troops are rare, especially for marines who only recently started playing a major role in the drug war.

Most of the killings have been among rival smugglers, according to the federal government. Hundreds of local, state and federal police also have been slain, but only a handful of soldiers have died at the hands of traffickers.

Angulo, 30, was the only marine killed in the Dec. 16 raid that sparked a nearly two-hour shootout at an apartment complex in the colonial city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. Two other marines were wounded.

Angulo was also the only marine whose identity was made public of the more than 60 who took part in the operation, which also left six other gunmen dead in addition to Beltran Leyva. Mexican troops never have their names or numbers on their uniforms to protect their identities.

The Mexican government, eager to announce its victory, was unusually open about last week's raid, much of which was filmed by local media. Reporters were allowed into the apartment afterward to view Beltran Leyva's bullet-riddled body.

"This is really worrisome and is a challenge to the government because clearly one of the weapons of organized crime is its ability to use violence to intimidate, and that's where it has been apparent that the state has failed many times in protecting its officials and, in this case, even their families," Chabat said.

The Tabasco attack came exactly one year to the day after authorities found the bodies of seve decapitated soldiers and five other victims in southern Guerrero state, a region where the Beltran Leyva cartel has been battling for control. The bodies were accompanied by a sign that warned: "For every one of mine that you kill, I will kill 10." A bag of their heads, some still gagged with tape, was found nearby.

Those slayings, in Chilpancingo, an hour north of the resort of Acapulco, marked the worst attack against the Mexican army in its half-century battle against drug gangs.

After the gruesome discovery, the government held a high-profile ceremony aimed at reassuring the nation it would not surrender. Officials also released the names of the troops — just as the navy did Monday when it honored Angulo. Their sobbing wives appeared on national television receiving the flags that had been draped on their husbands' coffins.

In that case, however, officials ended the ceremony at the base and refused to say where the bodies would be buried; it also released no information on which cartel was suspected in the killings.

On Monday, by contrast, navy officials flew back with Angulo's family to bury him in his home state, where their arrival was covered by local media.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Missing story

The Straits Times 19 December 2009, page B9
I flipped through today's Sunday Times looking for this story but couldn't find it. Would appreciate a heads up if any of you found it please. Cheers.

21 Dec 2009 update: Just checked with 90C. This blurb was run by mistake on Saturday 19 Dec 2009. I had initially thought there would be a sequel to the earlier story.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 13

Prodigal Sons
Singapore’s defence eco-system extracts a heavy penalty from citizens who cross its path because the forgiving spirit engendered by the Yellow Ribbon project seems alien to the defence establishment.

The Yellow Ribbon initiative reminds Singaporeans that they should accept and rehabilitate citizens who once strayed. It is a noble effort that people in defence circles should practice more.

Over decades, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have lost many friends because of the system’s hard-hitting, retributive mindset. In many cases, people turn their backs on MINDEF/SAF for good.

Two case studies will underline this point.

In the 1990s, a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilot migrated to Australia. His decision to do so predated the Lion City’s clarion call for foreign talent by about a decade.

It says much about the standard of RSAF training when that pilot was accepted into the ranks of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as a warfighter. As Australia is a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), RAAF squadrons routinely fly to Southeast Asia for joint exercises with air forces of the other FPDA members. These are Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

The former Singaporean was among the RAAF pilots scheduled to fly to Singapore for war games.

When his name appeared on the list of Australian Defence Force personnel due to arrive in Singapore, the Australians were politely informed that the ex-RSAF pilot was persona non grata. In short, his presence in Singapore was not welcome.

How would you have felt?

While flying for the RSAF, the pilot put his life on the line every time he strapped in and took to the air to defend Singapore’s skies.

Flying for the RAAF, the pilot was serving an air force whose pilots and aircrew once fought and died defending Singapore. Try telling that to Singaporean bureaucracy.

In countries such as the UK and the United States, and certainly between Australia and New Zealand, it is not unknown for citizens of these countries to migrate and fly on the side of their ally. In many instances, that relationship is celebrated.

I’m guessing that the larger “message” MINDEF/SAF wanted to send to RSAF pilots was the fact that they would be treated as social pariahs if they ever did the same as their former comrade.

Moving on, there’s the case of a Defence Attache who served in a foreign mission. He had chalked up an illustrious career. He had led his unit to win a Best Unit trophy. He is also said to have had an affair. Alas, his operational security was poor and his wife found out.

Now, if you’ve ever been in a relationship, you would know the saying that “hell knows no fury like that of a woman scorned” has more than a ring of truth to it.

Wife allegedly complained. Action was apparently taken. DA is said to have lost his job.

One should not condone transgressions and we all have to pay a price for bad calls in our personal or professional life. C’est la vie.

But every punitive action should be backed by a Yellow Ribbon-style reformative process, failing which the defence establishment will lose a friend.

Add these examples to the painful experiences of dozens of Singaporean families who have lost loved ones in SAF training accidents over the past few decades and the ill-will quotient increases exponentially.

Singaporeans live in one of the world’s most densely-populated cities where gossip spreads like wildfire. Officialdom’s indifference adds more dissenting voices to the bag and the defence establishment loses yet more support.

If you’re one who believes that heartware is as important as defence hardware, you will realize that this is a loss rate we should not tolerate.

In the battle for hearts and minds, every person counts.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Six months apart

This post has absolutely nothing to do with military stuff.

Here are two pictures of Jurassic Park at Universal Studios Singapore (USS) taken six months apart. Movie magic will turn the concrete drain into a raging river rapids that will carry visitors into dinosaur territory on rafts.

The huge tree trunk is made of concrete and was cast and hand painted in Ipoh, Malaysia.

USS is being built by Malaysia's Genting group. The family theme park will open in January 2010.

24 July 2009

15 December 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Will, Who Will?

I Will, Who Will?
Next year’s Total Defence Day will carry the tagline “I Will” on 15 Feb 2010 – the 68th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

It is meant to coax Singaporeans to think about how they will defend what they hold dear (

In follow-on campaigns, perhaps the tagline could be “Who Will?”.

Rough straw polls have shown an appalling lack of awareness, especially among foreign-talent-turned-new-citizens, towards Singapore’s 42-year-old National Service (NS) system. If new citizens do not know who has to serve NS, it takes no great vision to realize that they will also be clueless about the warfighters who will defend them.

A recent street poll by The Sunday Times showed that only 21 out of 50 people knew who has to serve NS (see question 8 in the article above).

The pathetic score underlines the amount of work needed to educate people in the Lion City about NS. It also goes to show that 42 years after the first Singaporeans enlisted for NS, people in this country do not seem to know, care for, or appreciate the efforts of those who bear arms to defend the city state.

The fallout from such ignorance will hardly be felt during times of peace.

But during the planning before hostilities, enemies of the state can be expected to exploit such ignorance to their advantage. Imagine how Operationally-Ready NSmen might feel if enemy psyops played on ignorance towards NS to shake the resolve of citizen soldiers.

Nobody likes being taken for granted. The notion that Singaporean NSmen serve an indifferent populace should concern defence planners. Numbers alone count for nothing if soldiers feel they will die for nothing or put their lives on the line for a populace that doesn’t care a hoot.

You don’t have to go far to find an example of a battle lost by a numerically superior army. Our forefathers paid a price in blood learning this lesson when Singapore surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army on 15 Feb 1942.

SAF Best Unit story

The Straits Times, 16 December 2009, Page A4

Monday, December 14, 2009

An open letter to Major Thomas W

As someone who provides target designation data to our manoeuvre forces, you would probably know - better than most people who visit this blog - how it feels when a position has been zeroed in and the big guns are waiting to fire for effect.

Events that have transpired are most unfortunate.

Now, more than ever, your command will require leadership to guide it through this episode.

The combat arm you serve - the oldest of all our combat arms - has a reputation for living up to the ideal: Care for Soldiers. Even after tragic accidents that had horrific consequences, many who served before your time have stood by their fellow soldiers in your combat arm, supporting families of the fallen quietly and away from the glare of media publicity. Those who know, will know.

It must have been hard to come to the decision that you have made, after years of hard work and time serving our country. I can sense you have done so in the best interest of your Formation.

I have to say that the courage to stand up and be accountable for your command's actions have not gone unnoticed, even as the episode itself is lamentable.

But who amongst us hasn't done lamentable deeds before?

Do not leave your command in the lurch, guide the battalion through this rough patch, close ranks and ensure all ranks are there for one another.

Your Formation and your battalion will pull through.

Stout hearts,

David Boey

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 12

History repeats itself
Competition brings out the best and worst in people.

From a public relations standpoint, being open and upfront when the chips are down goes a long way in shoring up confidence in the system.

This point cannot be over-emphasized, because I hear that history has repeated itself.

At a time when his battalion has achieved a high-profile with an overseas deployment, a young Commanding Officer will leave his battalion under less-than-cheerful circumstances. Word on the street claims he was tripped up by SOC scores compiled by a certain staff officer and a certain WOSE.

It must be hard for someone who has hundreds of officers and WOSEs under his command to micro manage what a friend of mine likes to call the “five cents, ten cents issues”. [The fact that he wears a star on his chest epaulette is beside the point.]

A Commanding Officer can spell out the commander’s intent and stamp his personality on his unit with the manner in which he talks and interacts with his subordinates. He should also lead by example and never expect his men to do something he won't do himself.

Many people overlook the reality that authority also comes with command responsibility. The buck stops at the CO’s door. This means taking the heat when lapses in commonsense have dire consequences. In life, dire consequences can be career-killers.

During operations, a go-getter competitive spirit, the desire never to let your opponent get one up on you, the spirit to fight on regardless of the odds can make a decisive difference between final victory or defeat.

Seasoned troops have been known to break and run when overcome by tank or shell shock. Conversely, the mere presence of a Commanding Officer on the field of battle can stem a rout and convince troops to stand fast. Several accounts written after World War Two by German generals like Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (Lost Victories) and Major-General F.W. von Mellethin (Panzer Battles: A study of the employment of Armor in the Second World War) underscore the importance of command presence during war.

That presence is essential also in peacetime and during operations other than war.

In 2003, the lapses that resulted in an award-winning story I authored were remedied immediately.

The Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) wielded a confident and open Public Affairs Directorate commanded by Colonel Bernard Toh. He was a Director Public Affairs who commanded tremendous respect from the media and officers who served under him.

Things are so different today.

Let’s see how the story is told, if at all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Defence Media Relations: Picking the date for your event

Hot dates
Before you pick a date for that special defence news announcement, ensure that your media relations plan is robust enough to cope with the unexpected.

Surprise attacks are not confined to the physical battlespace and can unhinge even the most well-planned defence information operations plan.

On 1 April 1975, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) came to life after the Singapore Air Defence Command was renamed. Singapore’s airpower had matured. Its order of battle included Hawker Hunter fighter jets, A-4S Skyhawk fighter-bombers, long-range Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles and an air defence radar unit inherited from Britain's Royal Air Force. This was potent stuff.

Just two days later, South Vietnamese pilots made a daring intrusion into Singapore air space. It was the largest air intrusion in Singapore’s history as 56 passengers and crew flew into Singapore unannounced crammed in a C-130A Hercules medium lift tactical transport.

The aerial intruder could have been intercepted by Hunters, or shot down by Bloodhound SAMs at 100-km range or engaged by 35mm Oerlikon cannon. Instead, the medium-lift tactical transport in South Vietnam warpaint flew a textbook approach into WSAP. The C-130A flew in unannounced and unchallenged by the RSAF.

Recalling the incident for the first time, the pilot told Senang Diri: "Approaching from about 80 miles out I called Singapore, however the radio had static and I skipped approach control and directly contacted the Singapore Tower. It was never a thought of mine that I may be intercepted by Singapore Air Force.

"To me it was just like touching down in Saigon. I called ground control and they led us to parking. From the distance to the parking spot I saw two ground crew members waiting with ground power and they looked like they knew we were coming as if we were coming in from Vietnam on a normal mission. When the parking engine shutdown, the ground crew hooked the electrical power on the right side forward the nose of the aircraft and gave me a military salute then both of them walked away."

[Author's opinion: As the SVNAF markings look very similar to those of the USAF, I surmise the groundcrew may have mistaken the Hercules for an American bird]

Had this air intrusion occurred in the Internet era, the Public Affairs (PAFF) Directorate at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) would have its hands full containing the fallout and red faces.
But on 3 April 1975, the news flow was easily contained. Reports were minimal. Indeed, media watchdogs did such a good job that many Singaporeans don't even know about the incident. [A full account of the air intrusion, including an exclusive interview with the pilot and pictures, has been compiled before memories fade. I thank the pilot, his family and all who helped me track him down]

On 20 July this year, cyberpioneer, the Internet incarnation of PAFF’s PIONEER magazine, reported a change of command at the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF). Two days later, MSTF made the news after RSS Independence, which comes under its operational control, hit an “underwater object”. Some media stories drew reference to the MSTF when they reported the incident. This is the kind of news I'm sure no commander would like to see.

Now for an Army-related example. Chances are Singaporeans will be able to recall that a soldier ran away with a rifle and bullets sometime in 2007.

Defence-savvy individuals – like many of you who visit this blog – would probably remember that the soldier’s name was Corporal Dave Teo and that he was armed with a SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle.

Dave Teo fled his camp during the tail end of the Army Open House 2007, in fact on the day of the Army Family Day at Pasir Laba Camp.

It’s a fair bet that many netizens will recall the Dave Teo incident far more readily than any of the talking points made by the Singapore Army during the AOH publicity. The publicity itself was expertly managed, but it was over-shadowed by fallout from the Dave Teo incident.

Dave Teo is the strategic Corporal personified – a low-ranking individual whose actions have a bearing on the image of the entire Singapore Army.

Now for a Joint forces example.

In July this year, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Operations Task Force came out of the shadows. An online article uploaded on 13 July 2009 by cyberpioneer said: “The SOTF will also be directly responsible for evacuation and diverse rescue operations. Specifically, elements from the SOTF can be deployed to evacuate Singaporeans out of harm's way in any part of the world, should the need arise.”

I was uncomfortable with that statement the moment I read the story. Though I’m the kind of defence enthusiast who will push for greater openness and transparency regarding SAF capabilities, this attitude is tempered with the sense of realism that statements should not backfire on the SAF or blunt its deterrent edge, or embarrass its commanders.

I did not take long for someone to challenge cyberpioneer’s statement.

On 15 October 2009, it was reported that a Singapore-flag container vessel, Kota Wajar, had been hijacked. Early media reports indicated that Singaporeans were on the ship. Fortunately for the SOFT, its crack hostage rescue troopers were not called to prove their mettle as the ship’s agent later clarified there were no Singaporeans onboard.

Though media interest has waned, do remember that the Kota Wajar is still being held by Somali pirates.

Looking at how previous ship hijackings off Somalia have panned out, any planned rescue would have been fraught with operational and logistical challenges. This is why I would have personally steered clear of jingoistic statements of the “any part of the world” genre.

An Army unit may insist on such phrasing. Military security may consider it kosher as it doesn't compromise national security. Defence policy officers may have no comments. But any thinking PR professional who has a reasonable standard of penmanship (and doesn't require a staff officer by his side when drafting submissions...) should veto these lines.

There are many other ways to send the message that the SOTF will be there, ready for action, without chest-beating statements. A factual reference to the multiple extractions - non-combatant evacuation operations - that the Commando Special Operations Force (also known euphemistically as "HQ Commando") and the RSAF’s 122 Squadron executed in Cambodia during Operation Crimson Angel would have sufficed. Singaporeans would know the SAF's hostage rescue capabilities are real and have been tested.

Flipping through my database, I could go on and on with more examples of how unexpected events threw perfectly planned PR plans out of whack, or how newsmakers had to eat their words. This won’t be necessary because I believe the point has been made.

The effort in picking a date for any media announcement is more an art rather than a science.

Sundry tasks including making sure a venue and the guest-of-honour are available. A wet weather plan is vital. The media officer also has to make sure the event doesn't clash with other national announcements, which include anything from results of major school examinations or Budget Day. These could rob journalists from your event or see your announcement dropped due to space pressure in the newspapers.

Depending on the nature and gravity of defence-related announcements, one would need to bear in mind the announcement’s impact on Singaporeans and, perhaps, how our neighbours may perceive the news.

At all cost avoid making announcements - especially those that showcase new defence capabilities - on special days of neighbouring countries such as their Merdeka Day or anniversaries of their Armed Forces.

Historically-conscious media relations officers or defence policy officers may want to red flag historically significant dates. The 10th of December, for example, marks the anniversary of the sinking of Force Z. Holding an event on this date could help your publicity or it could backfire (especially for a RSN event) if some wily journalist puts in one-liner about how such-and-such an event took place on that fateful date.

When the occasion demands, a historically-important date such as 15 February ensures one’s news point packs greater significance. For example, any announcement on the importance of Total Defence or nation-building made on 15 Feb will strike a chord with Singaporeans once readers know that the announcement was made on the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

So to all MROs and SAF committees charged with picking that special date for that special event for that special weapon platform or system, good luck.

My sense of the matter is that the SAF is robust enough to weather “unknown unknowns” in the defence information arena.

I have faith in the SAF’s higher leadership and that of the three Services to adapt, adjust its defence information strategy and cope with uncertainty. And thank goodness the Army, RSN and RSAF all have operational control over their own information officers who can clean up the mess when things go wonky. The Army through the Army Information Centre, the Navy through Naval Operations Department and the RSAF through Air Manpower Department.

But this sense of confidence stops at the door of my “favourite” MINDEF/SAF department. *wink*

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Defence Info Ops Exercise - Ship recognition

Which vessel is more dangerous?

The corvette or the "cabin cruiser"? And why?

Those of you who have taken part in past Info Ops Exercises on this blog will realise that the answers aren't as straightforward as they seem.

For this one, I'm providing a hint with the black and white photo below.

Fire away folks.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Defence Media Relations in Singapore

Dear Friends and Frenemies,
This is the first in a series of commentaries on defence media relations in Singapore.

This piece sets the scene by looking at big picture issues that the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) deals with. It essentially answers queries from netizens who have asked why the system continues to putter on, despite the leadership issue at MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate and "reservations" (read: complaints) expressed by many journalists.

These commentaries augment the weekly Blue on Blue posts.

The SAF and the Media - The Events Calendar

When managing defence media relations, half the battle is won when the media is your friend.

Singapore’s military corners a significant amount of publicity every year in the Singaporean media, thanks to operational conditions that few other armed forces enjoy.

The Singaporean media dutifully reports news on Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) matters in spite of, not because of, the best efforts of MINDEF’s Public Affairs (PAFF) Directorate.

This is because the only English language broadsheet, The Straits Times (henceforth referred to as the 90 cents newspaper) is also the island republic’s “paper of record” and faithfully chronicles MINDEF/SAF developments.

Television channels are government-affiliated and the same allegiances can be found in the radio stations.

With this sort of firepower on call, PAFF officers have little problem showing MINDEF Headquarters and the army, navy and air force heaps of media clippings that show successful “hits” in the media.

The brutal truth is that news editors would have covered these stories anyway, so long as the news releases were churned out. These are events that the 90 cents newspaper will cover as a matter of record and to promote nation-building.

By setting the bar low and using coverage by the 90 cents newspaper as a benchmark, PAFF's leadership scores points with easy kills.

Though the operational environment is conducive for PAFF Media Relations Officers (MROs), these individuals serve a crucial role. I’ll come to this later after we examine Singapore’s defence information calendar.

To borrow military parlance, set piece battles that unfold every year include the following media engagements:

SAF Day Best Units: A series of stories that profile SAF units that ace the Best Units rankings.

SAF Day Interview with the Defence Minister: Timed to appear on 1 July, which is SAF Day, Singapore's Minister for Defence usually assess the priorities, achievements and challenges facing the defence community.

National Day Parade (NDP): Publicity kicks off as early as May to build up awareness of, and public excitement towards, Singapore’s National Day Parade which is held on 9 August.

Other high profile events include:
* the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security talks organized by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. The event is popularly named after the luxury hotel at which it is held rather than the acronym for its formal name, Asian Security Summit...,
* the biennial Singapore Air Show,
* Defence Technology Prize. This is spearheaded by the Defence Science & Technology Agency but MINDEF/SAF enjoys spinoffs from stories on award-winning projects that defence scientists and engineers worked on.
* Large-scale unilateral, bilateral and multilateral SAF war games such as Exercise Wallaby, CARAT and the FPDA manoeuvres.
* New SAF capabilities. Upcoming capabilities include the Project Peace Triton Seahawk commissioning, HIMARS rocket artillery commissioning and arrival of the Archer-class SSKs.
* Add in courtesy calls, visits to SAF camps by Members of Parliament such as the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs, and study groups such as the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (this serves as a sounding board for MINDEF/SAF on defence issues) and one has a packed media schedule.

In previous years when PAFF was more forthcoming with story ideas floated by journalists, MINDEF/SAF enjoyed additional positive publicity from these exclusive stories.

In May 2004, MINDEF achieved the rare distinction of cornering both Page One stories in the 90 cents newspaper. The stories were written by me.

The lead story of the day was the opening of the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) Changi Naval Base. The base was opened by then-Singapore Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong.

The second lead was a story on the death of a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilot, Lieutenant Brandon Loo (callsign: Chip) who died serving his country while flying his F-16C fighter jet on a night training sortie in the United States.

The 90 cents newspaper’s Page One on 21 May 2004 is an example of what journalists mean by stories that sell themselves.

The opening of a naval base by the Singaporean PM automatically elevates the occasion to a Prime News item.

The tragic story of LTA Loo’s death was also high on the schedule of newsworthy items. This is the kind of story I never like writing. But when called to do so, I tried to write the story with tact. Chip was the first RSAF pilot to die in training and he was also well-loved by friends and family. [Another F-16 pilot died during the SQ006 crash in Taiwan en route to the United States for training]

Though some stories “sell themselves”, PAFF’s Media Relations Officers nonetheless serve an important role.

MINDEF MROs should try to coax journalists to give value-added to their stories by venturing beyond the news release.

The SAF is now undergoing a complex transformation into a Third Generation (3rd Gen) fighting force. Many concepts and capabilities that sharpen Singapore’s deterrent edge need to be explained to the Singaporean public so they can better understand, appreciate and have confidence in their armed forces.

Such publicity should also educate a foreign audience. A clear understanding of the pace, direction and goals of the 3rd Gen SAF’s transformation goes a long way in helping foreign defence watchers make their assessment of the SAF’s revamped capabilities and state of operational readiness.

One would hope they are impressed. But defence watchers cannot be impressed unless they have credible articles or source material that would blow their socks off. As things stand, many local media reports look like rehashes of MINDEF/SAF news releases.

The third audience is made up of foreigners-turned-Singaporeans. Thousands of new citizens arrive in Singapore carrying historical baggage from their former home nations about the role of the military. Not all these views are flattering. Prejudices harboured by new citizens and the urban myths propagated by the ill-informed must be addressed before the sons of new citizens enlist for two years of full-time National Service. In many respects, dealing with new citizens brings MINDEF’s defence information network back to the SAF’s founding days when fears of NS proliferated when it was introduced in 1967.

The concerns and prejudices of new citizens are largely the same as those of Singaporeans of the 1960s, when Chinese parents viewed military service with disdain and high caste Indians did not like taking orders from those of a lower caste. Such views need to be fixed.

As the 3rd Gen SAF gains traction, PAFF will be in the forefront of this education effort.

With experienced PAFF officers leaving as a result of the situation I have previously written about, are MINDEF/SAF defence information needs best served?

You be the judge.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Who are these people?"

Singaporean air power is a force to be reckoned with in the air, but its shortcomings in defence diplomacy have become glaringly apparent at the ongoing LIMA 2009 show in Malaysia.

Instead of winning new friends, signals from LIMA 2009 indicate that the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) is alienating itself from aircraft enthusiasts, the media and its Malaysian host by making a fuss about people who photograph its warplanes. Follow the discussion on LIMA 2009 here.

The pair of F-16C fighters and two Apache attack helicopters sent up north represent the first RSAF contingent sent to the long-running Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA).

You can’t blame the RSAF for its lack of tact or public relations savvy.

One might ponder what role, if any, the Public Affairs (PAFF) directorate at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) played in indoctrinating the RSAF contingent in the finer points of defence diplomacy before they left the Lion City.

Looking at PAFF’s track record in handling military enthusiasts in Singapore, one would hope the RSAF received better service from PAFF.

Alas, perhaps PAFF was busy managing the attendance list for its recent Dinner & Dance so the event would play to a full house.

It is fitting to recall that discussants from a internet discussion group on military matters, aptly titled, attended several excursions with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) since 2008. These were all organized and staged without PAFF’s inputs, support or courtesy.

In fact, when I broached the idea that PAFF should take the lead in engaging netizens from, a senior officer I spoke to asked pointedly: “Who are these people?”

The excursion to the RSAF Emergency Runway exercise in November 2008 was organized by the RSAF Air Power Generation Command (APGC). As preparations for APGC’s biggest war readiness exercise ramped up, their officers took the time and trouble to clear the names of 19 Singaporeans so they could watch and photograph the exercise. The 19 militarynuts showed up on a Saturday morning at 0700hrs in what was to be our largest-ever gathering.

All who signed up turned up on time and had a blast watching RSAF warplanes launch and recover from an improvised runway. The highlight of the exercise rehearsal was our meeting with the RSAF Chief of Air Force, Major-General Ng Chee Khern.

Meeting CAF was a treat for the Operationally-Ready National Servicemen who formed the bulk of the contingent invited to watch Exercise Torrent VI. All Services of the SAF were represented that morning and the NSmen came from all eras from the 1st Gen SAF onwards. You must appreciate that NSmen seldom get to speak to anyone with more than three crabs (full Colonel, the three Singapore crests on the COL epaulettes resemble a plan view of the crustaceans) even in their NS units and many were thrilled when the two-star general walked over for the informal chat.

It says a lot about the readiness and confidence of the RSAF when its Air Power Generation Command and Air Combat Command willingly accommodated "outsiders" during the exercise rehearsal. Prior to last November's air exercise, the last time RSAF war planes thundered off a road was six years ago, so you may well appreciate that the manoeuvres could have seemed less than perfect. But the end result was fabulous and the RSAF was rewarded with net chatter to this effect.

While we're on Exercise Torrent VI, I should mention that I did try to go through proper channels. I wasted several days negotiating with PAFF and was finally told that - are you sitting down for this? - there "wasn't enough space" for the milnuts. The Emergency Runway site is at least 2,500 metres long. Go figure. : )

When I casually mentioned this to my friends in the RSAF, they promptly advised me to send them the name list and they would do the rest. Their word was good. The relevant security department cleared everyone. Milnuts will remember we had our own bus and hogged front row seats at the exercise.

Credit for the outings organised during the International Maritime Defence Exhibition, or IMDEX 2009, naval show goes to the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN). Militarynuts who visited HMS Ocean will recall that our escort, Jagdish, ushered us into Changi Naval Base on Vesak Day – a Public Holiday in Singapore. We thank the RSN Naval Operations Department for the courtesy.

More recently, militarynuts were invited to watch and comment on the first Combined Rehearsal for Singapore’s 44th National Day Parade. The courtesy was extended by the NDP Executive Committee and our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome.

RSAF officers escorted the group as we watched Singapore Army armoured vehicles such as Leopard 2A4 Main Battle Tanks and Bionix Infantry Fighting Vehicles unload from low loaders. It was truly a “combined arms operation” as we got sneak peeks of the first NDP'09 rehearsal by air, naval and air elements.

Coming back to LIMA, one would hope MINDEF/SAF leadership polish the RSAF’s defence diplomacy skills before LIMA opens its doors to the Malaysian Rakyat this weekend.

SAF personnel can make warm and inviting hosts when the occasion demands, as militarynuts have learned.

Who are these people?

They are largely Operationally-Ready National Servicemen who will respond at a moment’s notice when their nation calls.

I really wish I could say the same for PAFF.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 11 ATM Bersama Media

North of the border
Armchair warriors would probably be able to dig up a heap of statistics on the Malaysian Armed Forces using their computer keyboard. You could do it too with the right search terms.

The value of attending the ATM Bersama Media (Malaysian Armed Forces and the Media) event in 2007 came from the opportunity to hear, firsthand, what ATM officers thought of the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Their frank comments made the trip to KL worthwhile and I thank them for hosting me.

In my view, the specifications of weapons displayed during the event at Kem Sungai Besi on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, were not the main draw. Anyone can dig these up on the Internet.

The viewpoints and comments collected at the ATM Bersama Media event were invaluable. The conversations with officers I met revealed that most were well-briefed on developments in Singapore.

The photo essay that follows should give netizens an idea of the event I attended and the effort the Malaysian military takes in cultivating strong rapport with their national media.

Malaysia's Kementerian Pertahanan (KEMENTAH) stages its media engagement activities regularly and the contacts with the media provide an avenue for frank feedback from the press. This is unlike the practice in a certain Asean country where one senior officer is known to stalk his boss at press luncheons lest journalists try to - how would the Malaysians say this? - pecah lobang (loosely translated, it means something like "bust one's balloon") by sharing feedback with his superior officer.

My sense of the matter is that the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has much to learn from its KL counterpart, especially in the area of defence information management.

Malaysian journalists try their hand at stripping and assembling M-16 assault rifles under the tutorship of Malaysian Army officers. The ATM Bersama Media events help Malaysian journalists to forge a deeper understanding of their country's defence forces.

The 100-metre Falling Plate shooting competition pitted teams of journalists against one another in friendly rivalry. Darren, a Singaporean from the discussion group and I were the only Singaporeans at the event. As we did not have enough team members to form a five-person shooting detail, we joined forces with journalists from Asian Defence Journal and a Malaysian Chinese language newspaper.

A Malaysian Warrant Officer provides arms-handling instructions. Lessons were conducted in Malay and our pasar Melayu helped immensely.

We were each given two magazines of five rounds and had to run some 50 metres, prone, load the magazine, chamber a round and shoot down two plates 100 metres away.

Our team emerged third overall, losing our place in the final by a split second as the rival team's last plate fell a moment before we gunned down our last plate. Some of our Malaysian hosts attributed our good performance to our National Service training but were surprised to learn later that we were both PES "C" service troops who hadn't fired a rifle in years. : )

Ties forged during the ATM Bersama Media events benefit both sides - the media and the military. Many soldiers gain from the casual interaction with journalists, allowing them to gain a firsthand understanding of the media and what constitutes a good story.

A Malaysian Army sniper team shows off its 12.7mm anti-material rifle. The Malaysians acknowledged that the long reach of the weapon could be used for harassing fire against armoured troops operating with hatches open or against soft skin vehicles in the supply chain. Stay behind forces would make any incursion into Malaysian territory a costly one.

Manportable anti-tank weapons such as Pakistani-made RPG-7 rocket launcher (above) give Malaysian Army infantry sections the confidence to deal with armoured vehicles. Malaysian infantry units are armed with a range of anti-tank weapons whose respective range rings allow the infantry to provide defence in depth. I got the sense that Malaysian soldiers intend to wield the RPG-7 as an anti-personnel weapon too, especially in close-in fights in urban terrain or Malaysian plantation areas. They have the advantage of fighting on home territory and they know that.

Paratroopers from the 10 Brigade Pasukan Atugerak Cepat (Rapid Deployment Force) demonstrated how the Falling Plate event should be done. Women form an important component of frontline units in the Malaysian Armed Forces, an all-volunteer force that relies on a steady stream of recruits to replenish its ranks.

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.