Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 19

Space cadet

Spin Masters: On the sidelines of Asian Aerospace 1992, Colonel Bey Soo Khiang, Commander Paya Lebar Air Base, COL Ramachandran Menon, Director Public Affairs/MINDEF Spokesman, host foreign aviation and defence journalists at the Jet Apron, PLAB. The speed of the RSAF's transformation is underlined by the fact that by 2010, six of the eight flying machines - from left the UH-1H, SF.260W, A-4SU Super Skyhawk, Skyvan, F-16A, and AS.350B Ecureuil - in the picture have been replaced. The C-130 Hercules transport and F-5 fighter jet have been upgraded and remain in frontline service.

Once every two years, the world's best aviation and defence writers flock to Singapore to write about the republic's airshow.

The gathering of scribes is a networking opportunity not to be missed and previous generations of public affairs officers at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) recognised this. They must have set the bar pretty high, because their outreach efforts have not been surpassed in recent years.

The picture you see above shows the Singapore Armed Forces Media Reception which was held on the sidelines of Asian Aerospace'92.

In days gone by, public relations (PR) professionals at Asian Aerospace (AA) would work their media calendar around MINDEF's reception. The reason was simple: MIINDEF's invitation would empty the AA exhibition halls of aviation and defence journalists, such was the influence of the MINDEF Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) in those days. Indeed, the reception was one of the highlights of the airshow's press calendar.

The picture's composition is poor - it was taken from a cherry picker and the people in the photo should have assembled much closer to the photographer. But it does show clearly the amount of effort that MINDEF/SAF invested to make the media reception worth the while of visiting foreign journalists.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) displayed one example of every warplane, helicopter, trainer and transport aircraft in its inventory, along with air defence radars and a menacing assortment of anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles pointing skyward at imaginary threats. You did not have to be a defence expert to realise that Singapore's skies were one of the most densely-defended. The foreign journalists could see it for themselves and behaved like kids in a candy store. Score 1 for MINDEF.

The payoff for such events was measured by the column inches that aviation and defence magazines devoted to the media reception. The short-term payoff was represented by the steady stream of news stories and features that were published weeks and months after the event. It gave tiny Singapore a presence in influential defence journals and a editorial footprint far ahead of other ASEAN armed forces.

This was crucial as the Lion City was then busy engaging itself with defence officials worldwide. Having pictures and stories of the SAF grace the covers of major defence publications meant that MINDEF officials had less explaining to do when introducing themselves to foreign defence heavy hitters.

That such intense coverage also sent a deterrent message to would-be aggressors goes without saying.

One long-term immeasurable was the goodwill that PAFF established with the world's most influential defence writers and commentators. In times of crisis, PAFF officers could - and did - speak frankly with defence journalists to ensure that Singapore's side of the story was told fairly.

Foreign journalists pride themselves in editorial independence but many paid back MINDEF's friendship. In some cases, MINDEF would not have been aware of this fact because troublesome revelations never made it to print in the first place.

One British defence editor told me he intentionally omitted stating that the Singapore Army uses a particular missile system because he valued ties with MINDEF and the SAF and felt that factoid might upset the delicate relationship. While touring an Army unit, the eagle-eyed scribe spotted the name of the missile marked on one of the ammunition storage boxes of an SAF war machine. He got this fact verified later with the missile's maker. Incidentally, that war machine has yet to be seen in public....

Another long-term payoff from such receptions came from introducing SAF officers to the intricacies of defence information management. Many SAF officers assigned for duty at the media reception recognised their visitors by their bylines. The opportunity to put a face to a name helped them understand the work of defence journalists firsthand and they gained a deeper understanding of how journalists angle their stories.

Do remember that many SAF combat officers spend their time behind razor wire fences, working with files that have security messages stamped on their covers and warnings about communicating with the Press drilled into their psyche. To the military, the world of defence journalism is shrouded in mystique. Exposing SAF officers to the media helps tear down misguided mindmaps and makes them more confident when dealing with the media.

During one such reception, the commander of the RSAF's Paya Lebar Air Base led the visit and fielded a barrage of questions from curious journalists. Is the RSAF buying such-and-such a weapon? How many (insert name of weapon platform) does the RSAF operate? Who is Singapore's enemy? Touchy questions on training in Taiwan and Singapore's relations with "Mexico" were also popular topics. : )

That base commander was Colonel Bey Soo Khiang. Years later, he earned his general's stars and rose to command the SAF as its Chief of Defence Force (CDF). His exposure to defence information management was indeed valuable and as CDF, he radiated a ready confidence when dealing with the media.

It goes without saying that it takes a great deal of effort to coax the air force to open up its shop window. The officers who held the job of Director of Public Affairs pushed MINDEF HQ very hard. Budgets were tight in those days and it took DPAs like Colonel Ramachandran Menon - a fiesty officer who argued his position strongly - to make the show-and-tell a reality.

The visit to PLA used to be a staple at Asian Aerospace. Foreign journalists would visit the air base for an update on the SAF, hear more about RSAF developments and tour Singapore Aircraft Industries (now Singapore Technologies Aerospace). For half a day of their time, journalists could gather enough material for feature length stories on the SAF and Singapore's defence industry.

Journalists who made the trip at two-year intervals could see for themselves the part SAI served in supporting the RSAF. During one visit, SAI's hangars was crammed solid with A-4 Skyhawks as the RSAF turned its fighter-bomber planes into Super Skyhawks. Fast forward a couple of AA shows and it was the turn of the F-5 Tiger fighter jets.

Journalists who wrote about Singapore's defence industrial capabilities were MINDEF/SAF's best ambassadors. Their take on Singapore's defence scene were not regurgitated from MINDEF news releases, but came from a firmer understanding of the various opportunities, challenges and constraints that dictate Singapore's security, survival and success.

In recent years, the media receptions have been downsized into meet-and-greet events held in an airshow chalet. What a pity. About the most interesting takeaway from such sessions was the quality of the buffet line or the door gifts given out at the end of the reception.

SAF officers and PAFF staff would stand in awkward knots in corners of the room, eyeing the journalists nervously like dance floor virgins on prom nite. A few would venture forward, try to make small talk. Name cards would be exchanged and that was it.

This wasn't a problem during those years when the DPAs willingly engaged and courted defence journalists. Ties were forged and issues trashed out professionally - foreign journalists will always push the boundary and the respective DPAs were in any case constrained by how much they could say about weapons acquisitions, the SAF's wish list and Singapore's defence posture.

The interactions were valuable because the DPA could drive home the message that PAFF was always there for the journalists.

The current DPA will have his work cut out for him when foreign journalists descend on the Singapore Airshow 2010 this coming week.

The receptions have more of less morphed into facsimiles of the previous event, done along roughly the same template as (new) PAFF staff officers dust off old files and copy what was done previously.

It took strong leadership to push MINDEF HQ to support the show-and-tell in the 1990s. Once PAFF lapsed and staff officers took the path of least resistance, the media receptions became progressively downsized and less ambitious in scope and scale.

As stated earlier, this wasn't an immediate problem when the DPAs had the right temperament, mindset and flair for winning the media's trust and respect. Things will start to go belly up once journalists sense they are being led round and round the mulberry bush by a space cadet, or have to deal with a media relations team that is in such a state of flux that name cards become collector's items because the Media Relations Officers drop like flies.

Many of the journalists are old hands in the business. Some of them have dealings that pre-date the appointment of COL Kwan Yue Yeong as MINDEF's first DPA and have written about the SAF since the late 1980s. Their institutional memory and domain knowledge is far, far superior to the current generation of SAF officers - many of whom would have been junior officers when that photo was taken in February 1992.[Indeed, one junior officer who was at the 1992 reception as the most junior pilot officer among the RSAF Black Knights, rose from LTA to COL and has moved on to a second career. Yes, I'm getting old too...]

They have long memories and are likely to compare what they see this week at MINDEF's chalet with service standards in days gone by.

Early DPAs set the bar high and the current one has big shoes to fill.

We, the old citizens of Singapore

It's a great time to be a Singaporean, going by the flurry of articles in the Singaporean media this past week that underlined various benefits the Lion City's citizens enjoy.

The newspaper articles made clear that while there will be no back peddling on officialdom's stance on "new Singaporeans", introducing an unspecified number of foreign talents to the island republic has come at a price.

New Singaporeans have started to form enclaves rather than settling in as kindered spirits alongside the old Singaporeans. The enclaves have evolved despite officialdom's efforts to introduce new Singaporeans of the same racial stock as the old birds.

The way I look at the issue, the reluctance of new Singaporeans to integrate with Singapore's social fabric represents a social fault line that hostile entities may exploit.

Singapore's elder statesman, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, said in a dialogue session on Wednesday 25 Jan 2010: "We're not allowing new Singaporeans whether from China, India, Malaysia or whatever to congregate in the same (residential) tower blocks which they're already beginning to do so. They buy second-hand flats and they congregate.

"So, we say 'no, no'. We have a record of how many new citizens are living where, and we keep their numbers dispersed. It's a very valuable instrument for communal harmony."

It's worth remembering that social enclaves can form in the physical environment such as housing estates as well as the mental constructs people harbour of one another.

How many of you can say, hand on heart, that you know thy neighbour? I know a few members of my neighbour's family by their first name, but can't tell you their family name even at gunpoint.

Add new Singaporeans to the community of apathetic Singaporeans who tolerate but barely mix with one another - except for the stage managed community events beloved of politicians - and one has the makings of a somewhat volatile cocktail of social issues.

Even without new Singaporeans, fault lines have existed for decades in Singapore. There have been occasional flare ups between the have's and have nots, the English educated elite and Chinese/Malay speaking heartlanders, as well as the hodge podge of diverse races of old Singaporeans.

During a recent visit to the Internal Security Department's Heritage Centre, I learnt that the job of monitoring these fault lines helps justify the pay of the ISD wallahs. Which is good to know, since Singapore paid a price in blood in the 1960s when racial and religious intolerance flared into street riots.

And just as we old Singaporeans have slowly learnt to tolerate one another after 44 years of independence, an unknown number of foreign talents have come to live amongst us.

There's little to fear, going by the tone of the articles in the Singaporean press this week that advanced the official line for new Singaporeans.

Just look at these Page 1 and Home cover stories in The 90 cents newspaper:

Tuesday 26 January 2010, The Straits Times: "Fewer babies for the first time in five years" Pg 1, "Immigrants a buffer for falling birth rate (page A8)

Thursday 28 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "Fewer foreign workers in five years, says MM" Pg 1.(To my foreign readers, MM refers to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew)

Thursday 28 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "PRs, new citizens chalking up huge card debts", Home section cover story

Friday 29 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "Wider gap in health subsidy for citizens, PRs" Pg 1

Friday 29 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "HDB quota for PRs may not avoid enclaves", Home section cover story (HDB: Housing and Development Board, the Singaporean government agency in charge of public housing)

Saturday 30 Jan 2010, The Straits Times: "Big gains in jobs, mostly for locals" Pg 1.

The above articles are a blend of feel good stories targeted at old Singaporeans, with some that take the shine off PRs and new Singaporeans. As immigrant-related issues, especially those of the bread and butter kind, hit the hearts of most Singaporeans, defence planners in charge of strengthening hearts and minds may one day face a perfect storm.

That perfect storm would consist of unhappy Singaporeans who wonder why they must bear the defence burden when new Singaporeans do not serve National Service (NS). On the other side of the coin, new Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) may feel ostracised or unnecessarily traumatised by all the official attention at their failure to integrate quickly enough. Indeed, the moniker "new Singaporean" brands them as a distinct social group.(So much for the first line of the Singaporean national pledge that begins "We, the citizens of Singapore.")

If the new citizens have ring fenced themselves into clusters of their own kind, I wonder how responsive these folks are, or will be, to the national campaigns on defence issues.

If they are reluctant to mix with the old Singaporeans, then I suspect they can hardly be depended upon when the balloon goes up and Singapore's interests are threatened.

Will they fly the coop at the first whiff of danger?

And if the old Singaporeans are the ones who will man the frontline, how would old Singaporean families feel when their sons are the ones who have to protect the apathetic arrivals?

It will be interesting to see how many sons of these new Singaporean families eventually choose to serve the compulsory two years of full-time National Service when the time comes. For those that do serve NS, it is only a matter of time before statistics, probability and fate claim the first new Singaporean NS death. When that day comes, will the attitude of new Singaporeans towards NS plummet?

The Lion City had a dress rehearsal to the new Singaporeans issue more than a decade ago. In the mid 1990s, thousands of Hong Kongers settled here before the former British colony was handed back to the People's Republic of China in July 1997. The immigrants were mainly of Chinese stock. On paper at least, they made up for the shortfall in Chinese babies.

Since then, there has been almost no word on the number of HK families who were granted Permanent Resident (PR) status, how many eventually became Singaporeans and, most important of all, how many stayed long enough to see their sons serve NS.

Lacking hard data from officialdom, the neighbourhood gossips and Internet chatterboxes are speculating the worst: That the effort to integrate HKs was an expensive waste of tax payers' money.

The Hong Kongers are said to have used Singapore as a stepping stone for their jump to greener pastures in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Going by the anecdoctal evidence that indicates huge numbers of new Singaporeans have settled amongst us, one hopes the latest social experiment will spell more good years.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Frederick Teo Court Martial Case

The Today newspaper and The Straits Times will publish a follow up on the Frederick Teo case. Do look out for these stories please.

I've been in/out of the office these days. Haven't had time to scan the articles related to the earlier posts. There'll be several major announcements from the IR soon. : )

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 18

Open season

The Defence Minister who banned Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel from writing to the Press was the same voice who urged the military to embrace a spirit of openness.

It may appear schizoid, but Minister for Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, had the foresight to bring SAF personnel under a tight rein in the early 1970s to ensure comments would be made responsibly.

There's a big difference between Dr Goh's decisions on defence information management and someone who muzzles dissenting voices without giving aggrieved parties an outlet to vent their feelings.

This explains the twin track approach adopted by the First Generation SAF in the early 1970s. On the one hand, MINDEF barred SAF personnel from writing to newspapers. On the other, it coaxed unhappy SAF personnel to pen their grouses in the SAF's monthly magazine, PIONEER, and trained paracounsellors to suss out problems.

A report in The Straits Times published in November 1970 said:"... servicemen have another avenue for bringing up their problems. There are no fewer than 45 regular officers and men whose full-time duty is to find out grievances in all units.
"They move among men, usually incognito and unobstrusively, determine what shortcomings or complaints servicemen may have.
"Their reports are compiled and studied at MINDEF each month and where indicated, corrective action is taken."

Bear in mind, dear netizens, that the care and commitment Dr Goh showed towards his troops pre-dated the Care for Soldiers core value by several decades.

Newspaper reports from that era made it clear that criticisms and complains were welcomed and pen names would be allowed.

The only caveat the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) imposed was for SAF letter writers to state their name, identity card number and military unit. This discouraged frivolous comments and time wasters, or weak minded rabble rousers who drew dutch courage by hiding behind a mask of anonymity. MINDEF's call for writers to identify themselves encouraged SAF personnel to take a stand on issues they believed in. The MINDEF of the early 1970s was prepared to hear dissenting voices. All it asked for was for letter writers to have the intellectual courage to take a stand.

Dr Goh's next move was to push the SAF to dispel ignorance and misconceptions about the military. Public relations professionals and defence information officers will probably identify this move as a strategic one which ensures the news maker holds the initiative in shaping public perceptions on, knowledge of and attitudes towards, Singapore's fledgling armed forces.

Addressing a commissioning parade at Gillman Barracks in 1971, Dr Goh said:"Army units can regularly receive groups of community leaders, professionals, academicians and others (emphasis mine) and brief them on how the battalion is organised, how it trains and how it fights."

[Note: I presume his clarion call was meant for personnel from all three Services, viz, the Singapore Army, Singapore Air Defence Command (the Republic of Singapore Air Force wasn't formed till 1975) and the Singapore Maritime Command (the precursor to the Republic of Singapore Navy)]

The Straits Times report said:"Dr Goh cited the example of a woman interviewer who expressed surprise during a radio programme when told that the SAF Goodwill Expedition had 14 officers and non-commissioned officers on the trip."
The woman asked what would happen to the department.
"Of course, if it were the Broadcasting Division of the Ministry of Culture, the loss of 14 officers may well reduce the organisation to a state of paralysis," Dr Goh said.
"However, the SAF has more than 7,000 officers and NCOs. The departure of 14 makes little difference."
"While in this instance no harm was done, it was easy to imagine a more serious consequence of public ignorance, said Dr Goh."
*Cue: Rapturous applause*

Had Dr Goh been in charge of MINDEF today, the Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) would be a very different creature.

To be sure, many officers in the Third Generation SAF have embraced the spirit of Dr Goh's remarks and proved open and forthcoming.

Netizens from the discussion forum will probably support this point by citing visits organised to the RSAF Emergency Runway Exercise, guided tours aboard the RSN's Formidable-class stealth frigates during the past two IMDEX naval shows and assorted excursions hosted by the Singapore Army as examples of this mindset.

At this juncture, it is worth remembering that PAFF did not want the militarynuts to attend the runway exercise. A somewhat embarrassed PAFF officer (who has since quit the directorate) gave the lame excuse that it was due to "lack of space" (when the runway is nearly 2km long??). At that juncture, the Air Power Generation Command took the lead and cleared 18 Operationally Ready National Servicemen and one teenage student for the exercise. I am very grateful to APGC for paving the way to the visit and to the former RSAF Chief of Air Force for meeting the group during the exercise.

The visit to the frigates was organised by Naval Operations Department, as I had pointed out in an earlier post.

Why has PAFF's leadership, supposedly the subject matter experts on PR matters, displayed more close minded behaviour than operational SAF combat units?

Years after Dr Goh Keng Swee stepped down from politics, he continued to walk the talk as far as openness was concerned.

I know that for a fact. More than a decade ago, when the dear politician was compos mentis, I met him for a four eye meeting.(Not quite four eyes, because his wife was also present).

He lived in a house down the road and my mum mentioned one day that she thought she saw Dr Goh walking around the estate.

I felt the only way to find out was to pop a note in his letter box asking the household if the elderly gentleman was indeed the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence.

For my trouble, Dr Goh invited me over one Saturday morning.(Which minister today would do that?)

I treasure that encounter and will remember Dr Goh's take on a number of issues we talked about. One of the takeaways from that meeting was the importance of not keeping quiet when I saw that something needed fixing.

PAFF needs fixing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 17

Back to basics

"Letters, both critical and friendly, from members of the SAF, will be welcomed." - Ministry of Defence, November 1970

Even without information warriors, the First Generation Singapore Armed Forces (1st Gen SAF) did not neglect the battle for hearts and minds.

The tough restrictions that today's generation of SAF active and Operationally Ready National Servicemen (Note to foreign readers: ORNSmen are what some countries term "reservists") have to abide by when it comes to defence information are a legacy left by staff officers who served during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Everyone who has served in the SAF would know they must handle sensitive military information with extreme care.

But defence enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF also pushed for more transparency in defence information, even as it worked to plug the leaks.

Nearly 40 years ago, SAF servicemen were free to write about their grouses in Singaporean newspapers. In the words of former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Dr Goh Keng Swee, SAF servicemen "joined in the fray with great zest".

At the time, MINDEF had no Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF). The Internet had not been born. Dirty linen was aired in the letters pages of The Straits Times and other Singaporean newspapers, and through noisy gossip in coffeeshops around the island.

Dr Goh put a stop to that.

On 5 November 1970, The Straits Times ran a story with the headline "Soldiers warned: Stop writing to the Press". Dr Goh had told Parliament a day earlier that soldiers who communicated military matters to the media would be held to account.

"Many servicemen - both conscripts (Note: full-time NSmen) and regulars - have been airing their grouses in The Straits Times and other newspapers in recent weeks.
"It is understood that the Defence Ministry is reviewing existing machinery to ensure that SAF members have adequate channels to thrash out their grievances without breaching regulations."

A day later, Dr Goh got MINDEF to pressure forward.

On 6 November 1970, Singaporeans woke up to read this headline in The Straits Times:"Soldiers who write to newspapers 'Editors must tell' law"

Not content to stop typewriters from chattering, MINDEF reminded newspapers that they must unmask their sources when "required" by the Government.

The Page 1 article said:"If they fail or refuse to do so, they are liable to a fine of up to $4,000, or jail of up to one year, or both.
"The SAF member, who breaks the silence imposed on him, is also liable to a fine of up to $2,000 or jail of up to six months."

Bear in mind that in then-year dollars, anything above S$1,000 was considered a princely sum.

The measures were harsh, but Dr Goh had the foresight to realise that he would push dissent underground if SAF servicemen did not have an outlet to voice their unhappiness.

That outlet was PIONEER magazine.

That same month, The Straits Times published a story titled "Gag is off, but only in SAF paper".

As PAFF was not destined to exist till 1979, the magazine was published by the Education Branch of MINDEF's Manpower Division. While the 1st Gen SAF lacked the comprehensive set up of today's PAFF, it more than made this up with strong leadership and the guts to take in good news and bad.

The 3rd Gen SAF does not lack strong leaders, save for PAFF which - I stress I am guessing here - appears to be so sensitive to outside critique that it systematically weeds these out in daily summaries to the Level 5 bosses. This is a pity. MINDEF/SAF leaders rely on PAFF to serve as their eyes and ears, reading the pulse of public sentiments towards a host of military-related issues. I will leave it at that but those of you in the loop will know the point I am driving at.

PAFF should take a look at what the 1st Gen SAF intended when it balanced the gag order with a call for SAF servicemen to engage PIONEER magazine as a forum.

The November 1970 story said:"National PIONEER's new section will be called 'The SAF and You'.
"Letters, both critical and friendly, from members of the SAF, will be welcomed.
"No letters will be accepted unless they are signed and bear the names, NRIC numbers (Note to my foreign readers: this is the identity card number all Singaporeans above 12 years old are assigned) and the units to which the writers belong.
"This will ensure that genuine and legitimate complaints are not lost among anonymous and frivolous letters.
"However pen names can be used by those writers who wish to remain anonymous."

In the years that followed, the spirit of openness seems to have be forgotten. The revamped PIONEER magazine that we see today - bright, colourful and cheerful - has won acclaim among readers, many of whom state that the magazine at least makes it out of the wrapper.

That said, almost every piece of feedback published in PIONEER's letters page is a facsimile of the previous month's mailbag. Readers will gush about the months-old revamp (which was a good effort), with some comments bordering on the obsequious.

The $60 voucher for every published letter is indeed a wonderful incentive. Ask yourself how many letters would stream into PAFF once that incentive is axed?

Readers who have been following this blog would know that I once wrote that transparency is no talisman against bad decisions, mishaps or training accidents. But transparency and trust is vital, especially for a citizen's army that relies on NSmen to answer the call to arms when the balloon goes up.

As I've said in an earlier post, the transformation of the SAF is taking place amid demographic changes never before seen in independent Singapore. The views, fears and prejudices of new citizens towards National Service must be addressed alongside cynical voices from Singaporean families.

Blue on Blue is not about establishment bashing. Those of you who earned a star, multiple crabs or bars who engaged me in one-on-one coffee stirring sessions to find out what PAFF is up to would have heard the lowdown.

Disregard the barbs from this blog. Look at the talent attrition at PAFF and that would tell you the full story.

If this is how PAFF is run, I'd opt for the PAFF-less public affairs set up of the 1st Gen SAF any day. At least the leadership of the time got their basics right.

[A note to the academics: I'll get the newspaper articles cited here scanned next week]

Friday, January 22, 2010

IR opening

Super busy these few days. I hope some of you will make time to visit the integrated resort (IR)* someday.

Will resume regular transmission this weekend after I catch up on my sleep deficit. Zzzz

* For the foreign readers: Integrated Resort (IR) is a term coined by the Singaporean authorities to describe Singapore's first gaming resorts. An IR will integrate a casino together with other tourist magnets such as convention facilities, museums and, in the case of the company I work for, a family theme park.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010

New York zone: Universal Studios Singapore

This is another totally non-defence related post.

This is part of the New York street scene replicated at Universal Studios Singapore (USS). It's almost fully operational. Behind the facades, food & beverage outlets and retail stores are being fitted out and tested.

When I saw it today, I figured it would make a great training area for Military Operations in Urban Terrain.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 16b

The Lost Years

Why does bad publicity for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) seem to resonate more vigorously than the good news?

Stories about SAF deaths or misdemeanours by its servicemen - for example, when Dave Teo ran away from camp in 2007 with a SAR-21 assault rifle and 5.56mm ammunition - are talked about with greater interest than, say, a Service chief's comments on defence readiness and military modernisation. *Yawn*

Apart from the human interest factor, I surmise that the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF continue to be dogged by the 10 years when it had no public relations cover. MINDEF and the SAF did not buff up its public image till 10 years after the SAF was formed. By then, damage had been done.

I call this period the Lost Years. At present, whenever MINDEF and the SAF have to deal with bad news, the negative publicity is compounded by a decade's worth of negative mindsets.

Here are two reasons why good publicity is so easily swamped by the bad news:
a) The 30 and 40-somethings who are the more vocal critics and cynics were children of the 1970s who grew up during the period when MINDEF and the SAF ceded the PR battlefield completely. Their early impressions of MINDEF and the SAF would have been forged from coffee shop talk, rumours and cynical comments during the time when MINDEF Public Affairs did not exist. Such mental constructs are carried on into adulthood.

b) The fathers of today's Third Generation SAF full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) were conscripts in the late 1960s and 1970s. Again, this was the period when MINDEF did not have a PR apparatus. The urban legends picked by the 1st Gen SAF soldiers and PR bungles will be spread as well meaning advice from father-to-son as the current generation of NSFs step forward to serve our country.

Are you surprised that urban myths refuse to die?

One popular misconception centres around how the SAF covers up training deaths overseas. One only has to google popular military discussion sites such as or to see postings by netizens claiming that deaths in places such as Taiwan (Republic of China) and Thailand never made the news. It disappoints me when I read such posts, because my table of SAF deaths shows that the deaths were reported.

Such enduring misconceptions explain my strong rebuttal to the current day Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF), when it appeared to dally over the death of Republic of Singapore Air Force regular, Corporal Ricky Liu Junhong in November 2007. It is tragic that one man's misplaced vanity in trying to keep the death tally low can backfire and end up damaging the very system he is trying to protect.

The Lost Years underline the amount of work that PAFF needs to do to mend fences and reinforce public confidence in the defence apparatus.

PAFF cannot do so when its own cheer leaders are poorly motivated and look towards the door as a solution to the nonsense from its higher leadership. I wish I could share some of the stories that have filtered my way, but I will not do so as some were shared in confidence while others will essentially expose the whistle blowers.

I know there are some MINDEF and SAF staff officers who follow this blog who deal with PAFF. You guys would know the state of play in PAFF and I thus need not elaborate.

I am guessing - I stress again, guessing - that MINDEF's higher leadership on Level 5 doesn't know about some of the postings on this blog, because they are probably removed from the daily summaries circulated to the L5 bosses. If that is the case, the self-censorship mode speaks volumes about the kind of mindset that runs PAFF. This is why I pointed out months ago that someone does not have the temperament for public affairs work.

It pains me to see how years of hard work and mission planning by previous PAFF staff can be undone so quickly.

The 1980s era Total Defence tagline is spot on. It is true that a generation's effort can be wiped out in days.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 16a

The Straits Times
Jan 8, 2010

Prime News Page A11
Senior SAF officer faces court martial
The alleged offence is believed to involve a female subordinate

By Jermyn Chow
A HIGH-RANKING army officer has been brought before a tribunal for alleged misconduct under military law.

His alleged offence is believed to involve a female subordinate, although the exact nature of what happened is unknown for now.

Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Teo Li-Wei, 33, a deputy director in the Defence Ministry's defence policy office, appeared before a subordinate military court at the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Court Martial Centre in Choa Chu Kang Way yesterday.

No charges were read out at the hearing. His lawyers asked for the court martial to be adjourned for three weeks to give them time to make legal representations to the military prosecutor.

The Straits Times understands that the defence team will use the time to discuss the charges with the prosecution.

The Defence Ministry declined to comment on the case or the legal proceedings.

Three senior SAF officers presided over yesterday's proceedings.

The panel was headed by Colonel Soh Cheow Guan, the commanding officer of the Republic of Singapore Navy 188 Squadron.

Lt-Col Teo appeared stoic while in the dock. The infantry-trained officer was wearing his No. 3 army uniform - olive green trousers and a paler olive green short-sleeved shirt.

The former Hwa Chong Junior College student was part of a four-man team which represented Singapore in the World Schools Debating Championships in 1995. He then snagged an SAF scholarship and studied in Oxford University.

He is the highest-ranking SAF officer to be brought before a military court for offences related to dealings with female subordinates since 2000.

At that time, Colonel Low Wye Mun, then the Army's Chief Medical Officer, admitted making sexual advances towards a married female subordinate.

For his offence, he was demoted to the rank of major and lost more than $325,000 in retirement benefits.

Under the SAF Act, anyone found guilty of cruel, indecent or disgraceful conduct can be jailed up to two years.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Update: Traffic accident in Taiwan

When I first heard that a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) serviceman had been injured in a road traffic accident in Taiwan, my first thought was: What, another one?

Six weeks before 34-year-old Master Sergeant Lim Chin Hou was allegedly hit by a van on New Year’s Eve in Taiwan, a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) helicopter pilot died in car crash in the United States. The death of 21-year-old Lieutenant Chee Zhi Hao was reported in a Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) news release dated 16 November 2009.

At the time, I had thought the news release on LTA Chee’s death was unusual as his death did not appear to be training related.

The fatal accident took place on a Sunday after LTA Chee and two RSAF officers visited the National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. It was a weekend outing with a tragic ending.

The news release on LTA Chee’s death was the second one in 2009 to carry a personal tribute. This appeared to herald a new trend where news releases on SAF deaths would be accompanied by a tribute to the fallen warrior. The last three SAF deaths reported for 2009 all ended with tributes. This was a media statement format not observed by the previous seven deaths reported from January 2009.

I had assumedly – wrongly – that MINDEF might have also adopted a new approach towards overseas deaths where traffic casualties on foreign soil had to be reported.

From the point of view of a casual observer, it was easy to overlook that single sentence that said the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, had arranged the visit to the museum. This was a crucial oversight I made and I am indeed sorry my casualty records were not in order. The oversight is upsetting as my friends and I have put in a lot of effort into building up this table.

The Army Aviation Center’s involvement made the weekend museum trip "official". This fact apparently explains the news release on 16 Nov 2009.

The first report on the Taiwan incident was, in my opinion, a textbook case of why prompt disclosure is needed for accidents involving Singaporean military personnel.

The story on the Channel News Asia website was sparse on details, apart from stating that an SAF serviceman had been knocked down on a Taiwanese street. The Straits Times' initial take on the accident wrongly promoted the serviceman to "officer". It does not take much imagination to see how this glitch could trigger anxiety among families who are desperate for information.

As public relations professionals and students of mass communications will tell you, the absence of a name during crisis situations will sometimes result in media speculation and often result in next-of-kin thinking the worst.

If you need an example of Murphy's Law, just look at the August 2009 story in The Straits Times on the triathlon death which saw the 90 cents newspaper use a wrong person's photo in a Page One story...

This is why MINDEF stresses quick and accurate reporting of SAF training incidents.

An RSAF spokesman once said: “Generally, even if no information is released by the air force to the Press, the latter will get the story, perhaps an inaccurate version of what really happened. So my job here is to make sure that the local Press gets the correct story.”

The quote you see above was published in 1971 when MINDEF created a new post – Press Officer in charge of aircraft accidents.

The air force spokesman’s approach to defence information management is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago.[He was technically a Singapore Air Defence Command spokesman as the RSAF was not created till 1975.]

Coming back to the New Year’s Eve traffic accident, I felt that while MINDEF’s Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) followed standard procedures when it decided the accident did not call for MINDEF’s involvement, stronger public relations guidance would have removed the ambiguity from early media reports.

Ambiguity promotes uncertainty, which in turn stirs up anxiety and fear. Anxiety levels escalate for incidents involving SAF servicemen based overseas because family and friends would be clueless whether their loved one is suffering in silence in a foreign land. Here's where PAFF could have swung into action by making a decisive statement which outlines the extent and scope of support the injured SAF serviceman is receiving.

At the very least, it could have put many parents at ease by naming the victim after the next-of-kin had been informed. By not doing so, scores of parents may remain worried as there's only ONE affected household that will be told the sad news by an SAF liaison officer. Singaporean families without the benefit of such guidance will thus have to endure the cruel and unusual punishment of following media reports without knowing if their loved one is the hapless victim. How would you feel?

One silver lining for the Taiwan accident: The media soon learnt of the injured person's name and reflected this in their reports.

This may not be the case in future incidents and one hopes families will not have to bear undue anxiety if the media takes longer than usual to unmask the victim's identity. Worse could happen if the foreign press named the victim wrongly (see example cited above about 90C using the wrong person's photo to illustrate a story on a triathlon death).

No defence information apparatus can afford slavish observance of standard operating procedures (SOPs). These are drawn up as guidelines and it takes strong leadership and a broad-minded view of things to occasionally break away from the norm, or to advise MINDEF's higher leadership of the pressing need to do so.

Having better understood why MINDEF did not issue a news release on the Taiwan road traffic accident, I maintain my call for PAFF to up its game. Right now, the directorate appears to work in a binary fashion without the flexibility to adapt its information management stance when the occasion demands.

In MSG Lim’s case, the average reader might wonder why MINDEF had talked about the road accident in the United States in November 2009 but kept mum on the 31 December 2009 accident in Taiwan. I certainly did and shot my bolt too soon.

SAF servicemen have died in a number of accidents involving military vehicles.

Prior to the US museum case, the previous death involving an SAF serviceman and a civilian vehicle took place in June 1995 when 19-year-old Private Choy Ying Keong was knocked down by a speeding car at the Fort Road exit of the East Coast Parkway expressway. Had PTE Choy been knocked down on his own time, his death would not have been reported as it had no bearing on the SAF.

The teenage NSF died while on duty supporting the first Army Half Marathon as a road marshal, which is why MINDEF/SAF updated the media on his death. This is the correct approach to defence information management, in my view.

I agree with the point by some netizens that MINDEF/SAF should stick to reporting only training-related incidents. People die for all manner of reasons and it would be out of character for an organization as large as the SAF to report every casualty in its ranks. The SAF has around 55,000 regulars and full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) plus another quarter of a million Operationally-Ready NSmen.

But if the lack of information will unsettle next-of-kin and cast doubts on the SAF’s interest in, and welfare for, its injured servicemen, would this situation call for a break from established SOPs?

I believe it should.

Response to the comments.
Thanks all for taking the time to share your thoughts. Your points of view are appreciated.

I'm trying to red flag a systemic lapse, not be wise after the fact by pointing out that the identity of the accident victim was revealed on the same day of the ambiguous Channel News Asia report, ergo, the SOPs are sound.

I would have issued an NR the moment the Taiwanese media broke the news. Something along the lines of:
1. Media reports in Taiwan today (date) reported that an unnamed Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) serviceman was injured after a hit-and-run accident on (date and place).

2. While the accident is not training-related, MINDEF would like to clarify that the injured serviceman is (rank/name/age).

3. xxx's next-of-kin have been informed and the Singapore Army is extending every assistance to the family. The Army has assigned a Family Liaison Officer to (rank/name)'s family to keep them updated on the serviceman's condition and to expedite their access to the injured serviceman in Taiwan."

A short statement like this would clear the air and spare the Singaporean media all the hearsay from Taiwanese media reports.

re: Errors. Singaporean journalists who have covered MINDEF events will know that when the ministry takes an active interest in a local media story, their attention to detail goes down to the smallest details, including online stories.

A media officer given a watching brief would have insisted that the online version correct the error immediately, as they have done on many occasions previously. PAFF even goes to the extent of asking what is the headline and picture that will accompany the next day's print edition story!

re: Notification of NOKs. This is established protocol. But there will be occasions when the interest of the majority will outweigh a single family's awareness of the situation.

A senior MINDEF officer can make that call for the NR to go out, after repeated attempts to contact the NOK fail. If not, decision gridlock would result.

When air force F-16s collided years ago, PAFF was prepared to issue the NR even though one of the pilot's NOK's was uncontactable. I know because I was the PAFF NSF who typed the NR for my officers to clear it with 2PS (then Teo Ming Kian).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sentosa IR attains IOC

Two of our four hotels attained Initial Operational Capability this morning. Photos by yours truly. Something different. Can't always stalk the Singapore Armed Forces. : )

Reveille was 0515H. Please hang in there for the Taiwan incident update. Am still at work.

My chairman, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay and my CEO Mr Tan Hee Teck, at Festive Hotel.

Chairman and family outside Hard Rock Hotel Singapore.

My Land Rover in the Resorts World Sentosa basement. Note the Alsatian sticker on the rear window. Universal Studios Singapore is built over the basement car park.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Update: Accident in Taiwan

Hi Edwin and others,
I'll do a proper update later in the week on NOKs and incident reporting.

This week is a busy one for the Sentosa IR as it approaches IOC.

I took my cue from the fatal road traffic accident in Florida on 15 Nov 2009 that killed a 21-year-old air force Lieutenant. It appears that the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) issued a news release as the visit to the museum was considered part of their military assignment.

The initial Channel News Asia report for the Taiwan accident was sketchy, though it did say that the serviceman sustained his injuries from two road accidents (hit by a van, then run over by a bus).

Long day ahead tomorrow.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Accident in Taiwan (Republic of China)

This was flashed on the Channel NewsAsia (CNA) website today. Please see

Still nothing on the website of the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as of now. Stunning silence. But we will keep watching.

There's no name mentioned in the CNA report. If you were a parent with a 34-year-old son serving in Taiwan, how would you feel listening to this piece of news on the radio or TV?

In an age when the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can purportedly sense and kill battlefield targets within minutes, why can't MINDEF's public affairs apparatus nail down the facts for a road traffic accident involving one of its servicemen in a more expedient manner?

PAFF needs to up its game.

SAF serviceman in critical condition after accident in Taiwan

By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia
Posted: 03 January 2010 1603 hrs

SINGAPORE : A Singapore Armed Forces serviceman is in critical condition after being knocked down in a hit-and-run accident in Taiwan's Pingtung County.

Taiwanese media reports have said the accident occurred on New Year's Eve and local police arrested the driver the following day.

Reports said the serviceman is a 34-year-old stationed at Checheng Township.

He left camp at around 7pm on New Year's Eve, and was hit by the vehicle not long after.

The driver, a 46-year-old woman known as Ms Yip, told Taiwanese police the serviceman was jaywalking at the time of the accident.

She added that the area was dark and dimly lit. - CNA/ms

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome 2010

Defence enthusiasts in Singapore have lots to look forward to as 2010 unfolds.

Here are some of the highlights on my calendar. Dates for some events have been omitted for opsec reasons.

2 to 7 February, the second Singapore Air Show. I'm not sure if I'll have time to attend this event as the Integrated Resort I work for would have attained Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by then.

May: National Day Parade 2010 Mobile Column rehearsals.

9 August, National Day Parade 2010: Singapore's 45th year of independence will be held at the Padang, an open space in the city centre. This year's parade will feature a Mobile Column made up of new hardware acquired by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

As with previous NDPs, the parade rehearsals will be as big a drawcard as the actual event.

Several big ticket items are expected to debut in Singapore this year. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) should bring home its first Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagles in the first half of 2010.

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) will integrate fully the SH-60B Seahawks with its Formidable-class stealth frigates. This caps a multi-year effort that will finally see the full combat capabilities of the frigates declared fully operational.

I am hazarding a guess that the Singapore Army and armaments company, Singapore Technologies Kinetics, will unveil the long-awaited replacement for the SM1 light tanks in 2010. SM1s are an upgraded variant of the AMX-13 light tanks acquired from Israel and Switzerland. This should be a show-stopper. : )

The Singapore Artillery's first HIMARS rocket artillery unit should also return to the Lion City some time this year.

The Primus ammunition resupply vehicle, based on the Bronco chassis, should also make its public debut. This vehicle is in a Class of its own.

 Militarynuts should view the introduction of new hardware as additional elements of the Third Generation SAF's sensor-to-shooter network. The war machines by themselves are undeniably photogenic, but do remember that each platform has been modified so it can tap into the 3rd Gen SAF's battlefield management system.

 Here's wishing everyone a happy and successful 2010.