Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 20

Losing ground

The next time you see a Singaporean war game, please ask yourself this question: "If this were for real, how would Singapore tell the world its side of the story?"

The Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) is - on paper at least - the subject matter expert when it comes to shaping public opinion on home ground and abroad. With work plan season on the horizon, PAFF has a stellar opportunity to tell its MINDEF brethren what wonderful plans it has to up its game.

In my opinion, PAFF is fast losing ground and is in a state of suspended animation as poorly-motivated staff officers plough through their work day. Like any bureaucracy, the PAFF machinery continues to creak on day-to-day.

But where, pray tell, is the grand strategic vision, the helicopter view of public relations, the guidance and leadership that Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) manoeuvre forces will need if the button is pressed?

Instead, we find a toxic work environment beset by office politics so complex you need a Venn diagram to understand the situation. Many PAFF officers haven't bothered to do so and the resignation numbers speak for themselves.

The directorate's pitiful showing at this month's Singapore Airshow 2010 is a case in point.

In previous years, PAFF officers put in a lot of hardwork convincing MINDEF HQ that the biennial media reception was worth supporting. In its heyday, the reception held at Paya Lebar Air Base featured a flightline display similar to that seen at an Air Force Open House.

The amount of manpower resources, logistics coordination and financial muscle needed to pull this off was sizeable. So was the payoff for MINDEF/SAF - Singapore won the hearts of the world's more influential defence journalists.

No journalist worth his salt would freely admit to being swayed by MINDEF/SAF's soft sell. But I can tell you MINDEF/SAF had many friends among the foreign media. For a small nation, Singapore punched above its weight class and had an editorial presence that far outweighed its size.

Just look at the images of ASEAN armed forces published in defence magazines during the late 1980s and 1990s. Many of these images came from PIONEER. The outreach in those days pre-dated jpegs and every image came from a print photo or colour transparency (slide) that had to be packed, labelled by hand and sent out to newsrooms around the globe. As images of Asian armed forces were hard to obtain in those days, the SAF enjoyed a stronger presence as a result of this outreach.

Fast forward to SA 2010. PAFF's presence was close to negligible, if you don't count clusters of PAFF officers idly marking time in the Media Room. I did not attend the air show but the picture that my journalist friends and industry contacts painted for me is indeed - how to say this politely? - interesting.

I'm willing to bet that many of the young, some newly-recruited PAFF staff officers won't be there at SA 2012. Unless the directorate changes its management style, they too will quit for the same reasons as their predecessors once they pass the tipping point and decide PAFF is not for them.

This does not bode well for Singapore.

After the tsunami relief mission in early 2005, then Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Ng Yat Chung recognised immediately the need for a strong defence information apparatus to support SAF operations in peace and war.

The SAF was the first foreign force in-theatre in Aceh. In terms of sealift, rotary wing airlift and contributions made in conjunction with Indonesian TNI forces (Tentera Nasional Indonesia), the SAF's effort was deeply appreciated by the Indonesians.

The SAF also deployed to Thailand. Singapore's contribution there was gratefully acknowledged.

At the height of the relief effort, Singapore deployed more of her Endurance-class Tank Landing Ships and Chinook heavy-lift choppers overseas than she had on home ground. Indeed, ALL four LSTs were overseas at one point in time - three off the coast of Meulaboh in Aceh and the fourth in the Persian Gulf.

You do not get this impression flipping through back issues of the world's leading news weeklies such as Time magazine and Newsweek.

The upshot came during the early phase of the operation when an American satellite channel reported that the United States was sending relief forces to Indonesia and used TV footage of an RSAF Chinook lifting off with relief supplies. The remedy was immediate: Singapore flag decals were pasted onto Chinooks and Super Puma helicopters, as well as C-130 tactical transports which aided the Indonesians and Thais. This is why SAF Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) forces now carry prominent Singapore flag markings before deploying on foreign soil.

As I've written in an earlier post, PAFF had a presence in-theatre. But their civilian Media Relations Officers (MROs) struggled to adapt and feel comfortable with the pace of military operations and the regimen of life aboard an RSN warship.

It was the Army Information Centre (AIC) that held the fort. I had dealt with AIC on many occasions prior to Operation Flying Eagle (as the tsunami relief mission was called), and soon came to know many other AIC staff officers who came out of the woodwork.

LTC Chin, MAJ Justin, CPT James, CPT Jethro made invaluable contributions to the media relations outreach, as did the Executive Officer of RSS Endurance, CPT Gerald, who remarked to me on many occasions that he felt like he was running a hotel.

Many foreign journalists used 207 as a one-night stand. They treated the warship as a comfortable air-conditioned stay with clean water, hot showers, cosy bunks and free food. Dear Singaporean tax payers, you paid for all that. : )

The foreign scribes wrote about developments that their TV audiences, newspaper and magazine readers wanted to read about and snapped pictures their readers wanted to see. Naturally, a European or American audience didn't care much about the Singaporean presence. And it showed in the copy that was published in subsequent weeks.

Building up a stronger defence information network isn't about gunning for bragging rights during the next HADR mission. It is about making sure the foreign media is made aware of the SAF's contribution.

In many cases, it's a chicken-and-egg situation. Foreign journalists won't write about us because they hardly know what we've done. Or, we've engaged them cold as total strangers. Would you blame the foreign journalists for gravitating towards their comfort zone and writing about things they know best?

All the lessons learnt from OFE have been put on ice.

The SAF officers deployed to PAFF as MROs have all quit, save one Republic of Singapore Navy Lieutenant. The institutional memory and confidence in dealing with the media that these officers learnt has disappeared.

This begs the question: Who would help Singapore tell its side of the story in a full force potential, hot war situation? If you argue that we won't need a PR voice as war is unlikely, then why train so hard to deter an imaginary foe?

A Singapore Army Armoured Battle Group in battle formation makes an impressive sight. But whose territory would we fight on? How would we argue our case?

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has the largest fleet of F-16 warplanes in Southeast Asia. When all F-15SG Strike Eagles come home to roost, the RSAF's fighter fleet will outnumber that of Malaysia and Indonesia combined. The hitting power of these warplanes is formidable when unleashed. But against whom? What if the enemy alleges we have struck a civilian target?

The deterrent value of the SAF comes about when potential adversaries know it is a force to be reckoned with. This mental image of an operationally-ready SAF, ready to strike, evaporates when a thinking enemy - I repeat, a thinking enemy - does some scenario generation and comes to realise that a fully deployed SAF lacks the PR machinery to back it up in time of war.

Even amongst our own Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (i.e. reservists) and cynical Singaporeans, a fair number would probably use the local dialect term "wayang" (or stage play) to describe SAF battle manoeuvres.

Singapore won't feel the impact of a combat ineffective PAFF in these halcyon days.

Our relations with our northern neighbour are rosy. Same goes with Indonesia after some atmospherics some years back.

But in 2011, when our first Water Agreement with Malaysia is due to expire, can anyone make a sure bet by saying the theatrics won't return? Will the agreement lapse quietly without fanfare, or will both sides be on their guard?

In planning before hostilities, one can expect a resourceful adversary to pull out all the stops to woo the world's public opinion.

We saw this happen in the Lebanon in 2006 when Hezbollah proved it had a clear understanding of what was needed to fight the information war. They engaged foreign news agencies, provided MROs in the field and even distributed images of alleged atrocities to the world's media.

On the last day of the war before the ceasefire, Hezbollah is said to have launched the largest one-day rocket barrage. Are you surprised they too declared victory?

As a point of interest, it's worth noting that the Malaysian Armed Forces has sent a sizeable peace keeping contingent to the Israel-Lebanon border. If you were there, would you not take a walk around the former battlefield and build a picture of how the belligerents fought one another? I would.

During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the IDF learned the hard way how its opponents had taken war into cyberspace. In response, the IDF Spokesman's office launched its own website after seeing Hamas gain ground in the virtual battlespace. See the IDF Cast Lead site here.

If the SAF has to one day deploy the way it trains to fight, who will tell the world our side of the story?

With PAFF in the doldrums, I personally hope the SAF Services can step up, like they did during OFE, to show leadership and take command during an emergency. In this regard, I have faith things are being done but will not elaborate for opsec reasons.

As for PAFF, the leadership is uninspiring. In my honest opinion, I won't even trust a certain someone to lead the Boys' Brigade.


Anonymous said...

The Hezbollah won.

Anonymous said...

incredibly well put. makes you wonder why MINDEF's HR people haven't done something about the high turnover at PAFF, doesn't it?

FIVE-TWO said...

you make me feel like getting up and joining the PAFF out of sheer patriotism. unforunately I am merely a marketeer, and cannot write to save my own life :(

Anonymous said...

In which case, you are more than qualified to join the local newspaper.

Ben Choong said...

It is indeed tragic that the IDF did emerge victorious in Lebanon and Gaza, tactically and strategically, but the hearts and minds loss sadly outweighs the effects of battlefield victory. After all, people's opinions are formed from what they see, and I dare say few have bothered to find out more other than what they have been fed by the media (oops! A lot of HZB rah-rah in there).

I must say though that Op Cast Lead was much better handled. I subscribed to thier YouTube since the info was literally hot off the press, but the real icing would be if they had allowed embedded journalists. They claim there might be a loss of surprise, but I think its more important that the truth comes out, even though late, than to give real-time but scant info.

Also, an info blackout would leave room for all sorts of false info to materialise. I recall in Gaza all sorts claims of atrocities that nobody could really verify. Do you see that happening now in A'stan, or even Iraq? Embeds do seem to do something interesting - make things difficult for disinformation to be sown, and show indeed that the forces they are embedded with are truly acting in a just, moral way.

Shutting the enemy up and fortifying your position on the moral high ground. Wonder if the PAFF did consider that. I hope part of that ops plan includes Charissa Seet :D