Friday, February 26, 2010

Blue on Blue: Part 21

Trust but verify

Singapore's Home Team agencies can teach the Defence Ministry a lesson or two about "hearts and minds", looking at the high scores the Home Team earned in a "trust poll" conducted by the Asian Reader's Digest magazine.

The poll's results show that having truck loads of tax-payers money to burn annually on expen$ive public relations campaigns doesn't always bring the desired results. The Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should take note (Apologies to seasoned followers of this blog for lack of creativity in the barbs... you would have seen this one coming.)

Results of the poll published in the Singaporean media today show that Home Team entities were ranked among the top 10 of "Singapore's most trusted individuals" as well as the 10 "most trusted professions"in Singapore.

Earning fourth place in the honour roll of "most trusted individuals" is Khoo Boon Hui, the former Commissioner of Police, Singapore Police Force.

Firefighters were given top billing in the ranking of "most trusted professions". Well done, Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

Why has the Home Team - an umbrella team for security-related entities under the charge of the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs - done so well?

Why won't Singaporeans trust the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters who put their lives on the line 24/7 in security operations like Ops Bascinet, protecting people in Singapore from harm?

The poll was conducted in October 2009. It is said to reflect the views of 760 Singaporeans from a cross section of society. Respondents were asked to rank the shortlisted individuals and professions they had the most faith in.

I had never heard of this poll prior to cracking open today's newspapers and reading stories about the results. I'm also wary of street survey findings as these may not always represent general sentiments.

But seeing the Home Team share the glory box in the list of "most trusted individuals" and "most trusted professionals" made me wonder how MINDEF calculates the key performance indicators for PAFF's hearts and minds campaigns.

To be sure, PAFF's war chest isn't small. PAFF's media campaigns are the envy of public relations (PR) agencies in the Lion City, as they command top dollar in a market still reeling from the financial crisis.

Alas, the size of PAFF's budget isn't always directly proportional to the results, is it?

Government departments cannot craft their PR strategies in a vacuum. An organisation that fails to run as fast as its competitors will be out paced, out gunned and out played in the PR arena. The regular stream of positive coverage on the SPF and urban rescues done by SCDF firefighters probably helped cement the mental image of these Home Team agencies as trustworthy.

PAFF has an uphill fight winning the hearts and minds of the Singaporean public. Many cynics and SAF detractors have heard horror stories about SAF training accidents or mismanagement and distance themselves from the Singaporean military. To these people, the two years of compulsory National Service is a total waste of time. SAF to the cynics means Serve And Forget - so strong are the negative sentiments they harbour.

In addition, the urban myths passed from a father from the First Generation SAF to his Third Generation SAF national servicemen son will no doubt see such negative mindsets linger for at least a generation more.

This is not to say that no one trusts the SAF. There are many Singaporeans who do.

In my younger days, I joined the Navy Biathlon because it sounded like a good idea at the time. I had never done an open sea swim in my life, and went to Sentosa island's Siloso Beach early one Saturday morning to try out the route of the sea swim in the lagoon there. It was ill-advised to swim alone, so I hesitated and decided to mentally chart how I would tackle the course from the safety of the beach.

The Naval Diving Unit (NDU) showed up early that morning and a NDU fatigue party went about its work setting up buoys and lane dividers for Sunday's race. With NDU in the water, I felt I would be safe and went about doing my laps. Even with the signature tune from the movie Jaws playing in my head, I wasn't worried about sea creatures or the off-chance I would get into difficulties while in the water because the NDU combat divers were nearby. I never felt safer swimming in the sea.

As an aside, I should mention that the sea swim took place years before that fateful article in which I wrote that NDU divers played mahjong (it's a noisy Chinese game played with tiles carrying symbols and characters) during a certain SAF operation. I somewhat doubt they'd save me today.... : )

During the tsunami relief operation in Indonesia, concerned colleagues from the 90 cents newspaper and some friends wrote to ask how I was holding up during the operation. I replied I never felt safer. Close at hand were SAF surgeons, doctors, nurses and combat medics - a Singapore Army hospital in the heart of the disaster zone. I knew serious medical casualties could be heli-evacuated by Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Chinooks and airlifted to Singapore in C-130 Hercules aeromedical flights, if the need arose.

That knowledge helped me sustain the 25-day embed with the Operation Flying Eagle team. I left aboard RSS Endurance when the Tank Landing Ship cast off from Tuas Naval Base on 31 Dec 2004 and returned with the LST on 25 January 2005.

It was an experience of a lifetime and I would not have stayed with the SAF one minute more than necessary if I did not have faith in the OFE team.

I really wish I could say the same for PAFF.


edwin said...

Another great post :) I wonder if part of the reason why the Home Team scores so highly is because they are seen every day on the streets, doing their jobs, saving people etc, while much of what the SAF does is necessarily either in ulu training areas or overseas?

At the same time the SPF gives out medals to citizens pretty regularly for doing their part in keeping Singapore safe from crime... and who can forget Crimewatch? :)

I feel that even though MHA spends less money on PR, they have a greater presence in the everyday lives of Singaporeans and their actions are felt more directly which is probably why they do so well (and rightly so!) in the poll.

Anonymous said...

u play mahjong???

Ben Choong said...

SAF should get creative in trying to patch up its image. I recall that a school got a visit from an arty unit along with some arty guns...that's a good start if you ask me. CyberPioneer, besides just merely putting up short vids every Thursday, should also put up pictures of the action and the people from the camps or places they visit to film.

David Boey said...

The school visit, from what I gather, is the first of many planned.

And no I don't play mahjong, but the NDU divers were in the neighbouring bunk so we could hear what was going on. :)