Friday, May 28, 2010

PAFF gaffes

No amount of standard operating procedures, systems or processes will save MINDEF/SAF's public image if its Public Affairs Directorate shows poor judgement. There is a price to pay for hurting public opinion, as this commentary discusses.

When a Thai farmer fired his shotgun on 13 March this year, he ended up wounding not just two Singaporean soldiers but also damaged the confidence many Singaporeans have with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

Flesh wounds inflicted on Commando regular, First Sergeant Woo Teng Hai, 25, and Singapore Army full-time National Serviceman, Private J. Pritheery Raj, 19, will eventually heal.

Damage to the public image of MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will take far longer to mend. Just look at comments from netizens and listen to the chit chat in heartland coffeeshops.

Indeed, MINDEF/SAF must be prepared for the harsh reality that some Singaporeans may turn their backs on the SAF forever all because of this one incident.

Fallout is likely to outlive the recent crop of MINDEF/SAF's million dollar advertising campaigns. People may forget their taglines but in years to come, there's a good chance Singaporeans will remember that MINDEF failed to tell them of the shooting incident in Thailand. This is similar to the situation in 2007 when people showed more interest in stories about Dave Teo, the NSF who fled his camp with a SAR-21 assault rifle and ammunition, than the interview with the Chief of Army at that time.

So where does MINDEF's embattled Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) go from here? Does this rank as an honest mistake? Should all of us just move on?

We can. But brace yourself for more PAFF gaffes because I hold the opinion that a certain someone there lacks the temperament, writing skills and PR savvy for the job.

MINDEF's letter, published in Singaporean newspapers sans apology or any hint of contrition, has only triggered speculation that the mighty Third Generation SAF cannot multi-task.

What sort of SAF have Singaporean tax payers funded? Two walking wounded and the PR apparatus goes into suspended animation, to be woken from its slumber 73 days later after the 90 cents newspaper delivers a rare defence-related scoop? What message are we sending to Singaporeans and foreign defence analysts? That two casualties and the system is swamped?

Think for a moment how many 20-year-old soldiers will come back in body bags if we ever fight a hot war scenario rehearsed during war games like Exercise Forging Saber, Golden Sands, High Noon, Orion and Wallaby? Can the system cope?

Even after PAFF was quizzed about 1SG Woo's injuries, PAFF did not say that a second soldier had collected shotgun pellets on his face and upper body. PAFF's defence: that the newspaper's questions were too precise, ignores the role that a good PR officer serves in protecting the credibility of its master.

This prompted PTE Raj's family to call the media - a move that further smeared MINDEF's name because it rekindled fears that the Defence Ministry was out to cover-up the incident.

These fears were long banished in Singaporeans' collective memory, thanks to the systems and processes developed and fine-tuned over the years that ensured training incidents were reported promptly.

Now that it has returned, are you surprised Singaporeans are enraged? It is MINDEF and the SAF who encouraged Singaporeans to take an active part in Total Defence and take NS seriously. Many of us have done so, only to be let down by incompetent defence information management and haunted by the image that training incidents are covered up when MINDEF deems it convenient.

In the case of the shooting incident in Thailand, it may well be that extraneous factors (such as the political situation in the kingdom) were responsible for MINDEF/SAF's foot-dragging. Group think probably exacerbated MINDEF/SAF's reluctance to issue a news release on the incident.

In such situations, an insightful Director Public Affairs/MINDEF Spokesman must wield his leadership and demonstrate his ability to see the big-picture. Level 5 depends on such advice as the DPA is the ministry's subject matter expert on PR matters. DPA's office was placed on Level 5 for a good reason and the appointment is high on the Table of Precedence because of the value MINDEF places on the hearts and minds outreach.

PAFF's gaffe signals potential aggressors that our city-state is casualty averse. Looking at how PAFF bungled the shooting incident's news management, foreign defence analysts will need some convincing that the Singapore Army is not composed of poorly-trained city boy softies.

It will also take some doing to erase the mental image that the SAF Commandos, resplendent in their red berets, can be bested by a farmer with a shotgun. This may be an unfair perception, but PAFF will have to find some way to fix the Commando Formation's image.

The confidence Singaporeans have in MINDEF/SAF is a key guarantee that Army will be there when Singapore needs it. The SAF is afterall a citizen's armed forces whose main strength lies with hundreds of thousands of Operationally Ready NSmen who are on extended leave for some 325 days a year. The mobilisation process assumes many imponderables, all of which are open to direct action or interference from hostile entities during the planning before hostilities phase.

In peacetime, NSmen respond to the call to arms simply because the cost of not doing so - a hefty fine or jail term, or both - exceeds the inconvenience of trudging to camp to sign a timesheet. The pragmatism of Singaporeans will apply during hostilities too. When things get hot, NSmen may reason that the cost of reporting for active duty (death or permanent disability) is less palatable than paying a fine or spending time in jail. This is a mindset that hostile entities are likely to exploit in order to blunt the SAF's combat edge.

Even Israel has its fair share of refuseniks - reservists who refuse to obey mobilisation orders. If push comes to shove, the Lion City must likewise brace itself for the prospect of well-to-do scions of society and sons of foreign talents fleeing by airliners to safer lands, leaving the fight to a peasant army.

During a period of tension, we must expect our opponent(s) to play mind games to disrupt, degrade or damage the mobilisation chain.

If Singapore ever moves from peace to war, citizen soldiers must willingly respond to the mobilisation order. If they do not do so, the Singapore Army becomes a paper force.

The Singaporean soldier must respond to mobilise, mobilise to arm, arm to deploy, deploy to fight, and fight to die, if need be. At any point in this chain of events, citizen soldiers who turn their backs on their duty imperil the combat capabilities of their unit and the people fighting with them.

If MINDEF/SAF fails to win the hearts and minds of citizen soldiers, how many do you think will be there on the firing line when the button is pressed?

This is why I have repeatedly made a call for transparency in defence reporting. This isn't a hippie-like infatuation with western ideals of free speech, human rights and democracy, but based on my reading that the SAF's drawer plans could go belly up if we give short shrift to heartware issues.

Now that Singaporeans know it took 73 days for news of the Thai shooting incident to filter to the media, would you blame some of them for harbouring negative thoughts about MINDEF's sincerity?

Would they worry that they will be thrown in an unmarked grave on foreign soil, with society at large kept clueless about their sacrifice - just like how MINDEF/SAF did not inform their countrymen about the two soldiers who were shot in Thailand?

How many SAF defence information campaigns do you think it will take to soothe and reassure Singaporeans - particularly the loved ones of NSFs and regulars? How will cynics - and there are many - react to such campaigns?

When parents entrust their sons to the SAF, it comes with the understanding, wrong, the expectation that Singapore's military will take good care of its sons. This convenant is as sacred and it is fragile. Once broken, you can put it together again but it will never be the same again - just like a broken vase.

In my former job, I had the grim task of interviewing many next-of-kin of SAF servicemen who died serving Singapore. I can tell you many of these parents will take their resentment towards MINDEF/SAF to their deathbeds. Some showed open hostility to the camp mates when they went to collect the belongings of their loved ones.

The own goal from the shotgun fiasco breeds suspicions among parents, especially fathers from the 1st and 2nd Gen SAF, that the system has basically not changed over the years. It's like learning that someone you trusted cheated on you....

And what sort of quotes from door-stop interviews with defence bigwigs - all carefully scripted and stage managed - will it take to reassure Singaporeans and bring things back on an even keel?

What sort of political cost will be exacted come General Election time? Can anyone say with confidence that people will not accuse the admiral of running a less-than-tight ship, even if this is an unfair assertion?

I have said earlier that I have lost faith in this DPA's ability to lead the directorate.

I take no joy in seeing how PAFF's gaffes validate this impression because MINDEF/SAF's image is the one that takes a hit from poor judgement calls.

Looking at PAFF's outstanding performance lately and how MINDEF/SAF has earned the ire of Singaporeans, this long post can be summarised by just four words: "I told you so".


Anonymous said...

well said! why are precious tax dollars going towards fattening an incompetent DPA?

Anonymous said...

While MINDEF Public Affairs might not be managed in the best manner by the incumbent director, and he could be the reason for the (mass) exodus and low work morale in Mr. Boey's opinion, I'm less certain that he should be the only one to shoulder the responsibility of this delayed and contrived response towards the mishap.

I believe MINDEF Public Affairs cannot release any information, be it as news release or as a ST Forum letter reply, without explicit clearance from Level 5.

The question I'm most keen to ask is, what are the considerations that MINDEF has deliberated before deciding not to release information about this training incident.


The Void Deck said...

Heh actually more acceptable if they covered the news about the SAF regular rather than the NSF. But instead it was the other way around!

Eric - Yeah, what was the thinking that went on on NOT releasing the info until much later. I can guess is that inquiries were ongoing blablabla but at least giving a vague comment at the start would have controlled the damage.

Ben Choong said...

Caring for soldiers isn't news that deserves secrecy. There are many pieces of military information that rightfully deserve to be secret since it would compromise national security if disclosed. That, I believe, our PAFF is acutely aware of.

However, caring for wounded soldiers, admitting mistakes, following up to ensure these incidents do not repeat again, I'm pretty sure that does not need to be kept under a veil of secrecy. In fact, this helps clear misunderstandings and can even build a stronger sense of trust between MINDEF and the people.

I have to agree with Eric and Void Deck, a small statement to show something is being done should have been made. I guess its also critical that they tell us what WILL be done to avoid such stuff from happening again. I find it hard to believe that the delay has more to do with bureaucratic red tape, since the position of Director of PAFF should give one quite a fair bit of autonomy to substantially respond to such things ASAP. If previous directors could do it, I don't see why it cannot happen now.

NinjaMasterX (aka Dedrick Koh) said...

I agree with you Danny. I think the incident could have been handled better.

Singapore is much more open society nowadays. You can't pull the wool over the eys of Singaporeans for long.

"What sort of SAF have Singaporean tax payers funded?" From my experience, not a very good one.

Honestly, I am not ashamed or hesistant to say that if I have a son, I will not want him to serve in the SAF.

PAFF's handling of this situation shows a complete unwillingness to acknowledge what has happened.

Considering that my tax money goes towards funding the government, I demand more transparency and accountibility. Simply put, what the hell am I paying you for?

It seems perilous to trust my childrens' well-being to such an organization; an organization that seems more content with covering-up accidents so that they can diminish any responsible reparations to servicemen who are affected.

Call me an idealist, but I expect PAFF to be the heart of the SAF. It should know better, and it should do better for its constituents.
Calling this a 'gaffe' seems like a gross understatement.

The Void Deck said...


"If previous directors could do it, I don't see why it cannot happen now."

Hmmmmmm The possible comparison IIRC could be the "dunking" and the tragic death of Hu En Huai. If the time frame between death and public disclosure was smaller than this incident, it really means something has to be fixed fast in SAF.


"It seems perilous to trust my childrens' well-being to such an organization; an organization that seems more content with covering-up accidents so that they can diminish any responsible reparations to servicemen who are affected."

Heh. Imagine if Raj's family just kept quiet and I can't imagine that SAF assumed Raj's family would keep quiet in today's context!

Anonymous said...

A complex organisation like MINDEF/SAF requires PR-saavy staff who have a feel of the ground, and not just bookworm types who sit in the ivory tower and look at issues from an isolated perspective without joining the dots.

Anonymous said...

I remember one friend who was resigned enough to say that the delay and possible cover-up was to be expected from a Singapore government entity, even one with a "sacred" covenant. Operating at this level of fatalism, his confidence in and dedication to the SAF was not dented. However I have news for MINDEF: he was the lone exception among the many who expressed their disgust. To put this in the only utilitarian numerical terms you understand, play this way and you will lose a numbers game. Because we will see to it.