Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Yeonpyeong tension and what it means for Singapore's security

Among the many lessons that Singapore's defence eco-system can sieve out from the North Korean artillery strike on Tuesday (23 Nov'10) is the somewhat unsettling reality that an aggressor can get away with a first strike.

Should the same scenario pan out in a local context someday, Singapore cannot expect the United States military or other foreign forces (read: FPDA) to waltz in to its rescue. We are likely to be left alone to fend for ourselves, perhaps armed with sympathetic diplomatic messages from friendly countries and carefully scripted messages condemning the aggressor(s).

A test of Singapore's defence readiness must be matched by the political will to allow the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) full freedom of action. Anything less than the promised swift and decisive military response will erode the credibility of the SAF's deterrent edge, with detrimental results to commitment to defence and investor confidence.

Here are some first thoughts on the artillery duel over South Korea's Yeonpyeong island in the Yellow Sea:

1. From media reports on the incident, it is likely that Yeonpyeong was attacked by rocket artillery pre-registered on the island for eons. If reports that 200 "shells" (not rockets?) fell on the island are accurate, the death toll of two civilians and two South Korean Marines is a pitiful exchange ratio.

Simply put, artillery barrages against urban targets are more survivable than commonly imagined. We have seen largely the same result in places as far-flung as Lebanon, Chechenya and the Gaza Strip. Singapore's household shelter building programme, which aims to add a hardened shelter in each dwelling under the Civil Defence Act, is a prudent measure because civilians will not have the time to run to a communal shelter in an emergency.

2. The barrage unleashed by South Korean gunners against targets 12km away is likely to have had more public relations (PR) value than military effectiveness because artillery fire across such ranges done without a spotter cannot be expected to take out point targets on the mainland like tube and rocket artillery pieces.

On the other hand, the island is a point target. Doubling the garrison strength only serves to double the number of military targets for the north's artillery. The upsized garrison also strains the logistics train for a military force which to all intents and purposes has no manoeuvre value and is stuck on a point target.

The Germans made the same mistake when they kept reinforcing the Crimea during WW2 with forces that ended up bypassed and encircled. Their Russian opponents wryly called the Crimea the largest prison camp where inmates feed and look after themselves. Locking down the garrison in Yeonpyeong will end up with the same result as the troops would be more useful elsewhere on the mainland.

3. Acts of aggression during a period of tension (POT) cannot be left unanswered. The drawer plan of options available to the SAF must be scaleable against a range of responses. I have no doubt (as opposed to the phrase "little doubt"...) the SAF has exercised a range of conventional and unconventional military options. Plans aside, it is worth pondering if we will pussy foot like the South Koreans and give a muted response as the aggressor(s) probes MINDEF/SAF's resolve.

4. The idea that the North Korean military is run by nutcase looneytoons is unfair and dangerous. North Korea had previously warned that the unilateral live fire exercise on/near Yeonpyeong island would be matched with force. They made good the threat. In terms of the action-reaction cycle, the North Koreans made it perfectly clear how they would react to the war games. In other words, the end result of the OODA loop was announced long before the artillery rockets took flight.

5. Firepower alone does not translate to deterrence. Our Mexican friends paid for this lesson in blood and shared this with some of its friends. For those who missed it, remember this: Deterrence = (Force) x (Ability to use it)

The Republic of Korea Air Force and Republic of Singapore Air Force field an order of battle with the same battle-tested frontline warplanes as the Israelis. Airpower's contribution to deterrence was neglible as the North probably calculated that the South would not risk an all-out general offensive over a tiny island that the rest of the world had probably never heard of.

6. Finally, there must be a line in the sand which an aggressor(s) should not test. The risk of miscalculation is reduced when one articulates the defence strategy and makes clear the trigger points for the SAF to go into action. The aggressor(s) must be left in no doubt that the SAF's ability to strike almost automatically will be deadly and disabling.

The list of potential military and strategic targets must be tabled, studied and refreshed regularly in peacetime. These targets should be arranged in order of priority and backed by monitoring cells that will marshal and deploy the SAF during operations.

The geography of the SAF's likely area of operations puts a premium on leaders with a tri-Service mindset who can think in terms of how land operations are supported or influenced by the littoral environment and air battle. For example, aggressor force military assets may have to be boxed in by a picket line of anti-air warfare stealth frigates (aka sea-based air defence) backed by combat air patrols during a period of tension to deter and prevent enemy air power from leaking to a hinterland elsewhere.

As the South Koreans have learned through their indecisiveness, there is a price to pay for poor decision making and their defence minister and Shangri-La Dialogue participant this year has already been shown the door.

For Singapore, if the "go" order is given, the time for talk is over and the SAF must be allowed to peform as advertised and root out aggression at its source with what former RSAF chief BG Michael Teo described as a "firestorm".

The growth of SAF task forces enhances deterrence because Singapore will have scaleable responses against a range of contingencies.This is an improvement from the 1st Generation and 2nd Generation SAF's order of battle, which raised, trained and sustained combat units for conventional operations.

In the old days, SAF planners had to choose between going from 0 to 1, flipping from white to black (or green as the case may be...) with no half measure for situations which called for a swift and decisive response without the economically disabling effects of a general mobilisation.

Today's 3rd Gen SAF is a more lethal entity. The phrase "full spectrum" has been used to underline the armed forces' readiness to deploy in and engage with a host of situations. These run the gamut from small unit tactics against terror cells to operations involving the full force potential of the SAF.

Underpinning Singapore's near-paranoid defence posture is the belief that you don't own what you can't defend.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Enemy of the state: Security issues following Mas Selamat's escape

Singapore was abuzz this week with talk on how fugitives from the law should be brought to justice swifly and decisively.

In the name of national security, some Singaporeans seem willing to pay any price to secure life and property and there were calls in the national press for tougher measures against would-be terrorists and their supporters.

Singaporeans must consider carefully how these safeguards will be policed because the proposals that will keep the Lion City from harm are the same instruments that a future despot could wield against his citizens with impunity.

Without an impartial check-and-balance to weed out potential abuse, the measures proposed by Singaporean parliamentarians and civic-minded citizens could lead to frightful consequences for people unfairly branded enemies of the state.

The trigger for this week's security debate was the revelation by Singaporean Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on how terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari eluded the law after he escaped from a high security detention centre in February 2008. We learned that his relatives gave him safe harbour and sheltered him from Singapore's largest manhunt.

The fugitive's relatives could not have missed the thousands of posters of the wanted man circulated in Singapore. Indeed, there were more posters of Mas Selamat distributed than pictures of Singapore's own President or prominent politicians. Yet, they were not deterred and Mas Selamat dropped out of sight in Singapore's urban jungle.

Mas Selamat's relatives were jailed for sheltering him and for helping to disguise him as a women with the help of a tudung, or headscarf commonly worn by Muslim women in Southeast Asia.

The security implications from the Mas Selamat incident must be seen along with calls for stronger action against gang violence. Police launched an islandwide crackdown against gangs after 19-year-old Republic Polytechnic student Darren Ng was hacked to death by suspected gang members at the Downtown East entertainment facility in early November.

Darren's death prompted calls to give the police more sting against gangs.

Taken together, the improved security measures allow Singapore's national security apparatus to wield a heavy hand against troubemakers. 

In the case of Mas Selamat, we've seen how a citizen was detained without trial for involvement in terror cells and plotting attacks against Singapore.

Following his escape, it has become socially acceptable - indeed expected - for authorities to keep an eye on family, friends and known associates of an enemy of the state. Just what such close surveillance could involve has not been detailed for operational security reasons. One would imagine that it could conceivably go beyond having a plainclothes cop with sunglasses standing outside one's door and could include mail intercepts, phone taps and other electronic eavesdropping techniques.

And in the wake of Darren's death, Singaporean society appears to have given police the nod to take a no nonsense stance against street hooligans. This includes detention without trial and pre-emptive action to break up potential troublemakers.

The newspaper story that described street gangs as being different from the secret society-type social groups of yesteryear is a timely reminder of how intepretations and perceptions change according to circumstance.

It could thus lead to the scenario where a public assembly is deemed a security threat, with the full weight of post-Mas Selamat and post-Darren Ng security measures brought to bear against rogue elements.

One would hope the authorities get the right man or nail the real terror elements. In the current climate, I have little doubt such power will be abused. At the same time, no one can say for sure a despot won't arise in future who will run this country into the ground using such powerful security measures to muzzle dissent.

Problems may crop up years from today after society gradually surrenders more of its civil liberties. Ironically, many of these would be given up willingly as one crime incident or terrorist-inspired near miss after another leads Singaporeans to reason that authorities need to be given a free hand to get the job done.

In the hands of rogue elements in command, the extensive powers to detain without trial, monitor citizens at will and crackdown on public gatherings as and when one deems appropriate could be viciously abused.

Should that day come, would you then sleep well at night?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Somewhat Prone to Howlers: "Inform, Educate and Entertain"

The creative brain behind the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) corporate mantra, which is to "Inform, Educate and Entertain", is unlikely to have coined the phrase to innoculate the media giant against editorial gaffes.

One howler appears in today's Prime News pages; a prime example of an old saying in Food and Beverage circles which states that it takes just one roach leg to spoil a good soup.

From a public relations (PR) perspective, any media officer would be pleased as punch with the column inches in the 90 cents newspaper's report on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war games in Australia, Exercise Wallaby.

That's because an audit of the article, Training abroad important for SAF (The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2010, Page A16), scores a tick in almost every category that some PR houses use to measure the value of media coverage.

Prime landing for the event? Check.

Full page with full colour pictures? Check.

Infographic? Ditto

Side bar to the main story? Yes.

PR professionals would usually multiply the ad rate for a full page, full colour advertisement by three (for credibility) to arrive at a ballpark figure of the net worth of the story.

In the case of the aforementioned story, the easter egg can be found in the infographic which marks out the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) as a little green dot due south of Perth in Western Australia. Alas, the vast training area is located on the other end of the happy country, in Queensland state.

This glitch, if you would be so kind as to call it that, is the latest error to crop up from the 90 cents newspaper's reports on SAF and Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) matters. Defence-minded Singaporeans are therefore not amused that SPH makes readers pay 10 cents more for their Saturday newspaper, only to have their weekend reading letdown by poor journalism.

Readers of this blog may recall an earlier case when the Republic of Singapore Navy was accorded regal status and rebranded as the Royal Singapore Navy.

Nit pickers were also up in arms (pun intended) when Aster missiles were listed as part of the weapons package for the Republic's Seahawk naval helicopters. The Aster, which shoots down things that fly, arms the Formidable-class stealth frigates which the Seahawks can be embarked on.

Editorial gaffes like these do nothing to educate the clueless about defence and security issues. This includes younger Singaporeans, the majority of heartlanders and immigrants who have no clue about National Service and other defence issues.

Indeed, if left unchecked, poor quality control in the newsroom would run counter to SPH's catchy tagline. Wags will have a field day surmising that the screw ups are part of the newspaper's way of entertaining its readers.

I can tell you SAF types are not amused.

I am also pretty sure that when the Australian High Commission in Singapore opens for business on Monday, someone in that Napier Road office will clip out the aforementioned Exercise Wallaby story and have a laugh over the SWBTA text box. No need for a Third Party Note to the Singaporeans to explain why the major "first with the news" newspaper on the island doesn't seem to know the west end from the east end Down Under.

The SAF's Australian partners are likely to react the same way Singaporeans do when a foreigner remarks that Singapore is in China. We laugh at such ignorance. And so will the Aussies.

For defence-minded Singaporeans and those who trust the 90 cents newspaper as their eyes and ears to the world, poor QC does not augur well for SPH's goal of securing a loyal base of readers. Deliver more of such gaffes and I can guarantee you more will turn their backs on the "paper of record" because what is put on record is trash.

To be sure, I wasn't fault-free during my time as a typist more than 2.5 years ago.

One memorable gaffe proclaimed that Singapore intended to send troops to Iraq. That report was published the day former United States President George W. Bush visited Singapore. MINDEF was livid.

And I once spelt a Police Commissioner's name as Koh Boon Hui when the esteemed officer's family name is Khoo...

These mistakes predated the "honest mistake, let's move on" era and I can assure you there was hell to pay when my supervisor (the indefatigable Bertha Henson) demanded an explanation.

I'm not sure what's happening in the newsroom these days. When Bertha ran the show, late comers to the newsroom were greeted with the infernal electronic message "It's 9:30am. I'm here. Where are you?" when they logged on to their computer terminals. And woe betide journalists who had no story to offer for the day and weren't spending time chasing some exclusive story. One of her choice punchlines, "how are you earning your pay today?", is probably seared into the memory banks of many journalists from the Hensonic Period.

Perhaps the influx of Generation Y scribes has promoted a softer, positive reinforcement kind of culture where lapses are more easily forgiven, where the ones throwing hissy fits are young reporters (not editors/supervisors) who cherry pick assignments and drop thinly-veiled hints about quitting for a job with better pay and saner work hours just to get their farking editor/supervisor off their backs. And where the tappity tap from multiple keyboards in the newsroom doesn't result in early copy because the Gen Ys are not working on a story but, dear me, busy managing multiple chat windows on MSN on decidedly non-work issues.

For us hapless readers, we just have to grin and bear it.

If QC for MINDEF and SAF stories (which I make a point to read) is shoddy, I dare not think about what ails the other newspaper beats. I dread to think about the gaffes I've unknowingly absorbed while reading about subjects where my domain knowledge is so poor you could send me a blooper and I'd be none the wiser.

Perhaps this is one reason why some internet sites go ballistic, catching out SPH gaffes every now and again on political and social issues. Someone please add defence issues to the bag.

If the paper fails to earn credibility on defence matters during peacetime, how does one trust its reportage during a war? If the 90 cents newspaper says a tank has been blown up, was it really or did they mean AFV? And does it know where the SAF is going when its infographics are suspect? If the 90 cents newspaper is occasionally dysfunctional during peacetime, how would it perform under pressure (and possibly under Astros rocket fire) during a war?

But rather than complain to no end about defence reporting gaffes - as I think the point has been clearly made - one could humbly suggest checks and balances to weed out editorial oversights.

Technology could play a big part with stories and image-rich content sent to the reporters concerned to fact check their stories. They should look at every line and pixel. Once they "ok" the story, things should be good to go. Matched with proper work processes and an iron hand to enforce these safeguards, fewer gaffes should see the light of day. That's the theory.

The ultimate goalkeeper is the journalist whose byline garnishes the story. No point blaming the Art Department. Forget about pointing fingers at the copy eds, subs or Picture Desk.

That's where the buck stops.

Friday, November 19, 2010

S'pore's new energy source: A nuke on your doorstep?

Sea sight: The US Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, drops anchor in the Man-of-War Anchorage off Marine Parade on Singapore's East Coast during a 1994 port call. The anchorage is no longer used by visiting warships as such vessels can now dock at Changi Naval Base.

What do you see in the image above?

Military nuts may say it's the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson.

Those who fear American naval power may see a threat. US Navy supporters will see naval diplomacy at work while terrorists may see a target... and a big plump one at that off Marine Parade in Singapore.

How many of you see a floating nuclear reactor?

Nuclear-powered warships have been regular visitors to Singapore for decades, with scarcely a hoot raised by the Singaporean public on the threat nuke ships pose to the environment. Indeed, Singaporeans pay more attention to car and housing prices than the kind of maritime visitors that lurk off the tropical island Republic.

With Singapore likely to opt for the nuclear energy option in the next 15 years or so, a gradual and sustained public education effort is needed to help citizens accept this new energy source and live without mortal dread of a nuclear meltdown on their doorstep. This public awareness campaign would help stave off violent objections from greenies once they realise how much of a done deal this nuclear business really is.

On the plus side, the Singaporean government can argue that nuclear energy safety has improved by leaps and bounds in the past decades and more compact reactors allow such powerplants to be located underground. A likely location is Jurong Island, off Singapore's southern coast, where tight security to the island post-9/11 will help sanitise the island against unwelcome intruders.

Liberty call, liberty call: The nuke boat, USS Asheville, seen at Sembawang Wharves in the north of Singapore. The coastline of the Malaysian state of Johor lies in the background. This boat is longer than the average depth of the South China Sea, which explains why smaller SSKs are more suitable for operations in regional waters.

News in August 2008 that a US Navy submarine, USS Houston, leaked trace amounts of "radioactive water" during port calls to Singapore since June 2006 indicate the near miss Singapore has faced in recent years from a nuclear powerplant.

That incident was interesting as it lifted the veil on a little-known contingency plan for dealing with nuclear situations. The multi-agency effort usually sees a crack team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force placed on immediate readiness whenever a nuclear-powered ship docks in Singapore.

In addition, an "Integrated Environment Monitoring System" (IEMS) - which is a euphemistic cover term for radioactivity sensors - allows the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base to keep a 24-hour watch on the air and water quality around these visitors. The exact response plan remains classified and is guided by benchmarks set by Singapore's Centre for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Science which comes under the National Environment Agency.

If and when a decision is made to augment oil and gas-fired turbines with a nuclear powerplant, Singapore is expected to implement measures to protect the nuclear energy supply chain from its source.

In addition, attention will be paid to life cycle management of the underground nuclear energy facility. This will include close supervision of and protection for fuel rods, powerplant personnel and nuclear waste management.

The impact on Singapore's defence and security establishments should spawn a new, elite special forces team trained specially for nuclear emergencies. It is also likely to lead to the introduction of air-capable escort vessels that can escort fuel ships on their long voyage to Singapore island. By that time, the Formidable-class stealth frigates will be somewhat long in the tooth and will probably be supplanted by a larger, more capable class of surface combatant akin to today's destroyers.

The RSN of the future may have to content with squabbles in regional waters as littoral nations fight over diminishing gas supplies. Gas fields managed by Brunei and Malaysia are expected to drop below economically-productive rates in the next two decades and the race for fuel-rich undersea resources can only intensify in coming years.

All this points to the need for the RSN to maintain a forward presence along trade routes that are Singapore's lifeline with the world.

This mission will justify the construction of men-of-war that are far more capable than anything it has today as Singapore joins the elite nuclear power club.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tempering a winning attitude

There's a charming soccer analogy making its rounds among Singaporean military officers which indicates that the winner-takes-all mentality may soon be unfashionable.

I've heard several Singapore Armed Forces officers (SAF) expouse the theory that in a soccer match, a 1:0 score in one's favour is a decisive win. So is a 6:4 score in your team's favour (or some other winning permutation, 5:3, 4:2 and so on but you get the picture).

The underlying message is that one must be prepared for your opponent to score some goals. But so long as the end game runs in your favour, then a win is a win whatever the goal margin.

It's an interesting mantra that junior officers, colonels and brigadier generals have shared on separate occasions. And I thus arrived at the conclusion that within the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF briefing rooms, this mindset must have been steadily propagated.

The analogy is most timely.

There's a military axiom that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Such wisdom rings true today especially against a backdrop of military operations other than war, island defence and counter terrrorist operations where one's enemy and the opponent's strategic end state may be unknown or ill-defined.

The advantage of having team members with the mental stamina, the street smarts and resilience to soak up some hits while adjusting the game plan is abundantly clear. At the same time, the defence ecosystem must have the fighting spirit to carry the game to a successful conclusion even after the opponent lets in a goal, and especially during those occasions when the goal margin swings in the opponent's favour.

MINDEF/SAF's soccer analogy is not without relevance in the real world. All too often, we read about Singaporeans who let down their team and nation playing the beautiful game. The game is lost after a revitalised opponent robs the wind from the sails or after the other team shows they too know how to play ball. Without fighting spirit, the Singaporean team gives up the game and the end result is a foregone conclusion way before the final whistle.

Military operations are more complicated than a soccer match.

One does not fight with equal numbers. The goal post isn't a fixed point with standard dimensions on a well defined playing field. And there may be more than one opponent on the field who operates with a different playbook. Worst, there's no timeout once military operations kick off.

It's also hard to ignore that the mental image of an opponent scoring a goal could mean SAF deaths during an operation.

How fast and how successfully Singaporeans recover after an opponent adds his name to the scoresheet is open to debate because the SAF has yet to lose a man or woman in combat.

A parallel can be drawn from the collective sorrow expressed while Singaporeans mourned five national dragon boaters who drowned in Cambodia three years ago this month. That tragedy was turned into an occasion for national mourning with Singaporean papers devoting pages of newsprint to the life stories of the young sportsmen who died.

In combat, a citizen's army deployed in a hot war scenario cannot expect everything to unfold as planned.

We have a thinking enemy who will shoot back and shoot to kill, plus one who has a good grasp of the terrain - in soccer parlance, a home ground advantage.

In operations other than war like those in Afghanistan, we have an elusive opponent who does not fear foreign forces but regularly uses them for target practice. Their culture is a proud one which has not bowed to foreign warfighters ever since the age of edged weapon warfare. And their scoresheet is commendable.

If and when they let in a first goal, Singaporeans at large must know why our warfighters are on the pitch and the values they stand for.

In this respect, MINDEF/SAF needs to urgently up its game by informing and educating Singaporeans in a more effective manner. There's a dearth of news on what SAF personnel are doing in Afghanistan on a day to day basis and how their exposure to danger is contributing to the well being of that war weary country.

There's a disconnect with the personnel who have been sent there apart from the occasional news release of some big wig who flies into theatre for a lightning visit and photo call.

Sure, there are real world operational security considerations to consider and the last thing we want is for some net savvy Taliban to plan and execute an operation courtesy of an opsec gaffe in a MINDEF press release.

But many other armed forces deployed in the same theatre, exposed to the same mortal dangers manage their defence info ops game far more successfully. Their warfighters are not consigned to some information blackhole, locked away out of sight and out of mind like a leper colony, but are linked with their home nations through photo updates and timely stories that promote their contributions in a far away land.

And when casualties do occur as a result of enemy action or accident, these foreign nations don't fall apart because their mindsets are regularly tempered with news of their troops in Afghanistan.

Singaporeans, on the other hand, have a generally poor grasp of world affairs and this could count against the Lion City when the day comes to bury one of its own.

Then, the soul-searching will begin with belated commentaries asking why the SAF is there, is their mission worthwhile and was their sacrifice in vain.

If we truly believe our cause is legitimate and commands the moral high ground, then one should not fear engaging the Singaporean public to inform and educate them of such high risk deployments. There will be nay sayers but consider this: If you cannot deal with critics when the going is good, how will you rein in public opinion when the going is bad?

There's a curious lack of initiative on officialdom's part to do more in this respect, preferring to flirt with chance and probability against the likelihood of losses during operations.

The worst that could happen with this loss of initiative is for Singaporeans to learn from a foreign source that a goal has been scored.

That sort of goal, for Singaporeans clueless what the match is about, is the most painful. Soccer fans will know this as an own goal.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Can Singapore weather a WikiLeaks scenario?

Hundreds of thousands of classified documents have flooded cyberspace, courtesy of WikiLeaks, but the American defense eco-system isn't anywhere close to collapse.

If the same happened here, how would the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) weather the storm?

It really depends on the sort of classified documents that see the light of day, the timing of the announcement and the audience targeted by the perpetrator.

Journalism students and public relations professionals will probably have many theories why the United States has yet to reel from the (ongoing) spate of security breaches hatched by WikiLeaks.

I surmise that the open culture in the US has strengthened the American public's threshold for sensational revelations. That plus the fact that the huge number of news feeds available in the US has probably made people there become somewhat desensitised or apathetic over time to news breaks.

American academics too have had many years to formulate their thoughts, arguments and personal affiliations towards US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Making them trawl through even more classified documents is unlikely to sway opinions in any big way.

A WikiLeaks expose in the Lion City may have deeper impact.

This is because Singaporeans are not used to having investigative reports presented to them on a platter, buffet-style, all-you-can-eat. It's not because local newsrooms lack the effort or brains to do it. Any effort to probe or scrutinise must steer clear of the proverbial OB (out of bounds) markers - so these OB markers alone crimp the area of operations that Singaporean journalists can lurk in and report on.

Some years ago, a political snippet in the 90 cents newspaper on the number of country club decals on the cars at Parliament House saw the parking area declared out of bounds to nosey scribes. So you see, it's not a big pond to begin with and the same stories end up recycled ad nauseaum.

Investigative reporting in a local context, while not overtly curtailed, tends to cover familiar ground. The result is the regurgitation of topics which, to seasoned newshounds, seem like a rehash of earlier reports. Examples include exclusive interviews with some crime boss, behind the scene reports on student prostitution, gang life and such, plus the "safe" behind the scenes stories of what takes place after dark or in some workplace people don't get access to (powerplant, incinerator etc). *yawns*

In short, whereas the American reader is flooded with news ranging from the serious to zany (UFO sightings and the like), having Singaporeans cacooned and shielded from cutting-edge investigative reports makes the Lion City vulnerable to a WikiLeaks-type operation.

As things stand, the annual Auditor General's report on misuse of taxpayers' money makes riveting reading because it gives readers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Singapore's huge bureaucracy that common folk don't usually read about.

In the defence arena, the shotgun incident in Thailand earlier this year is a good example of the price of a PR gaffe. Public reaction towards news that MINDEF/SAF appeared less than forthcoming when it reported that SAF servicemen had been injured by a burst of shotgun pellets in Thailand points to how Singaporeans could react to a WikiLeaks scenario.

Imagine that shotgun incident multiplied, many fold.

Info ops, as with real world military ops, has its centres of gravity that people may seek to degrade, disrupt or destroy.

In info ops, destruction of a critical node doesn't come about with a puff of smoke following a successful bomb drop or rocket strike. It occurs when one's credibility is damaged by a revelation so shocking that public opinion swings against the system.

To preserving credibility, one must start from first principles.

This entails strengthening trust and confidence in one's organisation long before a crisis erupts. The emotional bank account must always be in the black and one can build this up with goodwill, respect and displays of unconditional positive regard with Singaporeans and friends abroad.

Transparency isn't just a popular buzzword of the supposedly free-wheeling Western media. It is a principle MINDEF/SAF must observe too.

This is a delicate balance, especially for a city state whose defence strategy is built on deterrence. A key plank in this strategy lies with possessing capabilities and systems which give the SAF a decisive edge against the aggressor(s). Secrecy of these so-called "black diamonds" must be protected to preserve an operational advantage for Singaporean warfighters in time of war.

But in a climate where it's fashionable to flaunt one's warfighting capabilities in arms registers, all in the name of transparency, MINDEF/SAF must calibrate its signature in these war machine compendiums carefully.

There's a practical side to contend with: If training on a non-existent war machine takes place in a foreign land and someone gets - God forbid - hurt in the process, how would MINDEF/SAF explain this to the Singaporean public without compromising opsec or unsettling the neighbours?

One could conceivably keep things quiet, with laws such as the Essential Regulations and Official Secrets Act swinging into action. In doing so, one is covering up an incident. This is the sort of cover-up that a WikiLeaks-type operative will go after.

Even the mighty Heracles had his weaknesses, so we must ask ourselves how strong and robust our info ops framework really is.

I have no ready answers to how the system should deal with black diamonds, apart from the suggestion that Singapore should draw a caveat in arms registers by indicating that there may be some capabilities not revealed for opsec reasons.

Rather than make a mockery of the arms census and leave one open to investigative reporting, MINDEF/SAF could explain the unique circumstances behind Singapore's defence posture. This could be done in a bilateral or multilateral setting.

Admittedly, it's not the perfect answer.

But it would at least dent the impact of a WikiLeaks type revelation. And in a restrictive operational environment, any advantage we can grab is better than none.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Info Management and Media Relations: Hedging one's bets

Ever played Roulette?

To me, it's an excellent way of teaching people about probability and the psychology of chance.

I raise this because a reader pointed out that the remark about storms that occur "once in 50 years" doesn't mean that the island is innoculated against a storm of such intensity for half a lifetime after such a storm hits.

The deluge could drench the island three times within half a century, or never at all within the next 150 years. This observation is correct, going by the laws of probability.

But most heartlanders probably do not understand such logic. And when the quotable quote is made on-the-record to journalists, it is likely that the man in the street will take the remark at face value.

You cannot blame heartlanders for ignoring probability. Neither should one crucify journalists for using the quote.

Guided by the notion that the storm occurs once every 50 years, people are likely to read the remark literally while ignoring the math behind weather patterns.

I observe similar behaviour whenever I watch people play Roulette. Some gamers will dutifully note down every winning digit, studying with great care the numerals that appear more often and in what sequence.

If you pause to think about things, the probability is the same every time the Roulette wheel is spun. The fact that 17 Black appeared three times in the past 20 minutes doesn't mean this is the lucky number to punt on.

But gamers do it because it's great fun and analysing the numbers gives them a sense of self-control over a game which is ruled by chance. (Some gamers are known to count the number of times the wheel spins before it stops and time the number of circuits the ball makes before it loses momentum, reasoning that these are finite values. They make their bets by watching when the dealer releases the ball, mentally calculating how many rounds the ball would make before dropping and guessing how many spins the wheel would make in the other direction. If only life was that simple.)

Looking at the backlash that followed after people's shops and property were drenched a month after that "once in 50 years" downpour, would you have said that to the media?

That remark is factually correct if you want to point out the drainage system's design parameters. But it should be backstopped by a statement qualifying that weather patterns don't always pan out the way we predict.

The crux of the previous post on information management on nuclear energy points out the danger of making definitive statements. Definitive lines such as "ruled out", "never" and framing a situation to a timeline (once in xx years etc) and so on should be banned from newsmakers' lips. These are the kind of lines that will come back to haunt you should circumstances change.

When I was a business reporter, I noticed that one could tell the media-savvy CEOs and CFOs from the not so good ones just by watching how they fielded questions on their future growth.

Well-briefed CEOs and CFOs tended to use safe harbor provisions to qualify their statements, guiding analysts and the media on the state of play while adding in the same breath the qualifiers that manage expectations. A line as simple as "barring unforeseen circumstances" gives the company precious room to manoeuvre should something unforeseen take place. The 9/11 attacks, for example, threw almost everyone's business models out of the window.

The better CEOs and CFOs don't even use such corporate-speak but couch their replies in layman's language which made them sound perfectly logical, while innoculating their company against public relations gaffes should they somehow fail to deliver.

They know how to hedge their bets - making them formidable players should they ever step into a casino.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nuclear energy for Singapore? A first look at the Lion City's information management and PR strategy for nuclear energy

If you have been tracking Singapore’s strategic resources, you’re likely to notice that your file of newspaper clippings on nuclear energy has been getting fatter recently.

If you haven’t been tracking Singapore's energy options, this blog post will bring you up to speed.

The Singaporean government appears to be easing people’s mindsets towards nuclear power through statements made at seminars and Parliament sittings.

This is strategic public relations (PR) in action. In other words, the long-term cultivation of mindsets and points of view through overt and subliminal messaging using the mass media and other devices.

It long as your message is consistent and credible.

This isn’t the case for nuclear energy.

As recently 14 December 2007, the Today newspaper published a story in which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ruled out nuclear energy as a power source.

Three years later, there’s been a clear change of heart.

This week, Singaporeans woke up to see the banner headline in The Straits Times which said: “Govt preparing for nuclear power option”.

“It will be a long time before we make any decision on nuclear energy,” said PM Lee in the ST Page 1 lead story. “But we should get ourselves ready to get ready to do so. That means to give Singapore the ability to exercise the option should it one day become necessary and feasible."

No time frame was given.

But in the same story, PM Lee did say that Singapore might arrive at a decision on nuclear energy “possibly during my lifetime”. PM Lee was born in 1952.

The change of heart which is apparent from the two newspaper stories underlines the PR rule of not making definitive statements from which no climbdown is possible without loss of face/credibility.

If one has to sound decisive, do give yourself some wriggle room should future, unforeseen circumstances arise which force you to sing a new tune.

Ships have been sunk after being declared unsinkable.

Fortresses have been captured which were deemed impregnable. Case in point: Fortress Singapore.

Closer to home, torrential rainstorms have reappeared after being described as something we'd see once in 50 years. Don't we know how that PR fiasco panned out?

The takeaway from PR gaffes in the past is this: Many were own goals from improper media coaching or slips of the tongue.

For a potentially explosive (excuse the pun) issue like nuclear energy, utmost care must be taken to inform and educate Singaporeans and neighbouring countries in a timely manner.

Thus far, Team Singapore has done well.

This brings us back to the Today story in which PM Lee ruled out nuclear power. Reading through the story closely, one would come across the line in which PM Lee said the Republic's dependence on fossil fuels was unlikely to go away within the next 10 years.

This line saves the game because it gives the newsmaker room to manoeuvre, now that the nuclear option is being examined thoroughly.

Once Singaporeans wake up to the reality that their household appliances and home computers will one day be juiced up by nuclear power, it won’t take long before an anti-nuke lobby takes root in Singapore. Looking at the anti-nuke lobby in foreign lands, we can expect many of these voices will be strident, emotional and vociferous in their demands.

The quality of Singapore's PR and information management strategy will make or break public perceptions towards having a nuclear reactor in (or more correctly, under) Singapore island.

And if that PR war plan fails, one can always blame journalists for taking quotes out of context and dreaming up a sensational headline to sell newspapers. This has happened before. Many times.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

C2D: Bridging the gulf in opinions

Last year, a nation-wide public relations blitz used the tagline “What will you defend?” to promote defence awareness in Singapore.

This PR exercise didn’t come cheap. It cost tax payers more than $100,000 and resulted in cutesy and heart-warming responses from kids, students and older Singaporeans who penned their responses on thought bubbles.

More than a year later, citizen soldiers are still asking themselves that question.

The exchange between a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Operationally Ready National Serviceman (NSman) and a political heavyweight - a former Prime Minister and Defence Minister no less – underscores the gulf in opinions towards commitment to defence.

The Straits Times newspaper reported the exchange that took place during a talkshop held at the Nanyang Technological University last Friday.

NSman Lim Zi Rui, 23, told Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong he did not know what he was defending.

“When I was younger, I was very proud of being Singaporean,’’ said Zi Rui, who claimed he is an NS officer.

“But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.”

Zi Rui said he was venting the feelings of his men, who had to compete for jobs with foreign talent.

“I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.”

To this, SM Goh replied: “This is one early sign of danger… If this is happening, it is very serious.”

I bet defence watchers from around the region are also taking note of Singaporeans’ commitment to defence – known in Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) jargon as C2D.

Our problem is a potential adversary’s strategic advantage.

Our society’s challenge in C2D is their opportunity.

This fissure is something they will attempt to crack.

If one assumes that a hot war scenario will be preceded by a period of tension (POT) of, say for example, six months, then MINDEF/SAF can well expect potential belligerents to use every trick in the book to unsettle NSmen. The weakness of Singapore's citizen's armed forces was addressed in an early post here.

One bright note from the exchange was hearing the NSman pledge his personal commitment to defending Singapore, come what may.

“This is your country,” said SM Goh. “What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?”

To this, the young officer replied: “For my part, don’t worry about me. I will definitely do something. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.”

Looking at how NSmen responded to the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA), announced during this year’s National Day Rally, it is heartening to see NSmen of all social classes and backgrounds sound a similar note.

True, there are disgruntled voices unhappy with the payout ratio and eligibility criteria. But amid all the sound and fury, the average NSman would still stand by his flag.

MINDEF/SAF must never take such goodwill for granted.

Officialdom has, time and again, drummed home the Total Defence message that complacency is an enemy Singaporeans must guard against.

This message cuts both ways.

NSmen are like the faithful friend who stands by with an umbrella on a rainy day, is there to provide emotional support when needed and unasked, is a walking ATM to a friend in need – only to be rebuffed and ignored when convenient. Still he stands by, because that is the right and proper thing to do.

The NSRA episode – which will likely be played out during the General Election hustings – speaks volumes of how much officialdom values the contributions of NSmen from yesteryear.

Comments voiced by Zi Rui are only the tip of the iceberg, if sentiments voiced by people I know are anything to go by.

We can dance around such questions and provide fluffy non answers, or take heed and do something proactive.

Politicians have a limited shelf-life. The same applies to goodwill from NSmen.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

LOTS to deliver: Singapore Technologies Marine unveils Endurance 160 helicopter support ship

Singaporean naval yard Singapore Technologies Marine (ST Marine) has unveiled a new variant of its Endurance-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD).

Dubbed the Endurance 160, the 14,500 tonne warship is the first one designed by ST Marine with a full length flight deck.

The length overall is quoted as 163.7m, with the flight deck estimated at around 146m long by 25.6m wide with five deck landing spots.

Endurance 160 drawings provided by ST Marine appear to show two deck elevators. One is sited on the starboard side forward and the other amidships close to the aft end of the island superstructure.

The island is of a blockhouse design with a single mast and funnel and two levels. The flight control station is aft of the island.

The complement is quoted as 140 personnel, with another 150 for its air wing. Troop capacity is given as 400 troops.

It is noteworthy that the new class of warship has a quoted top speed of 22 knots - five knots better than the quoted 17 kts top speed for its Endurance 140 cousin. Max range is mentioned as "more than 7,000 nautical miles" when sailing at 15 kts.

Gun armament options on the foc'sle and stern quarter are presumed to be indicative of customer options for placing medium calibre guns and close-in weapon systems (CIWS). The weapon stations do not appear to require deck penetration.

It is not known if the Endurance 160 will offer bow doors, as seen on the 141-metre long Endurance 140 class. The 22 kts max speed of this class probably excludes bow doors as such a feature and the associated ramp would weaken the forward end of the ship.

It also remains to be seen if the new Endurance variant can carry floating pontoons strapped to the side of its hull. These self-propelled pontoons are used to discharge vehicles and troops during logistics-over-the-shore (LOTS) operations.

The design draws heavily upon the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) experience with its four 141-metre long Endurance-class tank landing ships (LST), which, interestingly, have been referred to by at least three standard naval designations.

The Endurance ships were introduced in 1998 as LSTs but referred to by naval authorities as Landing Platform Docks (LPD) as they have a well dock aft for four Fast Craft Utility water-jet propelled landing craft.

During Operation Flying Eagle (OFE), the Boxing Day tsunami relief mission off Sumatra in Dec 2004/Jan 2005, three Endurance ships deployed for the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief mission were referred to as Helicopter Support Ships.

Tonne for tonne, ST Marine's Endurance 140 design can carry more landing craft than any other LST/LPD design available today. The mothership can land a battalion-size team in one wave using its onboard FCUs and Fast Craft Equipment Personnel (FCEP) landing craft.

Each Endurance 160 is designed to carry two FCU-type landing craft and a pair of smaller FCEPs. It is likely that the landing craft complement will include the new drive-thru design, which ST Marine designed specifically for LOTS operations involving main battle tanks, which could include but are not limited to Leopard 2-type MBTs.

The Endurance 140 cannot operate hovercraft as the well dock is not heat-shielded from jet blasts. It will be interesting to see if the enlarged Endurance with the full flight deck will have a protected well dock for hovercraft.

The Singaporean Navy's experience off Sumatra showed that the Endurance-class ships are more versatile than former East German Navy Frosch-class LSTs operated by the Indonesian Navy. The Frosch-class LSTs were designed to discharge vehicles, personnel and deck cargo by direct beach assault in the Baltic area and European coastlines and do not carry their own landing craft.

In addition to small craft, the Endurance LSTs are the RSN's first ships that can embark a CH-47D Chinook on its flight deck. The ship can operate two Super Puma-type helos simultaneously, or one Chinook.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has been deployed as part of a multinational task force for counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. These missions were spearheaded by Endurance-class warships, equipped with two Super Puma/Cougar type choppers as part of its air element.

The Endurance 160's designers may want to relook the design and operation of WW2 escort carriers for takeaways.

* Deck edge lifts would allow out-size helos to manoeuvre into the hangar bay. United States Navy LPHs and the Spanish Navy helicopter carrier (which was derived from Admiral Zumwalt's Sea Control Ship design) all have a deck elevator at the stern which allows rapid movement of helos from hangar to flight deck.

* Loading the Endurance 160 with landing craft and naval aviation assets in a hull of that size means operational compromises. Is the ship meant to operate close inshore, close to the surf zone of a contested coastline so it can deploy landing craft expediently, or is it meant to lurk farther offshore and hit the zone of operations using its embarked air wing?

* Going by the Endurance 140 design, it does not appear that the Endurance 160 will have sufficient hangar space for helos to be struck down for all-weather protection. It thus appears the air wing will be embarked for short duration missions to its area of operations before withdrawing back to base. In the case of a peacetime HADR mission, the vehicle deck would presumably not be filled with war material and some space would probably be reserved for helo maintenance.

* The closest design to the Endurance 160 is the Italian Navy's 133-metre long San Giorgio-class LPDs, a mid-80s era design. The RSN encountered the San Giorgio-class in the Persian Gulf during Operation Blue Orchid 1 and came away impressed with the capabilities packed into the compact hull form.

* The onboard armament will need to be upsized if the ship is to fight and survive against enemy frigates, missile-armed small craft and SSKs. As an interesting aside, notice the number of GPMGs added to the bow of an Endurance-class LST sent for duty in the Persian Gulf. Incidentally, the bow was a popular spot for smokers during the OFE mission.

* An enclosed hurricane bow may result in a drier flight deck in heavy seas. Early escort carrier designs which were converted from merchant ship designs had open bows which could not keep out a green sea.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Admin Notes

Today is the start of our biggest ranking and banding exercise, with some 10,000 people involved.

Was busy with briefings all of last week for our rank-and-file and supervisors, so the pace of blog updates stalled somewhat though there's much to write about.

re: Facebook. A number of you have emailed me to be your FB friend or Youtube pal. I thank you all for your interest. I'm not on FB though I respond to every email sent to my account. FB is a rich treasure trove of data, if you know what to look for and how to exploit it.