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.


Anonymous said...

If WikiLeaks has a Headquarters, it deserves a 2000 pounder JDAM right down its air shaft.

Ben Choong said...

Then again, if you were fighting a war and your intel corps has dug out some really juicy info on your enemy, like discrimination amongst the ranks, displays of incompetence by higher ups, or even plans for an upcoming attack, won't you suddenly love Wikileaks?

Anonymous said...

One of key reasons why the Vietnam war ended was because Daniel Ellsberg leaked high level memos from the Defence dept stating how hopeless the situation was in Vietnam with no clear end in sight. I find it hard to defend the Vietnam war when some 58,000 American soldiers died in a internal civil war to defend an undemocratic regime.

Thankfully the major newspaper organisations, Washington Post and NYT agreed to publish Ellsberg's leaks. If not Wikileaks could have come in handy, if it were around then.

Anonymous said...

Again, kudos for the thought-provoking article, Mr. Boey.

As much as the defense establishment finds the existence of organizations like Wikileaks, or individuals who advance this cause as an inconvenience or even destructive, I see them as an essential component of the whole nation building process.

We cannot naively expect the defense establishment or the authorities to be completely honest with facts and figures. It might not be in their interests.* At the same time, it's also swinging to the extreme to only rely on such organizations and individuals as the counterbalance.

We need both so that we as a nation gets comfortable over time with uncomfortable debates and make sure that important questions that have both moral (e.g., should we do this; what does this say about us as a people?) and material consequences (e.g., how much are we spending to support the ops; how many servicemen and women might die?) do not get relegated to only one party (no pun intended) to make the absolute decision, regardless of their intent and ability.

So the important question here is not if we should accept and tolerate them, or ban them completely. The issue is how can we make sure such entities participate in a meaningful way that builds Singapore. The key word here is engagement. The process will be messy and not as efficient as what is being done now. Efficiency has its purposes, but its value, IMHO, might have been exaggerated and overemphasized for too long.

My two cents' worth.


* I don't generally equate national interests necessarily as the interests of the government or the authorities. What's good for a nation might not be beneficial to the governing bodies.

Anonymous said...

President of the United States (and former General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower used the term in his Farewell Address to the Nation on January 17, 1961:

"A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Anonymous said...

From one Anonymous to another,

Thank you, thank you so much.

It's opportune to remind ourselves of the military-industrial complex, not only of its strength in defense but more gravely, also its weight on a society.