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.

1 comment:

goat89 said...

I absolutely agree that there is VERY little news of what the SAF is doing there. I had to rely on foreign sources to confirm the fact that the SAF has just recently ended Ops in Bamyan province with the Kiwis and are withdrawing, but the Malaysians and US's Task Force Wolverine seem to be in. I really hope there would be more exposure.