Sunday, December 26, 2010

Defence Information Management: 6th Anniversary of Operation Flying Eagle

Among the dozens of news stories, features and one book written on Singapore's 2004 Boxing Day tsunami relief operation, the best-remembered story is one which mentioned naval divers playing mahjong aboard a navy ship.

Never mind that it was a mere one paragraph with a grand total of 24 words in an otherwise neutral/positive news story on the operation, dubbed Flying Eagle by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

This is one story which elicits an opinion from almost all MINDEF/SAF officers who read it. In case you missed it, please read it for yourself below.

Source: The Sunday Times, 2 January 2005

The longevity of that remark baffles me.

It may surprise critics to learn that the original draft did not include the mahjong remark because the story was already tied up with the "Life Goes On" tagline. In journalistic parlance, this is known as a kicker - a device which attempts to wrap up a story on a punchy note.

Discerning readers will notice there are two kickers in the above story. One touches on the Naval Diving Unit (NDU) mahjong players. The second picks on the ironic tagline for the Cactus brand mineral water.

The Sunday Times news editors that weekend were the ageless Ms Helen Chia and Ms Tan Hsueh Yun. They made a dynamic duo and were a pleasure to work with; each complemented one another and one hardly ever saw them flustered no matter how tight the deadlines or how tough the news assignment.

As I was the sole 90 cents representative aboard RSS Endurance, Hsueh rather considerately asked how I was coping. I said things were fine as the operation had yet to get underway and I had sailed with the same tank landing ship (LST) exactly a year ago in the Persian Gulf during Operation Blue Orchid I. In the email exchange, I casually remarked about the noise from the neighbouring cabin which apparently indicated a mahjong game in full swing. The players themselves were quiet, but the shuffling of the tiles was unmistakeable.

Hsueh asked if that could be added to the story and I gave the go ahead. That fateful decision resulted in the best-remembered story I had written about OFE.

From what I gather, all hell broke loose after MINDEF/SAF types flipped open their copy of The Sunday Times and read that remark.

I am reliably informed it was a talking point at Changi Naval Base that Sunday, when a command group supporting OFE met to discuss the operation.

The Major in charge of the NDU detail aboard Endurance also had some explaining to do.

Years later, I still meet MINDEF/SAF officers who talk about the piece.

Some prattle on, berating this writer like a school teacher counselling an errant child. There are others who talk about the "mahjong story" and dissect it like a post mortem at a media management class, only to admit sheepishly that they had never read the piece in the first place but had reacted on hearsay.

Others go into finger pointing mode whenever I step aboard their decks, whispering like gossipy kids. I may be myopic but I am not deaf and I do have friends in the Navy who pass on the fleet's scuttlebutt.

I worry for the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) if its ranks are populated with weak-minded individuals who apparently cannot tell the forest from the trees.

Indeed, while in-theatre, a CO of one LST even suggested that I may have mistaken the sounds from an operational man-of-war, like dripping water (I kid you not), for a mahjong game in full play. He may have looked at me with condescending eyes, perhaps unaware that I have sailed aboard more warship classes than most RSN servicemen. So I let it pass.

This is the sort of mindset that underscores how ill-prepared some of our warfighters are to face up to adversity.

This could result from a society where the media is tightly-regulated. It leads to some MINDEF/SAF officers confusing the role of internal media such as Navy News and Pioneer magazine with that of the local media.

While the internal and national media are all in the same boat, figuratively speaking, defence information management officers must impress upon warfighters that the media can and will write about SAF matters with its own editorial judgement.

It baffles journalists whenever MINDEF/SAF trawls up a bitch list of alleged editorial transgressions, nitpicking and harping on issues which are clearly an editor's call and forgetting the plus points in defence media relations.

If reactions from the mahjong story are anything to go by, there are a number of Navy officers who are not mission ready and will not be able to cope during operations should the tide swing against them.

Navy officers who get worked up just because of that one paragraph that mentions mahjong should consider how more established naval forces dealt with the media following incidents such as the Tailhook scandal, the USS Vincennes vs Iran Air airbus tragedy and Admiral Jeremy Boorda's suicide.

In time to come, I would hope that SAF officers will develop a mindset that shows they are not so thin-skinned or what the Cantonese call siew hei (a term that defies literal translation. It means having a mindset that is not fragile).

To its credit, there are Navy officers who talked about the mahjong story and commented that their fellow officers had created a storm in a teacup.

And despite negative reactions from some quarters, MINDEF/SAF granted me some latitude and allowed me to stay aboard Endurance till she returned to CNB some 25 days later.

While certain individuals are the weak links, the system as a whole appears to take a more liberal attitude towards media relations - provided the right men are at the helm. That said, constant dialogue is needed to ensure the media and DIMs do not end up misreading one another or reacting to petty irritatants.

The Cactus brand water sums it up nicely: Life Goes On.


Anthony said...

Playing blackjack would've been more tactical lol!

xtemujin said...

Yeah, the thing that remained in my mind about this article to this day is the mahjong session by the NDU and the Cactus mineral water slogan, Life goes on.

FinalFive said...

Its a systemic problem. Don't blame the individuals who are mere victims of the situation, that's all I can say. The mindset of DIM in MINDEF, from what I see and read, is that when a news release is issued, they expect every word to be published, and if a reporter publishes something outside of the "Info Plan", then the Info Plan has failed. Staff Officers get blamed. Those in the operational commands get bewildered at what has gone wrong - They don't know exactly what's wrong, but they observe the panic going on and surmise that something is wrong.

It is utterly unfair. Good people are forced to leave the organisation for such shit.

How does playing mahjong or having any form of entertainment detract from the efforts of these servicemen who participated in OFE? How does that detract from the fact that those Naval Divers are the ones that dig through shit in the bottom of rivers to pull up dead bodies and rescue survivors? Isn't it time that MINDEF recognizes that control is not a recognized term in the info realm - But it seems that MINDEF doesn't know. And it is hell bent on making its people pay for these perceived errors.

The worst form of measuring one's success in the information realm is sometimes trying to gather public opinion. The public will scream bloody murder when the SAF runs into a training incident, but had nothing to say when the Occupational safety and health issues were raised for changes to the Factories Act. Yet, every day, the barometer for success in DIM seems to be whether the public likes MINDEF/SAF enough... It is so strange.

Life will go on - Let me draw a picture. Life will go on with the SAF bleeding good people who get too disillusioned because the public views good civil servants as parasites, and yet the same public worships the bankers and anyone close enough to the dollar industry. Then the SAF panics further and wonders why the public don't like it, and blames its people for not doing a good enough job at DIM.

Anonymous said...

Siew hei (xiao qi in Mandarin, literally 'small air') may plausibly be translated as 'having the air of a small man,' i.e., petty, small-minded, thin-skinned.

Anonymous said...

Do you think the stiffs in MINDED are slowly cycling out, and the new generation of officers who are filling their places, probably those who enlisted in the early to mid-1990s onwards, are more open, liberal and thoughtful about these things?

My theory is the stiffs grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, where conformity was everything. But into the 1990s, with creativity emphasised and all that, perhaps we're getting more well-rounded senior officers now who can see something for what it is, and not sweat the small stuff?

I personally believe your late teens to 20s are when your personality/beliefs/ideologies are locked in, and will follow you for the rest of your life!

David Boey said...

How does playing mahjong or having any form of entertainment detract from the efforts of these servicemen who participated in OFE? - FinalFive

Precisely. When Endurance left Tuas Naval Base, we did not know our final destination or duration of the operation.

I personally felt that NDU's mahjong session showed the divers came prepared for the long haul. Maintaining morale is critical during operations and the higher ups should not dictate how soldiers chose to spend their downtime (so long as nothing is illegal).

Anonymous said...

Hi CJ, the message apparently conveyed to the higherups (by small minds and big egos) based on that mahjong session was that: MAHJONG = FREE TIME = IDLE = DEAD WEIGHT, which from accounts I heard from those who were there, the NDU definitely were not.

I'm sure you have experienced this stupid mentality before during your NSF days, the mentality being that of a "busy work" culture, where people must be seen to be doing something, like painting grass, even when their tasks have been completed and they are winding down or waiting for their next tasks.

I do have to point out to the earlier poster about the stiffs from the 70s and 80s, their patronage is needed for the current batch of leaders to advance, and in doing so, may also "infect" them with their particular brand of idiocy. Organizational stupidity seems to perpetuate faster than organizational learnings...

Anonymous said...

Living on past glories eh?

Anonymous said...

C'mon, we know elite forces the world over wear non-standard (personal) gear, non-standard uniforms, use enemy weapons, pick their noses in front of the "conventional" officers, grow beards, and dun give a shit about regimentation. That's how u look the elite part.