Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Singapore's defence burden - Something no maid can carry

Unless you are Prince William, a walk home from camp doesn’t count as a newsworthy event.

For an unknown Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier, his journey home made the news after the image you see above went viral and ignited debate in Singapore over the mettle of the city state’s citizen soldiers.

This single image has the potential to become iconic. When it does so, it will extract a price from the ongoing efforts by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF to shore up public support for, and confidence in, the Lion City’s armed forces. Swift and effective remedial action is critical by MINDEF/SAF spin doctors, but more on this later.

The picture of an SAF serviceman, presumably a full-time National Serviceman (NSF), trailed by what one assumes is his domestic helper (or unloved gf?) sums up what the SAF’s detractors have long argued and what local authorities have taken pains to correct – that Singapore’s national servicemen are soft city boys. Spoilt softies, pampered by mummy and daddy, fussed over by a domestic helper, unfit for battle, potential liabilities in combat clearly not up to the mark for the rigours of warfare. You don’t need a picture caption to figure this out, do you?

Few SAF images have stirred emotions among Singaporeans as much as this image because it shows what many have suspected and are too polite to say.

Even if the image was posed - as some establishment and MINDEF/SAF types might vainly argue - the strong sentiments it has triggered is a red flag that highlights the fragility of the SAF’s image as a ready, relevant and decisive fighting force. In my opinion, all it takes now is a training incident right smack in this unfolding hullabaloo for Singaporeans to once again question if NSFs can really do the job.

Singaporeans should be grateful that their government does not trust its citizen soldiers enough to allow them to carry their personal firearms home, just as NSmen in places like Israel and Switzerland routinely do. Nothing is more frightful than an image of a domestic helper, laden with war pack and SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle, yomping resolutely behind her young master with Hobbit-like determination.

Security obsessed Singaporean authorities would probably fret about maids hatching a Spartacus-like rebellion if their young charges outsourced the carriage of their SAF paraphernalia to their paid labour.

On and offline, Singaporeans have reacted to this incident the usual way. Many have done so by calling for the Government to step in to punish the soldier.

Singapore already has a reputation as a “fine” city because you can be arrested and slapped with a monetary penalty (i.e. a fine) for picking flowers in a public park, for gathering in groups of more than five (deemed illegal assembly) and numerous other misdemeanors. It would be most unfortunate if the hauling of Singapore Army full packs is also deemed a felony. You see, what good is a paper deterrent unless it can be enforced? And by whom? Legions of plain clothes sleuths from Military Police Command who, in this day and age of post 9/11 heightened vigilance, probably have a gadzillion better things to do than spot, arrest and fine the NSF-porter combo?

And where would MINDEF Legal Services draw the line? If maids cannot help their masters carry SAF kit, would it also be illegal for maids to also help NSmen launder their uniforms, polish their boots? That said, I am waiting for the first SAF officer stupid enough to allow his maid to hand wash his MID numberplate staff car in public. I am sure netizens will not disappoint and will know how to capture that Kodak moment, when it happens.

In the longer term, it would be far better for Singaporean society to proactively police itself by drawing up social norms for citizen soldiers. Singaporeans have themselves to blame if the image of their Army takes a knock should it become socially acceptable for SAF servicemen to walk around with baggage porters in tow. Society needs to do some soul-searching whether or not such acts should be condoned.

Singaporeans, like most Asians, hate losing face. If society frowns on such behavior and corrects errant soldiers harshly in public, most self-respecting males would (one would hope) know the proper thing to do. (As an aside, we now see more examples of commuters who believe that the price of their bus/train ticket entitles them to a seat for their bum and assorted shopping bags. In most cases, commuters would rather just keep mum, preferring a non-confrontational approach than causing a ruckus on the bus/train and complaining later there are not enough seats.)

Lessons for DIMs
Whether or not the image is real or staged, it shows the impact that a single NSF can have on the image of Southeast Asia’s best-equipped armed forces. The unknown soldier is the strategic corporal personified, the warfighter at the bottom of the pecking order of rank-and-file who exerts an influence far out of proportion to his rank’s status.

Defence information managers at MINDEF/SAF walked this road before. In September 2007, NSF Corporal Dave Teo Ming fled his camp with his SAR-21 rifle and ammunition while on guard duty. His night time escape led to an island-wide manhunt and gave him more media coverage than the interview with then Chief of Army, Major-General Neo Kian Hong (now Chief of Defence Force) just a week before. Do your own informal street poll and you will find that the number of people who remember the Dave Teo incident will outstrip the number of people who remember the former COA’s talking points on the Third Generation SAF.

The job of shaping public perceptions goes beyond convincing Singaporeans that their men in green won’t turn yellow before their first taste of battle. This is because the SAF's value as a deterrent against military aggression will be compromised if Malaysians and/or Indonesians potential aggressors believe that Singapore's NSmen are soft city boys who will prove a walkover in combat.

MINDEF/SAF is likely to argue that the soldier is an aberration, an atypical example of NSFs who are fully committed to defending their country. A survey of sorts could be used to prop up this assertion. They could trot out NSmen who extended their compulsory NS stint of two years or Operationally Ready NS duty who ran the extra mile for the country (some do so for personal reasons, like getting a free trip to the United States to join a live-fire exercise). Oodles of information of the SAF’s successes in HADR ops and PSOs could be bandied about, as if these missions are leading indicators to the SAF’s performance in a real war (they are not). Some big wig will make a snide comment or two on the picture and then hope the storm will pass.

Shouldering the Defence Burden
Between convincing Singaporeans the SAF is up to the mark and convincing Jalan Padang Tembak foreign defence observers of the same, the second task will prove the more challenging one.

It is critical that MINDEF/SAF not drop the ball on this issue because any hot war scenario is likely to be preceded by a period of tension (POT) during which psychological games will be used to unnerve the Lion City’s citizen soldiers.

As stated in an earlier post, the SAF is more vulnerable than an all-regular force during a POT because its citizen soldiers must be convinced to 1) mobilize 2) equip for operations 3) deploy 4) fight. During peacetime, NSmen may reason (correctly) that it is more worthwhile reporting for a mobex than paying a fine or spending time in jail.

In a hot war scenario or during a situation when a clash of arms seems more than likely, the NSman’s sense of self-preservation may see him fall out at any of the four stages mentioned above.

Remember too that the numerical superiority of the SAF means nothing if the SAF cannot mobilize its full strength because scions of well off families are flown overseas during a POT and thus escape any call up. Once this flight to safety begins and once NS heartlanders see its end result from thinned-out ranks of mobilized units primed for war, it is only a matter of time before a hollowed out Army collapses in the face of a determined opponent.

The will to fight is something the "hearts and minds" campaign will seek to poison and undermine during a POT before the bullets fly.

This defence burden is one that only Singaporeans can carry - because no maid in the world will carry this burden for you.


Anonymous said...

seen some fellas browsing this matter at the departure lounge, not surprise if it tickle some ppl overseas

Anonymous said...

Who's the idiot that take this photo and began the kaypoh? At the end it was the SAF that take all the heat!

Mackinder said...

Perhaps letting our watchers feel over-confident and putting us down might give us a degree of unconventional advantage in the perception game.

Maids, cepat jalan!

Anonymous said...

My initial reaction was quite similar to those who had completed our NS obligations. But after reading through another blog, I realised that NS in my days and now, is totally different. Back then, at least if you walk the streets, you see all true blue S'poreans. Now, I don't feel at home in my own country. It's kind of difficult to feel patriotic when you are not sure who you are actually defending. Who cares, serve and f**k off.

Anonymous said...

Now we defend ah tiong, bangala and ang moh FTs, which will among first to run if in case of war come to Sg!

Anonymous said...

Xenophobia. Your ancestors were all immigrants.

Anonymous said...

No need to worry about the officers getting their maids to wash their MID cars, the NSFs do that in camp for them.

PanzerGrenadier said...

The NSF could have genuine reasons for letting his maid carry the fullpack e.g. on medical review for a sprained back etc.

Besides the public relations fallout, the more pressing question is whether this NSF is typical of his generation?

If it is, perhaps mandatory conscription in its current form for the army especially is not longer relevant. We may need to consider an all-volunteer force even as Germany just recently voted to end mandatory conscription to the Bundeswehr and event Taiwan is moving towards an all-volunteer force.

Our navy and air force already operate wtih regulars mostly and it is the army that is still eating up billions of our tax dollars on a bloated and bureaucratic system where all the real work is done mostly by NSFs whilst many regulars coast along.

If the average NSF CMI (cannot make it), then we may have to recruit people who are WILLING and ABLE to volunteer for the army and be paid a decent renumeration for it instead of forcibly conscripting male citizens to defend a country that has close to 34% non-citizens.

Majullah Singapura.

PanzerGrenadier said...

Anonymous said...

Xenophobia. Your ancestors were all immigrants.
March 30, 2011 4:14 PM


ANON March 30, 2011 4:14 PM

Our ancestors didn't NEED to serve NS.

Majullah Singapura.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Bernard Loo of RSIS brought up the anecdote of the incident involving soldiers, parangs, rifles loaded with blanks and Youtube as a similar incident casting a negative image of the SAF.

The MINDEF response to this, was to ban all cameras from camps, which resulted in massive inconvienience to NSmen and a boom in primitive cameraless mobile phone sales. A pity, because this means that memories of NS training are only confined to official photographs, which may be posed, or only cover the POV of the commanders.

What manner of knee-jerk overreaction there will be from this incident, I can only wonder...

Moral is, don't spoil the market...

Tikno said...

He can get big trouble since this case get much attention

exreg said...

Call a spade a spade,

This report has made the SAF the laughing stock in the region. Even me who's been away for so many years, and yes I completed my reservist obligations as well as a 6 year regular stint in the army in the 80's, was made aware of it by my Ang Mo friends who are ex military,so all my boasting about how "tough" we Singaporean men are became kinda moot. If you can recall in the 70's we used to have the "use your hands" campaign in schools and parents used to send their maids to do the menial work because they did'nt want sonnyboy's hands to get dirty, well sonnyboy is now daddy and maybe he told his maid to carry little sonnyboy's fullpack.

This is a reflection of the society we live in, in the 70's and 80's up to the late 90's the saf was pretty tough, now i'm not so sure, as technology improves the welfare of the solider, it also reduces his "toughness".

The measure of a well trained Infantry rifle man (not guards or commandos) is to patrol his environment(the jungle in our context) and to effectively employ his weapon. Whether you're cook, clerk, driver, that is what BMT is supposed to teach you to do. How many SAF men do you know truthfully who can do that for a week straight? I personally know very few.

routermen said...

money cant buy everything, but it can make your maid carries your bags for ya

Anonymous said...

Does Jalan Padang Tembak refer to the Malaysian MOD? I am clueless.