Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Terror threats during Singapore's 2011 General Election

Already dangerous on ordinary days, the terror threat to Singapore will get more acute as the General Elections (GE) draws near.

A successful attack not only rewards terror elements with bragging rights for hitting a prize target. A strategically timed attack may also upset voting patterns and result in a freak election result in the Lion City.

The attacks on 11 March 2004 against Spanish commuter trains, executed three days before Spain’s GE, resulted in a fierce backlash against the party in power. A government was ousted and Spanish warfighters pulled out of Iraq. For the fraction of the weight in explosives used to bomb Libya, shadowy terror elements achieved regime change and the removal of Spanish forces from a theatre of combat.

Seen in a Singaporean context, a standalone terror attack could result in robust support for the Republic’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) as voters flock to safety during a crisis. In past years, Singaporean voters have tended to swing toward the stability and assurance of the PAP’s governance during economic crisis and emergencies such as the SARS crisis.

Past is prologue: The Confrontation urban bombings
Residents of pre-independent Singapore endured a sustained urban bombing campaign after Indonesia waged an undeclared war, a Confrontation (konfrontasi) with Malaysia, which Singapore had merged with.

A check with The Straits Times newspaper records show that between September 1963 and May 1965, 42 bombs exploded in Singapore. These killed seven Singaporeans and injured more than 50 people. The Confrontation bombing campaign was the longest urban bombing campaign waged against Singapore.

Though the security situation was described as tense, the city state survived the bombings under the guidance of Malaysian leaders (Singapore was then part of Malaysia) and the security afforded by the Malaysian Armed Forces and the British military presence.

Urban bombings also failed to unsettle Singaporeans in post-independent Singapore.

Of these events, perhaps the best known is the attack on the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom in January 1974 – an incident which led to the hijacking of the passenger ferry, Laju.

The 1980s saw five bombings against commercial buildings in Orchard Road and the financial district. These include the attacks in March 1985 and December 1986 on Faber House, where the Embassy of Israel was located, the consecutive bombings in November 1987 on AIA building and Shell Tower and one more explosion at that bomb magnet, the AIA building, in December 1987.

Attacks by improvised explosive devices with low explosive energy yield did not inflict any casualties and damage to infrastructure was light. The public relations impact was therefore comparatively weak. Indeed, few Singaporeans remember these bombings apart from security agents who track such security incidents.

It is important to note that all of the city state’s past experiences with terror bombings were with standalone attacks waged with small IEDs. These were weapons of limited effect. Absent were coordinated strikes at multiple targets, aimed at driving home a political agenda by exploiting the shock effect from a high bodycount.

General Election 2011 - Never say never
In the current security environment, a well planned terror attack against Singapore timed to coincide with a GE could tell a different, more tragic story. If agenda-based terrorism replaces sporadic standalone attacks, the net effect on the public’s psyche may swing support away from the ruling PAP.

The PAP’s case is not helped by the poor general knowledge that many voters have of Singapore’s role in international peace support operations, particularly the operational deployments by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

To be sure, a successful attack should not come as a total shock as security planners have long warned that it is only a matter of time before terror elements get lucky. There have been near misses and close calls. Very public security gaffes have been reported - the escape of terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari and vandalism at the MRT train depot being celebrated examples - but no one knows the extent of surveillance carried out in Singapore as a precursor to an attack.

If agenda-based terrorism forces voters to choose between living in a peaceful Singapore and supporting SAF missions in faraway lands like Afghanistan, I bet Singaporeans will pick the former.

The average Singaporean does not understand nor appreciate why Singaporean warfighters need to risk their lives in foreign places. Even newshounds will find that the SAF’s overseas missions are sparsely reported outside of official Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) media channels. These pop up in the form of brief news releases whenever some big shot makes a surprise visit.

The deployments are also showcased in documentaries that have limited appeal outside the fraternity of defence buffs. Step outside this circle of enthusiasts and few people care or know about the SAF. Indeed, the single picture of the maid carrying a field pack for a recruit is better known among Singaporeans than any of MINDEF’s recent documentaries.

Such ignorance is self-inflicted as MINDEF/SAF maintains tight control over the angling of defence themed stories and has a publicity plan that rolls out such-and-such an event at such-and-such an opportune time. MINDEF/SAF has yet to learn that a little more trust with the mainstream media and netizens would pay dividends over time as news gatherers pay back that trust with interest.

With the GE round the corner, it is unrealistic to expect Singaporeans to be overnight experts on the intricacies of coalition taskings or the necessity for SAF involvement in peace support operations. Our short term defence lies with the SAF and Home Team forces tasked with Singapore’s security. We hope they are up to the mark.

Hearts and minds
Ignorant or frightened voters are Singapore’s fragile underbelly. Terror elements know this. The Madrid bombings successfully executed regime change in Spain on a strategic scale with far less firepower than NATO forces have thus far expended to achieve the same goal in Libya.

Singapore's crackdown against terror suspects in the city state and staunch support for United States global war against extremists is likely to place the island high on the hit list of terror elements.

Even more alarming is the likelihood that a GE attack will fracture Singapore's bickering political entities. The ruling party’s avowed goal to demolish the opposition will make it all the more difficult for Singaporeans of different political leanings to close ranks in a post-attack scenario, when national unity is a natural balm.

One side does not trust all the others. The demolition derby will hurt commitment to defence (C2D) when political leaders have trashed and lambasted one another so viciously that rapproachment is unlikely. During an election campaign, political schadenfreude and C2D are inversely linked. The net result is an erosion in C2D as political entities hammer one another, especially in situations where the lines between political party and the State are blurred.

Indeed, if the PAP runs its campaign by its playbook, we can expect to see its political opponents come under even closer scrutiny - to phrase it politely - as polling day approaches.

Mind you, mopping up operations could continue way after the GE results are announced, further damaging opportunities for political reconciliation.

Such friction works to the advantage of unfriendly elements as a successful attack is likely to trigger a vicious blame game and finger pointing for any security failures, real or perceived.

It is therefore regrettable to see character mauling distract voters from pressing issues of the day (such as accountability) as fallout from such methods will only fuel mistrust and animosity among political opponents. Tactics that lack finesse also run the risk of losing support from Singaporeans who have traditionally supported the party with convincing national deliverables and a sensible approach towards defence planning.

In a perfect storm, character bashing may end up bolstering the resolve of the opposing camp and stirring misgivings among one's own supporters. (Mind you, political assassinations may yield results completely different from what the perpetrators imagined. Just ask the Filipinos about Benigno Aquino and what his death led to.)

Depending on the scale of the terror attack, a mounting death toll may exact a price from politicians voted in by Singaporeans to ensure more good years. The backlash from a failure to secure our future together could therefore result in the freak election result scenario so feared by PAP stalwarts. This scenario would weaken Singapore's international and regional standing as the city state's political system has not been built around a dual party system.

So will Singaporeans continue staying together, moving ahead if voters vent their post-attack fury on the PAP?

This is a weakness astute terror minds may be tempted to exploit - if not during GE 2011 then perhaps during a future election as the trophy target may prove too tempting to overlook.

And if Singaporeans fail to condemn the political circus, we do not have to wait for a luck strike by terrorists to tear apart this accidental nation. We may end up doing it ourselves.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Election watch 2011: National Service

Politics is a dirty game whatever passport you hold. The only question is the degree of muck rucking that goes on in your neck of the woods.

With the General Elections due in Singapore on 7 May 2011, Singaporean voters must be discerning enough to tell fact from fiction. This is not easy with political candidates of all stripes making persuasive noises to woo voters to their camp using every mass communications tool at their disposal.

The example cited in this post has been picked as many of you are interested in Singaporean defence matters. It centres on the debate on National Service (NS) – an evergreen topic that has seldom failed to stir emotions since the city state introduced universal conscription in 1967.

In March 1987, the call by Opposition Member of Parliament Chiam See Tong to slash full-time NS from the maximum of 30 months to 19 weeks was stoutly dismissed by parliamentarians from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). To say the PAP had a majority in Parliament would be a gross understatement. At the time, Mr Chiam was the sole Opposition MP in the House.

Compare and contrast how the ruling PAP painted the cut in NS when it was announced in Parliament in June 2004. The cut was indeed less severe - 30 months down to 24 months. But the political posturing, massaging of hearts and minds and public relations messages that reversed the PAP's foot-dragging and reluctance to cut NS 17 years earlier is interesting.

It may be gratuitous to credit Mr Chiam for the eventual reduction in NS liability. But to dismiss the veteran politician’s intent, reasoning and arguments out of hand because of his personal political convictions weakens Singapore’s parliamentary process.

Such condescending attitudes will breed an unhealthy environment beloved by the obsequious and self-serving. Low or no tolerance to alternative views will place our fragile city state in an even more precarious position as national issues are either not rigorously debated or the "debate" degenerates into mere formality (a good example being the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Defence).

If a policy is sound, has merit and the well-being of Singaporeans at heart, parliamentarians have little to fear from voters.

Singaporeans are afterall a reasonable lot. If people in Singapore can be persuaded to drink treated sewage (NEWater), accept atrocious noise levels from Harley Davidson bikes as a “trademark” and not bat an eyelid when cigarette sales are allowed but chewing gum is banned, then Singaporeans can be persuaded, coaxed and yes, even frightened, to accept unpopular measures.

As the NS example cited here shows, politicians in power should hold their guns when debunking alternative views as they may find themselves walking down the same road years later.

No one and no one party has a monopoly on ideas.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Maid in Singapore: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) maid saga reviewed

It was a picture that was worth a thousand words, most of which the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would rather not have heard.

Public interest in the SAF maid saga will soon fizzle out as even the harshest media storm will gradually wane and fade away. Though the storm will pass, MINDEF/SAF should review the saga while the wound is still fresh as there are learning points aplenty.

First, the good news: The maid saga has inoculated Singaporeans against unfriendly elements who may try to raise a ruckus among citizen soldiers with a ruse crafted with a similar storyline. Once the jokes dry up and the wise cracks have gone silent, anyone pulling the same stunt in future may find it harder to generate the intensity of responses from Singaporeans as the SAF maid saga. This is because everyone already knows the punch line and the ruse will look stale.

What we are starting to see are offshoots of the jibe that full-time NSmen are soft city boys. This is normal and expected. The maid saga has made people in the city-state ultra sensitive to such scenes and subliminal reminders of this point are all it takes to elicit a response from Singaporeans. And when they spot a similar scene, phone cameras will be whipped out, images uploaded on discussion boards and comments let fly.(In much the same way, the barrage of news on Japan’s radiation woes may make you think of radiation-tainted food the moment a piece of sushi is placed on your plate.)

But every joke has a use by date. It is thus only a matter of time before recycled jokes become clichéd, over used and lose their haha value. Here’s where the good news ends.

As a citizen’s army, the SAF has many touch points with Singaporeans. Since universal conscription begain in 1967, not all of these touch points have been properly managed or positive. Sour experiences of NS are enduring memories that countless full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) and Operationally Ready NSmen (to my foreign readers, this is what other countries term as reservists) will probably carry to their graves. The emotional baggage forms the delicate centre of gravity that MINDEF/SAF defence information managers need to watch out for.

Such resentment comes back to haunt the system every time NSmen are given an opportunity to do so. And it takes little to set them off. Hot button issues (please Google these if you are unfamiliar with the issues) that flared in the past include:
* the National Service Recognition Award (August 2010). Previous NSRA post found here,
* the Dave Teo incident (September 2007),
* the Melvyn Tan debate on National Service defaulters (November 2005)
* Minister of State for Defence Cedric Foo's ill-advised "white horse" statement (November 2003),
* evergreens such as SAF training safety, obese soldiers, role of Malays in the SAF, CEP for scholars versus non scholars, Singapore's espionage activities and so on.

Many citizen soldiers mean no harm, really. But as they go into overdrive heaping ridicule on the SAF and try to outdo one another with a more witty joke or a taller tale, some inadvertently play into foreign forces’ agendas. Their mischief making gives foreign psychological warfare departments ample examples with which to play down and blunt the SAF’s combat edge.

Fight current
A no-BS after action review on the maid saga will help astute MINDEF/SAF officers tasked with defence information management (DIM) avoid the tendency of most armed forces of preparing to fight the last war. The pointed reminders some SAF commanders issued to citizen soldiers that SAF fullpacks should not be hauled by third parties is a quick fix solution aimed at avoiding a repeat of the maid saga. This order is a good example of how some SAF officers focus their attention on averting a replay of this April's public relations (PR) fiasco, while losing sight of longer term priorities.

Blind adherence to such orders will not save MINDEF/SAF from PR gaffes.

This is because the city-state’s NS policy has many centres of gravity that are opinion magnets. When these opinion magnets are tampered with, a flood of comments, brickbats and awkward questions will almost certainly follow suit.

The defence ministry’s Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) did Singaporeans no favours with its weak response in cyberspace as the maid story went viral, round-the-clock and around the globe. Mind you, PAFF’s cyber footprint is substantial.

What PAFF seems to lack is a coherent and flexible strategy for dealing with new media in the blogosphere. To PAFF, media seems to encompass mainstream media (i.e. local media) and foreign media. PAFF stakes its presence in cyberspace using its own channels - we tell you what happened and here are some token images. As they barely trust our own Singaporean journalists to get the story right and frown upon enterprising newsrooms who chase their own defence-themed stories, one can understand PAFF’s wariness dealing with unknown, unfriendly and anonymous entities in cyberspace.

Such constipated we-tell-you-what-we-want-you-to-know mind control tactics may have worked in Dr Goebbels' era, but not in the Internet age where social media platforms abound with opinion shapers/leaders.

At the height of the maid saga, PAFF's cyber presence was a bench warmer. Under normal circumstances, any government ministry would not want to engage opinions shared on the net. But having a talking point go viral is not a normal event and MINDEF's DIMs should have quickly recognised this and taken proactive steps to retake pole position as opinion leader. In my opinion, PAFF's decision not to use its substantial net presence to engage netizens during the maid saga was a mistake. But isn't hindsight always 20:20?

Dealing with non-traditional defence issues
If PAFF’s Internet footprint was set up with the grand strategic defence information objective of advancing MINDEF/SAF’s image in cyberspace, then more effort should have been made to crank up the machinery to help shape points of view or mitigate damage during a media storm.

We seem to see PAFF’s crisis response hop in action in cyberspace only after an SAF serviceman dies or a war machine drops out of the sky.

Alas, damage can also be done to the SAF’s public image from non-traditional causes such as that now infamous maid picture. If this non-traditional bugbear is generating such livid responses that Singaporeans start to look at the SAF with doubtful glances, and when foreign media in places such as Australia, India and Taiwan - places the SAF trains in - start reporting the story, isn't this a call to action for PAFF to do something more in the blogosphere? The causal factor (i.e. the SAF maid picture) may be different from a training incident, but the potential end state (i.e. erosion of commitment to defence) and demands for consequence management are the same.

PAFF’s decision not to engage in the debate basically surrendered the initiative to netizens. Pity.

The skimpy letter MINDEF issued on Monday 4 April after the anonymous recruit owned up is puzzling. The same goes for PAFF’s apparent reluctance to address media queries on the matter. Surely it would not hurt the Republic's national security interests if the statement contained the recruit's name, a quote and a picture from the NSF, plus details on when the recruit came forward?

In the short term, this tactical move of naming the recruit would do much to shore up MINDEF/SAF’s credibility. And in the longer term, who would remember that bloke? Remember that years ago, Singapore’s Economic Development Board took the unprecedented step of naming a scholar who broke his bond. Newspapers spilled much ink covering the story. Today, can anyone remember his name offhand? I bet the vast majority of Singaporeans cannot.

Surely with the image broadcast by the world’s leading media agencies such as the BBC and CNN, the recruit’s lapse in judgment made this an issue of international interest. The sooner media agencies close the loop, the better for Singapore’s defence posture.

It is disappointing to see PAFF’s statement issued a week after that image went viral. A week’s delay is an eternity in Internet terms. It did not help that PAFF did not say why it took so long to join the debate and this only fuelled speculation on MINDEF/SAF’s ulterior motives. If the Forum Page letter had not been published, would PAFF have stepped forward? Such sketicism poisons the trust between citizens and their Army.

Fight future
Is there a silver lining to all of this? There most certainly is.

Singaporeans do not suffer fools but despite their readiness to ridicule, complain and criticise, many seem prepared to support the SAF - though most will not openly say so.

As commitment to defence (C2D) is an attitude that no survey can capture or gauge accurately, MINDEF/SAF should look to proxy indicators for signs of public support for C2D.

Ask any army, navy or air force committee tasked with organising past open houses for attendance numbers and you will see a steady jump in visitors. This includes events like the annual runway cycling, hosted by the Republic of Singapore Air Force at Paya Lebar Air Base.

If Singaporeans had no faith in the SAF's professionalism and if NS scarred citizen soldiers for life so badly, I hardly think anyone would bother making time to attend SAF events.

But Singaporeans have come forward in strong numbers - tens of thousands - with kids and maids in tow. Singaporeans have run alongside their Army in events such as the Army Half Marathon.

And when public response to opportunities such as the sea cruises offered by the Republic of Singapore Navy or aircraft joyrides at RSAF Open Houses proves overwhelming, this is a good proxy indicator of the trust Singaporeans have in the SAF. (I know some Malaysians who wouldn't step aboard a Nuri when offered a joyride because of the helicopter's poor safety record.)

Armed forces in countries where the military is despised or feared will not pull in such support.

Another silver lining comes from the fact that even if MINDEF/SAF defence information officers do not implement any consequence management processes or SOPs, the maid saga will go away by itself. Just track the discussion pages on STOMP and elsewhere and one will find the discussion thread sliding into oblivion.

My fear for MINDEF/SAF is whether the system will react by guarding against a replay of the incident.

Look at how Singapore reacted to the 11/3 Madrid train bombing in 2004 and 7/7 attacks on the London Underground (i.e. MRT system) in 2005. The consequence management plan was a marvel of staff planning which resulted in Exercise Northstar V in January 2006 - the Republic's largest transport emergency exercise.(To appreciate how media interest disappears, note how the anniversary of the Madrid bombing on 11 March was almost forgotten worldwide as news of the tsunami in Japan overwhelmed news channels that same day on 11/3/11.)

But in hardening Singapore against a London Bombing redux, someone forgot the train depots. The depots were poorly secured. This flaw was left unattended despite all the high level planning, field trips and belly gazing by security experts.

We seemed fixated on the Madrid/London bombing scenario and it is incredulous to think that no one studied the transport system chain to see where trains emerged from. I bet that had attacks in Spain and the United Kingdom included a breach of their train depots, the ones in Singapore would have been wired up with concertina wire, PTZ cameras and guards as a result of the security review.

It took the unlikely combination of a graffiti artist from neutral Switzerland, outed by a train spotter, to expose this flaw in our transportation security. Our security planners responded by preparing to fight the last war, by using the Madrid/London bombings as a template for disaster planning and reacting accordingly.

Had a terror cell been quick to exploit poor security at train depots by placing time bombs under MRT trains, this "Singapore bombing" would have caught our security agencies flat-footed.

MINDEF/SAF must not make the same error of judgement as it reviews fallout from the PR gaffe. Defence information officers must fight current, fight future far more intelligently.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Akan datang: SAF Maid saga reviewed

Dear All,
An essay on lessons learned from the SAF Maid saga is now being compiled. This piece will be out soon.

I am grateful to the individuals who provided advice and the people who shared their professional knowledge during the image forensics phase. This includes:
* people who advised which batches of NSFs have received the pixellated fullpacks,
* the plant expert who pointed out the grass cuttings in the original image, noted the interval between grass trimmings in the Bedok Rise area and compared plant growth in two images to help date the original images,
* the Review team whose role is to play devil's advocate,
* current and former media friends/contacts,
* those who helped with the ground recce and ACI.

Had the NSF not come forward, we would have rolled out active searches in the estate. I am confident we would have located his household successfully.

I have learned much from this episode. For sure, there are areas in which we can improve upon. We have a group of passionate netizens and a resource team whose subject matter expertise in land, sea and air domains is something I value highly and cherish. One regret - and this is something I have told some of you before - is that there will probably never be an occasion when the resource team will be able to/would want to meet at the same time.

We follow defence matters under unique circumstances and the need to protect names does not diminish my respect for all of you.

I thank you all.

Best Regards,
David Boey

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Maid for the Army: Soldier steps forward to admit actions

Remorseful soldier counselled: Mindef
The Straits Times Forum Page
5 April 2011

THE Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has completed its investigation into the recent case of a serviceman who was photographed with his domestic helper carrying his field pack ('Deafening silence in army backpack saga' by Mr Patrick Tan; last Saturday).

The serviceman concerned has identified himself to his commander.

He was a recruit undergoing the Physical Training Preparatory phase prior to the Basic Military Training phase.

The recruit is remorseful for his actions and realises that it was wrong for him to have allowed this.

He has been counselled and continues his training. The SAF has reminded all servicemen to be mindful of their conduct in public.

Colonel Desmond Tan
Director, Public Affairs
Ministry of Defence

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Maid for Our Army: Manhunt now on for individuals in the SAF Maid story

Where did they go?: This is the footpath off Bedok Rise used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier, believed to be a full-time National Serviceman (NSF), and a woman carrying a fullpack, believed to be his domestic helper, who appeared in that iconic image (please scroll down). To the right of this footpath is the public housing estate which is home to an NSF who made headlines in 2007, Dave Teo.

Plain clothes officers believed to be from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) combed a housing estate in Bedok on Saturday (2 April'11) for the individuals in the infamous picture of a maid carrying a fullpack - but failed to find their targets.

The officers gathered along Bedok Rise, which is near the Tanah Merah MRT station, for a quick debrief yesterday evening and were observed by this blogger. The group stood out in the quiet estate because I have seen police surveillance teams in action and somehow sensed the group did not fit in with the streetscape.

One officer was overheard updating an unnamed party via mobilephone that there were x targets for the day and the maid at one premises was not in.

What gave the game away was an A4 size colour photocopy of two pictures in a local newspaper story that compared the real picture with a fake image of the anonymous soldier, believed to be a full-time National Serviceman (NSF), and a woman whom netizens believe is his domestic helper. Pictures in the 90C story were enlarged and printed in portrait format, possibly to serve as a handy reference for the officers. (By uncanny coincidence, I used the same picture as reference but saved an image of the newspaper article on my mobilephone. I felt it was more discrete as observers would think I was checking my SMS messages whenever I looked at the image on the phone.)

It was surreal being at the spot where the infamous images were taken and the sense of frustration stemmed from not knowing where the soldier was. A sense of being almost within reach, yet not quite there. That said, I thank friends of this blog for all the tipoffs. :-)

The pictures caused intense debate in Singapore this past week as they showed how one soldier can sully the SAF's image by displaying behaviour which Singaporeans viewed as unsoldierly.

As of late Saturday evening, Senang Diri believes the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF investigators had yet to verify the identities of the two individuals in the picture. The numberplates of the private cars used by the suspected stakeout teams were noted by this blogger.

It is interesting to note that the location of the stakeout is literally round the corner from the home of another infamous NSF, Dave Teo, who ran away from camp with his SAR-21 assault rifle and some bullets in 2007. The Bedok South point block flat which he shared with his grandmother and cousins can be seen from the footpath along which MINDEF/SAF's latest bugbear was photographed. Dave Teo was tracked down and arrested by police officers from the crack Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR) unit.

Manhunts in densely-populated Singapore are difficult to execute.

In March 2004, hundreds of SAF soldiers and Singapore Police Force officers were deployed to Pulau Tekong (Singapore's largest offshore island) to hunt down three suspected robbers who landed on the island from Malaysia's Johor state. The fugitives were eventually found by Gurkha police officers.

In February 2008, terror suspect Mas Selamat Kastari walked out of a high security detention centre. He was apprehended by Malaysian police in Johor in April the following year.