Saturday, August 27, 2011

Presidential Election 2011: Close of polls

Polling stations for the Presidential Election have just closed.

Results of today's poll would prove or disprove the value of online opinion polls such as the ones posted regularly by Yahoo Singapore on hot topics du jour.

If real world matches virtual world, campaign strategists from all interest groups would likely sit up and take notice.

If there's a disjoint, then it would show that sentiments expressed on the Internet do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the so-called silent majority. The impact of such a result on hearts and minds strategies would be significant because they are likely to desensitise the system against Internet chatter.

Prior to the 7 May 2011 General Election, the MIW tended to discount virtual world feedback as unreliable, mischievious and unworthy of attention as the vast majority were penned anonymously. Go look at discussion threads in Hardwarezone and Yahoo Singapore, click on the profiles and you will be hard pressed to find any netizens who write in their real name.

The vote swing against the MIW made them reconsider this point of view. Post GE 2011, the word "engage" suddenly became a catch phrase among the MIW.

Before the next sunrise, we will find out if opinions expressed during the run up to the PE has resulted in campaigns won or lost.

In my opinion, the ground has not been sweet for Dr Tony Tan - the only former Defence Minister to make a bid for the highest office in the land.

If Dr Tan's vote count puts him first past the post, this victory would likely embolden the MIW to downplay, belittle or ignore the Internet as a feedback channel.

Like a one song band, they are likely to continue using Facebook to engage you on your side of the computer screen. The MIW's FB presence serves as a pressure valve, allowing netizens to vent their spleen on a host of issues. But as Maplewoods residents have learned, it would otherwise be business as usual.

Dr Tan's mathematician mind has probably worked out the permutations of a four-horse race and one hopes his election machinery has given the former Deputy Prime Minister a credible assessment of street talk.

Dr Tan will be hard-pressed to win this election as Dr Tan Cheng Bock is likely to give him a hard fight. This is based on ground sensing this past week.

Mistakes include what I see as a mishandling of the White Horse issue. After all is said and done, netizens want to know if the 12 years it took for one of Dr Tan's sons to complete his full-time NS was unprecedented. If it wasn't and other mother's sons also enjoyed this opportunity, the TT camp and the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) should have just said it, backed the statement with figures. Thus assured, most Singaporeans would have moved on.

No amount of counter arguments issued by Dr Tan's sons can match credible statistics on deferments which would kill vicious Internet chit chat over what some Singaporeans see as a World Record deferment (i.e. 12 years to complete full-time National Service).

From an information management standpoint, Dr Tan's sons should realise that the vast majority of Singaporeans (this blogger included) have never heard of them nor their career milestones prior to the PE. Now, we do.

So who spilled the beans?

Someone close to, or familiar with, their social circumstances must have been responsible. The Tan brothers, now grown up, need to reflect deeply on how they carried themselves since their NS days and ask themselves hand-on-heart if their mannerisms and social behaviour had offended Singaporeans along the way. Their friends and frenemies would know that answer.

In defence-speak, their OODA loop has been compromised. In my opinion, the Tan brothers should have brought things back on track by convincing Singaporeans that their respective NS stints not only fulfilled NS to the letter of the law but also to the spirit of laws governing NS.

In my view, their two replies danced around the three fundamental tenets of NS which are equity, universality and critical national need. Please read this landmark speech on NS delivered on 16 January 2006 by former Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean here.

Dr Tan is outraged political capital has been made from the White Horse issue. But so are many netizens who want and are entitled to know that the system they support treats every Singaporean son fairly.

By all means shoot the messenger(s) for bringing up the White Horse issue, damn them for trying to sabotage Dr Tan's PE bid but never overlook the heartlanders who have been following the issue and feel the replies on the White Horse issue failed to address nagging concerns.

Without proper closure and in the absence of reasoned debate, this issue will continue to haunt Dr Tan. Regardless of whether TT becomes our next President, MINDEF must be prepared to soak up collateral damage whenever netizens go on the war path.

We could go on and on about hits and misses in the former DPM/DM's election campaign or catch some shut eye ahead of the poll results.

Let's go for the latter and regroup later.

Note: This commentary was written before polls closed on 27 August 2011 and has been timed to go "live" at 2000 hrs Hotel. Comments on your polling day experience are welcome, as always.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Singapore Presidential Election 2011: First Ladies in waiting

Your vote for Singapore's Elected President is a two-for-one offer.

This is why you have Mr President and the First Lady staring at you whenever you visit any government department.

The spouses of Presidential Election candidates must be prepared to step up to the status befitting a First Lady. This is different from being a politician's wife, who can stay safely out of reach of the paparazzi or busybody journalists.

The New Paper on Sunday, 21 August 2011, Page 4

The decision by Dr Tony Tan's camp to stay out of The New Paper's Sunday feature on the four women who could be our next First Lady is not an enlightened one.

In mature democracies, the First Lady serves a hugely important role in society and in supporting the office of the President, both in domestic and international affairs.

I am sure many of you have heard of Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush (top, meeting Singaporean children and doing the same with American students) and Michelle Obama and their role in American statecraft.

My personal favourite is Eleanor Roosevelt, whose public appearances during the Depression era brought much cheer to American workers. It is said that her visits to frontline troops in the Pacific during WW2 did the same and helped raise morale immensely.

Wives who aspire to support and strengthen their husband's PE campaign chances must realise the status of First Lady in a First World Parliament comes with duties and responsibilities that entail personal sacrifices.

Signalling that one is not ready for the role sends a wrong message to potential supporters.

The last thing I want in a First Lady is a perfect stranger who comes out of hibernation during Istana open houses for that grip-and-grin photo opportunity, only to slink away into the corridors of power when no longer needed.

You must project self-confidence and a readiness to stand by and serve Singaporeans in good times and especially in bad times. How would Singaporeans know you are willing and able to do so if they do not know you better?

With campaigning for the Presidential Election at the halfway mark, the TT camp must quickly reappraise its campaign strategy to reassure Singaporeans that their First Lady aspirant is ready for the job.

The ground is not sweet and Dr Tan will need every vote he can get.

Security breach at SMRT Bishan depot: A rail security headache

The finger pointing between transport company SMRT and Evtec Management Services, a private security company hired to patrol its Bishan train depot, should be settled without delay.

A check with Evtec's terms of reference would settle the question of whether its guards had failed to patrol the fenceline where an intruder allegedly entered the protected area to vandalise SMRT rolling stock.

If Evtec lapsed, then withdraw the SIRD licenses of its guards and let the firm go belly up.

If SMRT doesn't even know where its out of bounds areas are, then we have a real problem with rail security.

SMRT's complacency is disappointing and a dangerous mindset that puts the lives of thousands of rail commuters at risk every day.

Rail security should have been raised immediately after 9/11 when it became apparent that foreign operatives had conducted a video reconnaissance of Yishun MRT station with a view to bombing the place.

Then came 11/3/2004 Madrin train bombings and the 7/7/2005 London bombings of the city's bus and Underground system.

Our security planners reacted the way most generals do: By planning to fight the last war.

And so with great fanfare and publicity, Exercise Northstar V was staged in January 2006. The exercise scenario was modelled after the tragedies in London. That wet weekend, Singaporeans had to endure minor disruptions at key transport nodes in the city state.

Amid reassuring statements by security gurus, the security of our train depots went under the radar. We had tackled a London Bombing Redux and Singaporeans were persuaded they could all sleep well at night.

It took a train vandal to expose flaws in rail security.

Enter Oliver Fricker, a 33-year-old Swiss national who trespassed into SMRT's Changi depot to spray paint train carriages there in May 2010.

We now hear that history has repeated itself at the SMRT depot in Bishan.

Having vandals express their artistry on train carriages is a minor irritation compared to the possibility that hostile elements might infiltrate the said depots to plant time bombs on rolling stock.

With the kind of mindset SMRT has displayed time and again, we would probably have to wait for terrorists to turn SMRT trains into coffins on tracks before the company stops pushing out excuses and takes proactive action.

Is this how things are done in this country? That it takes someone to die before people take action just like it took the death of one Indonesian teenager before months of delays in putting up drain railings were finally resolved?

The rail security headache is one that warrants urgent attention, not platitudes we have heard before.

Hostile elements itching to strike the Lion City, whose reputation as a hard target raises its attractiveness as a trophy target, would probably be cheered by this weekend's news of the Bishan security breach.

A decade after 9/11, there are weak links they can exploit. And it's only a matter of time before they succeed.

How many wake-up calls does SMRT need before it does something about rail security?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Singapore's Presidential Election 2011 to road test Freak Election Result theory, George Yeo Effect

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel should take more than a passing interest in the Presidential Election (PE) campaign because the Tan they will swear allegiance to will be voted in exactly a week from today.

This campaign is likely to road test the Freak Election Result theory. Indeed, a recent Yahoo poll showed that the candidate implicitly backed by the MIW did not come out tops.

You have to be living on another planet not to realise by now that the four PE candidates appear to fall into two distinct camps in a one-versus-three arrangement.

However hard they mouth their declarations of independence, the career legacy that is the basis for them standing in the first place is also their bugbear.

Dr Tony Tan's camp must have read and mulled over sentiments expressed on the Internet about his candidacy. The former Deputy Prime Minister's intimate links with the MIW continue to stoke online calls that the PE should be used to send yet another signal to the system that all is not well following the General Election this May.

If this theory pans out, four in 10 voters would likely turn their backs on Dr Tan.

How the remaining 60% of the electorate vote next Saturday is a surefire way to start a conversation with strangers in the heartlands.

Supporters from the other three camps, viz Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian, have used their underdog image as a war cry for Singaporeans to vote in a President who can bring a fresh set of ideas to the Istana (To foreign readers, this is the President's office off Orchard Road).

Dr Tan's prospects are not helped by the fact that Singaporeans know the MIW government will remain in power for the next five years, whichever candidate they support. Flawed or not, matching such logic to the poor awareness of what the President's job really entails gives the Freak Election Result theory more traction.

Furthermore, the scenario of a rogue government spending the reserves is theoretical and unlikely under the 12th Parliament. And if a second key is needed to unlock reserves, logic would state that the key master shouldn't be cut from the same piece of cloth.

The fence-sitters during GE 2011 who cast a vote for the MIW because of selfish self-preservation (fear of losing a promotion if the system "finds out" they voted against the MIW) or out of fear that they might wake up to an alternative government no longer have to worry about this.

Which box they cross next Saturday makes voting patterns for this watershed PE too complex to call even for the bookies.

This is no GE as the government will remain intact whoever wins. But lingering resentment from GE 2011 has made some Singaporeans wonder if the system needs another wake-up call.

To be sure, the MIW have, in my sense of the matter, scored several own goals since the May election. The party Whip must rein in members to avoid stupid episodes such as Penny Low's implausible excuse after NDP 2011 (where, pray tell, is the FB entry?) and foot in mouth situations by Dr Lim Wee Kiat (over minister's pay) and Vikram Nair's baffling remarks over election results.

Above all, screen the MPs carefully and ensure outgoing MPs do not end up compromising newbies by sacking grassroots members days before a GE. Outgoing MIW MP Chan Soo Sen did just that in Joo Chiat and this upset grassroots members who volunteered their time to serve him. It poisoned ground support and the MIW very nearly lost that seat.

Some people feel the PE is a waste of time and public money. We already have a competent government and fully operational civil service, bloodied and tested in crisis of yesteryear like SARS and economic recessions, to formulate and roll-out public policy. Singaporeans therefore find statements by PE candidates who want to be a shadow Minister for Whatever baffling, if not redundant and self-serving. No prizes for guessing how they will vote.

Like it or not, PE results will mirror how people feel towards the MIW since GE 2011.

Check the winning votes. Whoever wins might end up with the dubious reputation as the least supported Elected President in Singapore's history.

And check the percentage of spoilt votes too. What would this figure signal?

Unresolved questions over the National Service (NS) record of Dr Tan's son, Patrick, and the tactic by candidates like TKL to use National Service as a talking point to draw attention to his candidacy are some of the defence themes that will come our way during the PE.

As Dr Tan previously held the Minister for Defence portfolio, the other three Tans must know that questions raised over defence matters, particularly hot potato issues like the need for and duration of NS, may dim the former DPM's election prospects.

Dr Tan could also fall prey to what I call the George Yeo Effect.

Some voters may be convinced that Dr Tan is the best man for the job. They may believe that his character, credentials and potential are rock solid. But as in the case of former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, who lost his seat in the five-seat Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), the electorate's clamour for someone to champion their views may outweigh all other considerations.

The other three Tans must be streetwise enough to realise this. We can therefore expect them to harp on their independent and somewhat renegade streak during their campaign speeches.

One thing's for sure: Whoever wins will get a front row seat to the SAF Day Parade next year when Singapore marks 45 years of National Service.

P.S. For those who are wondering, I have not decided who to vote for as of today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Singapore's Defence ministry replies to mother's concerns over National Service (NS)

The Straits Times Forum
Published on Aug 16, 2011

Safety of national servicemen a top priority: Mindef

THE Ministry of Defence (Mindef) shares Ms Looi Pek Hong's concern ('National service: A mother's constant worry'; last Friday) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will do all it can to ensure the safety of national servicemen.

Their safety is a top priority. We have a robust system built on internationally accepted guidelines to ensure high standards of safety.

Each commander knows that he has the direct responsibility to ensure the safety of his men in the midst of realistic training. They have to comply with safety procedures, which are prescribed for every training activity and reviewed regularly.

As safety procedures cannot cover all contingencies, individual servicemen have also been taught to remain alert to their own health and surroundings, and to take personal action to safeguard their own safety and that of their buddies during training.

Each time an incident occurs, procedures and precautions are thoroughly reviewed at many levels to improve our safety system.

Mindef and the SAF will strive continually to improve our safety record and we appreciate the commitment and dedication of our servicemen and their families to national service.

Colonel Desmond Tan
Director, Public Affairs
Ministry of Defence

Monday, August 15, 2011

MediaCorp Channel 5 News

Anyone knows what happened to tonight's (15 Aug'11) News on Five at 21:30hrs?

Friday, August 12, 2011

ST Forum Page Letter on National Service

Next year marks the 45th year of National Service (NS) in Singapore.

Time flies. I still recall, somewhat vividly, reporting on the opening of the Army Museum during the 40th year of NS.

The letter below on NS from Ms Looi Pek Hong is worth reading and reflecting upon. I am quite sure Ms Looi isn't alone in nursing such sentiments.

One hopes that the Singaporean Ministry of Defence and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will engage NS stakeholders with meaningful activities. These could include dialogue sessions and camp visits as Singaporeans need an opportunity to clear up unfinished business on NS matters such as the White Horse issue and NS deferments.

The Straits Times
Published on Aug 12, 2011

National service: A mother's constant worry

By Looi Pek Hong (Ms)

As a mother of a full-time national serviceman (NSF) who is nine months into his national service and who has just graduated from the Specialist Cadet School, I feel the pain of the parents of Third Sergeant Ee Chun Sheng ('NSF on training exercise dies'; Aug 3).

Each day, since my son began fulfilling his NS obligations, I have lived in fear of the telephone ringing, or of a soldier in uniform calling at my house, to break some painful news.

We can live with the sores and cuts that he comes home with, but we fear the day we will never see him come home again.

Every year, thousands of our boys leave their homes, their studies or their jobs to fulfil their obligations to the nation. All they and we, their parents, ask for is their safe return two years later.

Why are there fatal accidents involving our NSFs almost every year? Why do they happen even after inquiries and investigations reveal that procedures were followed and safety measures were in place?

The Defence Ministry should correct this distressing record. Let us, the parents of current and future NSFs, live and sleep in peace.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

National Day Parade 2011: Celebrating the Singapore Spirit

NDP 2011 will start soon.

Follow the "live" telecast of the parade by clicking here from 18:10 Hotel Time (10:10 Zulu).

Appreciate your thoughts on the NDP 2011 coverage by the print, broadcast and Internet media.

Happy National Day everyone!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen's first press call at military exercise: More creativity needed in MINDEF/SAF defence media relations

Same old, same old: 2 August 2011, Pulau Sudong

1 August 2003, Pulau Sudong

Eight years after storming the hell out of a beach on Pulau Sudong, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) were at it yet again on Tuesday (2 August 2011).

War games were staged on the island off Singapore for the new Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, to make his first press call at an SAF exercise.

It was an impressive setting as the exercise was about as tri-Service as one could ask for. Army, navy and air force elements were conveniently composed in one frame, with the action suggesting the brown water power projection capabilities of Singapore's war machine.

Though the SAF has made great strides in its people, war fighting concepts and defence technology, the media plan for Dr Ng seemed disappointingly faintly similar to the one rolled out for former Defence Minister, Teo Chee Hean when he made his first press call. Mr Teo is now Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs.

On 1 August 2003, the Singaporean media was invited to the same beach to watch the same landing sequence, albeit without attack helicopter support as our Apaches were then still with Peace Vanguard in the United States.

Rather than repeat what defence watchers have seen before, Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) spin doctors should have used the opportunity to showcase a new, improved and more lethal SAF.

A strong deterrent message could have been sent to the Malaysians Indonesians Taliban potential threats with a command post exercise that integrated manoeuvre elements at one location in Singapore with live-fire elements say at the SAFTI Live Firing Area and aerial support over the Delta areas in the South China Sea.

If one wanted to be more ambitious, the manoeuvre elements could be tracked during an overseas exercise with the live-fire elements on another continent.

The amount of C2 and coordination such an enterprise demands would speak volumes of the SAF's defence readiness.

It would also offer shutter bugs from the mainstream media a new setting rather than having them capture how Sudong's treeline has aged in the past eight years.

It is infinitely easier to run the same PR gig all over again. But defence watchers on the Singapore desk in regional countries who are trained to pick out trends and highlight capability developments would surely notice the rehashed camera angles and talking points.

The deterrent effect is blunted further when informed observers realise that the beach landing tactics are little changed from WW2 amphibious landing tactics.

Watching the Sudong beach landing sequence, Singaporeans who recall the opening scenes of the block buster Saving Private Ryan might be horrified at the thought of impending casualties when they are supposed to feel reassured at the vigilance of our men and women in uniform.

Imagine then what foreign defence observers might think.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Singapore Armed Forces OPFOR training ground

ST Life 4 August 2011

Was pleasantly surprised to see that photographer Ang Song Nian was allowed to take pictures of the oil palm plantation on Pulau Tekong, Singapore's largest offshore island which is exclusively used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

I have yet to see such a direct reference between oil palm plantations in an SAF training area and those in Malaysia. The SAF also maintains rubber plantations on Tekong and mainland Singapore for its ground forces to stage war games.

The pictures will be part of an art show titled Imagine Malaysia.

The text of the Life! story reads:"Award-winning photographers Robert Zhao and Ang Song Nian both depict the uneasy relationship between the two countries through photographs laden with strong visual puns and symbols.

"Zhao's work features a lion and tiger while Ang's photograph diptych features what look like similar images.

"But one is a Malaysian oil palm plantation, the other is Pulau Tekong, the training site of Singapore's pool of soldiers in the event of war."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Singapore Armed Forces training safety in the spotlight once again

Military training was suspended for a day on Wednesday after the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) reported one fatality out of two training incidents over the past three days.

Singaporeans who are tracking the SAF's safety record may ask why such time-outs, which allow the SAF to review and reassess safety protocols, only seem to be triggered after training incidents take place consecutively.

In June 2008, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF announced a three-day "time-out on physical and endurance training" after suffering two deaths in as many days.

In March 1997, the SAF halted training temporarily after three full-time National Servicemen died in two fatal incidents. Two NSFs were killed when their FH-2000 155mm heavy artillery gun blew up in New Zealand because of a defective Made in China fuze. One NSF was killed in Singapore after an unexploded warhead from a misfired Armbrust light anti-tank weapon picked up by infantrymen blew up. Five others were injured, including a Lieutenant who lost his arm.

But no training halts were reported in 2009 eventhough the 10 deaths that year is the highest on record. Do you wonder why?

Taken at face value, people might nurse the wrong idea that training deaths spread out over time have less impact on SAF safety awareness compared to a string of deaths over a compressed timeframe. Such logic may be flawed, but this is what defence watchers may conclude after trying to figure out when an incident merits a training halt and when it does not.

SAF training halts are discussed at length in a previous blog entry here. An audit on SAF training safety for the 2001 to 2010 period by this blog can be found here.

With the latest incidents both involving Specialist Cadets, unit morale is likely to take a hit. The loss is probably keenly felt among budding Specialists. SAF commanders and Specialist Cadet School instructors must therefore step forward to help the young soldiers cope with the loss of one of their own during this trying time.

Superstitious minds - and there are many of all races out there - who have theorised that these incidents could be linked to the Hungry Ghost month, which started on Sunday, are wrong.

During the decade just past, the month of August emerged as one of the safest months along with February, March and December with one fatality logged for each of these months. August usually coincides with the Chinese Seventh Month, which is also known as the Hungry Ghost month.

For the record, the deadliest month from 2001 to 2010 was June, with eight deaths during the period.

Internet chatter over the training deaths show once again that Singaporeans will demand, and are indeed entitled to, a clear and frank appraisal of the SAF's training safety record.

Telling Singaporeans realistic training is necessary and that training fatalities may occur despite all best efforts is of cold comfort to those with loved ones in uniform.

Whether MINDEF/SAF chooses to shares such statistics or not, Singaporeans will form their own ideas anyway.

And if people are going to do so, the system should help them make up their minds on the basis of accurate and reliable statistics, not street talk and wild rumours.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mastering the art of social media communications: Substance over form, message over medium

If your message is worth sharing, you can trust netizens will do the job for you.

The more valuable or interesting the content, the faster it will spread. And when the message blazes through cyberspace like wildfire, your message would have gone viral.

A good example is the picture of the maid who carried the fullpack of a Singaporean full-time National Serviceman (NSF). Many of you would have seen it. No need to repost.

Here we have the example of an image with no author, subjects still unnamed, a picture with no caption, and material with no press officer or media plan.

Still, it went viral and made the news in the city-state and abroad.

Mainstream print and broadcast media reported on that now-infamous image. The number of eyeballs that single image attracted in the virtual world and the impact it made in the real world exemplify the pervasive reach of social media.

Mastering the intricacies of social media goes beyond understanding the technical aspects of every function on Facebook, every iPad app or having the largest number of followers on one's Twitter account.

Newsmakers who want to master the art of social media should concentrate on the basics. This means paying attention to substance over the form, message over medium. Let the blogosphere do the rest.

This may sound simple, indeed commonsense. But doing so will demand a mindset change from control freak newsmakers who cherry pick the reporters allowed to show up at their press conferences.

Some are even known to go to the extent of underlining key paragraphs of their speeches or press communiques so journalists won't miss the news point.

Substance over form also means ditching stunts such as being the fastest to respond on Facebook or answering queries on one's Facebook discussion wall in the wee hours of the morning. This pace cannot be sustained. When it drops, netizens will notice and your lack of attention will come back to haunt you.

Ignore journalists who spin stories like these because being quick on the draw is meaningless if the content of your message says nothing or is choked with motherhood statements.

A friend once mentioned that he found it amusing how officers in the Defence Ministry tended to add all sorts of bells and whistles to their Powerpoint presentations - animated text, pictures, video clips etc - instead of keeping the messages clear, easy to understand and remember.

In the social media realm, it is all to easy to get obsessed over every function that a virtual medium offers, rather than focus on what you really want to tell your audience.

Remember too that a Facebook presence does not equate to an effective social media presence. Facebook may be today's flavour of the day and medium of choice for social media advocates. But so was Friendster and ICQ not so long ago.

If one concentrates on ensuring messages are shared proactively and ground sentiments heard and addressed, then that message will spread whatever medium may excite us today or years from now.

What we're seeing today is the tendency for certain political figures to use their Facebook pages to connect with people. These virtual updates are then dutifully reported by the mainstream media, which is the reverse of how government media relations officers are trained to run the show.

Never ditch the traditional media for the gimmicky, 24/7 reach of virtual world communications.

Your communications strategy on red hot talking points, such as housing prices, could just as well be explained with the time-tested combo of background briefings for reporters/editors, a clear and concise news release plus fact sheet, a door-stop interview, with a news story and commentary piece written for good measure to give the background to the news. Commentaries allow your advocates to shape hearts and minds by injecting opinions and viewpoints that could subtly influence readers.

Avoid theatrics such as one-time only online chats. If one's grassroots intelligence and feedback mechanisms work as they should, one need not rely on the brutal candor gleaned from such real-time virtual chats. The worst they can do is make netizens feel used as a PR prop, with their queries amassed like virtual tributes to show how engaged and plugged in the newsmaker is.

Listening and engaging netizens demands a certain tenacity to accommodate viewpoints that run counter to one's point of view (POV).

The "noise" generated during discussions, especially when people can mask their identity with fake personas, means you should be ready to hear all POVs. Yes, even contrarian ones from what one MP calls the "lunatic fringe".

In the real world, half your battle is won by using the MICA press accreditation system to screen your scribes. This does not work in the virtual world.

Seeking a semblance of control, some have taken to driving hecklers and unfriendly voices from their websites. The act of sanitising comments on one's Facebook page by purging hecklers who get on one's nerves is not recommended. It will show you have low or no tolerance for dissenting voices or an impatience at consensus building with well meaning netizens who may hold stubbornly to their POV through lack of knowledge or insufficient guidance.

All it does is cull your discussants to suck ups confederates who tell you what you want to hear. This will leave you blindsided at a time when accurate, relevant and timely ground sensing of the thoughts, feelings and concerns of heartlanders is much desired, yet hard to obtain.

And as residents from the Maplewoods condo will tell you, the art of effective communications requires active intervention at all junctures when your residents' living space will be affected.

If you can't hide a hole in the road big enough to accommodate a tunnel boring machine, tell residents what to expect before the excavators move in.

Holding belated town hall sessions and presenting them a fait accompli, and putting the residents on a guilt trip for delaying national infrastructure by a month is a sure way of damaging goodwill. If there's even one road traffic accident despite official assurances, how do you think the Maplewoods residents will react?

With Singapore's 12th Parliament elected during the 2011 Generation Election (GE 2011) due to hold its first session on 10 October, netizens are already talking about the rematch during GE 2016.

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party has evidently taken heed of the impact of social media during GE 2011.

Former party chairman Lim Boon Heng said on 22 July during an appreciation dinner for retired MPs: "Whoever masters the art of communication gets his message across to the people. No one has matched founding Secretary-General and our first Prime Minister in speaking at public rallies. He mastered the medium of the day, first radio, then television. Today there is a new medium - social media - that has to be mastered."

Substance over form, message over medium is what your netizens voters citizens would appreciate, please.

Anything with more PR spin would be a virtual world version of Chinese street opera known as wayang - old school and entertaining in a quaint way, but a dying art.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

In the hot seat: Learning points from the National Day Parade 2011 stray fireworks projectile incident

ST 1 August 2011
The headline writer for this advertorial in the 90 cents newspaper was spot on as the area around Fullerton Hotel was in the beaten zone for the Parade Preview's "pyromusical" staged on Saturday.

SYT 31 July 2011

Not to belabour the point about effective information management, as I hear the National Day Parade 2011 Executive Committee (EXCO) is on top of the issue, but Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel tasked with media relations should never feel pressured to answer a media query even when the journalist's print deadline is looming.

Cue tables show that the pyromusical was set to take place around 8:05pm. Assuming the newsroom was contacted soon after, the EXCO had under four hours to respond before the paper went offstone, which is press jargon for sending the paper to print.

When I read the denial in The Sunday Times, I felt something was not right as investigations are seldom wound up in so short a time.

ST 1 August 2011

Suggested learning points are as follows:
1. Never comment when investigations are underway.
2. A holding statement that underscores the EXCO's commitment to get to the bottom of things and assure the public will suffice. Something like: "It is premature to comment as investigations are ongoing. Checks will be thorough as the safety and security of NDP spectators and participants are our top priorities."
3. Institutionalise learning points for future committees so younger officers will learn from this episode. It is not a show-stopper but should not be repeated in future as it robs MINDEF/SAF of its credibility: one day deny, next day admit.
4. The MIDAS programme in 39 SCE could be used to plot and predict the debris field from the fireworks display. This would indicate the range rings for the safety zone and also the beaten zone under varying wind conditions.
5. Finally, an environmental impact assessment should be conducted in Marina Bay to ensure water is not polluted by years of repeated fireworks displays. The colourful fireworks are created by adding heavy metals to gunpowder and we need to check what impact such displays might have on water quality in the reservoir.

Monday, August 1, 2011

White horses in the Singapore Armed Forces: A personal experience

The surname Boey is not a prolific find in the telephone directory.

Combine rare family name with the time when the Singapore Army was led by a general with the same surname and you can guess the questions on my family background that I received during my full-time National Service. It did not help that my father has "Tak" in his name too, just like the then DCGS (Army).

The first query came during Basic Military Training at Pulau Tekong Camp 1, Delta Company, Platoon 15.

Just days into NS, I was summoned for a chat with the Platoon Commander (PC) - an oldish Lieutenant career officer in a camp where Captains were kings and the camp commandant, a Lieutenant Colonel, walked around the camp with an entourage in tow and was treated with almost imperial courtesy.

After the usual greetings, the PC cut to the chase and asked if I knew who or what a DCGS (Army) was. I had read Pioneer magazine since I was 12 and knew the Army's chain of command. Army acronyms were no sweat.

And so I spelt out the title in full and gave him the name of the BG.

Even at that age, unseasoned by years of interviewing strangers which my future career would require, I had a knack for reading body language and sensing what was on people's minds before they said anything. My PC had been reading the dockets of his new recruits and had his curiosity aroused when he came across the rare surname and father's name. Hence the chat.

It did not take a social scientist to figure out where the interview was leading to when the PC mentioned that since my dad also had "Tak" in his name, was I related to Singapore's army chief?

I replied "no" and the PC pressed the point home with a "are you sure?" before I was dismissed and returned to the Company line.

If I got a dollar from everyone who asked me that BG Boey question, I would have left NS with a chunk of change after my 2.5 years as an NSF.

I suspect that when my career as Defence Correspondent with the 90 cents newspaper was in full flower, at least some SAF officers with the same surname must have been similarly asked if we were related.

This is not a sign of a dysfunctional system. It was only natural to ask and anyone placed in a similar situation would probably have done the same.

The current debate over whether Presidential Election candidate Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam had anything to do with his son's NS stint has rekindled net chatter on white horses in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

It is an explosive issue in a city-state where NS is compulsory, when the NS experience isn't always positive and almost everyone has a story to share.

It has also led netizens to cite instances when sons of society heavyweights (minister's, CEOs etc) are said to have received special treatment because of their family ties.

From personal experience, the reality of group dynamics in the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF is that people do make it a point to find out who sits on the upper branches of one's family tree so they can polish the right apples.

I know this for a fact because the BG Boey question stalked me throughout my NS.

I suspect the impact is magnified in a hierarchical military environment where brown nosers up and down the chain of command try to impress or ingratiate so-and-so's father/uncle/god father.

Society heavyweights must be aware this happens because string pulling occurs in the private sector too. They must therefore be savvy enough (to use Dr Tan's choice of words) to take extra care not to allow suspicions of string pulling to crop up in the first place.

White horse debates cause collateral damage to Singapore's national service system when discussants on internet discussion threads bring up stories of alleged abuses of power, privilege or position. Just look at how the ongoing debate over Dr Tan's son has spawned numerous stories from people eager to recount supposed horseplay during their time in NS.

The individuals involved are almost invariably anonymous - some rich man's son, some minister's son, an MP's kid. You get the picture? In most cases, the people who bring up such discussions or jump into the ring with a sarcastic word or two also choose to remain nameless.

Damage is done to NS and commitment to defence because there is no way for officialdom to verify, prove or debunk such hearsay. So the allegations are left hanging in the air and urban myths are born.

I suppose it is too much to ask for discussants to have the intellectual courage that matches the level of their sarcasm and critical views. Doing so would help netizens with the means to do so get to the bottom of things and, if necessary, tear apart people who have been abusing the system.

If, for example, some towkay's son has been receiving special treatment in some SAF camp, wouldn't you want to "out" the bugger to CPIB?

To be sure, our NS system is not fault-free, thanks to apple polishers who spoil MINDEF/SAF's name. We should never desensitise ourselves to such theatrics nor condone it.

But apple polishers in the city-state pale in comparison with show boats in more developed societies where certain companies build their business model on their ability to lobby causes or open doors for a handsome fee. Whichever passport you eventually carry, these brown nosers will exist as humankind has yet to create a worker's paradise anywhere on this planet.

I bet the vast majority of Singaporeans who argue the grass is greener in the land of the free would not survive the hurly burly of real politik in the Washington Beltway and other cities.

It is also easier and less damaging to one's self-esteem to blame missed opportunities in life - didn't get this scholarship, failed to get that internship, couldn't get the dream job - to inequities in the system, real or perceived, rather than on one's own shortcomings.

In Singapore today, there is a family of heartlanders which has done very well for itself. So while internet chatter on white horses is sobering to read and odds are that scions of high society who push their weight around really exist, the real world situation is far from dire.

Three boys who grew up in a HDB flat rose to command appointments in the SAF that even the Lee brothers did not attain. That three brothers made it to the top of their respective Services says a lot about their ability and I would really love to see a cynic have the balls to say infront of their faces that they did not earn their keep.

The brothers are no anomaly or fluke. A Singaporean child has better prospects at raising his/her status in society provided he/she has the commitment and ability to chase his/her dream. Many from humble backgrounds have done so. If anyone has a better way of distributing scholarships or book prizes, please do voice this out.

Everyone is entitled to complain and bitch about life's woes. If venting helps create a better society by rooting out individuals who push their way around or buy favours, then by all means fire away.

But in the vast majority of cases, what we're seeing are anonymous allegations that achieve nothing but chip away at fault lines in society and extract collateral damage on a system which, despite its shortcomings, has kept this country safe.

I really wish MINDEF/SAF would someday declare an open house at Hendon Camp, which is the Home of the Commandos. I wish the complaining citizens would drag their butts to a certain office in HQ Commando and read and reflect on the list of operations engraved onto a wooden plaque bolted to the wall. Many of these operations have never made the news, save for Ops Thunderbolt (storming of SQ 117 in 1991), and the whiners and complaints bureau should spare a moment from their unhappy angst-ridden lives to reflect on why these operations were staged.

The nasties are still there, mind you, lurking beyond the borders in our neighbourhood.

Netizens must be streetwise enough not to play into the hands of mischief makers who mask their identities to push a certain agenda. It is a pity internet discussion boards do not show the IP addresses of posters as this would give one a clearer indication of the diversity of views and from whence they come.

The white horse issue is one that MINDEF/SAF will face time and again.

There is no PR trick or technique the system can use to hedge against people who rail against the system. Let them rail and let every cynical comment serve as a reminder that the system must never take NSFs for granted.

The best defence is a clear and transparent system which can explain to, if not convince, heartlanders that Singapore's NS system is fair and equitable to all, regardless of family background.

If the NS system created to defend the Lion City cannot defend itself from cynics, then people in this fragile city-state deserve the fate they sow.

You make your bed, you sleep in it.

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