Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sing Govt's pledge for more openness requires rewiring the system's sensitivity to feedback, removal of vindictive mindset for views it dislikes

In some countries, openness between a government and its people is a given.

In Singapore, the government's pledge to be more open makes Page One news (ST, Govt pledges to be more open, 21 October 2011) - which says a lot about the current state of affairs.

This well-intentioned move will not gain traction without a concerted effort to rewire the system's regard for, reaction to and treatment of Singaporeans who raise feedback.

It is one thing to call for better government-to-people communications. It is quite another dealing with the impression that the system harbours a grudge against people who actually make the effort to speak up. However grand the intention, the first point will not succeed if the impression that the system is small minded, hyper sensitive and vindictive lingers.

When playwright Alfian Sa'at had his application as a relief teacher rejected by the Ministry of Education in June 2007, netizens suspected it had more to do with the tone and subject matter of Mr Sa'at's writings than his qualifications as an educator.

When Opposition supporter Geraldine Soh lost her customer service officer job at a town council in May this year, opinion was split over whether this move was triggered by work performance issues or whether it had something to do with her volunteer role at an Opposition rally.

There are other examples. Not all involve Singaporeans. This includes the 2004 case involving SPR Ryan Goh, who was an SIA pilot.

Such incidents resonate with Singaporeans who have experienced the system's wrath personally. They fuel the impression that the system has low or no tolerance for people with a different social outlook/point of view and is prepared to hit Singaporeans where it hurts most - their rice bowls.

I get the same impression whenever I hear media professionals bemoan how access to certain newsmakers can be switched on and off, depending on whether the tone of the story is acceptable. Such Pavlovian-like social conditioning will damage our country in the long run because the system is signalling that it does not accommodate news that could hurt its ears.

In many specific cases analysed, it is a certain individual or group of influential mandarins in a ministry/stat board/GLC who take a dislike to the choice of words or editing style - rightly the perogative of a news editor - rather than the accuracy of a report. When miffed, they withdraw or hold back access to indicate their unhappiness. Heaven only knows whether the MIW's political appointee (i.e. the Minister) is suitably appraised of such action, but I would guess that Ministers have better things to do than meddle with five cents/10 cents issues such as the day-to-day running of press relations.

In 2009, I paid the price for writing a letter on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces to a local newspaper and for offending the then-DPA with my online comparisons between MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate and the Army Information Centre. For as long as I live, I will never forget that episode.

Such punitive action is a blunt instrument that cuts down the well-meaning and malicious alike. It breeds a dysfunctional culture where bad news is swept under the carpet or sugarcoated because an honest, clear and concise appraisal of the situation may offend sensitive bosses.

Worse yet, ambitious individuals may know which buttons to press to advance their career and enhance their CEP because the rewards for towing the line can be tangible and are indeed not insignificant. These Machiavellians are the enemy within that the system has to watch out for because they put self interest over that of the organisation they serve.

I harbour the impression that there is a deliberate effort to blacklist individuals and create a cordon sanitaire by excluding these blacklisted individuals from certain life options.

By extending this exclusion zone all over the island, over time and over a myriad of issues that Singaporeans care enough about to speak up on, such an approach could poison Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call for building heartware with Singaporeans (more to the point, the GE 2016 voters).

It also creates conditions for a perfect storm when bad feelings are built up in various arenas of public debate and the system has fewer champions to defend it or explain its point of view.

Whether it is in *insert your topic of choice*, this rice bowl wrecking combo of exclusion plus retribution in our tiny city-state gives rise to ever increasing numbers of people who turn their backs on the MIW (Men in White, the colloqial term for ruling People's Action Party) out of frustration or sheer disillusionment with the system.

Are you then surprised that the MIW come under fire whatever topic comes up for discussion on online forums like Yahoo news?

It is ironic that when I catch up with individuals belonging to or allied with the MIW, I can sense that their commitment to serve is neither fake nor self-serving. But there seems to be a serious disjoint between the MIW leadership's inner thought processes and how Singaporeans at large perceive these individuals.

This image disjoint - for example when things are good the MIW takes all the credit and during a recession it's the fault of the global economy - is regrettable because these individuals have their hearts in the right place. They just don't seem to know how to project themselves better, short of Facebook postings and grip-and-grin opportunities in the mainstream media.

Remember that in a city-state with a small population, the number of people who are articulate and prepared to share their views is finite. We are an Asian society and the ones prepared to step up and speak up are the exceptions, not the norm.

When feedback is handled with a heavy hand, this sort of vindictive behaviour will trip up efforts in consensus-building because those who speak up will quickly realise we're all forced encouraged to sing the same tune.

The less articulate and less gutsy won't even bother making their presence felt, but will lurk and continue to snipe anonymously in assorted online platforms.

Those whose rice bowls have been broken will continue to fight on, perhaps with sharper criticism and stronger determination than ever before because they have nothing more to lose, really.

We do not feel the full effects of the perfect storm now. This is simply because the causes people are passionate about are disparate (example: the Bukit Brown greenies may not care what military nuts are passionate about and vice versa) and the various commentators have no reason to cross paths.

It would take a national event such as a GE for you to see the perfect storm in action. That's when almost every issue the MIW had a hand in becomes a lightning rod for criticism online and offline.

At a national level, more openness and better communications may be a strategic ideal.

Alas, Singaporeans who have spoken up know that the system is hardwired to respond in a certain way. These tactical responses kick into play way below the pay grade of the PM and will take some effort to counteract because it is an attitude that has been ingrained - maybe even tacitly encouraged? - over decades.

I bet that if you trawled every grid square on the Singapore map from Changi Point to Tuas, you will find many more individuals with stories similar to Alfian Sa'at and Geraldine Soh that never made the news.

Every one is a lost opportunity at building heartware and a potential obstacle to the vision of engaging Singaporeans.

In this case, the potential roadblock to PM Lee's vision is the system itself.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bangkok floods: Impact on food security in Singapore

In early 2008, before I gave up my MICA press pass to hitch my wagon with a then-unknown company that was building an Integrated Resort on Sentosa, I had the opportunity to tour a Singaporean government rice warehouse during a media update on rice supplies.

The publicity plan, rolled out to assure Singaporeans that the city-state had adequate stocks of rice, could come in handy in coming weeks as concerns over rice shipments from Thailand may spark panic buying.

A replay of the 2008 situation this year would be instructive on the following counts:

Firstly, data miners would be given an opportunity to update their files and spreadsheets on rice supplies, sources of supply and local stockpiles. You can expect to see this sort of data, which is so relevant to defence and security watchers, paraded in the mainstream media should authorities wish to avert a run on rice supplies.

Until 2008, I did not know that rice was stockpiled in several locations in Singapore. I considered the opportunity to look inside the fenceline of one such site a real treat. The locations of these sites - one of which is sited close to a Republic of Singapore Air Force base - also suggested how such protected places might benefit from an increased security presence from nearby military facilities during a Period of Tension.

Secondly, any replay of the 2008 rice crisis would test the effectiveness of the communications plan that was hammered home in the mainstream media 3.5 years ago.

If Singovt assurances were credible and people still remember that Singapore has stockpiled enough rice to satisfy several months of domestic demand without external resupply or rationing, then the 2011 comms plan would have passed with flying colours.

If local consumers are rattled by fears of a rice shortage all over again, then government PR experts should ask why such messages have poor staying power in the minds of Singaporeans. What would it take to build stronger mindshare, not just for assurances over rice stocks but other strategic, Total Defence-type of messages?

The comms plan in 2008 wavered from the purely rational - we have x months of rice supplies - to messages that bordered on scare mongering for rice hoarders (the story that rice kept for more than three months could breed weevils being a good example).

Lastly, looking at the issue from a broader perspective, lessons from the rice stockpile comms plan has direct and immediate relevance to other strategic resources. These include fresh water, fuel and other food stocks such as protein sources (meat, fish, eggs) and to a lesser extent, vegetables. Remember how the price of onions - a staple item in Indian kitchens - triggered a political crisis in India in the recent past.

It would be instructive to see how the 2011 rice comms plans will change (or perhaps stay unchanged?) from the 2008 incarnation.

Will present-day staff officers simply dust off old files and follow the same script (like MINDEF, see here)?

Will newsmakers rehash the same quotes (the quote by National Day Parade Commanders who say they practice parade commands by shouting in the car while driving has been reused for at least three NDPs) and will social media be somehow mixed into the melting pot of ideas?

It looks likely we will soon know. Anyone who has seen recent satellite images of the Thai capital would realise the enormity of the problem Thai authorities face.

When you put things into perspective, the fact that rice in Singapore may cost more pales in comparison with what Thai people have to endure during this flood season.

Chinese Junk

Something different for a change.

A seaworthy junk will arrive in 2012 and will be available for harbour cruises and sunset parties.  :-)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Exercise Wallaby 2011 update

Intrepid Australian plane spotters have uploaded yet more images of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Exercise Wallaby detachment on the Central Queensland Plane Spotting site. Please click here for more.

Pictured above are four Apache AH-64D attack helicopters from 120 Squadron at Rockhampton Airport in Queensland. Two AHs have the Longbow search/target designation radar with another pair without, which is no handicap for the AHs without radar as the data stream can be shared among the Apaches. Tail numbers as follows: 063, 065, 066, 067.

If the media plan for Wallaby 2011 follows that for previous exercises, we are likely so hear about the following:
1. News release on Defence Minister's courtesy call in Canberra
2. News releases on Ex Wallaby
3. Photo opportunity of DM's interactions with SAF servicemen and reflections after viewing the live-fire phase.

MINDEF's National Service disruption list must be matched by swift and sincere engagements with Singaporeans

The move by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to share the names of citizen soldiers allowed to disrupt their full-time National Service may open MINDEF to more scrutiny than it can handle.

Citizen soldiers do not need MINDEF to tell them of cases of unusually long disruptions. Case in point: the discussion online and offline regarding the 12-year disruption granted to Dr Patrick Tan, who is the son of President Tony Tan. We found out about this without MINDEF intervention.

What Singaporeans deserve is a credible corporate communications posture from MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) that can address and allay concerns quickly, credibly and proactively.

With 20:20 hindsight, MINDEF/SAF should have provided greater clarity on Patrick Tan's NS service record when online chatter cast the spotlight on the then-Presidential hopeful's son in July 2011. Before the online rumours were typed, many Singaporeans (myself included) did not know who Patrick Tan was or how he served his NS. Someone familiar with Patrick obviously did and his 12-year disruption (1988-2000) became a talking point months ago.

It has taken something like three months for MINDEF to tell us that there was indeed a second (unnamed) NSF who was allowed to disrupt his compulsory military service for 12 years to study medicine.

The time lag is regrettable. MINDEF's decision to keep mum in the past few months left the initiative in the hands of commentators who theorised how Patrick's blood ties to a former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence had somehow gained him preferential treatment.

The impact on commitment to defence is plainly evident.

To be fair, all of the MINDEF/SAF current bigwigs in the Defence Policy Division were junior officers in 1988. Staff officers tasked to look into the matter were not even born yet. This means that MINDEF/SAF probably needed time to compile its statement of facts concerning Patrick Tan's NS record.

In a vast bureaucracy that sees some 20,000 Singaporean males enlist every year and with records for NSFs who served in the late 1980s yet to be computerised, it must have taken MINDEF's staff officers some time to gain a full and thorough appreciation of the situation.

With this in mind, we may understand why MINDEF's comments on the matter in July 2011 sounded suspiciously like motherhood statements.

The 90 cents newspaper report on 30 July 2011, titled "Tony Tan rebuts online rumours about son", said: "The Ministry of Defence, in response to queries from The Straits Times, said Patrick's posting as a defence medical scientist was done 'in accordance to vocational guidelines'."

The report added: "MINDEF also told The Straits Times that it allows disruptions of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) to obtain their medical degress before serving out their NS liability

"Prior to 1992, those who were admitted into selected universities overseas were also eligible for disruption, it said, adding that MINDEF records show that 86 NSFs were allowed that disruption for overseas medical studies."

The question on many people's lips - was Patrick Tan's 12-year disruption the longest ever - was not answered till the Parliament debate on Thursday.

If MINDEF/SAF needed more time to compile and cross check its data and process this as useful information, it should have said this in July and assured Singaporeans that a thorough reply was in the works.

Singaporeans were instead made to wait. Net chatter waned and threads on the matter eventually died out on various online discussion sites. What could have been a useful dialogue that enriched the field of knowledge on NS matters became a one-way monologue with MINDEF issuing terse and seemingly robotic responses to media queries.

If this glacial pace of attentiveness to defence matters of public concern is not fixed, MINDEF will surrender valuable opportunities to address nagging public concerns that will chip away at commitment to defence over time. These are own goals MINDEF should not score.

The embers to the Patrick Tan discussion were rekindled this week with the pledge by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, to publish an NS disruption list once a year.

This annual list must be matched by a willingness and adroitness to identify and tackle public feedback and Internet "noise" quickly.

In addition, the list will do nothing to quell suspicions of string-pulling in NS for sons of the wealthy, influential or privileged.

Now that we have a list of NS disruptees, would we then see a Version 1.0 listing all NSFs given clerical jobs to show that the offspring of the good and the great do not end up in cushy NSF jobs? Will there be another version for SAF scholars, yet another for all those selected for Officer Cadet School (OCS) and perhaps an annex for SOH winners?

The point to remember is that any list by itself will be just a piece of paper whose usefulness and credibility in the eyes of Singaporeans depends heavily on MINDEF/SAF's success in engaging its own citizen soldiers.

MINDEF/SAF planners also need to factor in unplanned PR scenarios and quirky situations. For example: What would happen if by sheer coincidence, all the disruptees come from families with the same surname? Would this stoke suspicions of collusion?

You may laugh, but years ago when a UK-based NS defaulter named Melvyn Tan earned the ire of Singaporeans for wanting to come back to Singapore for a piano recital, there was a gaffe in a newspaper ad by SAFRA, the association for NSmen. The ad promoted a membership drive and had a mock SAFRA card complete with a member's name. By quirky coincidence, the name on the card was - you guessed it - Melvyn Tan. What are the odds?

On 1 April 1975, the Republic of Singapore Air Force was formed after the Singapore Air Defence Command was renamed. On 3 April 1975, the world's newest air force was caught offguard when a C-130A Hercules sneaked into Paya Lebar Airport from South Vietnam unannounced with 56 passengers and crew. (For more on the incident, please click here.)

And just look at coverage of the May 2011 General Elections. Some mainstream media stories theorised why Raffles Institution ended up producing more MP candidates than any other school.

The point is that weird and unplanned events may cloud MINDEF/SAF's best intentions.

Once the list is out, you can bet people will sift through the names and come up with data sets and theories that may prove to be PR embarrassments. The decision to share the NS disruptions means MINDEF/SAF will open a Pandora's box because any attempt to go back on its promise will spur Singaporeans to ask why the ministry is backpeddling.

The once-a-year appearance of the list may also be too slow to address topics that flare before/after the list is out. The defence eco-system should prepare itself for a faster reaction time throughout the year and not imagine that the list will innoculate the organisation against brickbats.

As things stand, MINDEF PAFF can certainly do better. Even the Addendum to the President's Address took some time to appear on MINDEF's own website when such an upload could have been easily preprogrammed.

As with all ventures, the mission intent for the NS disruption list must be crystal clear. It should be backstopped by a sincere commitment to engage citizen soldiers and their loved ones.

If managed well, the NS disruption list could convince Singaporeans that the NS system treats everybody fairly, that all who must serve cannot evade their duty and that citizens soldiers are serving an important national need.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Israel traded 1,000 prisoners for one of its NSFs. What is the price of an SAF National Serviceman worth in a Gilad Shalit kidnapping scenario?

The deal to swap Israeli full-time National Serviceman Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinians speaks volumes of how much Israel treasures the life of an Israeli citizen soldier.

If Singapore is placed in a similar crisis, what do you think the price of a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier will be worth? One price for a heartlander NSF with a White Horse worth potentially more? How far would Singapore go to win the freedom of a captured NSF?

Make no mistake, the 1:1,000 exchange rate may work wonderfully well for the battle-tested IDF and Israeli society. But such a calculus, if applied in the SAF's area of operations (AO) during a doomsday scenario, will only put more Singaporean lives at risk.

SAF mission planners who train to fight with full spectrum capabilities should add soldier swap exchange ratios to their tool kit. This is a scenario they need to think about and address long before boots hit the ground and bullets start flying.

As part of scenario planning, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF need to mull over hard questions about the amount of effort that justifies securing the life of a captured Singaporean warfighter.

Whether the SAF serviceman or servicewoman is captured during a hot war or during an operation other than war (OOTW) will be irrelevant to the loved ones of any captive warfighter. What matters to them most will be the safe and expeditious return of their son or daughter.

For the family of Gilad, the journey home for their 25-year-old son took five long years after he was captured by Hamas gunmen and spirited away to the Gaza Strip. Israel is a country born in battle after centuries of diaspora. The strategic situation of Singapore - a fragile accidental nation - militates against such a long drawn impasse.

This explains why defence planners should mentally prepare for unexpected emergencies where captured soldiers are used as bargaining chips in strategic gamesmanship.

When hostile forces start viewing SAF personnel not as a deterrent nor as targets but as valuable negotiation tools, their vulnerability to snatch-and-grab operations will increase correspondingly.

Should diplomacy and deterrence fail, this vulnerability will rise in direct proportion to the amount of time the SAF will spend as an occupation force in hostile territory.

Knowing full well that the SAF will aim for a swift and decisive victory, an opponent who captures SAF servicemen for ransom (monetary or non monetary) can throw such drawer plans off-balance. So long as their captive has a heartbeat, the captors will wield the strategic initiative when dictating terms to the occupation force. The payoff for kidnappers is thus very high indeed.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to imagine the pressure on homefront support for SAF operations that the kidnappers can exert.

Singaporean parents already fret over their sons on peacetime NS duty. What more during a hostile takeover of another country's territory when conflict termination is at best delayed and at worst, unattainable on Singaporean terms?

With such situations in mind, it is clear that SAF war games should induct Regulars, NSFs and NSmen to the possibility of nasty incidents during a hot war. Citizen soldiers need to know hard truths behind the SAF's game plan should they be tasked to execute manoeuvres practised repeatedly during war games such as Exercise Wallaby, now in full swing in Australia's Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

As the Internet matures and new forms of social media emerge, the likelihood that captors will exploit cyberspace to weaken or destabilise commitment to defence is very real.

Instead of following Israel's example in securing Gilad's freedom, MINDEF/SAF should focus its energy on conflict termination in the shortest possible timeframe.

This includes articulating the end game clearly to strengthen homefront support and make it unambiguously clear to hostile forces how a protracted armed struggle is not to their interest. At present, Singaporeans know the SAF has ample war machines to defend the Lion City, but few have any idea how conflict termination could be reached after the SAF's full force potential is uncaged.

In a hot war scenario, the pain of losing one captured SAF warfighter must be balanced by the cold reality that an Israeli-style prisoner swap (1: 1,000 ratio) could endanger Singapore's security in the absence of a lasting peace. In our context, a high exchange ratio may also underline the city state's low appetite for war by demonstrating it is weak and malleable during negotiations when the stakes are too high.

It is crucial for Singaporeans to understand and accept the painful reality that many more SAF lives could be placed at risk (or lost) when hostile forces, emboldened by any soldier swap calculus, proceed to expand their business with fresh meat.

A possible drawer plan against kidnappings might be for the SAF to use its capability overmatch until the said SAF serviceman is returned safe and sound.

Civilian elements should also be held responsible for any act of aggression by their clan. The response could include designating the premises of the surviving family members of perpetrators or safe houses they are known to have used as legitimate entities for the SAF's sensor-to-shooter network to work with.

In the event of a hostage taking, SAF mission planners should be granted full freedom to translate hostile premises into end point coordinates for RSAF precision guided munitions, Mark 20 CBUs and improved conventional munitions and cargo rounds employed by the Singapore Artillery.

In like manner, the value chain of whistle-blowers should be protected. This would incentivise whistle-blowers to point out hostile elements in their neighbourhood, therefore strengthening hearts and minds outreach efforts by the 800-series battalions. If necessary, special action groups should be set up to motivate civilians to cooperate with the SAF.

The preventive detention of people of Japanese origin by the United States government during World War Two is an example of how a responsible government should do whatever it takes to protect its populace.

A hostile entity that does not respect the rules of war cannot expect to exploit the boundaries and constraints set by the rules of civilised conflict.

And as the language of force is often the only signal hostile minds can process, the intelligence preparation of the battlefield by SAF mission planners should include a thorough, impassive and realistic appraisal of the enemy's value chain and entities they hold dear.

Options to address the enemy's value chain - forcefully, relentlessly and without remorse - if Middle Eastern snatch-and-grab tactics are attempted in the SAF's AO must be prepared, tested, refined and updated as part of scenario planning.

Hostile forces must know that if they open an account with the SAF by copying the Hamas playbook, the SAF will settle that account at a time, place and method of its own choosing. The escalation ladder starts from .308 Lapua rounds fired by SAF Commandos for a brain stem kill and goes all the way to the heavy stuff you hang on F-15SGs that can reconfigure a hostile neighbourhood.

If hostile elements declare open season on the SAF with no bag limit, then they must realise that such self-declared ground rules come with a hefty penalty and the IDF does not hold a monopoly on the creative use of combat power.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Understanding Defence Creep

The magic touch at workplaces: Pets, By Sophie Hong, mypaper 17 October 2011

With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Mr Song, who is from Sarawak, said that he added personal touches to his office through "stealth", bringing in one plant first, before bringing in more.

Then came a fish tank.

"I've been with the firm for quite a while now, so I guess they (my colleagues) are used to it," said Mr Song with a laugh.

He noted that none of his colleagues objected when the fish tanks "became bigger over time".

By then, they were so used to the kampung-themed decor that none of them batted an eyelid when he added a finch to his office six months ago.

"Some of my colleagues didn't even notice the bird. They thought that the noise was coming from my mobile phone's ringtone," said Mr Song. - From mypaper, 17 October 2011

The above extract reminded me so much of the defence creep concept and it brightened up my Monday morning.

The idea goes back decades, it seems. It has helped Singapore's combat strength creep up incrementally after initial purchases desensitised the neighbourhood to certain war machines or military capabilities.

Noteworthy examples include Singapore's decision to keep its F-16A/Bs in the United States till the Royal Thai Air Force had received its F-16s. The Lion City thus let go of bragging rights to being the first air force in Southeast Asia to operate the combat-proven interceptor in the mid-1980s.

Then we had the Sjoormen-class diesel-electric submarines bought from the Royal Swedish Navy and extensively refurbished to as-new standard to see if Singapore really needed submarines.

The CH-47D Chinook heavy-lift helicopters were explained as assets for extending search and rescue (SAR) coverage in Singapore's flight information region, which extends over the South China Sea. Till this day, I have yet to see a single Chinook in SAR colours....

Saturday, October 15, 2011

GCE A Level Exams: Pivotal period for young Singaporean students and SAF Scholar aspirants

It is hard to imagine a period more pivotal to a young Singaporean student's life than the A level examinations that will take place in the coming weeks.

For students who eye a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) scholarship, the Advanced Level General Certificate of Education examination is their make-or-break moment.

In the words of an SAF scholar who reached the rank of Brigadier-General, his A levels were the most important exam papers he took in his life.

A stellar result puts you in the queue line for a scholarship interview. Impressing the interview panel puts one on the fast track in the SAF. A high CEP and opportunities to be groomed for higher appointment are almost guaranteed so long as the young scholar doesn't flunk out of university.

So the pressure to perform can be intense for SAF scholar wannabees from the class of 2011. In the very near future, they will sit for the General Paper, a mother tongue paper, maybe a third language, four A Level subjects, possibly two Special Papers. While A level exam preparations get underway, they have to juggle leadership positions in a CCA and volunteer activities for good measure.

Add to that the ability to speak English well (I have yet to meet a Singlish-speaking SAF scholar) with poise and confidence (so as to impress the interview panel) and one can easily whittle away the vast majority of potentials to a core group of outstanding pre-university students numbering in the dozens.

Those who make it know they extend the idea sown decades ago by then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee's Project Wrangler. The project aimed to raise, train and sustain a pipeline of high achievers with the potential to be groomed as future leaders for Singapore's citizens armed forces.

By and large, Project Wrangler has been a success.

Fast forward to 2011 and the pressure felt by SAF scholar aspirants is akin to the anxiety felt by SAF Regular officers whose respective career trajectories are not in the same orbit as the scholars.

A friend who served at OPC recounted how he regularly fielded calls from concerned young officers (i.e. twenty-something SAF Captains) who asked when they would be scheduled for a certain command and staff course that was a prerequisite for higher command.

For an organisation which forces one to bear one's rank openly, the feeling of being bypassed or sidelined for promotion by young officers is a real one indeed.

A former Colonel, a scholar who was among the first batch trained by the Australian Defence Force, explained that self esteem is an intangible construct that becomes very real in a uniformed organisation. And the blow becomes more apparent the day one has to salute a higher ranked officer from one's same cohort at OCS.

Whenever I stir coffee with active or retired military personnel, I inevitably ask them two questions once a certain comfort level is reached in our conversation:
First, what made you sign on with the Service you chose?

Second, what made you leave?

Answers to the first question are as varied as the personalities I encounter. A Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) officer said it was fighters or nothing. He fulfilled his boyhood ambition when he became a fighter pilot and ended his career commanding the RSAF. An Armour officer wanted to follow the footsteps of his father, who commanded an Armour brigade, so Armour was the logical choice. The son outdid his father's military career and is now an NS BG who works for a bank.

The second question applies only to those who left the SAF before their career had run its full and theoretical lifespan. They are usually officers in their late 20s or mid 30s. Most end up in assorted careers in the private sector.

A former Armour officer, Tommie Goh, recounted how he loved the Army and even encouraged his nephew to sign on as a Regular. For Mr Goh, his eureka moment came the day his young nephew surpassed his rank and he realised the limitations of his own career runway.

Mr Goh quit the SAF to form a contract manufacturing company called JIT Holdings - supposedly for just-in-time - which I had the privilege to write about while covering the electronics and tech sector as a Business Times journalist. He is today a self-made millionaire and made his name in partnership with an SAF Armour officer who left the Army after bagging the coveted Best Armour Unit prize. They may not have stayed to see the 3G SAF realised, but their 2G set up - named after the first letter in their family name - did handsomely well.

Had Mr Goh stayed away from striking it out on his own for the security offered by an SAF career, it is unlikely he would be able to give his family the opportunities in life now open to them.

Over the years, I have heard many human interest stories from personnel from the three SAF Services to be convinced that the SAF picks its people well.

To be fair, there have been duds. These include the Andover Prize winner who had leadership issues, but by and large the SAF Officer Corps is staffed by good people. They may not be able to articulate the differences between leadership, management and command in an essay but these officers can punch above their weight class and do not drop the ball when faced with unexpected situations like SARS or the post-9/11 injects such as Ops Bascinet.

If there is one shortcoming in human capital management, it is how the system's fixation in making the scholarship programme work ends up causing collateral damage when the aspirations, feelings and rice bowls of everyone else is affected. And we haven't even started talking about the WOSE or MDES career plans.

There is an impression, even among military officers, that SAF scholars are shielded from events or projects that could stymie their careers if things don't go according to plan. A former SAF BG observed that the commanders of some of the SAF's most trying overseas operations and peace support deployments in the 1990s were non scholars who could be relied upon to deliver the goods.

This mindset may be wrong as the situation may have indeed changed today. But historical baggage from early operations lingers in many minds and continues to cloud the system.

Just as MINDEF devotes an entire department at Depot Road to nurture SAF scholars, one cannot overemphasize that late bloomers in the military are also a critical source of human capital.

They may have botched their papers in the O, A levels or even N levels, but if they shine later in life in their chosen professions, they should be allowed the latitude to expand their career horizons and grow to the best of their ability.

Indeed, many of the world's combat proven and war-winning commanders would not make the cut had they been assessed based solely on paper qualifications and criteria used to cherry pick SAF scholars. What do you think is the average A level grade for Taliban commanders, Hezbollah fighters or the Viet Cong? Can they even pass a PSLE paper? Does it matter?

There is a general feeling among the non scholars that their careers are limited by a glass ceiling, that no matter how hard they slog or how well they perform, someone else's higher CEP will always put them in the vanguard of the annual promotions list.

Even among scholars, there are the elite and the also-rans. Cream of the crop are those awarded overseas scholarships at prestigious universities. The also-rans study on home ground under the local study award.

These young officers may not sense their place in the pecking order till years later, when they enter the SAF after their studies and are cycled through a couple of ranking and banding exercises.

They will then see first hand that SAF scholars come in different calibres and that in a system of equals, some are more equal than others.

Best of luck to all A level students from the class of 2011.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Non Line-of-Sight N-LOS missile video

Worth watching.

Interesting line up of IDF UAVs, Skylark and Heron.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Exercise Wallaby 2011 airhead at Rockhampton Airport

Off to work: Apache attack helicopter Redhawk 65 from the RSAF's 120 Squadron taxis past an RSAF C-130H from 122 Squadron on Friday 7 Oct 2011. The RSAF detachment was noted practising for the First Frame for this year's Exercise Wallaby war games, held at the Australian Defence Force's Shoalwater Bay Training Area.

Dependable: RSAF C-130H 733 from 122 Squadron prepares to unload passengers and cargo at Rockhampton Airport on Friday 7 Oct 2011. Note the long-range underwing fuel tanks, essential for the long flight over the great continent. 

Australian plane spotters who happen to be at Queensland's Rockhampton Airport at the right time continue to provide firsthand reports of the airhead for the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) Exercise Wallaby land warfare manoeuvres.

The Central Queensland Plane Spotting site provides images of Republic of Singapore Air Force 122 Squadron C-130H 733 touching down at Rocky along with pictures of 120 Squadron AH-64D Apache attack helicopters preparing for the First Frame of Exercise Wallaby. Please click here for more images taken on Friday 7 October 2011.

Meanwhile, additional Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen are understood to be preparing to depart for the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) next week aboard chartered Singapore Airlines flights. It is understood that these military charters typically push back from Changi Airport Terminal 3 in the early afternoon (around 1430 Hotel, Singapore time) and arrive in Rockhampton around midnight local time.

Here are images of recent SQ charter flights seen upon arrival in Rockhampton. We thank the Australian military nuts for their vigilance. You guys might want to get those airband scanners out, mates. G'day all!

Singapore Airlines charter flight SQ 8931 (9V-SQB) arrives at Rockhampton on Sunday 25 Sep 2011.

Singapore Airlines charter flight SQ8931 (9V-SQE) unloads palletised cargo upon arrival from SIN on Tuesday 27 Sep 2011.

Singapore's 12th Parliament: Gearing up for the Defence Budget debate for Work Year 2012/13

We're just months away from learning how much Singapore will spend on defence for its 2012/13 financial year, which begins on 1 April 2012.

Defence planners now punching out the sums can expect their budget estimates to be closely scrutinised not just by noise-making netizens but also by an increasingly vocal public who will speak its mind.

This past week, we saw a parent question the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) over the $2.50 surcharge each guest had to pay for refreshments at an air force graduation parade.

Such attention is not all bad because it beats apathetic citizens with zero commitment to defence.

If the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF calibrate their defence messages astutely, questions on defence spending can do much to strengthen awareness of, appreciation for and support towards our island nation's defence needs.

This will be a tall order in 2012. Next year's defence budget is expected to crown the S$12.08 billion defence budget for FY 2011/12 and the hike in spending will come amid harsher economic conditions and increasingly likeable neighbours.

Explaining why tax payers have to cough out more for guns over butter at a time when jobs are scare and pay checks are hardly growing will be a major challenge for MINDEF/SAF. Support for a citizens armed forces from Singapore citizens and SPRs is therefore a mindset MINDEF/SAF must work hard to gain, first and foremost.

This challenge will come amid increasingly warmer ties with Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of our ASEAN neighbours. This is the second challenge for defence budget script writers because our chumminess with Malaysia, Indonesia and stronger support from powerful forces from the United States will make it tougher for MINDEF/SAF to explain big ticket purchases.

If the threat of outright invasion is remote or theoretical, why arm ourselves to the eyeballs with guns, bullets and bombs?

At the same time, calls for this island nation not to let down its guard against transnational terrorism may in turn trigger calls to scale down the SAF's conventional defence posture in favour of a purely homeland defence/counter terrorism force. It will be cheaper, less manpower intensive and more relevant to the security environment.

If this theme sounds familiar, it is because we heard the idea raised during the 2011 General Election by some Opposition candidates. Expect an encore if we experience a recession and spike our defence spending.

MINDEF's budget planners must be aware that debates in Parliament over defence spending, known formally as Committee of Supply (COS) debates, will take place in a House with an unprecedented presence from Opposition parties.

The COS statements tabled by MINDEF's three political appointees must therefore be robustly road tested before they are read out in the House to avoid being caught wrong-footed when the debate is in full play.

Defence-related public relations flops include the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA) and MINDEF's attempts at explaining the White Horse issue. That we hardly hear a squeak about the NSRA these days points to the lost opportunity at using this expensive scheme to cultivate better C2D. The NSRA is a good idea gone bad because of poor PR positioning, it has become the bastard child of defence PR that is best not talked about. What a shame.

What we are seeing these days is a concerted effort by MINDEF to showcase the new Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister of State for Defence Lawrence Wong Shyun Tsai and Senior Parliamentary Secretary Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman to citizen soldiers through the mainstream media.

They appear at every grip-and-grin photo opportunity in front of cameras and will get another PR platform at Exercise Wallaby in Australia.

Initial feedback that has trickled back to this blog from citizen soldiers who were part of the media opportunities is positive. The trio appear competent, well-briefed, able to hold their ground when meeting Operationally Ready National Servicemen (i.e. reservists) who may not have voted for the MIW in the first place.

Time will tell whether the PR coaching and behind-the-scenes TV screen tests will result in political appointees who can explain the sensitive topic of sky high defence spending in a convincing manner, not just to skeptical Singaporeans but also to neighbours who may rightly ask what all those war machines are meant for.

Defence planners who are shaping the Third Generation SAF must also ask themselves if the growth of SAF capabilities must continue on a linear basis with a newer war machine replacing an outdated weapon platform or weapon system.

Innovative solutions to defending Singapore may be a wallet-friendly alternative aside from simply renewing the SAF's arsenal when the life-of-type of weapon platforms and systems approach their respective use by dates.

When the Polish army went to war in September 1939, its cavalry regiments were acknowledged as among the best in the world. These had been developed and honed through the centuries and Polish lancers and other horse-borne soldiers were considered the apex of this capability development.

But German invaders broke tradition by investing in the panzer. Breaking the rule book on positional warfare, the German General Staff combined its panzer regiments with dive bombers, which they used as flying artillery, and airborne spotters orbiting the battlefield in prop-driven Fieseler Storch light planes whose incredible short takeoff/landing performance made them as versatile as today's helicopters.

More recently, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon have shown they do not have to match the Israeli army tank for tank to draw blood.

Hezbollah's mastery of their home ground, use of fortified primary, secondary and alternate firing positions, liberal use of guided munitions to target armoured vehicles and awareness of the limitations of omni-present Israeli UAVs (most of which scan the battlespace in black and white imagery with a limited field of view) made Hezbollah fighters credible opponents against the Israelis.

Armour deficient with no warplanes or combat helicopters and no naval combatants, Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a bloody stalemate during the Summer 2006 war.

We also have to be aware that our vigilant defence posture does not end up breaking the bank. There are indications that the United States deliberately emphasized its space defence effort, dubbed Star Wars, to lure the Soviet Union into investing in weapon development on an unsustainable basis. We could fall into a similar trap if we mindlessly raise, train and sustain a numerically superior army without backing this with a credible public position on how such forces can win a war.

The relevance of these examples to an SAF intent on growing its capabilites year-on-year is clear.

SAF equipment due for replacement include the Super Puma/Cougar medium-lift helicopters, M-113 Ultra and Bionix 1 armoured fighting vehicles and Fearless-class Patrol Vessels. Fast landing craft are also needed to ferry the SAF's third MBT type, the Leopard 2SGs.

Our wish list is long and our pockets may be deep, but our threats are difficult to see or explain without ruffling the feelings of our neighbours or alarming the populace with a seige mentality.

Therein lies the challenge for MINDEF's FY2012/13 budget planners.

Whatever the case, the COS debate next year should be a show-and-tell well worth following.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fire at 1 Pulau Bukom underlines need to protect vulnerable economic infrastructure

If it took more than 100 firefighters 32 hours to put out the industrial fire at Royal Dutch Shell's largest oil refinery on Pulau Bukom, imagine the resources needed to control a blaze initiated by hostile action.

The stubborn oil refinery blaze underlines the vulnerability of petrochemical complexes on Pulau Bukom and Jurong Island should these complexes appear on the target list of any aggressor(s).

These highly flammable facilities and the tankers that service them are the soft underbelly of Singapore's economy. Such assets cannot as yet be protected from an aggressor that takes the first shot.

Though the 32-hour fire on Pulau Bukom was put out at 9.18pm on Thursday, some 100 Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighters, 13 fire engines and 21 support vehicles remain on high alert on the island should the blaze flare up again.

During a hot war when people on mainland Singapore and offshore islands must brace themselves for enemy action, the SCDF will be hard-pressed to allocate such resources to one emergency - because there will be many conflagarations island-wide.

The insurance that comes from hardening Singapore under a Total Defence masterplan will take time to achieve.

Homes are being hardened gradually under building rules that call for all new homes to include a household shelter. But it will take several decades more before the masterplan's goal of having a household shelter in every home and work place is reached. And this assumes property developers do not attempt to skirt round this law through a liberal interpretation of building laws.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has also taken steps to protect vital infrastructure through camouflage, concealment, dispersal at its army, air and naval bases.

However, some military assets such as radars cannot be hardened. Such emitters need to scan large volumes of battlespace 24/7 to give battle managers a good sense of their battlespace. Retract these radars into hardened silos and the emitters would be shut down - thereby saving the enemy the trouble of targetting these sites in the first place. The enemy wants the SAF to fight blind.

Those of you who have endured traffic snarls along Singapore's expressways will probably agree our transport nodes are another weak link that need to be addressed.

All it takes is one fender bender to close just one lane during rush hour and traffic could be backed up several kilometres from the accident vehicles.

Expressways and arterial roads choked with bumper to bumper traffic will hamper SAF efforts at mobilising its full force potential. The vulnerability of Singapore's road network to saboteurs or conventional artillery attack should therefore be obvious to defence watchers.

Those of you who have seen a Singapore Army division on the move on mainland Singapore during war games such as Exercise Mousedeer would realise the sheer number of tracked and wheeled vehicles in the division's orbat. In any lead up to hostilities, a clear passage for SAF divisional units cannot be guaranteed especially if aggressor forces such as special forces are determined to interfere with road movements.

Singapore is a fragile nation.

The scenarios sketched out above are, however, less dire when one assesses the advantages that a nimble intelligence apparatus and defence technology can bring to the SAF.

Combat proven systems are available to alert, detect, track, target and destroy rocket artillery broadsides before damage is done.

Though arguably expensive and resource-intensive to field, such systems enhance Singapore's ability to soak up a first strike should our intelligence network and deterrence fail.

To be sure, the technology to detect and track incoming tube and rocket artillery munitions has existed for decades. Firefinder radars such as the TPQ-37 with 24 SA can already do so.

What the SAF lacked was the muscle to kill such munitions before the end of their journey.

Assuming Republic of Singapore Air Force weapons officers and specialists are not asleep at the switch, the protection afforded by quick-reaction counter fire units will negate any military advantages of firing first.

Indeed, a miscalculated first shot by any aggressor(s) would reinforce the Lion City's international position should the decision be made to defend this island with terminal intensity.

It is said that the RSAF is revamping its gun and missile-armed air defence units to ensure these units keep pace with military developments.

Older systems such as the radar-directed 35mm Oerlikon twin cannon are said to be on their last legs.

A rumoured incoming system will be a game-changer if it works as advertised.

No defence shield is 100% leak-proof. But if the effectiveness of a massed rocket artillery salvo can be blunted and backed up by a response plan to hunt and destroy not just the assets that fired those rockets but blow out the brains behind that hostile act, this plan will enhance Singapore's deterrent posture.

Steps should also be taken to explain to Singaporeans and friends abroad why the new system will be a game-changer.

For Singaporeans, the new system would represent more than just another war machine to be gawked at during an RSAF Open House. It would, for the first time, give Singapore's citizen soldiers the ability to knock down incoming rocket artillery with precision. If properly calibrated, public communication messages can shore up commitment to defence because our erstwhile vulnerability against such munitions would have been addressed.

For neighbouring countries, the new system would strengthen the security landscape because the SAF would no longer be held hostage to the need to strike first and hit pre-emptively under its rumoured drawer plans. In a period of high tension, the SAF can demonstrate maximum restraint as politicians and SAF battle managers who are aware of such a system will know the effectiveness of a surprise first strike can be negated.

As with any war machine, the introduction of a counter measure against a certain munition (counter-fire missiles versus rocket artillery) can trigger a counter-counter measure.

The SAF must therefore stay watchful of such dynamics in arms purchases, and keep its battle managers alert always.