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.


Anonymous said...

a long-time ex-defence reporter of a S'pore newspaper who joined a big m'sian company. one wonders whose side you are on now ....

Anonymous said...

Above comment is childish. Three words: Judge For Yourself.

Callsign 24 S said...

I am one of those know David, definitely Singaporean at heart.

C/S 24S