Saturday, October 22, 2011

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.


Anonymous said...

The explanation is far from complete.

Patrick obtained not only a medical degree, but a masters and a PhD.

NSFs are enlisted and given the option of taking or leaving the Medical Officer route. They are not even aware of, let alone granted, the opportunity for further disruption. If not for Patrick Tan, none of us would even be aware of the possibility at all.

Anonymous said...

9 years in Harvard + Stamford. What about to the 3 yrs - AWOL?
So was he the first and only one with the longest 12yrs?
So a future name list is evidence there is no whitehorse treatment?

That's like MHO saying we will release the names and list of gifts that our Embassadors & Foreign Dignitaries receive just to prove that there is no evidence of corruption. How hard is that?

Anonymous said...

What's the use of a name list if it's not accompanied with the reason for and period of deferment for each deferment granted?