Saturday, March 31, 2012

Decisive victors: A primer on the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (3G SAF)

Even if you’re not old enough to recall the time when SAF 2000 was a just paper plan, a comparison between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) orbat from the 1990s and today will show that SAF 2000 authors have successfully pushed concept to reality.

With major elements of the Third Generation SAF ready for combat operations or approaching full operational capability, Singaporeans who are part of the SAF - our regulars, Operationally Ready National Servicemen, current and future full-time NSmen (NSFs) - must recognise there is no end point to this drive to be “3G”. Warfighters who serve the 3G SAF must therefore continue the process of continuous transformation needed to give the SAF a decisive edge, that cannot be achieved with numbers, during operations. But more on this later. 

A 3G SAF Primer
In Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF shorthand, the Third Generation SAF is commonly referred to as the 3G SAF. 

Because it was introduced around the time when 3G handsets started appearing on the market, it is common for people - even those in MINDEF/SAF - to think it was borrowed or inspired by the mobile telephony industry. This is not the case.

The context for the Third Generation SAF was meant to contrast it with two earlier phases of the SAF's development. By using this tagline with the word "transformation", it promoted the idea of an SAF on the cusps of a paradigm shift in the way it would conduct its business.

The first generation SAF started with the rapid build-up of the SAF following independence in 1965, when we needed to rapidly build-up a self-defence capability. The fledgling SAF had neither professional expertise nor funding to raise, train and sustain expensive and sophisticated systems. So we bought a lot of things second-hand. Nor did we have in any case the experience to know what we needed. The army's AMX-13 light tanks, air force Hunters, A-4 Skyhawks and Bloodhound long-range SAMs, and our navy's tank landing ships are examples of second-hand equipment acquired during the build-up. This phase lasted till the mid-80s.

The second generation SAF (or 2G SAF, if you will) characterised the period from the mid-80s till the end of the century. It was a phase in which we upgraded our capability by acquiring new and sophisticated systems, and upgrading existing systems (because by then, we had the expertise). Home-grown defence modernisation projects that turned the AMX-13 light tank into the SM1, RSAF F-5E/F fighter jets into the F-5S/T and the renovation of the navy's Missile Gunboats reflect the effort to introduce cost-effective upgrades to ageing defence equipment.

It was also a time when Singaporean defence planners gained a deeper appreciation of the need for free and unimpeded access to the sea lanes. Our navy, long neglected as the weakest of the three SAF Services, received closer attention and funding. New acquisitions served as a springboard which helped the RSN cut its teeth in fighting a multi-dimensional war at sea with its officers and men conducting surface, sub-surface, anti-air and electronic warfare simultaneously, in concert with other members of their task group and also with RSAF air assets. The project name was fitting indeed, if you know what I mean.

At the same time, the 2G SAF marked the period when the SAF started introducing Combined Arms Divisions and thinking "Joint". NSmen who served during the late 1980s and 1990s would recall that Army war games became increasingly complex. Large-scale, two-sided encounters such as Exercise Golden Sands, High Noon and Ulysses reflect the Singapore Army's push towards engaging the Enemy at a higher tempo of integrated warfare with concentrated violence wielding the full weight of warfighting resources not just within a CAD but that of SAF Services. 

The wraps came off RSAF 128 Squadron, then a hush-hush unmanned aerial vehicle unit, when it was sent to Australia to support Army exercises there. In years that followed, Army commanders considered the provision of UAV coverage over their area of operations not just a novelty, but an operational necessity. Having been convinced what persistent awareness can achieve, few 3G SAF Army commanders would want to go into operations without UAVs helping to watch over their AO.

Increasing awareness of the electromagnetic battlefield saw our air force raise the number of its TA-4SU Super Skyhawks not for training pilots, mind you, but for a combat mission requiring a back-seater that is still not talked about. Had they gone into action, I have little doubt their appearance over the battlefield would have stunned observers and they would have taken out the eyes and ears of the Enemy with relentless precision. To those who served, thank you.

MINDEF/SAF, too, had grounds for confidence in our air force. By then, RSAF CONUS detachments had joined other air forces in United States Air Force war readiness exercises codenamed Green Flag.

Former Chief of Air Force, Brigadier General Michael Teo, told the men and women of Team RSAF in his farewell speech to them on 12 August 1992:"If the button is pushed today, I am confident that the RSAF will, like a firestorm, unleash its full fury and visit destruction upon the Enemy. My confidence in you is total, our mission is clear. We will swiftly and decisively dominate the sky and gain air superiority. We will participate with the Army and Navy in the winning of the land and sea battles."

But it was still a numbers game. The third generation started when the idea of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) gained traction among thinkers of military strategy overseas. But it is continuous transformation that makes the 3G SAF different from the RMA, which is an end point in the way you think about organising the military, using C3I as a force multiplier.

As stated before, the 3G SAF has no end point and is a continuous transformation. This transformation has achieved much in terms of military hardware, command relationships within and between various formations in the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Air Force and Republic of Singapore Navy, as well as terms and conditions for SAF personnel. Basics like the Number 4 uniform, rank structure and quality of duty meals have all changed. A teenager enlisting with the 3G SAF joins a vastly improved war machine from NSFs who served Singapore's citizens' army just a decade ago. 

Understanding 3G's call for continuous transformation
The downside of catchy taglines is this: They become dated after being reused year after year.

Once “3G” becomes yesterday’s story, it will be an uphill struggle for Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF publicists to portray the SAF as a fighting force to be reckoned with. How can a 3G war machine be the one to bet on when someone else boasts of capabilities of 4G or better? 

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF has always talked about its modernization effort as a journey, not a destination. This means the SAF does not transform into a 3G war machine the moment new hardware is introduced.
The SAF’s transformation is a continuous learning journey with adjustments and improvements made to Singapore’s citizens’ armed forces in terms of its people, warfighting concepts and military technology. 

"Continuous" means there is no end point. The notion of "transformation" means more than simply introducing innovations to the war we fight. A 3G SAF is, therefore, a fighting force in perpetual motion, experimenting with new battle concepts and military technology and transforming constantly. MINDEF/SAF PR material should continue sharing the original thinking behind the 3G SAF moniker, particularly with fresh enlistees who are none the wiser. The preservation of institutional memory is even more critical as many authors who laid the groundwork for SAF 2000 and the 3G SAF effort have either left the armed Services or have retired.

As with every kinetic movement, an ops pause is necessary now and again for people to catch their breath, to reflect and reconsider if the actions executed were good ideas to begin with. Otherwise our people may end up running in all directions for the sake of being seen to be doing something. Some officers confuse 3G with "unmanned" and believe they have attained the magic quality just by rolling out some remote-controlled gadget during a field exercise.

Future Systems Directorate
Enter the Future Systems Directorate, set up to support this process of continuous transformation by serving as an ideas sanctuary where Singapore's military minds can try and fail within a permissive learning environment.

The growing number of enlistees who are educated beyond polytechnic level (>60% of all enlistees) means the SAF is constantly refreshed with NSFs who have little or no problem assimilating warfighting technology introduced by the 3G SAF. 

For example, NSF section commanders entrusted with the "call for fire" function have little problem learning how to use the hand-held ACMS keypad, having grown up sending SMSes at a rapid-fire pace during their student days. The Battlefield Management System installed in armoured vehicles has a live chat function that allows secure, real-time transmission of messages typed between operators in AFVs - again, a function familiar with the Internet generation who can handle multiple chat windows with aplomb. 

As NSFs complete their two years full-time service and move to NS battalions, the SAF would benefit from having its NSmen share best practices from the private sector. Managed astutely, contributions from citizen soldiers are a powerful asset as modern battles become more wired and are fought/loss at a faster tempo. 

Armed forces with an all-regular force whose lower ranks are made up mainly of poorly-educated soldiers may find it harder improving their battle sense using advanced sensors such as unmanned ground sensors or unmanned aerial vehicles. Such forces tend to be saddled with institutional inertia as their headcount is relatively static and refreshed incrementally when old soldiers retire and are backfilled by new recruits. 

Those who know where the 3G SAF is headed do not worry about the tagline so long as the organisational culture of the SAF is embedded with the spirit of continuous transformation. But attention should be devoted to ensuring new recruits understand, appreciate and practice the 3G mindset. As even SAF regulars would have a problem writing an essay explaining the 3G SAF, we need to help our NSFs get a headstart with the transformation effort. Active intervention during their secondary school days is a good start.

In this regard, the SAF's move to build mindshare by adopting schools close to military camps and interacting with students through visits, exhibitions and talks is commendable. It creates an early touchpoint where teenagers clueless about the SAF can get an early induction into our armed forces. 

Impact of defence manpower on defence planning 
The drive to build a 3G SAF is critical because manpower dynamics will lead to a smaller SAF once the full impact of shrinking birth rates is fully felt about a decade from now. SAF planners looking at 2011's birth statistics have an 18-year lead time to plan for and accommodate the NSF cohort born last year. Taking into account leakage from emigration and childhood mortality (both of which can be estimated), SAF planners would have a good idea how many SAF11Bs will be issued when the cohort of babies born in a particular year reach enlistment age. The outlook is not promising. 

Unless the SAF learns to harness technology to make up for smaller NSF intakes, the SAF orbat may be left with undermanned battalions. The impact this will have on the SAF's defence readiness should be obvious to everyone. 

When MINDEF/SAF publicised the then-new FH-88 155mm gun howitzer's gun crew needed about four gunners less than the M-68 155mm gun it replaced, it reinforced MINDEF/SAF's commitment to fielding hardware with lower manning demands. You can better appreciate how a single gun with a smaller gun crew benefits the SAF when moving from battery level (six guns) to battalion level to the Singapore Artillery as a combat formation. Defence manpower savings are sizeable, especially when the whole of SAF sets its sights on war machines with lower manning levels that can outperform the platforms being replaced. 

If lower birth rates are a reality, the long lead-time needed to source for, acquire and introduce new weapon platforms and systems is another impediment to change. 

It can take years before a new war machine attains full operational capability with any armed forces. To be sure, the process of buying and unveiling a new tank/jet fighter/warship can be done as soon as the cheque clears and the new war machine is painted in your colour of choice. But integrating the new piece of kit as a fully combat capable war machine will take much longer. 

The long lead-time needed to reshape any fighting organisation underlines the relevance of the 3G SAF's learning culture. There are cynics who poke fun at the SAF and those who want nothing more than to serve and forget. 

But defence professionals whose duty, training and instinct is to make a clinical assessment of the fighting capabilities of a force for war have remarked to me on many occasions how impressed they have been with the SAF as a adaptive, potent and operationally ready military organisation. 

To be sure, the SAF has walked into blind alleys. And cynics have constantly mouthed the Singaporean military's lack of real world combat experience as a comeback line to poke fun at the SAF. NSmen are among the biggest culprits. Who does not enjoy a lark about NS life? The taller the tale, the more laughs it generates. Even among strangers at a dining table (business lunch or wedding dinner), the question "Where did you serve your NS?" is an instant and fail-safe conversation starter. 

Publicising the 3G SAF 
Stories of yesteryear tried hard to describe the transformation effort as a continuous learning journey. In many respects, this gradual shift in nuacing newspaper stories from SAF 2000 as a concept, to military experiments to new platforms and systems has helped defence observers see how the SAF has transformed itself. 

But there’s a curious tendency to assume that military experimentation comes to a halt the moment a 3G element is introduced. An SAF officer in charge of PR told me years ago stories on the 3G SAF would move away from reporting on experiments to showing how systems being experimented on had been operationalised. In my opinion, this mindset was a mistake.

This could explain why we hardly read about military experiments these days. When was the last time you read about the Future Systems Directorate? Many Singaporeans should be reminded about its important mission. Such tinkering with war machines, the commitment to military experimentation ought to continue with undiminished vigour, intellectual rigour and tolerance for failure.

Some of the celebrated examples of military engineering were not designed for the role they excelled in. This includes Germany’s 8.8cm anti-aircraft gun, whose high muzzle velocity turned out to be ideal for killing tanks. The first tank landing ships deployed for amphibious landings during WW2 were converted from oil tanker hulls. And the Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber would never have made a name for itself as a long-range bomber had the twin-engine Manchester not been redesigned as a strategic bomber with four engines and a heavier bombload.

Singaporean defence engineers have also made modest contributions to the field of military engineering.

Republic of Singapore Air Force Hawker Hunters day fighters were reconfigured in the 1980s as a ground-attack aircraft and were the only Hunters in the world with a centerline weapons hardpoint to carry bombs or rocket pods. Several Hunters were unique, being the only ones with a special sensor package for a reconnaissance role.

Naval engineers upgraded the RSN's 45-metre missile gunboats to carry Gabriel and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The missile craft were configured to give maximum flexibility in the warload depending on the mission requirement. Each MGB could carry up to four Gabriels, which were guided by an optical sight after launch, and up to eight Harpoons, which could hit targets beyond the horizon. Gabriel missiles were retained even after the Harpoons were acquired. However, the heavier triple cell trainable launcher was discarded in favour of single cell missile pods which flanked the enlarged superstructure on upgraded MGBs. This allowed the Singapore Navy's missile craft to target and engage the Enemy in congested waters more effectively than the Harpoons which were designed for open water operations rather than fire missions in littoral waters dotted with islands and friend/neutral shipping.

For Singapore’s land forces, improvements made to the AMX-13 light tanks gave them the ability to kill T-72 main battle tanks, thanks to a special armour-piercing munition developed by local engineers.

The common thread between the examples cited above is the fact that all the war machines have been retired. The stories can therefore be shared without compromising operational security.

To those who know, many more examples abound in the 3G SAF. The SAF therefore presents a fascinating study of how a small country with limited industrial potential can adapt, modify and upgrade war machines to suit the specific operational requirements of its land, air, sea and intelligence forces.

As the 3G SAF gains traction, publicising such stories would recognise SAF personnel for their service and dedication, reassure heartlanders and Singapore's friends. It would send a clear signal that the SAF is a force to be reckoned with and sharpen the 3G SAF's deterrent edge as a force for war, determined to fight and achieve a swift and decisive victory. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa

Outgoing SMRT boss Saw Phaik Hwa fielded questions on crisis comms issues with this blog in January 2012, soon after she made headlines with her decision to step down as chief executive officer (CEO) of the rail and bus operator.

Though I do not know her personally and never interviewed her during my time with the 90 cents newspaper, someone who read a blog entry (click here) about SMRT's crisis communications posture suggested I approach Ms Saw for her point of view.

I thank this reader for her suggestion. It led to an interesting interview with Ms Saw, who reflected on the crisis comms issues you see below. Sensitive aspects of the SMRT system outage were not disclosed or discussed during the discussion which stretched past 90 minutes.

I appreciate Ms Saw's candour during the informal chat. It wasn't an interrogation but I tried to make the most of the opportunity by being thorough. Questions posed were things on the minds of commuters and netizens. Her replies were no PR smokescreen and, in my opinion, non-evasive. The background to certain situations was explained and this helped with the appreciation of situation.

Read more about Ms Saw's experience with SMRT in her blog here.

Signature management for senior management
Why did you think of the picture of you dressed carried by half naked men?
The D&D held at RWS had a fancy dress theme. SMRT’s CEO came dressed as an Egyptian queen. Ms Saw said:“They asked if I would mind if we carry you in. I didn’t know they were bare bodied. The guys were wearing T-shirts at first but took them off just before entering the ballroom. I was a bit embarrassed but as it wasn’t obscene, I allowed them to carry on.”

Bottomline: At all times, be mindful of how senior management is portrayed.

Compare this episode with the flak directed at United Overseas Bank in February'12 after some of its bank staff attended a Bollywood-themed fancy dress party with blackened faces. Always think a few bounds ahead to assess how your stakeholders or people in general may view such fun and games. When in doubt, drop the idea.

How was the photo released? Was it an inside job?
The SMRT D&D was organized by Fly Entertainment, a company owned by local actress Irene Ang. Fly Entertainment in turn subcontracted the entertainment to another vendor. The picture of SMRT’s CEO was posted on the subcontractor’s webpage as part of its portfolio of projects. It was picked up by netizens after the SMRT breakdown and went viral.

The image was grafted to various backgrounds to produce amusing storyboards that made light of a serious situation.

Bottomline: Check and enforce Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) thoroughly. Never allow third parties to damage your company’s image.

Why did you say “People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.”?

This quote was made during a conversation with a journalist three years ago. The journalist said trains were getting crowded and she could not board one even at 9am. Ms Saw disagreed as 9am was after the office hour peak and this was for passenger traffic three years ago, not with today’s passenger loads which increased after the influx of foreign talent.

Ms Saw explained:“I said: 'Cannot board at 9am? How can that be? You can choose to board if you want to.' ”

The published quote appeared as: “People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.”

The context of the quote was not reported. The quote attributed to the CEO made it appear this observation applied to peak hour trains.

Alas, there was no Wish B - What It Should Have Been - the correction dreaded by 90 cents newspaper journalists. Since that interview, this line has been used as a catchphrase for corporate insensitivity and lack of touch with the actual ground situation.

I'm not sure what the Wish B protocol is like now. Before I left the paper in early 2008, any scribe who was slapped with more than three Wish Bs in one calendar year would lose his/her bonus. Specifically, the Merit Variable Amount or MVA. They would still earn their Group Variable bonus or GVA.

Bottomline: Record all interviews. Ask the media for an immediate correction if you feel you have been misquoted.

You may also like to read:
1. Rail security matters for Singapore: Questions to mull over. Click here.
2. A rail security threat. Click here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

More than meets the eye?

The Straits Times, Monday 12 March 2012

One of the two stories you see above triggered a series of questions from friends and contacts who wanted to know if there was more than meets the eye. Can you guess which story it was?

The story that Singapore Army Chief Guards Officer, Colonel Nelson Yau, had tendered his resignation for "personal reasons" sent conspiracy theorists into overdrive guessing why he had done so. 

This story first broke in a Chinese language newspaper and was quickly picked up by other Singaporean newspapers. As the sked for Monday's edition of the 90 cents newspaper is usually bone dry, it's no surprise that this story - repackaged with a whiff of whodunit - made it to the Prime 3 slot in Montimes.

Whether such a story deserves such prominent play in Singapore's main English language broadsheet would be a nice topic to get mass communications students thinking about editorial judgement.(For the record, I think the prominence is fine because he is believed to be the first NDP Chairman to drop out before the show.)

COL Yau is, afterall, relatively unknown outside military circles. Had he stuck to his guns, his chairmanship of this year's National Day Parade Executive Committee (NDP EXCO) would probably propel him to media prominence once the NDP publicity plan cranks into action later this year. Chairman EXCO is usually the talking head for major NDP press conferences that introduce the theme and show concept for Singapore's birthday celebrations.

MINDEF's media relations drawer plan
From an information management standpoint, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) statement on the colonel's resignation was a textbook example of how a government ministry deals with media queries on a subject outside its publicity plan. It was brief, respected the individual's privacy by going straight to the point and gave little away that could help a journalist armed with sparse facts from writing an expose.

In the pre-Internet era, such a response - in this case cobbled together over the weekend - would have served admirably well. Alas, the game has changed.

Today's news junkies abhor a vacuum. By sticking to a outdated tried-and-tested formula, MINDEF essentially surrendered the initiative in info management.

Coming close on the heels of high-profile departures from the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Central Narcotics Bureau, it was natural - indeed expected - that netizens would think there is more to the story than MINDEF was prepared to say.

If there was nothing sinister behind COL Yau's departure, MINDEF should have been more affirmative in its media lines.

This would have shot down many theories before they could have taken wing.

Newshounds on the hunt
Looking at the informal queries directed to this blog on Monday from two newspapers, several PR professionals and a smattering of nosey defence-minded individuals, one can sense that newshounds are hungry to pick up the scent of scandal.

Collateral damage from this media lesson will be exacted when COL Yau's family members have to deal with pointblank questions and curved balls from friends and frenemies hungry for the same. They could have been spared the experience had a clear, unambiguous response told people what they deserve to know.

With official guidance absent, everything from a terminal illness, political ambition to office hanky panky were pinned on the man. At times, one wondered if netizens were talking about the same person, so varied and conflicting were the theories that floated in cyberspace.

To be sure, there was this senior SAF officer (I must stress: Not EXCO Chairman) who appeared to forget his wedding vows and strayed from the straight and narrow during a NDP in recent years. His dalliance with a MINDEF officer from one of my favourite departments became the talk of the Army and his professional reputation was torn apart way before he got his family life back on track.

With this background in mind and with the MHA resignations still fresh in the public's awareness, one cannot be surprised at the intensity of investigative journalism seen in the past couple of days.

Had MINDEF's cookie cutter response been made at any other time, it may have escaped the gaze of netizens. But you must understand the context to see why the story roused the gossips the way it did.

Given time and the small footprint of Singapore's labour market, senior SAF officers cannot lie low for long.

If COL Yau is happy to have his loved ones weather all sorts of conspiracy theories, then so be it.

But a media interview during the Guards Formation change of command parade would end this drawn out fencing match with journalists, many of whom are hard-wired never to give up the chase.

These scribes are cheered on by readers who expect nothing less than the full story when they crack open the newspaper every morning.

Asked why he is following the story, one PR professional who is an NSman officer said: "I love dirt on army pple."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

45 Years of National Service: The stories we share

With more than 700,000 Singaporeans having served National Service (NS) since 1967, the folks organising this year's celebrations to mark 45 years of NS will not be short of story tellers.

It remains to be seen, though, whether they will embrace diversity by sharing reflections from NSmen ranging from stories worthy of publication in official channels (i.e. PIONEER magazine, Air Force/Army/Navy news) and the mainstream media to horror stories at the other end of the spectrum.

NS45 activities
As we reflect on our past and swap stories from our collective memory, NS45 activities must be grounded in answering the very basic question enlistees from all generations will ask: Why do we serve?

It is all well and good to roll out the newest and deadliest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) war machines to demonstrate the firepower that backs Singapore's deterrent edge.

It is comforting to showcase how living conditions, training and allowances for full-time NSmen have improved from days of yesteryear (I drew just $135/month as a recruit).

And the nostalgia rush that comes from displaying items that the first batches of NSFs will instantly recognise (be it a helmet, old uniforms or a complete recruit's bunk) seldom fails to rekindle deep-rooted memories.

But all these bits and pieces must, first and foremost, contribute to a better appreciation for and acceptance of  NS as being central to our island nation's defence.

If this could be achieved with a mere slogan, I bet some public relations guru would have done so already. Despite their high asking fee (TD campaigns cost more than $100,000 of tax money to publicise), no slogan is sufficiently persuasive.

No speech however cleverly written or passionately delivered (and let us be frank, our politicians are no Obama), no single NS45 exhibit and no event can single-handedly trigger that Eureka moment that will make Singaporeans realise how different our lives might be without NS.

Shaping perceptions and attitudes will take the combined strength of all NS45 activities to achieve. It is, to use Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF lingo, an integrated operation that should draw upon the combined resources of all NS45 activities.

Done this way, NSmen who are not wordsmiths need not feel left out by the call for NS stories.

And when stories do trickle in, please share with Singaporeans NS recollections that range from the good to the not-so-flattering. Credibility is lost when a compendium of NS tales (whether print or online) takes an editorial stance that looks suspiciously like the Pravda stylebook, with token stories of negative NS experiences thrown in for the sake of "balance".

Civilians who can't appreciate the difference between firepower from an SM1 light tank or Leopard 2SG main battle tank should at the very least walk away with a deeper appreciation that the SAF is a full spectrum force. Do this by showing the visitor more exhibits that he/she has time for. If the visitor's eye can soak in a field of combat arms as far as the eye can see, even civilians unfamiliar with the military art will realise the SAF has many moving parts for many missions. Theme parks do this all the time by giving visitors a slew of rides (roller coasters, flume rides etc), shows (special effects shows, 4D shows, street parades), retail stores and F&B outlets that tell the visitor the price of an admission ticket gets you something for everything (i.e. full spectrum).

The defence burden
The need for NS and a strong national defence are not one and the same thing. We can have the latter without the former. It is a question of whether our economy can take the strain of maintaining an all-volunteer force in the numbers needed for the SAF to achieve its wartime mission. And if NSFs swear by oath to protect Singapore with their lives, isn't it high time that mission is better explained?

In the light of changing attitudes towards NS in other countries that practice conscription, some Singaporeans have asked why sons of Singapore must still serve. The alternative to NS: Maintaining a powerful air force and an enlarged navy to protect our trade lanes at sea, plus a core of all-regular army warfighters for homeland defence and counter terrorism missions is a paper plan that has found some proponents. This idea will gain traction and some day, Singaporeans may ask if it's time to slaughter the sacred cow (i.e. NS).

Any NS45 event also carries the risk it will become a lightning rod for a wider range of social woes. This means NS45 organisers have to steel themselves to deal with any public relations backlash for decisions way above their pay grade. For example, resentment felt by heartlanders towards the rapid pace of immigration in recent years is very real. Combine such simmering unhappiness with sacrifices Singaporean families have to bear for supporting NS and the feel good sentiments any NS45 event is intended to generate may be overturned by the syndicate of discontent.

To be sure, NS has been a life changing experience for almost all enlistees. You cannot ask a teenager for two years of his life (2.5 years during my time) without leaving an impression on the youngster.

On SAF Day last year, I sat in a Temasek Polytechnic lecture theatre listening to a former NSF relate how his assignment to the 1st Military Intelligence (1MI) battalion proved a turning point for this self-confessed one-time overweight slacker. Such heart-warming stories abound, despite the stinging cynicism that we Singaporeans love to heap on NS and the exhortation for us to serve and forget.

Recognise contributions from SCDF and SPF NSFs
And even as the NS45 committee uses the NS anniversary year to feed us all sorts of National Education messages, the SAF should not overshadow contributions of NSFs assigned to the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force. As things stand, the slew of activities look heavily weighted towards the SAF. Just look at the NS45 website's landing page to see how SAF-centric it is. This signature may not be a good thing as you will alienate the large number of SCDF and police force NSFs.

The 45th year of NS is a timely milestone for Singaporeans to ponder what NS is all about and why we need to serve. One would hope such soul searching strengthens commitment to defence.

Winning the tussle for hearts and minds is never easy. But the NS45 folks could make their task smoother by getting the basics right: Why bother inviting NSmen to pen their thoughts or share their pictures online when a netizen who has dutifully filled in all the requisite fields in the submission form and painstakingly typed out his story finds there is no "submit" button? 3rd Gen info ops? Tsk, not yet. Maybe at NS90....

Friday, March 9, 2012

Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko's super yacht A makes Singapore port call

Wow moment: Super yacht "A" was berthed across from my workplace on Sentosa and I just had to take a closer look. I first saw her stern on and wondered what on earth it was. It was worth the walk from HarbourFront as this vessel is an amazing piece of naval architecture.

Some sea sights are well worth a second look - like this unusual looking super yacht that sailed into Singapore waters earlier this week. Named simply "A", she's a floating fortune and is said to be one of the world's most expensive private yachts worth more than US$300 million.

Exuding class and presence even when not moving, warship buffs would notice more than passing similarities between this nautical beauty and the United States Navy's upcoming Zumwalt-class destroyers.

Artist impression of a Zumwalt-class destroyer

According to Google, super yacht A is owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko who built his fortune in energy and banking. Off duty crew lurking pierside were tight-lipped but polite and said nothing.

His bank account apparently paid for a yacht with a futuristic design like no other afloat. At 119 metres long, super yacht A is longer than the Singapore Navy's Formidable-class stealth frigates (114 m). Her wave-piercing bow harks back to the bow design of World War One dreadnoughts. The sleek yacht is more than a showpiece. Her powerful engines push her through the water at a cool 24 knots and she's said to have three 10m long fast craft that can be deployed from a stern hatch.

The single blockhouse superstructure, gently angled sides, clean deck and hull design with a lack of protuberances make her a head-turner.

Painted haze grey, super yacht A would probably make most navies blush with pride.

If only our warships could look as cool as this.

Name: A (yes, just a single letter)
Owner: Andrey Melnichenko
Builder: Blohm und Voss, Germany
Crew: 37
Length: 119m
Top speed: 24 knots
Range: 6,500 nm

Fast Facts:
* "A" is said to be named after the billionaire's initials and those of his wife, Aleksandra
* Her radical design has generated waves of love-it-or-hate-it comments on yachting forums
* Her bow is said to be designed to cut through ice sheets

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Committee of Supply Head J - The upcoming debate on budget estimates for the Ministry of Defence

For the past few years, the debate by Singaporean parliamentarians on the defence budget has been built around three key themes:
* Strengthening Commitment to Defence, also known as C2D in Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) shorthand
* Building defence relations
* Enhancing deterrence by highlighting the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) technological edge, operational readiness and the exposure of defence manpower to combat environments through overseas deployments.

The messaging this year is unlikely to sway far from these themes.

The announcement on 17 February that some S$12.3 billion has been proposed for MINDEF's war chest (up 4 per cent from Work Year 2011/12) means defence spending will continue accounting for the biggest share of Singapore's national budget. MINDEF has commanded the largest chunk of the budget for so long that the size of its war chest no longer raises eyebrows or stokes comments from Singaporeans.

This is a pity. Such apathy is an indication that Singaporeans, by and large, do not care about the amount of national resources poured into defence annually or whether such money could be more meaningfully spent on other causes like healthcare or education. It may also be reflective of the futility debating such issues because Singaporeans can sense the budget is a done deal with the question and answer session for MINDEF's budget estimate, grouped under Head J of the Committee of Supply, somewhat of a formality. There are numerous instances where Singaporeans have learned about the SAF's latest purchases not from Parliament (or even Pioneer magazine), but from a foreign defence magazine.

Even among defence-aware netizens, nobody seems to care anymore. Page views for a thread on the defence budget for Work Year 2012/13 on, a site for Singaporean defence enthusiasts, has failed to creep past 500 views (474 views as of today) ever since news of the budget estimates were announced.

Such malaise indicates the fragility of this magic, sought-after frame of mind called C2D - that touchy feely mindset that cannot be measured simply by trotting out survey statistics from a hand-picked audience.

When all it takes to agitate citizen soldiers is an unsubstantiated post on an SAF training incident, one can sense that C2D sits on tender ground. Discontented, disengaged and cynical voices will continue to grow until and unless public relations messages can be crafted to better connect with the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

Danger areas during the debate for Head J include:
1. Overstating the value of SAF overseas deployments.
When certain SAF officers from the overseas missions alumni are said to have argued over which deployment was more challenging or risky, you know you have an image problem that is waiting to explode.

Let us be frank: SAF personnel sent overseas shoulder risk adapting to a new climate and demanding operational tempo. Those who have gone to Afghanistan put themselves in the line of fire because their camps sit in the impact zone of insurgent tube or rocket artillery fire.

But our boots on the ground in places like Afghanistan serve mainly behind-the-wire in combat support functions. The risks are real but overstating the SAF's takeaways from overseas deployments carries the danger that we may become victims of our own propaganda.

Self glorification, gaining bragging rights that "I was there", winning medals for what other military forces would consider safer missions are leading indicators that the warfighter picked the wrong reason to join an overseas deployment. At best, he/she comes home with war stories which can keep an audience mesmerised.

One a bigger scale, however, the value of such deployments must be carefully calibrated so that the SAF does not walk away with an inflated sense of achievement.

2. Taking Singaporeans for granted
As 2012 marks the 45th year of National Service (NS), it is likely that the contributions of Operationally Ready National Servicemen (NSmen, also known as reservists in other countries) will soon make it to the Hansard as parliamentarians sing praises for NSmen.

But as the flak that the National Service Recognition Award (NSRA) generated clearly showed, good intentions are subjective. (Please click here for a previous post on the NSRA)

The longevity of Singapore's NS system is both a strength and a weakness. It bonds generations of Singaporeans with a shared experience (i.e. NS) that families of various races, languages and religions can readily identify with. This feeling of togetherness is a plus point that National Education officers have sought time and again to exploit promote.

The weakness comes from the perception that some foreign talent (FT) are taking Singaporeans for a ride by sniffing out every and any opportunity to skirt, elude or cheat the NS system. This is a flashpoint that needs little to ignite because the pace of immigration in recent years has taxed the patience of Singaporeans who have borne the defence burden for the past 45 years.

One would hope that MINDEF's spin doctors have advised their masters to pick their words carefully. Anecdotes and examples shared in Parliament should be put through a sanity check to spare MINDEF from dealing with PR gaffes that could upset the ministry's best intentions at crediting NSmen for their contributions to Singapore's security.

3. Choosing poster boys who are not reflective of the mainstream NS family
Those of you who follow Singapore's defence scene might recall reading about so-and-so who decided to extend his full-time National Service stint or the NSman who put in extra years of service long after his obligations were done. Don't get me wrong: The efforts of such individuals are praise-worthy.

But here's the rub: In my opinion, some of the individuals showcased did the extraordinary not for nation but for self. It may be the chance to sit on an aeroplane for an overseas trip to attend a war game. For a teenage soldier who has nothing on the immediate horizon in terms of career or academic development, this is a chance of a lifetime not to be missed as the trip is paid by tax payers. In my opinion, some individuals paraded to the media on previous occasions had a nice carrot that incentivised them to stay with the SAF - an overseas trip or, in the case of higher ranking NSmen, perhaps another command appointment.

MINDEF must be careful not to make the SAF the butt of jokes by citizen soldiers who, having been through the system themselves, can sense the real reason that motivated an extension of NS.

Among the many hazards MINDEF/SAF has to watch out for, the cynicism of Singaporeans once they go on the war path is perhaps the hardest to defend against.