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.


Anonymous said...

After seeing the latest Army TVC, this article is a timely reminder about overstating its overseas deployment esp for Afghanistan. Maybe if SAF wants to up its game, it should consider supporting the Brits at Camp Bastion the next round

Anonymous said...

Yes, all these people who extend services are widely mocked.

Anonymous said...

If they are mocked, then it is a reflection of the shallow mentality pervading society, who does not have the ability to respect an individual's choice for what it is.

Kudos to those who lengthen their service, because not many of us might be willing. But have the decency to respect those who want to keep on going.

Anonymous said...

I hear that going on overseas deployment has become a routine part of the KPIs for regular servicemen (gotta clock one just to get promoted), which leads one to wonder how many would actually want to go if the deployment was actually dangerous (in a hot zone) or involved significant hardship (in a FOB with less cushier living conditions)?

Anonymous said...

I witnessed how the Commandos had their ORD LEAVE forcibly burnt for the NDP of 2006. They were paid for the leave at the same NSF allowance rate. One wonders if their ORD date was forcibly extended as well.

When it comes to events like this, one wonders if the soldiers volunteered or were voluntold.

Anonymous said...

As it is, deployment to Djibouti or Afghanistan is safer than taking a run on Tekong, going for a navex in Ama Keng or rappelling from a helicopter right here in Singapore.