Saturday, June 2, 2012

Time to ditch the template reporting for the Shangri-La Dialogue

Although military types and bureaucrats are known to love crunching long names into acronyms, it would take a brave soul indeed to contract Asia Security Summit into a three-letter term and use this liberally in his/her contact reports.

Yes, the annual Asia Security Summit, better known as The Shangri-La Dialogue, is back in Singapore for its 11th edition.

The event, organised by London-based think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), owes its success to the name list of delegates who make time from fighting wars, deterring aggression or handling in-country security issues to sit down and meet their counterparts in the Lion City for three days of intense deliberations.

Increased security island-wide
Residents in Singapore who live around key Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) air bases may note higher air activity this weekend. And people who happen to be in the vicinity of the Shangri-La hotel, which lends its name to the summit which ends tomorrow, will find the heightened security presence in the area hard to miss.

The same cannot be said of media coverage by Singaporean papers.

A landmark speech by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono looks almost like a filler though it occupies prime space on pages 2 and 3. No picture. Straight reporting, cut and paste paras with no space for nutgraphs that give the reader value-added background to the event. It was a speech readers could have lapped up the night before on the Internet, for free.

This is the Indonesian President's first showing at the event as head of state of the world's fifth most populous nation and the Southeast Asian nation that sits astride major sea shipping lanes such as the Malacca Strait and Sunda Strait. Through these sea lanes pass some two thirds of the world's cargo and half its oil and a large volume of its natural gas. President Susilo is here because he accepted an invitation from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to deliver the keynote speech to an audience which counts the world's most powerfully-armed nations.

And the fact that the presence of heads of state, defence ministers and military chiefs contributes to valuable bilateral meetings is lost when this isn't pointed out to readers. For example, the Page 2/3 story on the Indonesian President's speech could have informed readers of a related story on Home B20 on closer defence relations (CDR) between Australia and Singapore. Done this way, it would underline the fact that the Shangri-La Dialogue's agenda goes above and beyond official interactions in and around the Island Ballroom. Readers can be shown that defence officials from all countries - not just Singapore as we are merely the venue host - do maximise the rare opportunity when dialogue partners are in the same city to meet and do business.

By doing so, such interactions contribute to regional and international stability as they foster a climate where insecurities, doubts or simmering tensions can be discussed/defused between stakeholders rather than having scenario planners speculate and arm themselves for the worst.

Shangri-La Dialogue media coverage
As Day 2 of the Shangri-La Dialogue unfolds, one would hope that coverage of the event befits its status as a venue where security planners can meet and talk in an informal, non-government yet quasi official setting fostered by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

It is a key part of what security thinkers call the Regional Security Architecture, which as its building-related term suggests is made up of building blocks ranging from simple bilateral visits, exchanges of personnel, to joint exercises and multinational engagements of defence and security forces. Such meet-and-greet sessions foster better understanding and enrich personal ties between military planners who might have burning questions to ask about another country's military weapons inventory and the intentions for its possible use.

It has also paved the way for concrete examples of regional cooperation. This was seen after Indonesia and Singapore supported the Malaysian idea behind joint, tri-nation anti-piracy patrols flown by maritime surveillance planes from the three countries.

To call it a talkshop would dumb down a key confidence and security-building measure in Asia. Singaporeans may not appreciate its significance, going by the token coverage in today's mainstream paper of record, but other nations do. Australia is said to have lobbied quietly to have the Asia Security Summit moved to Canberra. Likewise, Japan is said to have harboured intentions to have Tokyo as the new home for the event.

Hosting the talks in Singapore helps our tiny city state punch above its weight class by making us a key enabler in global security dialogue. The annual event represents defence diplomacy at its best and participants have much to learn from one another as some foreign participants are clearly more seasoned in this arena.

To get the most out of these sessions, scribes should ditch the template reportage readers have seen for the past couple of years. Spare us the gossipy colour story of what defence ministers had for lunch and give us real value-add by going behind the scenes to find out the morsels of information which were actually traded over the meal.

In the days of the Soviet Union, some Kremlin watchers specialised in studying who stood where during those great military spectacles in Red Square. The same could be done for the Defence Minister's luncheon and one doesn't envy the lot of protocol officers tasked with seating arrangements as an inept seating plan might scupper rather than strengthen CDRs.

Did the Chinese and Americans talk over lunch or was it the most cursory of contacts? What was the banter like? Any veiled threats or coercion as forks and knives went into action? Unless the defence heavyweights dined on Haggis or puked over their sushi, I think the story on their lunch menu should be given a rest this year. It is done to death already.

Another template report surrounds the press interview usually granted by the United States Secretary of Defense (Secdef). News reports on the words that fall from the lips of Secdef of world's most powerful nation should not be done at the expense of regional players whose impact on the geo-strategic environment also count.

Yes, it would take some legwork to get such nuggets of information. But cultivating a staff officer from the assorted official entourages to give a non-attributable yet credible account of the state of play should be the end goal of defence correspondents assigned to watch the ASS Asia Security Summit.

Just compare the copy filed by the bevy of Pentagon correspondents who trail in Secdef Leon Panetta's wake to get an idea of how it should be done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm S'porean living overseas so my access to the Shangri-la Dialogue is mainly from online sources like Reuters, DefenseNews, and youtube. You're probably aware IISS has series of videos from the recent Asia Security Summit at:
I agree with your assessment on the importance of what participant say, and what goes on behind the scene has massive strategic implications for the region (such as China sending it's Def Min for the 1st time to diffuse tension with Asean states last year regarding it's rising military spending).
The local media probably did not put these reports on the front pages as most of the ~3.5 million S'poreans are apathetic about these meetings. In countries with larger populations, there's naturally a larger number of people more interested in these issues.