Friday, December 28, 2012

Game Over: Foreign talent sports personalities ditch Singapore for their China motherland

After getting what they wanted, even the appeal of a new life in Singapore has failed to keep certain foreign-born sports personalities anchored in the Lion City.

If they won't stay, then what is the whole point of the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme which spirited them to our city-state?

Implicit in the arrangement where foreigners are flown to the city-state and Singaporeanised so they can don national colours and play for Singapore is the assumption that they would eventually call this country home, settle down and add to the gene pool. All this while, their Singapore-born compatriots were supposed to benefit from having sparring partners whose presence helps lift the level of assorted sports to new levels.

Alas, the pull of the Chinese motherland has proven too strong for some. Their readiness in heading home back to their country of birth proves the assumption false.

Two table tennis stars have already decided to head back to China after announcing their respective retirements.

Ms Li Jiawei's decision to be "based in China" mirrors the move by former teammate Ms Wang Yuegu, who headed home after quitting the sport this August.

While not quite enough to indicate a trend, how many more must do the same before one realises the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme may not be working as intended?

Sure, we won armfuls of medals but is this the endgame engineered by the scheme? One had the impression it was supposed to persuade foreign talent to sink their roots here - which clearly isn't happening.

Perhaps we overrated the appeal of Singaporean citizenship to benchwarmer sports "stars" whose departure from their mother country marked no big loss to their erstwhile home nation's Olympic ambitions.

Maybe we, as a country, failed to do more to keep our new citizens feeling part and parcel of life in Singapore.

Could we have miscalculated just how much the war bounty in Singapore dollars, amassed from successful sporting campaigns, translates to when coverted into their currency of choice. It represents not just wealth, mind you, but an opportunity for starting life afresh at a new social strata, thanks to Singaporean tax payers.

It would be a mockery of Singapore's national identity if the global sports community views the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme as a lottery ticket to untold fame and riches, provided one is willing to pay the price of lipsynching an alien national anthem [Note: Singapore's national anthem is in the Malay language] and having the Singapore flag temporarily eclipse ties to their country of birth.

Even if we dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" dutifuly, perhaps it's time to recognise the painful reality that what we value as our Singaporean identity isn't cherished or treasured the same way by some of our foreign imports.

Such theorising would be harmless if not for the hard truth that the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme runs on tax payers dollars - all of which could have been put to better use nurturing the fraternity of Singapore-born sports boys and girls in achieving greater heights.

To be sure, this kind of argument has to be trotted out delicately because it flirts with the Establishment's cluster bomb defence which is to label the commentator as being closed-minded, anti-immigrant, even xenophobic.

The mainstream media has thus far been kind on Jiawei.

The 90 cents newspaper quoted her saying: "It's impossible to describe my feelings now in just one or two sentences."

The paper added sympathetically:"It is not hard to understand why, since her link to her adopted country goes beyond simply sharing the same birthday - Aug 9." [Note: The 9th of August is Singapore's National Day]

It followed up with this bizarre line:"Li has spent more time here in Singapore than in China, her country of birth." [One should certainly expect that to be the case because Jiawei is a Singaporean. Where else do you expect her to spend her time? Outer Mongolia?]

The clearest signal that Jiawei's decision to be "based in China" isn't some euphemism for a long-term stay in the Middle Kingdom could have been drawn from the fate of her three-year-old Singapore-born son, Tianrui.

Nobody bothered to ask what plans the Singaporeanised mother has for Tianrui. News reports are silent whether he will someday serve National Service alongside the sons of Singapore, whose parents cheered and rooted for mummy during her heyday.

Don't bet on it.

Defence highlights in 2013

Yes, it's not yet 2013 but it's good to shake up the template and get folks thinking.

Defence and national security highlights for 2013 include the following:

Major anniversary:
The coming year will mark a decade since the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Singapore. Current Chief of Defence Force (CDF) of the Singapore Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Neo Kian Hong, was instrumental in leading a team of Singapore Army reconnaissance specialists who set up a facility to track people who were thought to have come into contact with SARS-affected residents. He was then a division commander.

The Contact Tracing Centre his soldiers set up had no precedent nor guidebook to signpost how it should be organised, structured and manned. Staffed by army scouts 24/7, this centre helped Singapore's medical professionals understand and mitigate the spread of SARS as doctors used the contact tree to form a mindmap of people thought to have come into close contact with SARS carriers.

Leadership renewal:
We're likely to see a new Chief of Defence Force (CDF). If the cards fall into place as planned (can't really be sure nowadays with all sorts of shenanigans by top flight civil servants), we're likely to see a new Chief of Air Force too. You may like to read this commentary on whether CAF should wear wings. Click here.

Navy Open House:
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) is due to hold its Navy Open House sometime in April/May next year. There is at least one fast craft design the RSN has yet to unveil though it has been in service for several years. Hopefully, they will pick 2013 as the year to talk about it.
Click here to see the Navy Open House 2010 Report Card.

IMDEX naval show:
Back after a two-year break, IMDEX takes place from 14 to 16 May 2013 at Changi Naval Base.

Weapon replacement:
You may want to read this as a primer. Shalom.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers train their sights on solving SMRT's rail woes

When people lose their faith in management direction of entities linked to Singapore's investment arm, Temasek Holdings, the price erosion that follows is often the best-case scenario.

For entities like SMRT Corporation, Singapore's largest train and bus operator, the blast radius resulting from a loss of faith extends far beyond a drop in SMRT's stock market fortunes.

SMRT stakeholders include commuters who get around using its mass rapid transit rail system and bus routes, the government regulator as well as political appointees tasked with regulating Singapore's transport network. A loss of faith among commuters could come back to haunt the Establishment when people mull over the government's track record in assorted lifestyle areas and decide whether or not they deserve that "X" in the box.

This is why SMRT is a vehicle which is too large to fail.

A two-front war
For the handful of former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) who have or will soon step aboard SMRT, the battle to stabilise the company will be one of the most challenging and high-profile tussles they have ever waged.

Leading the charge is former Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Desmond Kuek who has or will soon be joined by at least four former SAF officers.

Interestingly, the SAF Armour Formation's footprint in SMRT will grow substantially from 2013.

Senior among the ranks is SMRT's CEO himself (ex-54th Singapore Armoured Brigade, ex-4 SAB, ex-41st Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment). He will be joined by Colonel Gerard Koh (ex-46 SAR) and Lieutenant-Colonel Tan Kian Heong (ex-4 SAB, ex-441 SAR), both of whom are from the SAF Armour alumni. Indeed, half of the four new hires come from the Armour Family, giving the Singapore Army's arm of decision an overwhelming presence in SMRT compared to other combat and combat support arms. (Purists would also count former SMRT Senior Vice-President Communications & Services, Colonel Goh Chee Kong (ex-8 SAB) as part of Armour's contribution to SMRT. COL Goh has since left the company.)

As SMRT's revamped management grapple with the complexities of rolling stock and train ops, heartware issues with SMRT staff and commuters who have had to bear the brunt of service disruptions will make this a two-front war where satisfying one side may come at a cost of sacrificing the other.

Swift and decisive management intervention will earn the SAF oodles of goodwill and respect from market watchers who are convinced militarymen can serve meaningful careers in civvie street.

The average commuter probably couldn't give a hoot who is in charge so long as their buses and trains run on time and fares stay reasonable.

As for SMRT's shareholders, they are likely to watch the state of play closely. Having tasted years of healthy dividends under the previous management, any deviation from this course could draw incoming fire during the next annual general meeting with shareholders.

Sceptical audience
The new management's battle for investors' confidence may be complicated by the sceptical yet influential audience that awaits them among market watchers. Such scepticism stems from years of experience watching certain Temasek-linked counters tank despite management statements that sought to calm or reassure the market.

It is important to remember that a good dozen or so research heads and fund managers who started their respective careers in the late 1990s have lived through the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, 2000 Dotcom bubble, 9/11 attack in 2001, SARS crisis in 2003 and the 2008 sub prime crisis.

Having witnessed the negative impact of various recessions on TLC's share value, these market movers, who are mostly in their late 30s and 40s, are understandably wary of management who try to charm market watchers. They have heard it all before and will not be an easy crowd to win over with platitudes.

Industry veterans would recall how counters like Chartered Semiconductor and ST Assembly Test Services never quite recovered from value erosion after the tech bubble burst despite their Temasek parentage. Promises of a turnaround never materialised and many of these then-young industry watchers had a tough time explaining to their clients how these one-time market darlings became stock market rejects.

"Shareholders would hold on to the safety of such transport utility companies as they have a guaranteed market (the riders), a built-in inflation proof-pricing mechanism which allows them to give off good cashflow ( since projects are well-funded) and be operationally sound. If they can give decent dividends (approx 3% ) SMRT just has to ride this out. In 6 months time it will be forgotten," said one industry player who had his baptism of fire during the Asian Financial Crisis.

"SMRT does not require “new” sources of capital from the public. Nor do people have an alternative. In fact when theres no news on SMRT I think that’s probably when thigns are running well!"

It will take more than the usual public relations charm offensive to convince industry sceptics that SMRT is on track to better times.

Indeed, with new management blood, everyone recogises the TLC is at a turning point: they are just understandably wary as turning points can swing both ways.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Silent treatment: Spin doctors go into damage control mode after disgraced MP Michael Palmer quits politics

In attempting to save face, the party's spin doctors risk losing people's hearts and minds.

With the People's Action Party (PAP, aka the Men In White) in damage control mode after disgraced Speaker of Parliament and ex-Member of Parliament (MP), Michael Palmer, quit politics last Wednesday, there is a risk that Singaporeans may feel the MIW do not have what it takes to roll with the blows and suck it up when the chips are down.

Post-mortems of newspaper coverage of the political debacle indicate that the city-state's mainstream media appear to have acknowledged the call by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to give the Palmers "time and space for healing to take place".

So apart from Mr Palmer's appearance at a press conference on Wednesday and a farewell visit that same evening to grassroots leaders at Punggol East, which he represented as MP, the man has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

No-fly zone
If the Singaporean media's lethargy in chasing the newsmaker behind the biggest upheaval to shake the Lion City's political scene since last May's General Elections stems from a desire to give Mr Palmer space he needs to get his shattered family life back on the mend, then it appears this no-fly zone does not extend to lesser mortals people associated with the extramarital affair which shot down Mr Palmer's high flying political career.

His love interest, Laura Ong, has been outed by her former employer, the People's Association (PA).

Local scribes dug out the name of Ms Ong's husband, Darren Seng Chee Kwong, with whom she is estranged.

And in a demonstration that local newshounds can hunt down their quarry, the 90 cents newspaper tracked down one Andy Lim, the man said to be dating Ms Ong, visited his home and attempted a phone interview.

They did the same to Ms Ong's flat in Marine Parade to the extent that a resident had to summon the police. Three interns from the Today newspaper were even caught on the premises of Ms Ong's former office. Heaven only knows what they expected to find there - incriminating love notes, signs of trysts?

Main course vs side dishes
The local media has been silent on whether such tactics were unleashed at Palmer's gate.

And it's not that the 90 cents newspaper lacks of effort, brains or grit to do so. During the NKF saga, a 90 cents newspaper photographer spent eight hours stalking TT Durai's main gate. He was rewarded with a picture of the man crouched, fugitive-like in the backseat of a car as it left the residence and was commended for his effort with a newscom award.

Why go for side dishes when the main course is left untouched?

Could it be that the mainstream media has held off in a nod to the Establishment's placement of an out-of-bounds marker at the Palmer residence?

If there is no gag order, is the media so cowed by previous run-ins with the Establishment that local newsrooms have decided that discretion is the better part of valour as far as Palmergate is concerned?

It surely couldn't stem from newsroom incompetence (or do I stand corrected?) as even the greenest journalism newbie would recognise that the newsmaker to gun for hasn't been quoted in any way, shape or form since Wednesday's press conference.

If Mr and Mrs Palmer speak on record, that would be a headline story.

How did the affair begin? Who made the first move? How long did it last? What did you both do on Mondays? Why the mea culpa? What did you say to your wife and 10-year-old son when it was game over?

Don't hold your breath for answers to these questions in Singaporean newspapers.

Iron hand
The party's tight control over newsflows is worrisome. It points to an attitude towards information management during a crisis that shows Singaporeans cannot rely on the mainstream media to tell the full story. It telegraphs the party's sensitivity to bad newsflows. When the circuit breaker trips, the game plan is to clamp up on news like this whole blooming country would collapse from the bad news and foreign investors would run away.

Indeed, one could argue the opposite: that investors in a country where people have to read between the lines to sense what is going on are going to be even more cautious where they park their funds.

In an altruistic scenario where well-meaning MIW party leaders have Singapore's best interests at heart, tight control of information is not necessarily a bad thing. Internal disciplinary processes deal with politicians who stray and the party does not tolerate one atom of abuse of power, position and privilege. These actions may take place away from the public eye but the end results - fallen stars like Mr Palmer - are an unmistakeable sign that housekeeping has come a-calling.

However, such blind trust is open to abuse.

The rot will not set in overnight and the pace of change may be glacial.

Indeed, it make take decades of obseisance, war stories handed down from one newsroom generation to the next, more rice bowls of journalists broken over time before one day, Singapore wakes up to a generation of running dogs - to borrow a phrase from Singapore's first Chief Minister, David Marshall - who will not only eat out of one's hand but will also beg and do tricks on command.

You may also like:
Singapore Government's pledge for more openness requires rewiring the system's sensitivity to feedback, removal of vindictive mindset for views it dislikes. Please click here

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A cry for help: Strike by SMRT China-born bus drivers reviewed from a crisis communications and staff relations perspective

Depending on whom you speak to, last week's wildcat strike by SMRT's bus drivers from China could be termed a stunning success for gaining Management's attention or an abject failure of collective action.

Companies who do not want to walk down the same road would do well understanding the objectives of the industrial action, which would help explain the contrasting and somewhat contradictory after-action analysis of this work stoppage (i.e. some say it worked, some say it was futile).

The strike seen as a success
As a cry for help, the two-day strike by workers from Singapore's largest rail and bus operator that began on Monday 26 November 2012 certainly got its ring leaders the attention they wanted. Perhaps even more than they bargained for.

Working without the benefit of a public relations (PR) agency to tell their side of the story, the strike by the China bus drivers made it to Page 1 in The Straits Times for six straight days after D-Day. It was the Page 1 lead story on five of these days:

Tues 27 Nov: 102 SMRT bus drivers protest against pay
Weds 28 Nov: Govt moves against 'illegal strike' (Pg 1 lead)
Thurs 29 Nov: Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers (Pg 1 lead)
Fri 30 Nov: Four SMRT bus drivers charged over strike (Pg 1 lead)
Sat 1 Dec: SMRT has deep-seated issues: CEO (Pg 1 lead)
Sun 2 Dec: 29 bus drivers to be sent back to China (Pg 1 lead)

Publicity coup
The track record of publicity generated in the print, broadcast and social media would do any PR professional proud. This is quite possibly the longest-running company-centric story with an unbroken string of Page 1 leads in the 90 cents newspaper in recent memory. The event was possibly helped by the fact that Singapore had not seen a strike in the last 26 years. Indeed, the last strike predates the journalism careers of everyone on the 90 cent's newspaper's payroll. This being a man-bites-dog moment, it quite naturally dominated Prime News.

Timing helped drive publicity
Whether by accident or design, the timing of the industrial action also coincided with the dry news spell during the November/December year-end holiday season. This is a period when newsmakers typically have fewer news releases to announce, which means editors tend to milk a newspoint for all it's worth to fill news holes in the sked.

Welfare renaissance
That two-day "protest against pay" - a term coined by ST which no civil servant in Singapore's acronym obsessed bureaucracy would dare crunch down as an acronym - had a swift and decisive knock-on effect on SMRT's Management.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) soon came into the picture, as did assorted union officials who appeared to use the occasion to drum up support for union membership.

Pain points cited by disgruntled drivers - allegedly unequal pay, claims made over their dormitory - all came out in the open. These were addressed by MOM, SMRT, union officials and became a talking point among netizens.

The welfare renaissance that SMRT's bus drivers from China now enjoy stems directly from the industrial action that fateful Monday. It may have been unlawful to do so, but it made SMRT's Management sit up, listen and, most importantly, act on their bus drivers' concerns.

The strike seen as a failure
From a law enforcement standpoint, the industrial action could be deemed a failure because the momentum of the strike fizzled out after just two days.

Day 1: 171 SMRT bus drivers from China housed at Woodlands dormitory did not report to work.
Day 2: The number of striking SMRT bus drivers who did not report for work dwindled to 88 drivers. This translates to a 48.5% loss of support.
Day 3: Cessation of industrial action. Twenty drivers called in by the Singapore police for questioning

Singapore should count itself fortunate that the strike lost momentum and did not grow into something akin to the Polish shipyard workers' strike or sit ins by British coal miners.

Business intelligence failure
Before classing it a failure, one should note that the wildcat strike was launched with almost complete success in terms of surprise. It appeared to catch SMRT's management blindsided, which indicates that the company had not paid attention to cultivating advocates among its workforce who could be relied upon to tip-off Management of feelings from the ground.

One does not mobilise 171 people for a collective action without prior planning. It also needs a grassroots communications network that can convince participants to take part and sort out logistics like the date and time of the industrial action.

That not a word leaked out either shows that the ring leaders practised good information security, or that tell-tale signs of impending trouble like ground chatter in staff canteens was not picked up by SMRT's Management or were heard but ignored.

Critical mass and will to fight
The strike failed for the same reasons that defeat most tactical level military action: lack of critical mass and lack of the will to fight.

It would have been a different story if all SMRT drivers worked to rule in sympathy with the 171 drivers. Consequences of this collective action on an essential service provided by SMRT are not hard to imagine.

But with the loss of critical mass on Day 2, it was only a matter of time before the show ended.

On that score, Singapore's law enforcement authorities and labour relations professionals would be right in classifying the strike as a failure because the action initiated on Day 1 failed to gain traction and withered away within 48 hours.

However, when one views the industrial action as a cry for help after all other avenues were supposedly exhausted, then the welfare renaissance it triggered would rank it a success.

Importance of staff relations/internal comms
Staff relations is usually treated as an unglamourous part of a HR professional's job. Management may not see the need to devote manpower or monetary resources needed to raise, train and sustain a staff relations/internal comms campaign, or may give token attention to such initiatives.

Not every HR professional enjoys or excels at playing the part of talk show host during Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) to coax team members to speak their mind. But the talk show hat is one HR professionals must learn to wear, particularly because Singaporeans and an Asian workforce are not known to be vocal in person.

The moderator must also be quick to pick up body language that may telegraph intentions of team members to speak up about a certain issue but are wary about doing so. Experienced HR professionals would always linger on after a focus group is dismissed as a team member may come back after the group has dispersed to speak in private about a matter that bugs him/her.

The job of compiling FGD minutes of meeting into action items is often seen as an unwelcome chore, particularly with HR professionals who are not good with words to begin with and find difficulty putting pen to paper.

Furthermore, action items unearthed during FGDs may chafe nerves of supervisors who do not accept feedback in the spirit in which it is given (i.e. to create a better workplace). These individuals may take the feedback as personal criticism. Worse is to come when team members who are known to be vocal are marked as black sheep and made to pay for speaking up during the annual ranking and banding exercise.

Good staff relations
When staff relations works as planned, a HR department with its ear on the ground and a proven track record at listening to and acting on staff feedback can help Management avert situations faced by SMRT. Indeed, with good business intelligence, petitions circulating among team members have been intercepted during the signature phase and proactive action taken to address pain points.

The tricky part comes when team members need to be convinced that Management decisions, while not popular, are necessary because not all feedback can be acceded to at a time and pace that team members may want.

At the heart of all staff relations is Management's sincerity in treating all team members with dignity and respect. Without this mindset, all the sweet words and focus group discussions in the world will not help quell restive souls among workers.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Click here

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When the balloon goes up: Radar-equipped aerostats to perform sentry duty

The phrase "when the balloon goes up" takes on a whole new meaning when radar-equipped balloons belonging to a certain air force are installed at a certain place.

Moored balloons will help with sense-making of the air situation picture by extending the radar horizon (literally) above and beyond the range of terrestrial radar emitters. This task is already a complex one in peacetime owing to the large number of flying objects around this place.

Once the aerostats go into service, they will add a new and unmistakeable feature to the landscape when hauled to ground level for maintenance. The aerostat's sheer size makes it difficult to hide from nosey people outside the fenceline, which means that sooner or later, someone will notice. :-)

At their operational ceiling thousands of feet above ground level, the aerostat will be hardly visible to ground observers. However, that vantage point gives the aerostat's sensors better visibility. Being higher allows the emitter to see far and see more.

The job of keeping the aerostat flying is complex too.

Among the issues that have to be sorted out before the aerostat goes aloft is that of deconflicting airspace. A cylinder of airspace around the aerostat probably needs to be sanitised to keep a safe distance between aircraft, the aerostat itself and, more importantly, the cable that anchors the aerostat to the ground. The last item will be near invisible to pilots flying about in high performance aircraft.

Lightning protection will be another point to consider. With millions of dollars worth of sensitive electronics in the air of one of the most lightning prone areas of the globe, defence engineers have to ensure the investment does not fry the moment a lightning bolt zaps the machine.

If it works as planned, the aerostat will herald exciting times for airspace watchers in that place.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Alert Always: Israel's Iron Dome survives trial-by-fire - A view from Singapore

[Please note: This post will be updated in the second quarter of 2013.]

4 December 2022 update: 

Pukul Habis: Available from Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



Canada: Look Inside

France: Look Inside

Germany: Look Inside

Japan: Look Inside



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside

To defence professional tasked with defending Singapore, Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system may seem just the thing needed to keep our homeland from being cratered by artillery fire.

Iron Dome is not fool-proof - no defence system in the world ever is - but the anti-missile missile system survived its first major trial-by-fire this month by whittling down the effectiveness of rocket fire from Gaza.

Deployed for real ops where the lives of their citizens were at stake, Iron Dome had its mettle tested at an intensity unmatched by any operational test and evaluation. This weapon system is worth reading about.

Results of the battle underscored the potential that active defences like Iron Dome, which give the defender the unprecedented ability to use guided missiles to destroy incoming artillery projectiles, have for strengthening defences for urban areas.

Active defence joins passive defences
The Israeli's new active defences were complemented by a decades-long programme aimed at building passive defences such as hardened household shelters in Israeli homes. Alongside investments in hardening infrastructure, Israel also invested in a public warning system (PWS) to alert civilians of impending trouble.

While Israeli border towns and inland cities have been in the impact zone of rocket fire on previous occasions, augmenting passive defences with active defence gave Israeli defence planners a new game plan. Early accounts indicate that Iron Dome is a game-changer.

Israel's active defence against rocket attacks gave its population a reassuring capability to deal with persistent and indiscriminate attacks from unguided munitions aimed at area targets (i.e. border towns and cities).

Indeed, if Youtube clips of Iron Dome intercepts are anything to go by, Israelis rejoiced in seeing Iron Dome missile batteries reach out and touch incoming Qassam rockets. The Qassams still exacted a price in blood. But without Iron Dome, the death toll and corresponding fear factor could have been far higher than the five deaths Israel suffered this month over eight days of the rocket war.

Threat from unguided rockets
Rockets fired from Gaza appeared to be launched with little or no central coordination by the rocket squads. Fired from spot-welded ramps propped up and pointed north, each launcher was difficult to detect particularly when deployed from the urban sprawl of Gaza or fruit orchards. The false alarm rate from decoys also appeared to be high.

The Palestinians also did not have eyes on the impact zone to correct the aimpoint for follow-on barrages. Apart from a lucky strike, the unguided rockets had little hope of hitting high-value point targets such as Israeli military installations. That said, Israeli defence officials had to contend with reassuring thousands of civilians at the receiving end of unguided rocket fire at area targets (like a sprawling town or city) that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was doing its utmost to protect civilians.

In this war, the Iron Dome enjoyed a high profile in traditional media sources and also social media. For a country paranoid about national security, it was interesting to note that IDF military security authorities adopted an unsually lax wartime stance against home video footage of Iron Dome batteries in action. It was almost like the IDF wanted maximum awareness that fire unleashed by Palestinian rocketeers was futile.

Against Qassam rockets fired singly or ripple fired in weak volleys, Iron Dome appeared to have little problem swatting down the aerial intruders in Israeli airspace. Iron Dome was smart enough to calculate where rockets might land. Rockets destined to make holes in open areas were left unmolested. If one believes the IDF, this explains why a small number of rockets fired against Israel were marked for destruction.

Threat from multiple rocket launchers
It would be a different story if Iron Dome was pitted against a conventional army trained, organised, equipped and supported to fight and survive a high intensity hot war scenario.

In such a case, an Iron Dome fire unit could find itself overwhelmed by the sheer weight of fire from hostile multiple rocket launchers (up to 40 tubes in the case of the Russian BM-21 system) if the opponent's rocket artillery batteries coordinated their bombardments - which they are likely to do.

This explains why the IDF never intended Iron Dome to fight as a standalone system. On paper, each 20-round Iron Dome missile launcher is outgunned by most conventional MRLs armed with tubes for medium calibre rockets of around 122mm.

It also emphasizes why Israel has invested in passive defence like hardening critical infratructure and defence facilities to withstand the first strike and a counter-battery capability to destroy the launchers. Such infrastructure does not pop up overnight. It takes decades to develop and refine under an operational master plan designed to reduce the vulnerability of critical infrastructure.

In practice, MRLs can be addressed in many ways. The package could be sent via artillery, attack helicopters, orbiting warplanes or UCAVs. This in turn assumes the defender has a concept of operations (CONOPS), training and tools on hand to translate paper plans into action.

Radars scan the battlespace to detect incoming tube and rocket artillery, automatically computing their point of origin to unmask the launch site. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide persistent awareness, keeping potential launch sites under visual surveillance.

With the first salvo, the MRL's launch signature will be unmistakeable. Weapons to kill them can come not only from counter-battery fire which will take minutes because of the time of flight of artillery projectiles. UCAVs hovering above will pin them down with missiles within seconds of launch and slow down their escape for the counter-battery fire (delivered by tube or rocket artillery) to arrive.

Even with all the hardened structures and underground facilities built where the sun doesn't shine, mission critical infrastructure like radars and communications aerials must remain exposed during operations. One could retract a radar, but this is akin to taking the system offline and has the same (albeit temporary) effect of having that emitter taken out by a rocket strike.

So even if one has passive defences and a CONOPs for dealing with MRLs, what about the threat from low-cost Qassam-type rockets? Cheap rockets are not accurate enough to be used to take out high-value assets. Though the probability of a disabling hit is low, it cannot be discounted and active defences like Iron Dome or massed low-level AA guns (like the Dover Barrage versus German V1 flying bombs) will still be needed.

Every system deployed by itself had its drawbacks. But when orchestrated to play as one, it sounds a death knell for war mongers.

The Summer 2006 war took 33 days to reach ceasefire. The November 2012 Gaza war saw guns fall silent after eight days of violence.

While the Israeli army emerged from the November 2012 war as a benchwarmer, some 75,000 IDF reservists were mobilised and primed for a land operation in Gaza. If rocketeers continued to rain their deadly hail on Israeli civilians, public pressure for the IDF to do something about it would have been tremendous.

If not for Iron Dome's ability to blunt rocket attacks, the IDF may have had little option but to push into Gaza. Looking at the urban density of Gaza city, in which Palestinian defenders will fight from prepared positions with a homeground advantage, this urban op would not have been a walk in the park for the IDF.  

Strategic leverage
Iron Dome's contribution to the IDF war effort was thus more than the tactical, zonal defence action of taking down incoming rockets. The active defence gave Israel time and space to weigh other diplomatic and military options as they now had the muscle to dilute the effectiveness of rocket fire with anti-missile missiles instead of going after the launch sites with air strikes, artillery bombardments or a land incursion.

In MRL versus active defences, it is a race for each side to complete the kill chain before the other can react.

As technology matures, it may become technically and operationally feasible to detect, designate and destroy airborne projectiles before the MRL can displace and move to another location using contemporary shoot-and-scoot artillery doctrine. This knowledge that launch means certain destruction must weigh heavily on the minds of MRL forces and rein in bellicose talk from being translated into military action.

For this to work, defending forces must ensure that its sensors and shooters can work well and work fast, under pressure and under fire.

The number, accuracy, lethality and battle readiness of shooters must also prove overwhelmingly superior to the aggressor because the aggresor wields the initative by being able to chose the time, place and method of attack.

In this regard, defence technology can give the defender a force multiplier effect by being able to achieve a higher weight of fire with less manpower. For example, a fully automated truck-mounted tube artillery system manned by two gunners could replace towed 155mm heavy artillery howitzers, with the manpower intensive function of arming and loading shells and laying the guns done by an automated loader slaved to a computerised gunfire control system.(This presupposes that the automated loading system must be reliable as a mechanical breakdown will render the truck-mounted gun useless.)

In the event that rounds impact the target area, passive defences would complement active and could reduce the destructiveness of hostile action. In simple words, casualties would be reduced.

This in turn requires that the defender has in place a far-sighted, nationwide building programme that promotes the introduction of household and communal shelters as newer real estate replaces the old. It must also be tied to a PWS that warns the population of impending trouble.

With the Gaza war in November 2012, we have seen an active missile defence called Iron Dome deployed for action in an intensity unprecedented in previous industrial-age warfare. It is a precursor of things to come.

You may also like:
Calculating the SAF's deterrent value. Click here

Singapore air force I-HAWK anti-aircraft missile batteries mark 30 years of operations. Click here

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths: Proactive, preventive action speaks louder than words

1 December 2022 update: My first novel, Pukul Habis: Total Wipeout, a fictional story of war in Malaysia and Singapore, was released on Amazon in November 2022. Available from Amazon sites that serve your location. "Look Inside" function on some sites shows sample pages.



Canada: Look Inside

France: Look Inside

Germany: Look Inside

Japan: Look Inside



United Kingdom: Look Inside

USA: Look Inside

As long as mindsets do not change, neither will the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) record for training safety. The result: More citizen soldiers will die needless deaths.

In an effort to be seen to be doing something in the wake of the debate in Parliament on SAF training deaths, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF have stepped up the call for every serviceman to be aware of and compliant with the SAF's training safety regulations (TSR), protocols and guidelines.

To drive home the gravity of this safety first mindset, MINDEF/SAF recounted how individual actions that went against TSRs had fatal consequences.

* Six smoke grenades were thrown instead of two by an infantry officer, resulting in the death of 21-year-old full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Private Dominique Sarron Lee Rui Feng from the 3rd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment.

* A jeep driven by a soldier without a driving license overturned, resulting in a passenger, Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng, sustaining pelvic injuries which he subsequently died from hours later. The 21-year-old NSF was said to have taken his last vehicle ride without a helmet and was not strapped in with a safety belt.

The safety first message is an important one we all should heed.

But while much ink has been spilled underscoring an individual's responsibility to safety, one must not miss the forest for the trees: MINDEF/SAF and the entire defence eco-system must pull its weight too.

Painful lessons
Having individual soldiers, sailors and airmen 100% compliant with the SAF's safety regulations will not save our fellow citizens if entities elsewhere along the chain of command fail in their duty and responsibility.

In March 1997, NSF artillery gunners Third Sergeant Tan Han Chong, 21, and Lance-Corporal Low Yin Tit, 18, did everything by the book as they prepared their FH-2000 155mm heavy artillery gun for a fire mission in New Zealand. They both died despite 100% compliance with TSRs. But for a faulty fuze, made in China instead of the United States as pledged by the vendor, these gunners might still be alive today. The 155mm shell exploded in the gun's breach, killing both and robbing their parents of a lifetime opportunity seeing their sons grow up. MINDEF/SAF has since introduced mandatory inspections of all shell fuzes and tightened procurement processes to ensure we get what we pay for. We paid a heavy price to learn this lesson.

NSF naval officer Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh Chuan Rong, 20, and his shipmates could not have known the Fast Boat they were assigned on 26 February 2001 was not shipshape and was, therefore, unsafe to use. The hydraulic fluid in the boat's steering mechanism had not been topped up. When the crew wanted the boat to go astern, it instead accelerated. In the ensuing collision with a Missile Gunboat, 2LT Loh was thrown offboard and crushed between his Fast Boat and the MGB. He died of his injuries. Till today, the Loh family mourns his loss even after 11 years.

New SAF Inspectorate
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen has sketched out how an SAF Inspectorate reporting directly to the Chief of Defence Force (CDF), the SAF's most senior officer, will "set the safety culture across the entire SAF and oversee the individual inspectorates of the three services".

If safety inspectorates for the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force missed the ball because of systemic and individual safety violations, the new SAF Inspectorate will not innoculate the SAF against similar lapses.

Indeed, it may set public expectations high when the reality is that the SAF's safety net is only as good as the individuals who are entrusted with the safety of their fellow citizen soldiers.

As we have seen in previous cases, lapses up and down the chain of command have caused immense grief to families across our island at various points in time.

The late Private Dominique Lee's mother wrote:"We cannot be mere bystanders when our sons are conscripted into NS. We cannot allow for our sons to be at the mercy of the training officers, be it the platoon sergeants or commanders, who are very often, little older and none the wiser than the boys they are tasked to oversee, boys whose lives often depend on the decisions that they make."

Another layer of bureaucracy
Bureaucracy alone will not fix the safety glitch.

If this SAF Inspectorate fails, what's next? Will MINDEF/SAF add another layer to the cake with another watchdog body, this time reporting to the Minister for Defence? And if that fails, yet another reporting to the President?

In light of the SAF's safety record after 45 years of national service, a more prudent safeguard would be to make all in the command chain fully accountable for their actions. In my opinion, we do not see this happening enough.

Heads must roll, rice bowls broken. Token acts like removing officers from command will simply not do because apart from the loss of face, they still get their pay at the end of the month.

You will be amazed how the awareness of the cause-effect dynamics will spur the SAF into action, once militarymen realise they will have to make severe lifestyle adjustments should they fail to take care of their soldiers properly.

There's is also the issue of transparency, which is so crucial in securing the trust of Singaporean families who contribute their precious sons to their country's citizen's armed forces. Take the recent cases when MINDEF/SAF tried to show it means business by removing officers from their command. Where do they end up? Do high-ranking individuals work in a silo, all alone with not a single soul at their beck and call so they won't end up killing other people's children through negligence? If that's the case, is it reasonable and worthwhile for Singaporean tax payers to continue paying the salary of these flunkies?

The Ministerial Statement on training deaths makes sorry reading because when one joins the dots, one gets the impression that the organisation failed to demonstrate 100% best-effort in accident prevention that could have saved lives.

That best-effort from everyone up and down the command chain is what's needed to step up SAF training safety, not adding yet more bureaucracy to MINDEF/SAF.

To squeeze that best-effort from the SAF, make the army, navy and air force report to the people of Singapore for all training deaths.

The collective conscience of citizens will be the most demanding and harshest check and balance that the SAF has ever had, after 45 years of National Service.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths: Views from a father of one of the fallen

After last week's debate in Parliament on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces, Lawrence Loh wrote to The Straits Times newspaper's Forum Page to share his opinion that the safety review in the Singaporean military should go beyond just being an academic exercise.

The Straits Times declined to publish his letter.

Mr Loh looks at the SAF training safety issue from the eyes of a parent who lost his son to a safety lapse 11 years ago.

By Lawrence Loh
It was deja vu when I read the story "Realistic training need not be unsafe" (Straits Times 15 November 2012). I was immediately transported to February 2001, when my older son died in a training accident at Changi Naval Base.

After several months of enquiry and investigation, the Republic of Singapore Navy briefed me on the findings, conceded that there were procedural lapses, and bore full responsibility for the accident.

As is normal, the staff involved were either demoted, re-deployed, or taken off their appointments.

I was told that procedures would be thoroughly reviewed, and training safety tightened, to ensure that similar incidents would not recur. To this, I told the then commanding officer who came to visit my family that identifying the causes of the accident would be an academic exercise unless it presented learning points which would prevent future occurrences.

Less than two years later, in January 2003, a collision between one of our naval ships, RSS Courageous, and an Indonesian merchant ship, resulted in the deaths of three women officers, and one gone missing.

So what happened to the supposedly thorough review of procedures?

This time around, it is heartening to note the Minister for Defence assuring again that there will be zero tolerance for training safety lapses. We can only hope that the commanders and men are constantly reminded to take this seriously.

I felt rather uneasy though when MP Lim Wee Kiak* commented on TV yesterday that our casualty rate is far lower than those of other countries. Are we supposed to be consoled by this? Let us not forget that ours is a peace-time military. Our men, including the career soldiers, have never gone to war. Hence, there is no excuse even for a low casualty rate. We need to guard against complacency. We need to be serious. There is no room for compromise.

* Dr Lim Wee Kiak is Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs

Friday, November 16, 2012

PAP Member of Parliament Alex Yam Ziming's words of wisdom versus Internet noise

Member of Parliament Alex Yam Ziming has entered the Hansard as the first MP to raise a point about Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) deaths on Fridays.

The point Mr Yam trawled up would be familiar to readers of this blog: Fatal Friday was mentioned a year 10 months ago in a post titled "Singapore Armed Forces training safety audit: SAF deaths from 2001 to 2010".

The January 2011 post said: "In the decade just past, 42 servicemen and women died serving their country.

"Friday proved the deadliest day for the SAF. Why? I have no ready answer. From 2001 to 2010, 14 SAF servicemen died on a Friday. Could the promise of a weekend out of camp make SAF personnel let their guard down on the last day of a work week?"

In the Singaporean Parliament on Wednesday, Mr Yam said:"Since 2001, 16 SAF servicemen have died or encountered accidents on Fridays. Is it possible that safety is lax because this is the last training day of the week?"

What is more surprising than hearing Internet noise repeated in Parliament was the response from Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen.

He said:"About Fridays - I have to check that up. But if it's true, I think that's a useful point."

As Mr Yam, MP for Chua Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency, sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence & Foreign Affairs, it is likely his access to defence data goes beyond what you and I can get our hands on.

But why does it take a debate on deaths of Singaporeans in the military to bring up a point netizens mulled over and debated nearly two years back? Are we a society that acts decisively only after somebody dies?

The MIW's views on Internet commentators have never been flattering. Netizens have been accused of making more noise than sense. Bloggers are said to nurse partisan views.

If that's the case, I would be most keen on learning why the dear Member of Parliament's personal research - assuming he compiled the death statistics by himself - mirrors the training audit timeframe cited in this blog? Why not take it a step further by astonishing us with research that stretches from the first year of compulsory National Service (NS) to the 45th anniversary of NS, which is this year?

The lives of Singaporeans and the need to tighten safety in the SAF are surely worth that extra research, is it not?

Why has Mr Yam's observation about Fridays come to light only now? Anyone who googled "SAF" and "training safety" wouldn't fail to find this blog.
What is more baffling is the Defence Minister's response. Don't his staff officers update the Minister on trends in death statistics?

Granted, a blog on Singaporean defence matters attracts only a niche audience.

But surely the subject of SAF training deaths safety is grave enough to command the attention of MPs who stand in the House championing the values and way of life we all hold dear?

As the author of the January 2011 post, I am quite happy even if the post inspired a thought driver for a point raised in Parliament. Am also assured that the baseline research proved accurate.

One nonetheless hopes that the nagging suspicion that the original post was plagiarised milked for talking points, refreshed with updated training stats and paraded in Parliament to serve a political agenda is totally unfounded.

Whiter than white? Hrmmm.....

You may also like:
Singapore Armed Forces training safety audit: SAF Deaths from 2001 to 2010. Please click here.
Singapore Armed Force Training Safety Audit 2001 to 2010: A look at training halts. Please click here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A hard act to follow: BBC editor-in-chief quits over "unacceptable journalistic standards"

In losing its director general, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has shown why it is the gold standard that newsrooms around the world aspire to achieve, but few ever attain.

Taking the fall for a television programme whose content he probably was not au fait with is a tough act to follow because not all newsrooms will operate with the same conviction.

George Entwistle, former director general of the Beeb, tendered his resignation after an investigative journalism programme, Newsnight, alleged child abuse by an unnamed Conservative party politician. This later proved unfounded.

Just 54 days in the job, Mr Entwistle's resignation gives him the dubious honour of being the Beeb's shortest-serving DG.

He said in a statement:"In the light of the fact that the director general is also the editor-in-chief and ultimately responsible for all content, and in the light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday 2 November, I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of director general."

The Beeb's former boss told BBC News that when he was appointed to the role, he was confident BBC trustees had chosen the best candidate for the post and the "right person to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead".

"However, the wholly exceptional events of the past few weeks have led me to conclude that the BBC should appoint a new leader," he said.

While there is (thankfully) no episode in the annals of Singaporean journalism that parallel's Mr Entwistle's experience, there are several episodes where the mainstream media ended up on tender ground.

Local scribes with long memories will probably recall the front page story published by a local tabloid in 1991 that claimed a former Cabinet minister had been arrested for a hit-and-run accident. The reporter whose byline accompanied that story lost his job. That painful lesson seems to have been remembered well: In 2009, when netizens were agog over reports that a certain Ho Ching had been charged in court for molest, nothing sensational appeared in the mainstream media....

Another report that ruffled feathers was the one that emerged during a ministerial visit to Brunei. Up-and-coming politician was reported as having failed to hit his target, even after spraying the target with an Ultimax 100 light machine gun. Rumour has it that the report proved the proverbial last straw and the journalist - a respected newsroom personality - subsequently made his exit from the mainstream media.

If you keep your own file of newspaper gaffes, you may discover that the newspaper business is a difficult one indeed.

Grappling with non-negotiable print deadlines, tending to newsmakers who may at best be incoherent or slow to respond and at worst, obstructive/vindictive, and a shorthanded backend of copy eds means that newsroom checks and balances may not always work as intended.

Red faces ensued when the Page 1 picture of a man who died during a race turned up to be someone who was still alive. A Page 1 apology followed promptly.

There was that Money Page story of economic figures, complete with quotes from analysts, which said that a certain sector's performance went one way. Alas, the tiny What It Should Have Been correction that was subsequently published confessed that the sector's peformance had actually gone the other way.(Hopefully, stock market punters did not lose money on that story.)

It will be interesting to speculate how Singapore's mainstream media might react had a Newsnight-type gaffe been made on local television or in the pages of *name your favourite newspaper*. Would the axe fall on the lowest minion in the newsroom's chain of command or would the Beeb's example be replayed with the same vigour?

What about the government sector and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)? Do they practice a blame culture by passing the buck to the lowest life form in the organisation or.....?

Play out this scenario and you will realise why the Beeb's newsroom standards are a tough act to follow.

"To have been the director general of the BBC even for a short period, and in the most challenging of circumstances, has been a great honour," the Beeb's outgoing DG said.

"We must not lose sight of the fact that the BBC is full of people of the greatest talent and the highest integrity.
"That's what will continue to make it the finest broadcaster in the world."

Primus inter pares.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Where talk is cheap: Rushed start for Our Singapore Conversation puts it on a weak footing for public engagement

With Singapore's reputation as a smart planner, why did the national conversation start off the way it did?

Flip flops over public positions (first saying there are no sacred cows, then quickly backpeddling), indecisiveness over the role of bloggers and Opposition parties (first stigmatising both for their partisan views, then claiming "no one has a monopoly on wisdom") make one wonder if the people responsible for steering the national conversation can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Given time, the public relations (PR) blunders that dogged the national conversation could have been avoided if care had been taken to place substance over form.

So why the rush?

Clarion call
A possible reason is the Establishment's recognition that it urgently needs to reshape public perceptions that it is out of touch with the views of Singaporeans. Make no mistake, the unprecedented loss of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) during last year's General Elections (GE) has stoked fears that more dominos will fall come GE 2016. The loss of heavyweight ministers, toppled from Aljunied GRC, was a clarion call that something had to be done to soothe simmering discontent.

Had the Establishment's feedback process not been so dysfunctional, we would not need a national conversation in the first place because the Establishment already has ample avenues to hear and respond to your views and aspirations on hope, heart and home.

* The NTUC trade union and grassroots body, the People's Association (PA), make no bones about being firmly in the MIW camp.
* There are weekly Meet the People Sessions (MPS) chaired by Members of Parliament, which allows MPs one-on-one face time with their residents.
* There is the feedback portal called REACH, which is a clever acronym which stands for reaching everyone for active citizenry @ home.
* Most government ministeries have a feedback unit, and a No Wrong Door policy that ensures public feedback reaches the desk of the right ministry.
* MIW MPs can draw feedback from their respective Facebook pages.
* We have a compliant mainstream media who operate within out-of-bounds (OB) markers drawn up by the Establishment.

Adding the national conversation to this massive hearts and minds machinery will count for nothing if the system's well-known intolerance for feedback it doesn't like to hear does not change.

Well meaning Singaporeans will be hesitant to step forward as they have seen how the system treats outcasts and people it deems as political or security risks.

Indeed, word has it that some universities in Singapore require undergraduates to submit their questions to the moderator before questions can be raised with certain invited guest speakers. This is a departure from the previous practice during Q&A time when anyone who has something to say simply walks up to the microphone and fires away. The new guideline was possibly introduced to avoid a repeat of the situation when a guest speaker of some standing was flummoxed by sharp questions from the floor.

The ground is sweet
At the other extreme, lick spittles will migrate to whichever platform is the flavour of the day. They will do their utmost to ensure obsequious praise and finely calibrated accolades reach the right ears, at the right time and place.

A jaundiced view of real world issues, fanned by a coterie of advisors who have a personal agenda to advance is, in my view, one chief reason why MIW big shots get so blindsided with tactical, granular issues that irk heartlanders. This is why the ground is always sweet: No one dares to be the bad guy to pop the news that may anger their political masters.

In the larger scheme of things, the lack of a Red Team who can serve as rigorous sparring partners to Establishment thinkers is one weakness the MIW have yet to fix.

So while a MIW candidate may dominate when it comes to crafting grand strategic issues like foreign policy, that same strategic genius may be clueless about everyday, bread and butter issues that worries households at the tactical level. And the price exacted during a GE is a heavy one indeed.

National effort
To their credit, the folks who named the national effort to get Singaporeans to think and articulate the future that they want did a splendid job calling it the national conversation, which is officially known as Our Singapore Conversation (Our SG Conversation).

Elevating it to a national platform ennobles the talk shop.

It gives it a gravitas and prestige that grassroots dialogues held in community centres simply cannot match.

Branding it as something "national" is doubly smart because cynics and critics who want no part of the national conversation risk casting themselves as self-centered, uncharitable spoilsports with no community spirit who turned their backs on a national-level initiative. It is like turning away the tissue paper auntie at hawker centres who is trying to eke out a living selling packs of tissue that you may neither need nor want: Banish her from your table and you will be seen as a cold-hearted, pitiless, tight wad.

After 47 years of having their lives dictated by the Establishment, Singaporeans will need some convincing that what they express during the national conversation really counts for something. From reports in the mainstream media, participants are not short of ideas and feedback, as evidenced by hand drawn mind maps and suggestions compiled during sessions held thus far.

Heaven only knows whether these ideas end up on the next trash barge to the Pulau Semakau landfill, or whether the Establishment will think through, reflect upon and implement your ideas that have bubbled up from the ground.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The magic of 2016: Winning hearts and minds for General Election 2016

myPaper, 22 November 2011

If you have even one atom of awareness about Singapore's political landscape in your veins, the numbers two, zero, one and six - arranged in that order - should resonate with weighty significance as it casts the spotlight on the year by which the next General Elections (GE) should be held.

Whether by accident or design, the year 2016 pops up with intriguing regularity as the project completion end point for big ticket items paid for by tax payers.

For Singapore watchers, this means the lead up to and entry into Year 2016 will be peppered with media events such as opening ceremonies, ribbon-cuttings and speeches for high-profile projects to crown the project's completion.

These opportunities should be clear to anyone who tracks expected end dates for high-profile items, because the end points for more than a handful of projects converge in and around 2016.

Accuracy and validity
True, one would need a lot more than accurate observations to validate the hypothesis that there is something sinister an invisible hand that is seeding the path towards Year 2016 with media moments.

But even if these projects are part and parcel of nation building and the Year 2016 is mere coincidence, one should take note that these projects represent a public relations (PR) bonanza for politicians eager to polish their image in the eyes of voters.

When one project after another makes newspaper headlines as we approach 2016 and as new services earn smiles from heartlanders who use such infrastructure, that feel-good sentiment, those positive vibes will do wonders for any re-election campaign.

The Straits Times, 1 November 2012

Hearts and minds 101
A successful track record is the bedrock for a hearts and minds campaign that wants to anchor itself on something more substantial than platitudes, forced smiles and hot air (which political speech writers are not short of). By having something to show and by giving heartlanders something they value (like brand new commuter trains), an opening ceremony/ribbon-cutting gives the astute politican a platform to bask in reflected glory.

Such events serve as a report card for progress. They are deliverables that innoculate politicians against accusations of making empty promises; a tangible example of foresight and planning which distinguishes a leader from his followers.

And opportunities abound as every sunset brings us inexorably closer to the year by which the next GE must be called.

By Year 2014, Singapore should have a new Sports Hub comprising a 55,000-seat capacity stadium. Never mind that the much-delayed project will give our city state a stadium with the same seating capacity as the 1970s era National Stadium that was torn down to make way for the new one.

Sports Hub ribbon-cutting will be followed by regional games in the said arena. With thousands of students and Singaporeans roped in to help with the event, this sense of common purpose should generate oodles of goodwill - if the project is executed properly (PR gaffes like complains over sub standard duty meals for the Youth Olympic Games and expired tickets to thank YOG volunteers spring to mind).

In Year 2015,  we can expect National Day celebrations the likes of which we've never seen before as Singapore marks 50 years of independence.

Coupled with initiatives by government-linked companies to introduce new services, Singaporeans certainly have much to look forward to in hardware and heartware improvements in coming years.

Cuts both ways
To be sure, shrewd campaign managers of all - repeat all - political leanings can capitalise on such opportunities to maximise PR mileage. By scanning the horizon, campaign managers can engineer occasions for their master to talk about the need to improve (pick your favourite bugbear) before the official announcement makes it a media event.

In doing so, even an underdog can make it seem like a new service was delivered in response to constant and unflagging calls for better services or infrastructure. It would steal the thunder from the official show and underscore that the underdog is on top of the situation, not as clueless or uncoordinated as their ballot box opponents make them out to be.

One warning about engineering publicity: Politicking is high risk, high reward.

If done ineptly, a blinkered PR strategy could backfire spectacularly because you can't fool all the people, all the time.

Friday, October 26, 2012

SMRT Circle Line disruption: Telling the rail story

If the two SMRT breakdowns last December provided students of crisis communications with dozens of newspaper articles as food for thought, the total breakdown of SMRT's 35-km long Circle Line last night provided us with a stark contrast in crisis comms management.

Instead of blanket coverage in the prime pages of The Straits Times (ST), Singapore's only English laguage broadsheet, news of the unprecedented outage is buried on Page 10. The story is a page lead of modest length and no photograph. It does not indicate if SMRT was approached for a comment.

And the story on a service disruption that involved some some 30 Circle Line train stations on the eve of a long weekend and during Halloween season when thousands of revellers would have thronged nightspots was graced by a quote from just one commuter.

The freesheet Today goes one up with a Page 1 story on the SMRT incident. Alas, the story is derailed by a headline which understates the severity of the problem. It reads: "Major disruption on Circle Line, hundreds affected". North Korean press minders have found their match.(Note: SMRT said on Friday that 10,500 people were affected.)

Sugar coating problems with public transportation is not the way to win hearts and minds. People affected will talk. Those unaffected but not unaware will realise the scale of the breakdown. And when people compare what they hear with what they read in the papers, the disconnect between perception and reality will force the thinking public to make a stand.

The first thing to go out of the window when sugar coating problems is credibility.

Once that is lost, the next domino to fall is trust.

Once trust is damaged, people may think the worst of small-scale system disruptions which make it to the mainstream media in future because readers may think the story was deliberately downplayed even if it wasn't. It may also lend credence to rumour mongers who make mountains out of molehills, confusing people who have no beacon of trust to guide them.

From a rail operations standpoint, SMRT should count itself lucky the Circle Line did not breakdown hours earlier during the evening rush hour as thousands more would have been affected in a grim replay of December's outage.

From a print operations standpoint, the 10:26pm service disruption left the print media precious little time to orientate the newspaper to cover the event as the print deadline loomed. The worst possible time for such incidents to take place would be mid afternoon, just before ST editors convene their afternoon editorial meeting (the Nicoll Highway collapse hit that sweet spot, leaving the newspaper ample time to redraw the line up of stories to maximise coverage of the disaster).

Lucky for SMRT, the late night incident also missed the broadcast media's primetime news slots.

From the perspective of crisis comms students, it will be interesting to see the effort made by SMRT to apologise for explain the incident. The longer the delay, the less newsworthy the story. This means SMRT may enjoy a reprieve from this incident not because of better crisis comms preparedness, but from sheer good fortune that the timing of the outage fell solidly in its favour - even with the entire Circle Line affected.

Indeed, the lack of ad hominem attacks on SMRT's new Chief Executive could be explained by the lack of mention of his name in both ST and Today's story. There was no press conference to chair, no media scrum to battle, no SMRT personality to bear the brunt of commuter's anger.

It could be different next time - once the honeymoon is over.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Please click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Show-and-tell at the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) elite Naval Diving Unit

As cameras and mobilephones clicked away at some of the fittest Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) warfighters you can find, a four-storey structure emblazoned with the words HMS Terror loomed above everyone.

This was not one of Her Majesty's Ships but a Hull Mock-up System whose namesake commemorates the real HMS Terror - a Royal Navy monitor armed with 15-inch guns. HMS Terror (warship) was sent to the then Colony of Singapore to protect the island while the Singapore naval base (now Sembawang Shipyard) and coastal fortifications were being built.

Blast from the past: The Royal Navy monitor HMS Terror photographed in 1933. Her 15-inch guns were from a turret built for the battleship HMS Furious, which lost her guns when she was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Today's HMS Terror (training aid) is a part of Sembawang Camp that has been fought over more often and more fiercely than other part of the historical military site that overlooks the Johor Strait (to add to the confusion, Sembawang Camp used to be known as Terror Barracks). The combatants belong to the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN) crack Naval Diving Unit (NDU), who use the training aid to sharpen skills needed to board ships or structures at sea and then take over control of the target vessel/structure through force of arms.

Training for our combat divers takes place far beyond the fenceline of NDU.

The was plainly evident from the type and variety of qualification badges proudly worn by NDU divers on their Number 3 uniforms when the crack unit gave about 80 Singaporean community leaders a rare look at what goes on in their camp this Sunday morning.

The coveted Budweisers indicate the diver had trained with the United States Navy's elite Seal unit. Some wore badges earned from Australia's Special Air Service while others donned para wings earned during special forces training in South Africa.

Reading the salad bar of RSN regulars, one could tell who had been on real missions - the medal for Operation Flying Eagle (2004 Boxing Day quake/tsunami relief mission) being one that I always look out for. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find two NDU divers standing side by side in their No. 3 uniform with exactly the same combat skills badges and operational experience.

Show-and-tell at NDU helped civilians better understand how they earn their pay. The corporate video screened repeatedly as visitors waited for the event to get underway underlined the challenges NDU tadpoles (i.e. trainees) encounter on their journey to becoming full fledged frogmen. Even military novices among the visitors realised immediately that NDU is no ordinary SAF unit.

If walls could talk, one would probably learn of the hardship tadpoles of past batches had to endure during 120 hours of Hell Week "Team Building Week" that pushes everyone to their limit, and then some.

Even so, it was an eye-opener to learn that NDU counts two Singaporean women among its elite group of combat divers.

It was tantalising to accidentally overhear that the RSN plans to stage a Navy Open House in April 2013.

It was reassuring to know that even with the tough physical and mental pressure that tadpoles have to endure, there are many full-time National Servicemen handpicked for the job who are determined to qualify as a combat diver.

These youngsters do so with full awareness that completion of Team Building Week marks the start of even more challenging training to come. And throughout their NS commitment, they will shoulder some of the most complex and demanding maritime security taskings the SAF is tasked to execute. Those who made it take the demanding regime in their stride and the esprit in the elite unit is something one has to see firsthand to appreciate.

But the real value of the visit came from helping citizens keep in touch with their citizens' armed forces.

It also gave the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF an opportunity to stay in touch with the community's viewpoints on defence and security matters. Questions fielded by Dr Mohammad Maliki bin Osman, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and National Development who hosted the visit, and MINDEF/SAF officials probably gave them a firsthand feel of things on the minds of Singaporeans.

One hopes such community relations will continue in other parts of the SAF as the effort to generate and sustain mindshare with Singaporeans is one with a long time horizon.

A hit with visitors: Community leaders watch NDU combat divers demonstrate what they can do underwater, which includes reconnaissance from sea to shore, sea mine disposal as well as the ability to approach a target vessel underwater with minimal signature. 

It is difficult to put a finger on the ROI from rostering dozens of NDU personnel for Sunday duty and for the assorted cost items involved in making such visits a success. But if one considers banking positive emotional capital as one measure of success, then this morning's visit most certainly helped MINDEF/SAF bank even more emotional credits.

From a personal standpoint, it was a pleasure revisiting a unit last seen in November 2007. The opportunity to walk the grounds of a camp that groomed successive cohorts of NDU divers whom I met during Ops Blue Orchid 1 and Ops Flying Eagle strengthened one's appreciation of what NDU divers have to go through to qualify for operational taskings.