Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Our SG Conversation: When defence matters will become an instant talking point

Although defence matters were overshadowed by other hot topics - housing, health care education - during the Our Singapore Conversation, national chatter over defence-linked issues will spring forth unexpectedly, forcibly and perhaps unpleasantly should the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) report a large number of deaths from a single incident.

That tragedy will be the acid test for decades of work spearheaded by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF to engender a strong and lasting spirit of commitment to defence (C2D) among Singaporeans.

A near-miss decades ago very nearly gave us that national tragedy.

It occurred when a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) C-130 Hercules transport made an unscheduled stopover in a regional country after encountering a mechanical situation while fully loaded with troops. The 122 Squadron aircraft had more than 75 souls onboard.

Had the worst happened and the C-130 went down in a foreign country, the death toll would have eclipsed any other peacetime SAF training incident. Thankfully, all SAF personnel were safe.

Singapore is fortunate that the ensuing newspaper story on the incident was just a couple of paragraphs long.

MINDEF/SAF was doubly fortunate it took place before the invention and proliferation of social media as a medium for disseminating news.

Taken in today's context, a replay of that incident is quite likely to generate more attention than MINDEF/SAF defence information managers need, want or deserve.

Steeling the defence ministry for a worst-case scenario involves more than simply scaling up resources. For instance, if a certain number of information management personnel are required to handle a single SAF training death, the resources required for multiple deaths does not necessarily rise proportionately.

Speed of news gathering, accuracy in assessing data gathered and in disseminating the media release quickly are factors that should be at the core of any effort any crisis comms plan that aspires to maintain credibility while holding the initiative in managing news flows.

If the SAF bleeds, the resulting chatter among Singaporeans can be expected to touch on these themes:

First, tactical level questions on the incident itself. What happened? Who is responsible? How can we avoid a similar tragedy and so on.

Depending on the profile of the fatalities list - the race and age group of the dead, how many NSFs, how many SAF servicewomen, how many were the only child, how many were children of New Citizens - the mainstream media can be expected to churn out stories by stalking wakes that spring up across our island.

Seen through the clinical eyes of PR professionals or reporters, the permutations for such human interest stories is finite. The expected lifespan in the mainstream media can also be predicted before public interest eventually and inevitably fizzles out.

A situation involving heavy loss of life will put MINDEF/SAF's track record in administering the military under close and intense public scrutiny.

Here's where MINDEF/SAF's reputation as a smart user of defence technology and its competence in defence engineering may help Singaporeans accept that the incident may have been an isolated one.

Such a reputation needs to be zealously protected because the trust Singaporeans place in the hands of MINDEF/SAF when they send their sons for  National Service will be shaken should professional lapses or incompetence prove to be a contributory factor in a national tragedy.

The Skyhawk Crisis during the mid 1980s is an example of an episode in MINDEF/SAF defence engineering history where public confidence in the RSAF's most numerous combat aircraft type was tested after a series of crashes.

This is why investments in keeping MINDEF/SAF's technological edge sharp are so vital in convincing Singaporeans than when the worst happens, a best-effort had been made in keeping our defence hardware in top form.

Reputations aside, one should remember that all SAF training deaths involve giving next of kin answers to questions they may find difficult articulating during their time of grief. The manner in which MINDEF/SAF deals with heartware must assume primacy in the crisis comms plan; corporate image comes second during such situations because this will take care of itself if people are convinced the organisation has done all it can to help the NOKs.

Second, a large death toll can be expected to trigger a wider debate on defence matters. Such debate may be framed in philosophical terms on defence matters that have nothing to do with the incident itself.

Questions raised on the need for National Service, who serves NS and who doesn't, can be expected to underpin discussions that will push concerns on Our SG Conversation hot topics such as housing, health care and education to the backburner temporarily.

These are bugbears that MINDEF/SAF alone cannot handle as they address the strategic thrust of Singapore's growth plan that a single ministry is ill-tasked to talk about.

Depending on the scale of the tragedy, the national mourning that will undoubtedly take place will prompt many Singaporeans to go into soul-searching mode for answers to questions on immigration, the Population White Paper etc that Our SG Conversation has thus far sidestepped.

Here's where sound information management protocols and credible voices will play a vital role in managing the situation. That credibility isn't built during a crisis but is cashed in using emotional credits earned from heartlanders during day-to-day situations and interaction between MINDEF/SAF and Singaporeans.

On our tiny island nation, deaths of strangers have resonated among Singaporeans who mourn and weep for individuals they do not know.

The mainstream media devoted pages of coverage after four Republic of Singapore Navy women sailors died after RSS Courageous collided with a container ship.[We have had near-misses involving Republic of Singapore Navy tank landing ships - both County-class and Endurance-class ships - which collided in the Singapore Strait with cargo vessels soon after leaving the naval base on their respective MIDS Sea Training Deployments. The loss of these LSTs would have made newspaper headlines too.]

The incident involving SAF conscripts in Taiwan after a ROCAF F-5F crashed into a warehouse there generated more awareness on Singapore's military presence in Taiwan than from any previous incident or event.

Handled ineptly, poor information management may ultimately result in the inevitable head(s) rolling down Gombak hill as public pressure may force the Singov's hand in being seen as doing something to cool public anger.

The situation depicted here is hard to imagine because Singaporeans have never experienced a heavy death toll from a single SAF incident.

If and when that day comes, we will know how strong C2D in this country really is.


Anonymous said...

Why the sudden solemn mood?

Anonymous said...

Singapore should stop conscript, 2 more year of proper work lifes and worry free 10 will be more benefiting to total defense.

Anonymous said...

I feel it is kind of waste of time guarding a budget hotel where guests come and go after having a good time. It basically sums up our situation here now with 2nd generation NS and the vast number of foreigners. It is also a Trojan Horse possibility.

Anonymous said...

The covered launcher on some of the Singapore frigates could be this device, as seen on FREMM.