Saturday, October 18, 2014

Islamic State versus SAF Volunteer Corps: Five reasons why IS has a more effective volunteer programme

Two armed organisations, same challenge: How to uproot civilians from their daily routine to support a military cause.

In one corner: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) with nearly 50 years of brand equity, full support from the apparatus of state, an alumni of 900,000 Singaporean men who have served full-time National Service, a credible (albeit unproven) arsenal of some of the deadliest war machines you will find in Southeast Asia, a mobilisation process (proven) that gives Singapore one of the fastest transitions from peace to war. The target of the newly-announced SAF Volunteer Corps: 100 to 150 volunteers to be recruited over a year.

Then look at the Islamic State (IS): Volunteers who step forward are branded as terrorists and emerge on the watch list of assorted intelligence agencies. Deployed in-theatre, they face attacks by the combined might of some of the world's most powerfully-armed countries. Homecoming will probably earn them a chat with their local police.

And yet, to the consternation of IS detractors, tens of thousands are said to have stepped forward from all over the world, with a level of motivation that has seen some willingly take on offensive ops that leads to their certain death. The growing IS footprint on maps of the Middle East would not have been possible without the support of their volunteers. If there was a prize for a successful volunteer programme, this organisation - whatever you think of their end-state or motivation - will probably be hard to beat.

Here's why:

1. The volunteer programme is sexy. 
Move from civvie street to join their ranks and one instantly becomes a "fighter". The world's media trips over itself trying to guesstimate the size of their volunteer corps (30,000+ fighters?) and brands all who join it fighters, regardless of the level and quality of military training (if any) these new recruits possess. The word "IS fighter", when blended with the fear-mongering that assorted bespoke videos are engineered to provoke, creates an armed organisation whose shock effect is probably all out of proportion to the actual military capability of their military hardware and small arms.

2. Their ground-up movement or GUMS is phenomenal. 
No Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). No public relations campaign to generate and sustain media interest. No fancy literature to explain their volunteer corps equivalent. Unlimited call up period with the prospect of an anonymous death. Even so, many individuals have made their personal life changing decision to leave their loved ones to join a condemned cause with little or no prospect of home leave. Active in cyberspace, this has led to the recruitment message spreading to all corners of the planet, in various tongues and calibrated in a tone that resonates with their target audience. Can you beat that?

3. Their source of funding is mysterious. 
If press reports are to be believed, the allowance that an IS "fighter" receives is higher than that of an average full-time National Servicemen. Enough said.

4. Their common purpose has been elevated as a noble cause. 
Generations ago, there was an army whose soldiers defied world opinion, marched on wars of conquest and fought to the bitter end even as their dying nation was bombed to smithereens. Their belt buckles carried the slogan: Gott Mit Uns. And they believed it resolutely. In 2014, we again see a common purpose framed around servitude to God. In IS battle cries and on their black flags, service for a higher purpose is proclaimed. Tens of thousands believe this and have made the great trek to join their warring brethren. The optics of this volunteer effort is hard to beat.

5. The world is their audience. 
With the world as their catchment area, the size of their recruitment area for potential recruits is vast. But potentially high returns (in volunteers) comes with high risk as world governments close ranks to crimp this effort. And yet they thrive and one must ask why?

At another time in another place, the Spanish Civil War also saw legions of recruits, fired up by propaganda and personal conviction, flock to Spain to fight for their cause. Both sides, operating in a pre-Internet age, used their recruitment processes to good effect during the Spanish Civil War. So one must think through if IS' volunteer campaign is successful because of social media, or whether it thrives regardless of the tools at its disposal. And if the present-day IS and Spanish militias of yesteryear are guide posts to how hearts and minds campaigns should be won, then the SAFVC's stated aim of 100 to 150 volunteers is perhaps way below par and one wonders why the bar has been set so low? This brings us to the next point.

Even before the SAFVC recruitment effort opened shop on Monday (13 October'14) to Singaporeans and Singapore Permanent Residents (SPRs) aged between 18 to 45 years old who want to serve the SAF in uniform, three volunteers were presented to journalists at a media conference at Maju Camp - the SAFVC headquarters.

The fact that MINDEF/SAF had these individuals to parade in front of the media suggests that the SAFVC has an inkling how many Singaporeans/SPRs will respond to their call to action, since three individuals (2% of the SAFVC recruitment target) had evidently stepped forward as volunteers before the recruitment drive went "live". So while it's anyone's guess how many more will apply, it's a pretty safe bet that the figure of 100 to 150 volunteers is not a stretch target but one which can be (somewhat) comfortably achieved. Indeed, one could surmise that the recruitment target will be breached (which is a good thing) and the ground swell of support maximised for PR value in due course as SAFVC can cherry pick the best individuals to fill those 100 to 150 roles.

What's next for the SAFVC is to think through how a GUM can generate and sustain awareness of, and interest in, their cause in a way that eventually ingrains the SAFVC effort as part of the Singapore landscape.

The SAFVC is more than just pulling in warm bodies, numbering 100 to 150 plus souls, which is just about enough to fill the ranks of a slim fit infantry Company.

It is about offering an avenue for Singaporeans/SPRs who need not serve National Service opportunities to contribute to our national defence.

This cause too is a noble and essential duty. SAFVC fighters, please step forward.


Vasenta said...

I do know that SAFVC are pretty selective. I know 2 friends(between 35-40yrs, male) HAVE applied and just RECEIVED rejection notice.

Chew said...

Unedited version of letter published in The Straits Times Forum Letters on 22 Oct 2014.

"Shouldn't the SAF Volunteer Corps (SAFVC) be a military reserve force fully capable of supporting National Servicemen and SAF regulars? Its forebear, the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force, which included naval, air force, special operations, irregular and home guard units, did sterling service alongside regular British Empire troops in the defence of Malaya and Fortress Singapore.

The present military training regime for SAVFC seems to be wanting. Only 2 weeks basic training, 1 week qualification training and 1 week advanced training, such as close combat and weapon handling, for certain roles.

All, in-camp or served over weekends. No regular or minimum continuous training or courses during the year to upgrade or apply military skills.

Malaysia's military reserve force, the Malaysian Territorial Army (MTA), forms the second line of Malaysia's defence. MTA volunteers provide support to regular Malaysian armed forces, key installations' security, area and local defence, and front line duties.

One month in-camp basic training, then annually, 240 hours in-camp weekend training conducted every alternate weekend, with minimum attendance of 60 hours to remain active. At least two, one-week continuous in-camp training to apply weekend trained skills and optional military courses, such as support weapons, tactics, command, staff and a five-week paratrooper conversion course.

Further, an annual two-week camp for counter-insurgency or conventional warfare training and field exercises. MTA forces run both camp and operations, assisted by regular NCOs and officers.

MTA specialist elements include port, railway, water and power regiments. Option for mobilisation of 6 months to 3 years for attachment to MTA combat (armour, artillery, signals, engineers, military police, intelligence) or service (logistic, ordnance, medical) support elements

SAVFC should be transformed to an effective, full-fledged, military reserve force of regiment, brigade or even proper corps strength, which can truly play its part in the defence of Singapore."

Chew Kok Liang