Friday, February 20, 2015

The future of Singapore Armed Forces SAF Displays and Open Houses

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People over the age of 40 who have been following developments in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will probably have a good idea what an "SAF Display" is all about.

As a tool for engaging the public, the SAF Display is all but extinct.

And at the current development trajectory, SAF Open Houses may soon become critically endangered.

The downsizing of the SAF Open House from an event rotated annually among bases belonging to the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) or Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has negligible impact on our armed forces present-day ability to protect our island nation.

So why bother bemoaning the dilution of the SAF's public signature?

Because the impact will be felt downstream, years from now. One could argue that the disappearance of the SAF Open House from what Singaporeans are used to seeing to a watered down, Open House-light can, over time, exert a corrosive impact on commitment to defence. In other words, the withering away of open houses as crowd magnets could, like a slow-growing cancer, dull the appeal of a military career among young Singaporeans and the public's view of what the SAF is all about.

In the United States (US), where military parades are almost never held as these are frowned upon by American society, the US military knows how to pack in the crowds during open houses at military bases. Air shows set the stage for the US military to impress the audience. Even during times of budget cuts, you can bet there will be some venues, somewhere in CONUS that will pull out all the stops to put on a good show. Why?

Because if you got a dollar every time you read about an American serviceman or servicewoman who credited some mind-blowing air display as the catalyst which put the youngster on the road which led to a career as a military aviator, you would probably end up with a chunk of change. Yes, air shows are that impactful. The US military has long realised this. Ditto the air forces of major NATO countries. But what about the SAF?

In its heyday during the 1970s till the early 1980s, the SAF Display used to feature heavily on the public relations (PR) calendar of the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF.

Those of you on the wrong side of 40 may recall the show of force staged by the Singapore Army, RSN and RSAF in years long past. The static display was populated by war machines from all three Services. Even venues far from air bases, like the West Coast Park, had RSAF warplanes displayed on pierced steel planking (PSP) matting. These were towed there in the small hours of the morning when traffic on our roads was light. RSAF 35mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns entertained countless children as merry go rounds. Tickets were sold for the ever-popular mobile display which had, among its many highlights, a mock attack by AMX-13 light tanks screened by armoured infantry, with RSAF airpower screaming above the heads of our soldiers and flaming fireballs marking the end of enemy positions.

Decades on, Singaporeans who attended such displays recall fondly how the show-and-tell left an indelible mark on their early impressions of our armed Services.

Defence enthusiast Sean, now in his mid 40s, remembers watching soldiers demonstrate how they breached wire obstacles. They did so by falling onto the wire (see picture above) to compress the wire with their body weight so other soldiers could leap across the breach. He said:"I thought, seow liao, next time during NS, I will have to do this."

And then there were the riveting air displays that showed off the flying prowess of our then-young Air Force. Virtually every RSAF aircraft and helicopter type took part in the air displays. It wasn't just a Black Knights show, but a Team RSAF effort that was marketed in colourful brochures that defence enthusiasts could not bear to throw away. Such is the legacy of the 1G RSAF.

To the legion of Singaporeans defence enthusiasts, there's no debate whether or not SAF Displays had any value in generating and sustaining commitment to defence. To this crowd, one is preaching to the converted.

So what about the rest of  Singapore? Passion aside, are such events really worth pushing for?

They cost money to stage. That much is obvious. But if the SAF of yesteryear somehow found the moolah to plan and execute SAF Displays from the mid-1970s (and this, mind you, was after the Oil Shock), just how valid is the "no money" mantra as a show-stopper?

To be sure, MINDEF/SAF does not seem to lack PR dollars. Speak to advertising industry types and you may learn that the RSAF's recruitment video budget is one of the biggest prizes an A&P professional could gun for. How much? A cool $1 million.

And the Total Defence PR gigs don't come cheap either. It is said that one campaign titled "What will you defend?" cost MINDEF around $110,000 to fund. Now without going to Google, what do you recall from that PR campaign?

What a PR campaign may cost and the value MINDEF/SAF gets from it are two different considerations altogether.

At the heart of the matter, staff officers must ask themselves if they are staging an event or selling an experience. And if experiential learning is a desired outcome, just what sort of experience do you want visitors to go home with? The experience of hankering over freebies (which are doubtlessly tastefully planned and nice to collect) or the experience of going home with a new found respect for the SAF?

There's a worry among some observers that MINDEF/SAF may get ahead of itself as the shopping mall exhibitions become the new normal and eventually become stand ins for the tried-and-tested SAF Open House template. There's a risk that the shopping mall exhibitions may become over-engineered too, with the focus on nice-to-have but ultimately non-essential collaterals. There is a concern that budget-wise, money will be frittered away on stuff like air-conditioned tents (which don't come cheap) and fancy story boards (which are expensive to design).

At the recent SAF50@Vivo exhibition, SAF Ambassadors from all three Services came across as well-motivated and properly inducted in the art of hospitality. Many needed little prompting in approaching visitors and proactively engaged their guests in meaningful conversation.

Many did their duty under the blazing sun. They were deployed on the last weekend before the Lunar New Year and did so cheerfully and professionally.

If one traces the genesis of exhibitions at the VivoCity shopping mall, these stemmed from the display of RSN warships that berthed alongside the seafront shopping mall. The exhibition, titled Navy@Vivo, was then -  as is now - novel because it brought the Navy to Singaporeans.

But while the @Vivo branding works well for the Navy, the Army and RSAF ought to ponder how the annual war chest that goes into their A&P budget would perhaps give them more bang for buck.

Decentralised exhibitions held in areas with high footfall, such as bus interchanges or MRT stations, would obviously clock respectable attendance figures. That much is a no brainer. But make a distinction between how much of that audience is incidental (as passers-by have to pass through the area anyway) and how much is derived from people who make an effort to attend the event? An astute statistician could argue the numbers to suit any agenda.

More than just numbers, one ought to ask if distributing one's efforts in penny packets during decentralised exhibitions is ultimately better than concentrating the effort to host an open house stretched over a reasonable period of time.

When all is said and done, the SAF is a profession of arms, not a travelling circus.

That much is clear when we get to see the SAF in its element, smell the jet fuel and gun smoke. Make those opportunities a reality.


Delta Whiskey said...

Hi David,

My thoughts exactly; my father brought me religiously to such exhibitions when I was a kid, and I wouldn't be as interested in defence today if not for them.

Perhaps part of the reason that these displays have gone away is because there wasn't the internet or the ability to hold 'decentralized exhibitions' in the past.

I can understand the tendency to spend money and let the civilian agencies do the work rather than tweak training schedules and the like.

Like you say, though, I challenge the effectiveness of such measures. You also forget to add that the same old static displays and formats are often re-used, which perhaps is a cost saving measure but isn't terribly creative or exciting.

ZeoiNagePotato said...

MINDEF is hoping the Ah Boys movie will produce a Top Gun effect on navy recruitment.

Jokes aside though, which do you think has greater influence on whether a young man decides to sign on? An awesome display he saw as a kid, or his 2 years as an NSF? What about a SAFOS offer?

Anyway, the Instagram generation makes up a large chunk of MINDEF's current target audience. To impress this group, any SAF display had better be much more exciting than Call of Duty or whatever they play nowadays. Long queues and hot, humid weather will be a no-no, plus please keep all textual information to under 140 characters. Oh wait, scratch that, twitter's lame already, use only gifs and memes.

Btw, they think NCC is lame, NEmation is lame, and Total Defence Day is a nice break from lessons but still lame. Social studies and history is lame government propaganda.

(Source: Teenage baby cousins who find many things "lame".)

D-Boy said...

Agree with you, David. Took my son to SAF50@Vivo and was appalled to see that the army booth only had cardboard cut-outs of SAR21 for photo op. The only decent piece of army kit was the LSV (didn't care much for the MP bikes). At least the navy bothered to bring out their Glocks and H&Ks along with very polite NDU personnel (some with all sorts of overseas shoulder patches).

I also agree that the SAF should not worry about central locations for their displays. From what I remember, there were no shortage of Singaporeans who used to brave the shuttle buses to open days at Paya Lebar a few years ago. Same can be said about those would do the same to spend a few hours in Changi every two years.

My hypothesis is that this could be due to the naysayers who would complain about the opulence of putting on such events. It is a sensitive time for anybody who utilises public funds. All you need is one idiot (who probably never even served) to kick a fuss online, ST Forum, via his MP, etc, and all hell breaks loose for the organisers. If this is the real reason why we are not getting a respectable display of what's protecting us, then I think it's a crying shame.

totoro said...

I have very fond memories of the SAF Display held at the then Changi Airbase. That was really a perfect location for such event. You could see fighter planes taking off right in front of you and at the same time the beach provided a perfect site for assault boats landing.

ibatawi said...

These day, anything less than a LF is not siok enough . Perhaps a firepower demo like the Mt Fuji demo ?

I remember those days the explosions could be felt up close , with heat wave hitting your face . Most impressive was the Amx 13 triggering its rounds ( might be blank but was enough for a young kid like me ) hitting an offshore target & setting it ablaze. It seems like the TSR thing has kick away the garang-ness. The last Openhouse demo I visited was such disappointing, the Guardsmen rappel was slow motion and the overwhelming sound system from the Orator + unnecessary music flooded the little bangs from those blank guns / mini thunder flash explosion - what a big shame.

I stopped visiting those static display, such boring stuff . And really , the shows are more boys than Men .

Asrar Ahmad said...

Hi, yup nothing like the old days, but the RSN ship visit plus the FLC ride was bonus for my 9 years old daughter. We were lucky that the allowed us to join the ride even thou we did not know we need an invite to get a ride.
They did allow the public to get close to the equipment. As close as to the pre 911 days.
The Spyder AD system and the assault buggy was the most interesting display unit.
Two thubs up for mindef..

The said...

The mock battles with tanks at the West Coast Park were great.

TheSounDOne said...

if my memories is correct, the last major static & mobile display involving all 3 services was at Sembawang AB?

David Boey said...

@TheSounDOne, There was a mobile display at the open field at Marina South in 2000, plus a Sea Review off shore. But this was nothing compared to the SAF Display at West Coast Park for those old enough to remember.