Thursday, April 9, 2015

Image and identity for new SAF units

There are military units such as the British Special Air Service (SAS) who have earned a battlefield reputation - some would say mystique - which makes the SAS primus inter pares.

And then we have the Volkssturm from the Second World War. This name evokes the image of a people's militia cobbled together from extreme ends of the male age spectrum, hastily trained and thrown into combat - the dying Nazi regime's last burst of defiance after being bled white of military-age defence manpower.

The Singapore Armed Force (SAF) has its fair share of units that have built up an image and identity that few rationale folks would want to challenge in a fair fight. The Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) is one example. Ditto the assorted Republic of Singapore Air Force numbered squadrons whom you would never see at the SAF Best Unit competition.

And unless image and identity are carefully cultivated, the SAF risks raising its own version of militia units that nobody takes seriously.

The People's Defence Force (PDF) once had the veneer of a dad's army - old, out of shape reservists in faded Number 4 uniforms and awkward fire movements who were our last line of defence.

But today's PDF projects a vastly improved corporate reputation. Post 9/11, PDF units have spearheaded island defence and counter attack force roles with a professionalism, dedication and aplomb that has recast the formation as an operationally-ready fighting force to be reckoned with.

Good public relations had nothing to do with it. Instead, it was the boots on the ground - full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (NSmen) and regulars from specialised PDF security battalions whose actions and conduct while executing Ops Bascinet said all there was to be said. It is a heart-warming turnaround that underlines how commitment to defence contributes tangibly to the SAF's deterrence value.

As new units stand up, it is vital that image and identity are nurtured with care. This goes above and beyond the smoke and mirrors which a sceptical Singaporean public - comprised predominantly of citizen soldiers and their loved ones - can see through immediately.

It will involve building a unit's identity and ethos. It will demand that the unit decide what are the core values that will drive this segment of our citizen's army in achieving its mission and vision.

And while being "new" brings attendant challenges in establishing one's corporate identity, new units whose enterprise stems from a proud record of citizens who stepped forward, steadfast and vigilant, to fight for the Lion City have a firm foundation to build upon.

The tricky bit comes with integrating a new unit just out of mothballs with a Third Generation SAF. In so doing, the new entity must convince their fellow warfighters that its CONOPS is credible and the fighting men and women in its ranks are highly-motivated individuals who are determined not to be the weak links in our citizen's army.

Such awareness building isn't happenstance. It must be stamped through a sustained and proactive effort at building hearts and minds within the SAF and throughout our defence ecosystem.

Do it well and a posting to such new units becomes desired among career SAF officers, not a dreaded one that spells a dead-end to one's SAF career.

Do it creditably and new intakes become self-sustaining. Citizens will step forward willingly and regularly. Those who do will come from a cross section of Singaporean society whose diverse backgrounds and experience will serve the SAF eminently well. This is because whereas a professional army of career soldiers must make do with what it has, a citizen's army can draw upon the human capital from an entire nation. And if the new SAF unit can cherry pick the best and deploy such men and women as needed, this sustained talent infusion will put the SAF one up against a regular army whose defence manpower ages by the day.

In this regard, knowledge capture for a new unit is vital. Pictures, key dates and names should be diligently recorded in a "war diary", so to speak, to strengthen the institutional memory as the unit builds itself up. A properly curated record will retain contributions from the pioneer batch and subsequent batches of volunteers, as well as those from regulars before the inevitable posting order brings them to another part of the SAF.

Awareness building with stakeholders is crucial too. This encompasses convincing colleagues in the SAF of the new unit's relevance and value to the defence ecosystem, as well as informing and educating a wider population of the unit's raison d'etre. Establishing a credible image and identity on homeground will telegraph to friends and frenemies why the new unit was set up and how it contributes to the SAF's deterrence value.

It is a tall order with no finish line.

1 comment:

Trebuchet said...

While I've always found your blog excellent—doesn't waste time or words, good material—this post particularly resonates because you mention the role of archiving in identity-building. Very true.