Unless you are Prince William, a walk home from camp doesn’t count as a newsworthy event.
For an unknown Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) soldier, his journey home made the news after the image you see above went viral and ignited debate in Singapore over the mettle of the city state’s citizen soldiers.
This single image has the potential to become iconic. When it does so, it will extract a price from the ongoing efforts by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF to shore up public support for, and confidence in, the Lion City’s armed forces. Swift and effective remedial action is critical by MINDEF/SAF spin doctors, but more on this later.
The picture of an SAF serviceman, presumably a full-time National Serviceman (NSF), trailed by what one assumes is his domestic helper (or unloved gf?) sums up what the SAF’s detractors have long argued and what local authorities have taken pains to correct – that Singapore’s national servicemen are soft city boys. Spoilt softies, pampered by mummy and daddy, fussed over by a domestic helper, unfit for battle, potential liabilities in combat clearly not up to the mark for the rigours of warfare. You don’t need a picture caption to figure this out, do you?
Few SAF images have stirred emotions among Singaporeans as much as this image because it shows what many have suspected and are too polite to say.
Even if the image was posed - as some establishment and MINDEF/SAF types might vainly argue - the strong sentiments it has triggered is a red flag that highlights the fragility of the SAF’s image as a ready, relevant and decisive fighting force. In my opinion, all it takes now is a training incident right smack in this unfolding hullabaloo for Singaporeans to once again question if NSFs can really do the job.
Singaporeans should be grateful that their government does not trust its citizen soldiers enough to allow them to carry their personal firearms home, just as NSmen in places like Israel and Switzerland routinely do. Nothing is more frightful than an image of a domestic helper, laden with war pack and SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle, yomping resolutely behind her young master with Hobbit-like determination.
Security obsessed Singaporean authorities would probably fret about maids hatching a Spartacus-like rebellion if their young charges outsourced the carriage of their SAF paraphernalia to their paid labour.
On and offline, Singaporeans have reacted to this incident the usual way. Many have done so by calling for the Government to step in to punish the soldier.
Singapore already has a reputation as a “fine” city because you can be arrested and slapped with a monetary penalty (i.e. a fine) for picking flowers in a public park, for gathering in groups of more than five (deemed illegal assembly) and numerous other misdemeanors. It would be most unfortunate if the hauling of Singapore Army full packs is also deemed a felony. You see, what good is a paper deterrent unless it can be enforced? And by whom? Legions of plain clothes sleuths from Military Police Command who, in this day and age of post 9/11 heightened vigilance, probably have a gadzillion better things to do than spot, arrest and fine the NSF-porter combo?
And where would MINDEF Legal Services draw the line? If maids cannot help their masters carry SAF kit, would it also be illegal for maids to also help NSmen launder their uniforms, polish their boots? That said, I am waiting for the first SAF officer stupid enough to allow his maid to hand wash his MID numberplate staff car in public. I am sure netizens will not disappoint and will know how to capture that Kodak moment, when it happens.
In the longer term, it would be far better for Singaporean society to proactively police itself by drawing up social norms for citizen soldiers. Singaporeans have themselves to blame if the image of their Army takes a knock should it become socially acceptable for SAF servicemen to walk around with baggage porters in tow. Society needs to do some soul-searching whether or not such acts should be condoned.
Singaporeans, like most Asians, hate losing face. If society frowns on such behavior and corrects errant soldiers harshly in public, most self-respecting males would (one would hope) know the proper thing to do. (As an aside, we now see more examples of commuters who believe that the price of their bus/train ticket entitles them to a seat for their bum and assorted shopping bags. In most cases, commuters would rather just keep mum, preferring a non-confrontational approach than causing a ruckus on the bus/train and complaining later there are not enough seats.)
Lessons for DIMs
Whether or not the image is real or staged, it shows the impact that a single NSF can have on the image of Southeast Asia’s best-equipped armed forces. The unknown soldier is the strategic corporal personified, the warfighter at the bottom of the pecking order of rank-and-file who exerts an influence far out of proportion to his rank’s status.
Defence information managers at MINDEF/SAF walked this road before. In September 2007, NSF Corporal Dave Teo Ming fled his camp with his SAR-21 rifle and ammunition while on guard duty. His night time escape led to an island-wide manhunt and gave him more media coverage than the interview with then Chief of Army, Major-General Neo Kian Hong (now Chief of Defence Force) just a week before. Do your own informal street poll and you will find that the number of people who remember the Dave Teo incident will outstrip the number of people who remember the former COA’s talking points on the Third Generation SAF.
The job of shaping public perceptions goes beyond convincing Singaporeans that their men in green won’t turn yellow before their first taste of battle. This is because the SAF's value as a deterrent against military aggression will be compromised if
MINDEF/SAF is likely to argue that the soldier is an aberration, an atypical example of NSFs who are fully committed to defending their country. A survey of sorts could be used to prop up this assertion. They could trot out NSmen who extended their compulsory NS stint of two years or Operationally Ready NS duty who ran the extra mile for the country (some do so for personal reasons, like getting a free trip to the United States to join a live-fire exercise). Oodles of information of the SAF’s successes in HADR ops and PSOs could be bandied about, as if these missions are leading indicators to the SAF’s performance in a real war (they are not). Some big wig will make a snide comment or two on the picture and then hope the storm will pass.
Shouldering the Defence Burden
Between convincing Singaporeans the SAF is up to the mark and convincing
It is critical that MINDEF/SAF not drop the ball on this issue because any hot war scenario is likely to be preceded by a period of tension (POT) during which psychological games will be used to unnerve the Lion City’s citizen soldiers.
As stated in an earlier post, the SAF is more vulnerable than an all-regular force during a POT because its citizen soldiers must be convinced to 1) mobilize 2) equip for operations 3) deploy 4) fight. During peacetime, NSmen may reason (correctly) that it is more worthwhile reporting for a mobex than paying a fine or spending time in jail.
In a hot war scenario or during a situation when a clash of arms seems more than likely, the NSman’s sense of self-preservation may see him fall out at any of the four stages mentioned above.
Remember too that the numerical superiority of the SAF means nothing if the SAF cannot mobilize its full strength because scions of well off families are flown overseas during a POT and thus escape any call up. Once this flight to safety begins and once NS heartlanders see its end result from thinned-out ranks of mobilized units primed for war, it is only a matter of time before a hollowed out Army collapses in the face of a determined opponent.
The will to fight is something the "hearts and minds" campaign will seek to poison and undermine during a POT before the bullets fly.
This defence burden is one that only Singaporeans can carry - because no maid in the world will carry this burden for you.