It was a picture that was worth a thousand words, most of which the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would rather not have heard.
Public interest in the SAF maid saga will soon fizzle out as even the harshest media storm will gradually wane and fade away. Though the storm will pass, MINDEF/SAF should review the saga while the wound is still fresh as there are learning points aplenty.
First, the good news: The maid saga has inoculated Singaporeans against unfriendly elements who may try to raise a ruckus among citizen soldiers with a ruse crafted with a similar storyline. Once the jokes dry up and the wise cracks have gone silent, anyone pulling the same stunt in future may find it harder to generate the intensity of responses from Singaporeans as the SAF maid saga. This is because everyone already knows the punch line and the ruse will look stale.
What we are starting to see are offshoots of the jibe that full-time NSmen are soft city boys. This is normal and expected. The maid saga has made people in the city-state ultra sensitive to such scenes and subliminal reminders of this point are all it takes to elicit a response from Singaporeans. And when they spot a similar scene, phone cameras will be whipped out, images uploaded on discussion boards and comments let fly.(In much the same way, the barrage of news on Japan’s radiation woes may make you think of radiation-tainted food the moment a piece of sushi is placed on your plate.)
But every joke has a use by date. It is thus only a matter of time before recycled jokes become clichéd, over used and lose their haha value. Here’s where the good news ends.
As a citizen’s army, the SAF has many touch points with Singaporeans. Since universal conscription begain in 1967, not all of these touch points have been properly managed or positive. Sour experiences of NS are enduring memories that countless full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) and Operationally Ready NSmen (to my foreign readers, this is what other countries term as reservists) will probably carry to their graves. The emotional baggage forms the delicate centre of gravity that MINDEF/SAF defence information managers need to watch out for.
Such resentment comes back to haunt the system every time NSmen are given an opportunity to do so. And it takes little to set them off. Hot button issues (please Google these if you are unfamiliar with the issues) that flared in the past include:
* the National Service Recognition Award (August 2010). Previous NSRA post found here,
* the Dave Teo incident (September 2007),
* the Melvyn Tan debate on National Service defaulters (November 2005)
* Minister of State for Defence Cedric Foo's ill-advised "white horse" statement (November 2003),
* evergreens such as SAF training safety, obese soldiers, role of Malays in the SAF, CEP for scholars versus non scholars, Singapore's espionage activities and so on.
Many citizen soldiers mean no harm, really. But as they go into overdrive heaping ridicule on the SAF and try to outdo one another with a more witty joke or a taller tale, some inadvertently play into foreign forces’ agendas. Their mischief making gives foreign psychological warfare departments ample examples with which to play down and blunt the SAF’s combat edge.
A no-BS after action review on the maid saga will help astute MINDEF/SAF officers tasked with defence information management (DIM) avoid the tendency of most armed forces of preparing to fight the last war. The pointed reminders some SAF commanders issued to citizen soldiers that SAF fullpacks should not be hauled by third parties is a quick fix solution aimed at avoiding a repeat of the maid saga. This order is a good example of how some SAF officers focus their attention on averting a replay of this April's public relations (PR) fiasco, while losing sight of longer term priorities.
Blind adherence to such orders will not save MINDEF/SAF from PR gaffes.
This is because the city-state’s NS policy has many centres of gravity that are opinion magnets. When these opinion magnets are tampered with, a flood of comments, brickbats and awkward questions will almost certainly follow suit.
The defence ministry’s Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) did Singaporeans no favours with its weak response in cyberspace as the maid story went viral, round-the-clock and around the globe. Mind you, PAFF’s cyber footprint is substantial.
At the height of the maid saga, PAFF's cyber presence was a bench warmer. Under normal circumstances, any government ministry would not want to engage opinions shared on the net. But having a talking point go viral is not a normal event and MINDEF's DIMs should have quickly recognised this and taken proactive steps to retake pole position as opinion leader. In my opinion, PAFF's decision not to use its substantial net presence to engage netizens during the maid saga was a mistake. But isn't hindsight always 20:20?
Dealing with non-traditional defence issues
If PAFF’s Internet footprint was set up with the grand strategic defence information objective of advancing MINDEF/SAF’s image in cyberspace, then more effort should have been made to crank up the machinery to help shape points of view or mitigate damage during a media storm.
We seem to see PAFF’s crisis response hop in action in cyberspace only after an SAF serviceman dies or a war machine drops out of the sky.
Alas, damage can also be done to the SAF’s public image from non-traditional causes such as that now infamous maid picture. If this non-traditional bugbear is generating such livid responses that Singaporeans start to look at the SAF with doubtful glances, and when foreign media in places such as Australia, India and Taiwan - places the SAF trains in - start reporting the story, isn't this a call to action for PAFF to do something more in the blogosphere? The causal factor (i.e. the SAF maid picture) may be different from a training incident, but the potential end state (i.e. erosion of commitment to defence) and demands for consequence management are the same.
PAFF’s decision not to engage in the debate basically surrendered the initiative to netizens. Pity.
The skimpy letter MINDEF issued on Monday 4 April after the anonymous recruit owned up is puzzling. The same goes for PAFF’s apparent reluctance to address media queries on the matter. Surely it would not hurt the Republic's national security interests if the statement contained the recruit's name, a quote and a picture from the NSF, plus details on when the recruit came forward?
In the short term, this tactical move of naming the recruit would do much to shore up MINDEF/SAF’s credibility. And in the longer term, who would remember that bloke? Remember that years ago, Singapore’s Economic Development Board took the unprecedented step of naming a scholar who broke his bond. Newspapers spilled much ink covering the story. Today, can anyone remember his name offhand? I bet the vast majority of Singaporeans cannot.
Surely with the image broadcast by the world’s leading media agencies such as the BBC and CNN, the recruit’s lapse in judgment made this an issue of international interest. The sooner media agencies close the loop, the better for Singapore’s defence posture.
It is disappointing to see PAFF’s statement issued a week after that image went viral. A week’s delay is an eternity in Internet terms. It did not help that PAFF did not say why it took so long to join the debate and this only fuelled speculation on MINDEF/SAF’s ulterior motives. If the Forum Page letter had not been published, would PAFF have stepped forward? Such sketicism poisons the trust between citizens and their Army.
Is there a silver lining to all of this? There most certainly is.
Singaporeans do not suffer fools but despite their readiness to ridicule, complain and criticise, many seem prepared to support the SAF - though most will not openly say so.
As commitment to defence (C2D) is an attitude that no survey can capture or gauge accurately, MINDEF/SAF should look to proxy indicators for signs of public support for C2D.
Ask any army, navy or air force committee tasked with organising past open houses for attendance numbers and you will see a steady jump in visitors. This includes events like the annual runway cycling, hosted by the Republic of Singapore Air Force at Paya Lebar Air Base.
If Singaporeans had no faith in the SAF's professionalism and if NS scarred citizen soldiers for life so badly, I hardly think anyone would bother making time to attend SAF events.
But Singaporeans have come forward in strong numbers - tens of thousands - with kids and maids in tow. Singaporeans have run alongside their Army in events such as the Army Half Marathon.
And when public response to opportunities such as the sea cruises offered by the Republic of Singapore Navy or aircraft joyrides at RSAF Open Houses proves overwhelming, this is a good proxy indicator of the trust Singaporeans have in the SAF. (I know some Malaysians who wouldn't step aboard a Nuri when offered a joyride because of the helicopter's poor safety record.)
Armed forces in countries where the military is despised or feared will not pull in such support.
Another silver lining comes from the fact that even if MINDEF/SAF defence information officers do not implement any consequence management processes or SOPs, the maid saga will go away by itself. Just track the discussion pages on STOMP and elsewhere and one will find the discussion thread sliding into oblivion.
My fear for MINDEF/SAF is whether the system will react by guarding against a replay of the incident.
Look at how Singapore reacted to the 11/3 Madrid train bombing in 2004 and 7/7 attacks on the London Underground (i.e. MRT system) in 2005. The consequence management plan was a marvel of staff planning which resulted in Exercise Northstar V in January 2006 - the Republic's largest transport emergency exercise.(To appreciate how media interest disappears, note how the anniversary of the Madrid bombing on 11 March was almost forgotten worldwide as news of the tsunami in Japan overwhelmed news channels that same day on 11/3/11.)
But in hardening Singapore against a London Bombing redux, someone forgot the train depots. The depots were poorly secured. This flaw was left unattended despite all the high level planning, field trips and belly gazing by security experts.
We seemed fixated on the Madrid/London bombing scenario and it is incredulous to think that no one studied the transport system chain to see where trains emerged from. I bet that had attacks in Spain and the United Kingdom included a breach of their train depots, the ones in Singapore would have been wired up with concertina wire, PTZ cameras and guards as a result of the security review.
It took the unlikely combination of a graffiti artist from neutral Switzerland, outed by a train spotter, to expose this flaw in our transportation security. Our security planners responded by preparing to fight the last war, by using the Madrid/London bombings as a template for disaster planning and reacting accordingly.
Had a terror cell been quick to exploit poor security at train depots by placing time bombs under MRT trains, this "Singapore bombing" would have caught our security agencies flat-footed.
MINDEF/SAF must not make the same error of judgement as it reviews fallout from the PR gaffe. Defence information officers must fight current, fight future far more intelligently.