Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Leverage Total Defence to bolster SGSecure

Shared some views on the SGSecure movement in The Straits Times today.

If you have yet to hear of SGSecure, you soon will. The Ministry of Home Affairs-led movement has pledged to galvanise the whole of Singapore society - about one million households - in a door-to-door effort to spread security awareness messages and teach people first-aid skills like treating burns and bandaging wounds.

Launched last Saturday by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, SGSecure was established to get people in Singapore to stay alert, stay united and stay strong in the face of terror threats.

Singaporeans have survived the Japanese Occupation during World War II, the urban terror campaign waged during Indonesia's Confrontation with Malaysia in the 1960s (of which Singapore was then part) and the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003, but the terror threat our country now faces seeks to fracture and destabilise Singapore along racial and religious fault lines. 
The massive push to get SGSecure moving shows that this threat is like no other in Singapore's history.
In the current security climate, attacks by terrorist groups or individuals acting as lone wolves, having been swayed by radical ideals, are a clear and present danger. Attacks will be sudden, brutal and indiscriminate. The purveyors of violent ideology do not fear death. Indeed, in many terror attacks, there is no exit plan as death is sought after.
Terrorists cannot be deterred in the traditional sense with promises of a swift and decisive response by military firepower. In fact, the harder the target, the more attractive it becomes. In the wake of a successful strike, the propaganda value from having beaten security forces is magnified.
The city-state of Singapore, which stands alone as an oasis of calm in a restive region, is such a trophy target. And the old chestnut that terrorists need to be lucky only once, while counter-terrorist forces need to be on their guard all the time, explains why security messages of late have gravitated to the "not a question of if but when" narrative when discussing the likelihood that blood will be shed in the Lion City.
The tally of terror attacks worldwide shows how lives have been torn asunder and changed irredeemably after peaceful, everyday situations were defiled by terrorism. The record of violence includes random knife attacks in the street, shootings in cafes and theatres, bombings at airports and train stations, and people mown down by a truck after watching a fireworks display.
Short of living life as a hermit behind locked doors, we have to understand and accept that the current security climate is a new normal that societies worldwide have to contend with.
SGSecure's terrorism-centric focus is therefore aimed at reinforcing Singapore's ability to weather the aftermath of an attack through strengthened community vigilance, cohesion and resilience. There is no model answer for SGSecure's strategists to follow as the challenges for this city-state's densely populated, multiracial society and lack of exposure to national security threats are quite possibly unique.
In Singapore, one can expect security levels to be raised even more once measures that are already the norm in some Asian cities are implemented here. These include security checks at shopping centres and cinemas, with bag searches and metal detectors. These are tasks which will no doubt raise the cost of doing business. But they are, nonetheless, necessary and timely as the price of complacency or lack of vigilance could be a successful attack that exacts a far greater price by destabilising Singapore.
The bright spot amid the gloom is that, as a country, we have had decades to prepare for the worst. The defence and security community here has invested years in thinking through how to safeguard Singapore from a full spectrum of threats.
If SGSecure's message that there is a part for everyone sounds familiar, it is thanks to the groundwork laid by years of Total Defence campaigns.
Launched in 1984 and led by the Ministry of Defence, Total Defence aims to harness military, civil, economic, psychological and social elements to combat threats to Singapore's well-being.
Mindef has done a commendable job keeping Total Defence relevant in the past 32 years. Initiatives such as the N.E.mation! digital animation competition for students to express their thoughts on national resilience through creative videos seed Total Defence messages among the young, ensuring successive generations carry security awareness into adulthood.
Making provisions for primary school pupils to watch the National Day Parade has allowed thousands of children to see the Total Defence element in the show, with fire engines, police cars and Singapore Armed Forces war machines driving home the military and civil defence elements that pupils remember for years.
Interestingly, Total Defence was absent from PM Lee's speech at the launch of SGSecure.
Mentioning one should not come at the expense of the other. And the ability of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Mindef to work in a tightly coordinated fashion when propagating security themes is crucial in keeping key messages aligned and to avoid confusing the public. After all, the decades worth of positive Total Defence mileage is a valuable lever which SGSecure strategists should consider using to move SGSecure from a cold start into high gear quickly and with a credible voice.
PM Lee recognises the challenges and this explains why we have a Coordinating Minister for National Security overseeing the national counter-terrorism effort who can ensure ministries work towards a common agenda.
There is a part for one and all, to keep the peace we want - be it for Total Defence or SGSecure. When will you step forward?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Defending the SAF brand

Spend time watching people on a leisurely run and you may realise a good number are togged out in Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) PT kit: If not the shorts, then running vests from assorted units or running shoes.

Older Singaporeans would recall this wasn't the case decades ago when PT kit was worn because it was mandatory, not because it was comfortable.

The pivot towards items you can buy at an SAF eMart reflects improvements the armed forces has made in the quality and fit of such apparel, tailored for local physiques and kept largely affordable.

When you think about the many options available in the so-called athleisure market, it is a big deal that SAF apparel has gained ground among runners here.

Anecdotal evidence of the popularity of SAF apparel on running tracks shows the value people place in the "SAF brand". It's a point of pride when people choose to wear running vests from formations known for being tough (Commandos, Guards) and units whose reputations resonate positively with young adults (the maroon OCS running vest, for instance).

Make no mistake: People would not wear such outfits if they felt ridiculous being seen in them.

With a captive market that is enlarged with every new batch of enlistees (some 20,000+ annually), a MINDEF/SAF-linked enterprise can exert some serious leverage against established athleisure players if it wanted to.

The data amassed by the Central Manpower Base (CMPB), which is used to size National Service enlistees correctly, is just the thing that industry hankers for to right-size items for commercial applications. These run the gamut from seat pitches in cinemas and airliner cabins, to furniture to the size of clothing as children in the same age bracket get bigger over time (a result of better nutrition). PDPA issues aside, such data represents invaluable insights into shifting demographic trends that would give any MINDEF/SAF venture an advantage, simply because there are few entities who have been tracking the Asian physique across many races as closely as CMPB has done so.

Granted, this area is non-core. And here's where it may be awkward making the distinction between clothing citizen soldiers reasonably well (which is what MINDEF/SAF is expected to do) and expanding the scope of work into the commercial sector.

Mind you, the PT kit analogy should not be taken as a clarion call for CMPB to start non-core activities. It merely goes to show how efforts to make a well-made product can command a customer base far beyond what the original product was made for.

There have been precedents. Victorinox of Swiss Army Knife fame being one example. The product range has surpassed the manufacture of knives for the Swiss Army during the company's early years and grown into a multi-million dollar global enterprise. Today, the Swiss Army Knife is the gold standard that multi-tool pocket knives are measured against. The product has been copied by many imitators but few have matched the prestige that the Victorinox label has earned. In a nutshell, the army knife made for the Swiss Army has attained a world-class label.

On the apparel front, we have the American label, Under Armour. Its corporate history had a humble beginning in the 1990s and stemmed from a football player who simply wanted a better undershirt but couldn't find one off-the-rack. So he attempted to make his own. Under Armour's growth is a re-telling of the American story of risk-taking and innovation, and the ability to create one's own market niche before bigger players realise you're onto them.

In typical Singaporean fashion, we tend to recognise success only when the examples cited can trot out sales figures worth millions of dollars. Victorinox and Under Armour sit comfortably in that category.

If we are not careful, we may realise belatedly that the vendor(s) who makes SAF apparel has captured a wider market by riding on its track record serving Singapore's soldiers (excluded would be the boots maker whose shoddy QC has seen many pairs of combat boots returned for kit exchange after the soles delaminated, but we digress).

The United States land forces' Army Marketing and Research Group, which serves as custodian for the US Army's brand, watches over branding, marketing, licensing and trademark control. There is no equivalent in the SAF, despite the growing range of items that have found their way to civvie street.

If we were to ascribe a value to the SAF brand, where would we even begin?

Certainly not from the sticker price of eMart items in their current shape and form. Indeed, the value the brand represents goes beyond apparel and embraces many (lucrative) commercial spheres. These include advisory roles in defence and security (which people would acknowledge as the SAF's core business) and, to a lesser extent, the customised solutions devised for a citizens army from clothing to personal-issue equipment.

Some 15 years ago, few outside the security sector had heard of, or were keen to invest in, InVision Technologies. Frequent fliers to the United States may recognise the name on luggage scanning machines. The value of InVision Technologies shot up in tandem with rising demand for luggage scanners and the company has never looked back ever since. We must recognise that the tragedy of 9/11, which put years of pin-prick terror attacks suddenly into sharp relief because of the sheer number of people killed on that fateful day, has reshaped our lives forever. And there's no turning back to the pre-9/11 security era.

InVision Technologies is but one instance of an overlooked enterprise that suddenly found itself in demand in the current security climate.

With the experience and expertise the SAF has forged across the spectrum of the defence and security capabilities, it is perhaps timely to rethink how such know-how can be tapped to create value for Singapore. This goes beyond job creation but in creating an enterprise which leverages upon the value people see in the SAF brand in ways that are hitherto untapped.

The SAF has, over time, relied on advisory support for a multitude of roles. That was during our formative years when we lacked the skill sets and professional expertise for various spheres of defence science and engineering. We note that even the construction labour for one particular command node is said to have come wholly from a foreign source to protect opsec. So the foreigners consulted provided full-service support for that project.

But MINDEF/SAF has come a long way since then.

In hotspots around the globe, there is growing demand for advisors who can lend their expertise in taming a war-torn land. Providing armed muscle ala Academi is high profile albeit low on the value chain.

Nations on the mend need and want to know how to transition from conflict to troubled peace to peacetime by restoring infrastructure like roads, bridges and basic housing, executing de-mining ops, urban planning, upscaling medical and psychological support to provide a semblance of order and the basic services needed to sustain a populace bled white by years of strife.

Defence personnel overseas have already recognised the niche market that such services command. Indeed, many start-ups have been formed with the company's resume mirroring missions SAF personnel have carried out in PSO and HADR.

MINDEF/SAF can expect to lose personnel with rich PSO and HADR experience once foreign enterprises recognise that the skill sets needed for business expansion reside right here in Singapore.

As security issues that command the attention of the world's leading cities are not going away anytime soon, we should think through the operational implications if our better-trained and most experienced operatives leave the service as commercial enterprises value their experience even more than we're prepared to pay.

A rethink of what constitutes the SAF brand - if you can call it that - is therefore timely because you only own what you can defend. And this includes this amorphous concept called the SAF brand.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Choosing your full-time National Service NSF vocation: Seven things to note

Sharing the moment: Reviewing officer at Wednesday's Basic Military Training graduation parade, Mr Amrin Amin, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, in a candid moment with the SAF's newest soldiers.

In a first for the National Service (NS) system in Singapore, pre-enlistees will be able to indicate their preferred vocation ahead of enlistment day. Life-changing choices will be made by pre-enlistees from this November when they undergo their pre-enlistment medical check-up at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB).

To avoid being flummoxed by the options, here are eight things to know about choosing your NS vocation:

1. Know your vocations: Pre-enlistees will see a list of 33 NSF vocations from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Singapore Police Force (SPF), grouped into seven categories - three for the SAF and two categories for SCDF and two for SPF. 

2. How to choose: Pre-enlistees must pick at least two from each of the seven categories. That means picking six preferred vocations from SAF, four for the civil defence and four from police. 

3. Get a headstart, download your NS Vocation handbook here. This will help you shortlist your preferred vocations before the medical check-up.

4. You can choose NOT to take part and let the system assign you an NS vocation, the way it's been done for the past 49 years for nearly a million full-time National Servicemen (NSFs).

5. For those with wanderlust, do note that some SAF vocations include overseas training. Places include Australia (Armour, Artillery, Guards), Germany (Armour), New Zealand (Artillery), South Africa (Air Defence) and the United States (Artillery). Vocations under Air Defence, Armour, Artillery, Infantry, Intelligence, Logistics, Signals and Transport all indicate the possibility of overseas training.

6. The list of 33 vocations does not encompass the full spectrum of NSF vocations. So be prepared to serve in a vocation that isn't in the NS Vocation handbook.

7. Choosing doesn't mean getting. Operational requirements dictate who goes where. One can appeal, but CMPB has said these will be addressed on a "case-by-case basis" and reassignment is unlikely. So we all know where that will get you....