Friday, February 20, 2015
The future of Singapore Armed Forces SAF Displays and Open Houses
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.
Posted by David Boey at 12:31 AM