The best communications manager is not someone who has media and communications training, or a relevant degree, but someone with a gun and with the power to do things to you against your will.
Never mind our past. Let us focus on the affairs of today. Following the arrest of Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali for posting his disagreement with the Youth Olympic Games, obviously embarrassing the organisers, albeit using metaphors to which the authorities (over)read to be inciting violence and public disorder, another person Abdillah Zamzuri has been called in for questioning related to his comments in cyberspace.
More shocking, he is identified as a police NSman. Come on, it is not even his full-time job!
It is reported that Abdillah has been called in by his police unit for questioning over his disagreement with how the police had handled the handcuffing of the journalist during the great Bukit Timah floods. It is also indicated that Abdillah had written that the police officer concerned "acted stupidly".
More can be read here.
It is definitely a no-no for NSmen to talk about their training and exercises in the armed forces, civil defence and police force. They also should not reveal their rank and responsibilities as these bits of information can affect operations (especially in the armed forces and police force).
But when it comes to criticising, I feel it is perfectly fine to do so. Sometimes it is important to let the main stakeholders (i.e. ordinary Singaporeans) to be in the know of such criticisms, and they can collectively demand better standards. This is because, not many Singaporeans are Ministers, or Lee Kuan Yew, and they cannot effect change as a unit.
It is also very unfortunate, that even the idea of "rallying together and vote them out" suggested by Malik (in his YOG criticism) is construed by the authorities not as a completely legal democratic process, but one that constitutes incitement to public disorder. This is utterly perplexing and embarrassing.
Obviously, our authorities have an issue with public opinion. Rather than direct resources to improve standards and address their own shortcomings, they resort to force and intimidation to manage their image (which ironically backfires). They use physical, legal and psychological mechanisms to "manage" communications!
There are whispers that the internal security department (ISD) is also actively following people on the internet and such, but I am sure some of the people they follow actually contribute to democratic process, rather than pose security threats. Bombs and violent ideologies pose security threats, but not pro-Singapore pro-democracy Singaporeans.
Back to communications, the government and relevant authorities, especially since we're an Asian country (just to indulge in some essentialism for a bit), value "face" a lot. Having good public opinion about you matters. But sometimes they fail to understand that poor public opinion arises from shortcomings on the part of the state, and also lack of accessible information and transparency.
In order to arrest the situation of poor public opinion, they literally arrest people. Ok, I did find that funny... You don't?! Pfffttt!!
And how do you legitimise an arrest? If the criticism is damning enough, you can charge the honest person with anything associated with bringing the organisation into disrepute, inciting public disorder, compromising operations, or any crimes against civil/public servants. Not totally unrelated, so long as it is within the literary capacity of the authorities to "interpret" your "crime" and intent.
And if you are deemed a greater threat to the pride and legitimacy of an organisation or a prominent public official, they'll probably pile on more proxy prosecutions onto your hapless carcass. Have you heard about the joke of the political dissident who littered in Malaysia and in Singapore? In Malaysia, he was charged for littering and sodomy. In Singapore, he was charged for littering, illegal assembly and injuring the religious feelings of another party, and subsequently sued for defamation by the entire cabinet and their families.
This is how power is consolidated, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly. It is not about hiring the best public relations or communications specialist to manage your image. All you need is a bunch of people with guns, tasers, handcuffs and a few prisons, and they will manage communications for you very very well.
Communications management for the authorities is not about writing press releases or getting dishy spokesperson to address the press and public. It is about creating rules and regulations for the public to follow. It is about putting "like-minded" people you can trust in influential positions. It is about removing editors and journalists form their posts, silencing them in the process (by silence, I mean removing their voice and I do not intend to incite any violence here). It is about arresting bloggers who are contributing to the democratic process of information sharing and dissemination, and exercising their constitutional right to air their opinions about the start of affair. It is about raiding the homes of people who speak their minds, confiscating their belongings and psychologically intimidating them throughout the whole ordeal. This is the best kind of communications management.
Sometimes I really wonder what is the point of learning communications in the Polytechnics and Universities, when the most effective kind of communications strategy is to use force and intimidation, which serve to eliminate, "fix", "burn", weed out all those whose views might not be what you feel is the best in your interest.
There are many times I have the urge to speak of my National Service and reservist experiences, but I abide by the rules because I do not want to be seen to be "compromising operations" or bringing the army into any disrepute as however whoever defines it. This is why I will never let Singapore know the origins of my torn ankle ligament, the history behind my occasional rheumatism pains in my left leg, the story behind the few months during my full-time National Service in which I did not receive my allowance in full.
There are lots of oversights, shortcomings and injustice that blighted my experiences during National Service and reservist training, but I have never mentioned them, because I know in doing so, it will affect the image of the organisation a lot more than it actually affect any operations or infringe any security protocol. But a "face"-obsessed state will always be more concerned with the latter. But I'll be more than happy to have an audience with any General or any official from the Ministry of Defence to share my story. I hope they will provide free food for me to sample, otherwise it will get me mad and I will throw my credit card down at them.
I hope those in my unit and those in the Ministry of Defence who read (or exercise surveillance on) my blog will understand where I am coming from, and I work well within the rules of the organisation. Hey, after all, I was once top soldier in active days and won the best commander award in one reservist cycle. I give my all for something I don't believe in because that is the most legally acceptable way of disagreeing. Any other way would spell incarceration (incarceration for being pacifist sounds sick, no?). I follow the rules and do my best all the time, so that I have the legitimacy to air my disagreements (in the capacity of a citizen) with conscription, being a mechanism for violence on behalf of the state and also discrimination against minorities (sexual minorities and ethnic minorities) among other wider issues in compulsory conscription.
When I criticise the authorities, relevant organisations and agencies, I do so in the capacity of a citizen. I also often do so with suggestions, because in Singapore nobody, especially the government, likes criticism without solutions and suggestions for improvement.
Bloggers need to be aware that there are bits of information that may not be helpful to their criticism of the organisations with which they are affiliated with. You should do so in the capacity of a citizen who has observed something you disagree with. There is no need to state your rank, workplace/unit, your responsibilities with respect to the workplace/unit, and so on. If you are critical of some procedures known to the public, do not juxtapose them with your own experiences. Just criticise them in isolation.
The "public relations and communications specialists" of the state will always wait for critics to make the wrong move, so they can find a way to legitimise your silencing, humiliation (in the mainstream media) and incarceration.
If you are really pissed off, there are proper channels to air your opinions, just like that Lee Hsien Loong's son did in the army (as reported in the press) - email EVERYONE within the organisation, or rather everyone who mattered.
Sometimes when you are pissed off, you post things in cyberspace that will come back to haunt you, haunt you like a policeman knocking on your door just because your views are interpreted to cause something illegal to happen, but actually simply causing embarrassment to the ruling party, but they can't say that, can they?
If you disagree with practices in the armed forces, civil defence or police force, let them know. They have the proper channels for communications by the way. If you disagree with what is reported (known to the public) concerning these organisations, you may air your criticisms in the capacity of a citizen, without invoking/revealing your position with respect to these organisations. These are the rules and you have to play them right. You know, when you are wearing the uniform of, say, McDonald's, you certainly do not criticise McDonald's. Just continue flipping your burgers. Once that uniform is off, you can run your mouth, but know the rules.
Nevertheless, in a country where the state only has the right to use metaphors (from classics such as Lee Hsien Loong's "fix the opposition" to Lee Kuan Yew's vintage comparison of Singaporeans with dogs peeing in the elevator), the rest of us citizens have to watch our tongues as we are governed by punishment and the symbolism of others being punished. Tongues are only meant for praising and licking the scrotum of the government, not criticism.
Time and again, there will be overreactions and the media will report stories of people being arrested or called into question by the police. These are symbolic in the sense they represent what will happen to the rest of us if we tried to contribute to the democratic process. This is enough for my parents to tell me "politics is dirty" and "don't ever get into politics" and "your life can be taken away from you". We are all scared dogs. Scared dogs will obey and not blog shit about the ruling party.
Singaporeans sometimes do not know the right avenues and channels to air their grievances. Of course, sometimes the people they engage through the correct channels offer not help at all, and this exacerbates the problem. This is why people end up going to their MPs, or writing to the press, or shooting letters way up the chain of command a la Lee Hsien Loong's son in the army. These in turn are reflective of the deaf and uncompassionate organisations that fail to address the issues and concerns of the aggrieved.
I think there is always room to be optimistic. Singaporeans can and should criticise, but do so with a view to help make things better, rather than having a scenario in which the put-down (citizens) are continually putting down (as in dissing/criticising, not the killing metaphor OKAY?) the government, and nothing gets done but a series of arrests to save face. Use facts and use history and display them prominently, and even scared dogs will sniff out the truth.