SINGAPORE - Emerging from a darkened cinema hall, security expert Kumar Ramakrishna's eyes were gently adjusting to the light outdoors when his mind began decoding an embedded message in a war movie he had just seen, Lions For Lambs.
In the 2007 movie directed by Hollywood icon Robert Redford, interwoven narratives run through a complicated plot that centres on America's foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two patriotic Americans enlist for action but are killed in the war.
Their heroic deeds are recounted by a university don in order to shake up an apathetic American student. The professor chides the student: "When thousands of American troops are dead and more dying every day, you tell me, how can you enjoy the good life? Rome is burning, son!"
"A darn good movie," says Associate Professor Kumar, 49.
Explaining the "decoded" message over a cup of cafe latte at a Holland Village cafe, he says that the movie was made by Hollywood elements peddling the government line on the need for war to an unsuspecting public. In other words, it was propaganda masquerading as a movie.
"That is the power of good propaganda. It is so subtle, you don't even realise it's propaganda.
"In fact, the art of propaganda, as the British used to say in World War II, is to conceal that you are engaging in it," says Prof Kumar, who heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security (Cens). Cens is a research institute in the think-tank S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
But the constant use of the word "propaganda" during the interview makes the military historian uncomfortable.
With eyebrows furrowed, he advises: "Don't use the word propaganda as the Nazis gave the term a bad reputation during World War II. Nowadays it's called 'strategic communication'."
SET up in 2006, Cens has been studying the power of effective strategic communication.
A multinational pool of researchers also study the causes of violent radicalisation and how globalised societies can emerge as winners during security crises.
"The arrival of new immigrants in Singapore thickens the plot," he says, adding that identity issues are linked to ethnic conflicts.
"We belong to a group tent and it's our identity. If one group tent feels that it is going to be swallowed by another group, it will defend itself," he says. If the issue is not addressed and the situation deteriorates, violence will break out.
Prof Kumar's researchers also look at the social media's impact on social resilience and why civil society must take the lead and deal with malcontents who threaten social cohesion.