Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 15

SAF Death Tally for 2009

Singaporean military deaths in 2009 soared to a 30-year high of 10 reported fatalities, according to my records.

Compared with a year ago, the year's death tally represented a 2.5 fold increase from 2008's tally of four reported deaths.

In the area of incident reporting, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) appeared to introduce a fresh approach in late 2009 by incorporating quotes from the deceased serviceman's superiors.

This was evident from news releases issued from 26 October 2009 onwards on Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths. As expected, the Singaporean media carried these quotes almost in their entirety. This is hardly surprising considering the time pressure journalists face when writing their stories, the paucity of information released by MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) and difficulties contacting next-of-kin or friends of the deceased for comments.

The PAFF news releases for the deaths of First Warrant Officer S. Thivvianathan on 25 Oct 2009, Lieutenant Chee Zhi Hao on 15 Nov 2009 and Lance-Corporal Mar Teng Fong on 21 Nov 2009 all contained accolades from their respective superiors.

This new defence information tactic means the factor of time pressure is also faced by reporting units as MINDEF cobbles together its statement of facts. When future incidents occur, SAF Commanding Officers must be wary of recycling tributes to the deceased in the interest of expediency. People who track the form and make up of news releases will almost certainly sense quotes made by COs who go through the motions. Let's be frank and admit that not every commander knows all the people under their command well enough to pen a convincing death tribute without using throwaway lines like "was well-liked by everyone".

In the absence of familiarity, a quote from the dead person's closest pal would suffice. But these frills should not detract MINDEF from addressing public concerns over the SAF's training record.

It has been noted that PAFF responded to a Forum Page letter on Recruit Liam Kai Zheng's death in May this year even as police investigations were underway.

That spirit openness evaporated in July when PAFF failed to respond to my Forum Page letter on 2LT Nicholas Chan Wei Kit's demise. I was duly informed PAFF could not comment as police investigations were underway - an excuse that lost them credibility as evidenced by their earlier response to the Forum Page letter as well as responses in previous years to serious accidents that rattled the Singaporean public.

Looking at the SAF's safety record, it is evident that the frequency of fatal incidents plays a significant part in jolting the system into action.

The spacing out of deaths in this grim year - only 1979's record is deadlier - quite possibly explains why there was no training halt or time-out on physical and endurance training for MINDEF and the SAF to reflect on what went wrong.

In contrast, two consecutive deaths in June 2008 brought the SAF's physical training schedule to a grinding halt. On 10 June 2008, Recruit Andrew Cheah Wei Siong died at the Basic Military Training Centre. The next day, Officer Cadet Clifton Lam Jian Hao died in Brunei (he was promoted posthumously to 2LT). The three-day training halt took effect from 12 June.

No such training halt was reported in 2009. It is worth thinking about how MINDEF and the SAF would have reacted had the year's 10 fatalities occured one after another over a span of, say for the sake of argument, 10 days, instead of having been spread out over the year. My sense of the matter is that MINDEF/SAF would have reacted with alarm to this macabre death roll. Quite possibly, military careers would have been sacrificed to appease public anger.

As we usher in 2010, the following Singaporeans remain on eternal duty. They are not with us, but we remember their sacrifices in the service of our country.

21 Nov 2009 (Sat): Navy full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Lance-Corporal Mar Teng Fong, 20.

15 Nov 2009 (Sun)/(16 Nov 2009 1120H): RSAF Regular Lieutenant Chee Zhi Hao, 21.

25 Oct 2009 (Sun)/(26 Oct 2009 Mon, 0531H): SAF Regular First Warrant Officer S. Thivvianathan, 51.

3 Jul 2009 (Fri): Army NSF Second Lieutenant Nicholas Chan Wei Kit, 21.

15 Jun 2009 (Mon): SAF Regular First Sergeant Ang Joo Pin, 30.

21 May 2009 (Thurs): NSF Recruit Liam Kai Zheng, 19.

20 May 2009 (Weds): SAF Commando Regular First Warrant Officer Tan Poh Eng, 53.

24 April 2009 (Fri): RSAF Regular Second Warrant Officer Poh Eng Ann, 36.

17 April 2009 (Fri): RSAF Regular Master Warrant Officer P. Jegathesan, 45.

13 March 2009 (Fri): SAF Regular Second Warrant Officer Lim Kian Hong, 52.

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