Thursday, November 22, 2012

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths: Proactive, preventive action speaks louder than words

As long as mindsets do not change, neither will the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) record for training safety. The result: More citizen soldiers will die needless deaths.

In an effort to be seen to be doing something in the wake of the debate in Parliament on SAF training deaths, the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF have stepped up the call for every serviceman to be aware of and compliant with the SAF's training safety regulations (TSR), protocols and guidelines.

To drive home the gravity of this safety first mindset, MINDEF/SAF recounted how individual actions that went against TSRs had fatal consequences.

* Six smoke grenades were thrown instead of two by an infantry officer, resulting in the death of 21-year-old full-time National Serviceman (NSF) Private Dominique Sarron Lee Rui Feng from the 3rd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment.

* A jeep driven by a soldier without a driving license overturned, resulting in a passenger, Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng, sustaining pelvic injuries which he subsequently died from hours later. The 21-year-old NSF was said to have taken his last vehicle ride without a helmet and was not strapped in with a safety belt.

The safety first message is an important one we all should heed.

But while much ink has been spilled underscoring an individual's responsibility to safety, one must not miss the forest for the trees: MINDEF/SAF and the entire defence eco-system must pull its weight too.

Painful lessons
Having individual soldiers, sailors and airmen 100% compliant with the SAF's safety regulations will not save our fellow citizens if entities elsewhere along the chain of command fail in their duty and responsibility.

In March 1997, NSF artillery gunners Third Sergeant Tan Han Chong, 21, and Lance-Corporal Low Yin Tit, 18, did everything by the book as they prepared their FH-2000 155mm heavy artillery gun for a fire mission in New Zealand. They both died despite 100% compliance with TSRs. But for a faulty fuze, made in China instead of the United States as pledged by the vendor, these gunners might still be alive today. The 155mm shell exploded in the gun's breach, killing both and robbing their parents of a lifetime opportunity seeing their sons grow up. MINDEF/SAF has since introduced mandatory inspections of all shell fuzes and tightened procurement processes to ensure we get what we pay for. We paid a heavy price to learn this lesson.

NSF naval officer Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh Chuan Rong, 20, and his shipmates could not have known the Fast Boat they were assigned on 26 February 2001 was not shipshape and was, therefore, unsafe to use. The hydraulic fluid in the boat's steering mechanism had not been topped up. When the crew wanted the boat to go astern, it instead accelerated. In the ensuing collision with a Missile Gunboat, 2LT Loh was thrown offboard and crushed between his Fast Boat and the MGB. He died of his injuries. Till today, the Loh family mourns his loss even after 11 years.

New SAF Inspectorate
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen has sketched out how an SAF Inspectorate reporting directly to the Chief of Defence Force (CDF), the SAF's most senior officer, will "set the safety culture across the entire SAF and oversee the individual inspectorates of the three services".

If safety inspectorates for the Singapore Army, Republic of Singapore Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force missed the ball because of systemic and individual safety violations, the new SAF Inspectorate will not innoculate the SAF against similar lapses.

Indeed, it may set public expectations high when the reality is that the SAF's safety net is only as good as the individuals who are entrusted with the safety of their fellow citizen soldiers.

As we have seen in previous cases, lapses up and down the chain of command have caused immense grief to families across our island at various points in time.

The late Private Dominique Lee's mother wrote:"We cannot be mere bystanders when our sons are conscripted into NS. We cannot allow for our sons to be at the mercy of the training officers, be it the platoon sergeants or commanders, who are very often, little older and none the wiser than the boys they are tasked to oversee, boys whose lives often depend on the decisions that they make."

Another layer of bureaucracy
Bureaucracy alone will not fix the safety glitch.

If this SAF Inspectorate fails, what's next? Will MINDEF/SAF add another layer to the cake with another watchdog body, this time reporting to the Minister for Defence? And if that fails, yet another reporting to the President?

In light of the SAF's safety record after 45 years of national service, a more prudent safeguard would be to make all in the command chain fully accountable for their actions. In my opinion, we do not see this happening enough.

Heads must roll, rice bowls broken. Token acts like removing officers from command will simply not do because apart from the loss of face, they still get their pay at the end of the month.

You will be amazed how the awareness of the cause-effect dynamics will spur the SAF into action, once militarymen realise they will have to make severe lifestyle adjustments should they fail to take care of their soldiers properly.

There's is also the issue of transparency, which is so crucial in securing the trust of Singaporean families who contribute their precious sons to their country's citizen's armed forces. Take the recent cases when MINDEF/SAF tried to show it means business by removing officers from their command. Where do they end up? Do high-ranking individuals work in a silo, all alone with not a single soul at their beck and call so they won't end up killing other people's children through negligence? If that's the case, is it reasonable and worthwhile for Singaporean tax payers to continue paying the salary of these flunkies?

The Ministerial Statement on training deaths makes sorry reading because when one joins the dots, one gets the impression that the organisation failed to demonstrate 100% best-effort in accident prevention that could have saved lives.

That best-effort from everyone up and down the command chain is what's needed to step up SAF training safety, not adding yet more bureaucracy to MINDEF/SAF.

To squeeze that best-effort from the SAF, make the army, navy and air force report to the people of Singapore for all training deaths.

The collective conscience of citizens will be the most demanding and harshest check and balance that the SAF has ever had, after 45 years of National Service.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Until the day when a VIP's son dies during NS will SAF take a serious look at such things. For now, they will try to keep such precious sons away from harm as much as possible....such as being posted to a lab.

Anonymous said...

The political will is lacking on all fronts. With a soulless and gutless party in power, Singaporeans can look forward to more iniquities in the hands of such idiots.

Anonymous said...

They (NSF) are not their children...

Anonymous said...

I have been through NS. I have seen many trainers. Sure, they are young, but they work hard, and do their best to provide tough but safe training, whether they were NS or regular. It is simply uncalled for, that our armchair critics call our trainers and commanders names.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ Nov 24 2012 8.01 am

"been through NS"? You must be a clueless white horse, lol.

And who are you calling armchair critics? Your mother, sisters and daughters? Seriously bro, don't talk cock.

Anonymous said...

Anon @Nov 24 2012 8.01 am

You don't sound like someone who has "been through NS". Your comments are an affront to NSmen who know what it is like to be treated as dogs and slaves by sadistic commanders during BMT, and whose lives are imperilled by the actions of idiotic trainers throughout NS.

If you are a scumbag from the PAP IB, may your mouth rot from talking rubbish.

Anonymous said...

To the two anonymous commenters above:

Why so acrimonious? He has a right to his own opinion, as do you. You don't have to hex him over the internet...

Full disclosure before anyone accuses me of being a PAP crony/white horse/"idiotic trainer": I'm a Pioneer man from an infantry battalion, and while I have encountered my fair share of distasteful characters in the army, I feel that all considered, my NS experience was a positive one, and I have met more good commanders (regular and NSF) than poor ones.

Perhaps my perception of NS is as such because I have always believed in defending my country, my family and loved ones, and above all my (and Singapore's) way of life, and tended to take all the shit in BMT/unit life in my stride. Besides, I always was a little siao on about wearing green, so I can understand where people who are less enthusiastic/crazy about army than me come from.

Just so everyone's clear: I'm not the anon who posted the original comment.

Oh well. /opinion

Anonymous said...

Anon @ Nov 24 2012 7.29 pm

"a little siao on about wearing green" ... another atypical specimen, lol. You must be masochistic by nature.

Anonymous said...

I doubt if MINDEF really learn any lesson from the deaths and other serious incidents involving servicemen.

About 30+ years ago, a mortar bomb exploded in the tube killing two servicemen and maiming others, including officers.

After extensive testing, it was determined that the bomb's fuze had been faulty. The most probable cause being a vital component of the Finnish made fuze, the component that would prevent the bomb from being armed until it leaves the mortar tube was apparent left out during assembly at the factory. The two servicemen (the no.1 and no. 2 mortar man) were killed when the enormous pressure created by the augmenting charges (the charges that propel the bomb to the target) detonated the bomb when it strikes the firing pin at the base of the mortar. THAT CONCLUSION LED TO A 100% X-RAY INSPECTION OF EVERY FUZE BEFORE ASSEMBLY. If that inspection procedure had been retained and hard wired into SOP, that two howitzer gunners would still be alive today.

All this boils down to a lack of commitment to safety and professionalism.

Anonymous said...

WRT to the above commenter, IMHO, I don't think that judging the SAF with 20/20 hindsight is particularly fair. I'm not sure about the SOP of inspection of mortar rounds worldwide (and if I'm wrong about this, I deeply apologize), but if there really was no precedence (of mortar shells exploding), it would not have been cost effective to implement a new procedure that would not have led to tangible safety benefits.

IMO, the very fact that the SAF learnt from this lesson and refined its SOP shows that it is dedicated to change, safety and professionalism.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ Nov 24 2012 9.10 pm

"I'm not sure about ..." You must be quite obtuse to base the premise of your argument on something which you are not sure. And your talk of being cost effective when it comes to saving lives shows you lack common sense and common decency.

Anonymous said...

I agree my opinions could come across as ignorant, given my lack of knowledge about such matters. Again, I sincerely apologize if I have my facts wrong.

However, I do take issue with the comment that "And your talk of being cost effective when it comes to saving lives shows you lack common sense and common decency. ". When it comes down to it, is it not true that a price can be placed on everything, even a life? Most take the moral high ground and argue that no costs should be spared when it comes to saving a life. But when we actually see the bill for doing that, perhaps we might have second thoughts.

For example, it would be possible, and perhaps desirable to CT all patients presenting to the A&E with cough to detect lung cancer which may be missed on clinical evaluation. But we do not do this. Because it is not cost effective, and the number needed to treat is far too small (1 in 217) (I guess you can guess my profession now).

In the same vein, adopting a safety procedure, which has no prior precedence, which has no prior basis for its implementation, merely adds on to the logistical burden and increase wastage.

Of course, I recognize that NS is an obligation, not a voluntary thing, and any death is one too many. Yet, we should not shirk from looking at the numbers and the money. Similarly, why not equip all our servicemen with the latest and the best body armor? Why not upgrade our armored vehicles with the latest survivability packages? Because it does not fit our needs, and it is not cost effective.

I apologize if I seem callous, but at the end of the day, someone has to hold up the calculator and say 'we can't afford it'.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ Nov 24 2012 10.13 pm

Please keep your crap to yourself.

Anonymous said...

So, where should the buck stop? Right at the top?

Will the SAF be paralysed by an obsession with safety? Will this kill instinct and initiative, as soldiers constantly stop and pause to consider their actions?

Will this breed a new generation of "tactical generals" who pay extreme attention to what their men many levels below them do, at the expense of the larger issues that demand their attention at their level?

Will the organisation suffer because an extremely capable leader is removed following a training accident because of "command responsibility," eventhough he was far removed from the situation, and was let down by his subordinates?

Will citizens use "safety" as an excuse to shirk their national duty?

How will mental toughness and endurance be trained if soldiers can no longer be stretched because of "safety" requirements.

Finally, are all those in the SAF, regulars and NSmen, junior and senior soldiers, not also a little responsible for not living, breathing and shitting safety? For poo pooing the numerous safety briefings, deriding them as "wayang" or at the very least, not paying attention to them and making the safety officer's job difficult? During training, when was the last time you told someone who was obviously not to pay attention during a safety briefing? And if you did that, how would your peers view you?

I think it's important to remember that many of us are not outside of the SAF, but members of it. Criticism of it is criticism of ourselves too.