Monday, September 14, 2009

Wall of silence

MORE than two months have passed since the 90 cents newspaper published my letter that raised several points on training safety in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) - and no reply seems forthcoming.

It is regrettable, for a citizen's army which had previously pledged openness and transparency in training safety matters, to sidestep an issue of public concern by raising a wall of silence.

I was prompted to write the letter because signals I'd picked up from my former newsroom, plus my reading of media statements on the tragic incident, made me feel a sense of unease.

Feedback I'd received after the letter's publication indicated that not a few netizens and defence-conscious individuals shared those concerns.

And so we waited. In hindsight, in vain.

The lack of a formal response is troubling. It seems to indicate back-peddling by MINDEF wallahs of a previous practice of engaging all published letters within three working days of its publication.

Even if it was inappropriate to comment as investigations were underway, the defence ministry would say so. The reply would also signal the ministry's intent to get to the root of the matter, thus assuring parents and citizen soldiers that no cover-ups would be tolerated.

In crafting responses to training incidents, the choice of words and calibration of statements of intent are paramount.

I cite the unfortunate case of the August 2003 dunking incident as one instance where one word in a MINDEF news release roused the ire of several SAF soldiers. The statement claimed Second Sergeant Hu En Huai died after he "collapsed" during training Dunking Death: MINDEF's 1st statement.

Soldiers familiar with the matter were willing to risk court martial to blow the whistle on what they interpreted as an attempt to cover-up something sinister. They provided their names and contact numbers and were in auto strike mode.

Trust established with the MINDEF Spokesman of the day assured the media that nothing would be swept under the carpet. In the weeks that followed, MINDEF public relations machinery made good its promise.

Every generation of Singaporean citizen soldiers would have their own mental benchmark of what constitutes a training tragedy, either in scale of deaths or how the SAF personnel died.

That Singapore society has always picked itself up and moved on, after assimilating sometimes painful lessons, is an indication of the resilience and maturity Singaporeans display towards life's realities.

A society that doesn't mourn the deaths of its military personnel is one that will ultimately fracture under battle conditions.

Citizens will ask difficult questions, because they are the ones who need to know.

It is impossible to over-analyse the how's and wherefore's of a possible public response. Doing so would result in decision gridlock as bureaucrats err on the side of caution and decide to do nothing and say nothing.

Using the behaviour of Singaporeans during previous SAF training deaths as a template, it would appear that society has reciprocated MINDEF's previous forthright manner by trusting the system. 

I'm not sure how long Singapore has to wait before the coroner's enquiry into the Land Rover death is made public - if at all.

One hopes the MINDEF system will revert to the status quo ante, where its officers possessed the courage, tact and EQ needed to deal with thorny issues - however unpleasant they might be.

I remember watching a former MINDEF Director Public Affairs (DPA), Colonel Bernard Toh, address the nation in the wake of the RSS Courageous tragedy, holding back emotions as he updated a rapt television audience of the (ultimately futile) search for four women navy sailors. COL Toh's measured calm projected a picture of reassurance during a sad episode in Singapore's naval history.

He is, in my view, one of the best DPAs who ever served MINDEF. A consummate officer and gentleman, thoroughly sincere, hardly punitive in his media relations but one whose investments in background briefings and no-occasion time outs earned the trust of the Singapore media. He was also a straight-shooter and his word was good.

The bottomline is this: If MINDEF cannot handle the repercussions of a single training death in peacetime, I would not be too sanguine about its prospects of managing public relations during a hot war scenario where body bags would pile up by the hundreds.

Looking at the sensitivity of Israel towards battle casualties during recent operations in the Lebanon and Gaza, one could draw a similar parallel with the SAF's aversion to dealing with bad news. The sensitivity to battle deaths proved a centre of gravity that Israel's enemies exploited. More valuable than a hard kill of IDF soldiers was a single "live" catch that could be paraded on terrorist TV to humiliate a nation and frighten its citizen soldiers.

Are we similarly fragile? What signal are we sending to defence observers studying this episode?

The Straits Times,
Forum Page
July 8, 2009

Death of SAF officer: Remedy lapses and reassure loved ones

IT PAINED me deeply to read last Saturday about the death of 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Nicholas Chan Wei Kit ('SAF officer dies after jeep rolls over him').
While I appreciate that it may be inappropriate for Mindef to explain what happened until its investigations are completed, it would neither be unreasonable nor untimely for the ministry and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to reinforce safety messages, remedy safety lapses, and reassure loved ones of our men and women in uniform.
In particular, Mindef should explain the situations when assistance from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) might prove expedient. Surely a call to the SCDF's 995 emergency hotline would have summoned expertise that has helped free countless people trapped in similar circumstances, and in a shorter time than the 30 minutes it took for the SAF recovery vehicle to arrive to hoist the Land Rover?
Second, if someone is trapped and still has a pulse, and there are trained airport rescuers next door, can SAF personnel seek their help? Seletar Airport - which is next to Seletar Camp - has firefighters of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore who are trained, organised and equipped to deal with such emergencies.
Third, do motor transport officers work alone during vehicle inspections?
Even civilian drivers accompany their vehicles to Land Transport Authority inspections to ensure that demerits are justified. How long was 2LT Chan trapped?
Lastly, if the Third Generation SAF deals effectively with enemy units within minutes, how do we explain the time lag in calling up the recovery vehicle from within the same camp? The SAF support units are not the poor second cousins to combat units and must be given equal emphasis. If their ideas and proposals are always placed at the back of the queue, operational shortcomings may be exposed.
I am sure 2LT Chan's colleagues did all they could to save him. The issue is not about laying blame at anyone's door, but to glean lessons that could save lives. Failure to learn from 2LT Chan's death would make the young officer's loss doubly tragic.
David Boey


PanzerGrenadier said...

Dear David

The sad fact is that the SAF remains IMHO, one of the most screwed up organisations I have had to work in. I often wondered how we would perform during wartime when during peacetime we seem so useless in preventing preventable deaths.

Majullah Singapura.

FinalFive said...

No no, that's not fair at all. You can't label the organisation as though it has a singular consciousness. The truth is that, like any organisation, it is made up of a lot of people, key people, making multiple decisions at the same time. Failure at one point does not connote failure in the system - Even though we are all so tempted to look at it as such.

Now imagine a system that is put under the stress of thousands of parents threatening to flood it with complaints drafted by MPs every day, having to deal with a citizen soldier's death that was likely, potentially, attributable to the acts of another citizen soldier. And this happens again, and again, and again.

I'll tell you for a fact that no one can be blamed for such incidents. It's counterproductive to keep looking for blameholders. Did you know about the in bore explosion in our Artillery guns in 1997?

My take on this situation - It happened. I don't know why, but I would dearly love to know why. The failure of the PAFF element is significant because of the sudden change in its approach... As though it is finally afraid to have to face irrational Singaporeans (and boy there are a lot of us).

Unknown said...

Have you stopped to consider that PAFF may be obliged to protect the privacy of both families (the victim and the accused)? What good would it be to the average citizen to learn the truth?

Would deaths attributable to human error be preventable?

Unknown said...

Panzerg-G-spot, how silly can you be.

If a man murders an officer in camp, is it SAF's fault? If an moronic recruit trips on a banana skin left by another recruit 5 mins before and slips and dies, is it SAF's fault?

I suggest you hold your horses and cease embarrassing yourself with these blanket statements that are so stupid, anyone would assume that you have down syndrome or something.

And if you may like to know, the news in the rumour mill is that it was his man, who tried to hurt him. Maybe you look at those scums you call your friends instead of pointing the finger at SAF.

People like you make me feel sick, but amuse me at the same time *barf

Tang Li said...

The in bore explosion in 1997 happened to my unit (23 SA 7 Mono-Intake). Although I was in the battery that was ready to be shipped out rather than the battery that was there, the memory of what happened remains.

There's no doubt that the SAF has issues. I can't think of an organisation that does not. However, on the whole, the people who you deal with generally have their hearts in the right place. I had commanders who understood where we were coming from.

What I could not and remain unable to take was the fact that this accident was caused by blatant negligence on the part of the civilian powers. We had a faulty fuze that the COI conveniently found that the fuze maker was from China etc etc. The bottom line is, CIS did not do its due diligence and inform MINDEF, which also decided to keep assume everything that CIS handed over was great.

Erm, unfortunately, it's the solider in the field who pays when the defense establishment screws up and in any military, it's the ordinary soldier who makes the difference between victory and defeat.

Till today, nobody has been prosecuted. It was as they accident....what they don't say was "we're sorry, we goofed and two lives were lost."

I cannot except and I MUST NOT accept that this white wash was in the greater interest of the nation. The SAF is a citizen's army and the citizens have to have confidence that the SAF is on their side rather than on the side of the defense industry.............

Tang Li