Thursday, November 5, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 7 The Enemy Within

Enemy Within

I was 23 when I won a prize in the CDF Essay Competition, organized by the Singapore Command and Staff College.

As I was the ghost writer, I did not receive the Merit Award from the Chief of Defence Force (CDF, who was then JP). But it was a proud moment for me and the bigger prize was learning firsthand about the system’s sensitivity towards Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths.

When I became a journalist with the 90 cents paper years later, I knew this delicate subject needed to be handled with extra care and sensitivity.

The essay, Enemy Within, was submitted under a friend’s name at his behest. He had been “arrowed” to submit an entry so that his unit could say it participated in the annual competition for SAF officers. His superior was looking for a tick in the box, not a prize-winning effort. My friend then asked if I could be his ghost writer. I agreed more out of curiosity as I wanted to see how my essay would fare when fielded against SAF officers.

Enemy Within won a Merit Award. This means it was placed third to 10th among the field of 220 submissions.

Sharp-eyed readers may realise that the compilation of entries for the 1993 CDF Annual Essay Competition published by the Pointer Journal in 1994 misses one entry. Only the top three essays were published, plus six Merit Award essays and one Commendation Award essay (11th to 20th). The missing essay is a Merit Award winner titled the Enemy Within.

I learned later that the judges felt that the essay raised valid points – which is why it won a Merit Award. But the system wasn’t ready to share the essay as a learning tool for a wider SAF audience.

Seen in isolation, that act of self-censorship would seem a non-issue.

But the officer who submitted Enemy Within lost his cousin in an SAF training accident. He had hoped the essay would emphasize the importance of training safety and command responsibility. This did not happen and he was disappointed with the system's attitude (he has since left the SAF).

The officer’s cousin died after his Super Puma ditched in 4.5 metres of water in Poyan Reservoir in August 1991. The helicopter flipped onto its back, as helicopters are known to do during water landings. Choppers have a high centre of gravity because their heavy engines are mounted high on the airframe and by the laws of physics, tend to flip upside down during water landings if flotation bags are not deployed.

Two Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) captains died in the crash. They were just 24 and 28 years old. The 21-year-old aircrewman survived and was spotted sitting on the belly of the upturned Super Puma.

After this catastrophe, the RSAF made Helicopter Underwater Evacuation Training mandatory for all rotary-wing aircrew. I was perplexed why it took two fatalities during a water landing to nudge the air force to introduce such training and wrote about it in Enemy Within. The grieving family too, felt perplexed.

I cited three other examples to buttress the key point in the essay – which argued that many life-saving military innovations stem from simple ideas. It made the point that military personnel, regardless of rank, who fall asleep at the switch are the weak links in the chain and a hazard to their friends and comrades. This explains the essay's title: Enemy Within.

I cited three examples of military innovations:
First, the use of day-glo panels as an anti-fratricide device during the first Gulf War.
Second, the improvement made to the Ultimax 100 Mark III light machine gun by placing the carrying handle on its barrel rather than the receiver (which allows the gunner to change the hot barrel without gloves, unlike the U-100 Mark II variant).
Third, the heavy mast on the Springboard ships that made them unstable even in moderate seas.

One of the trademarks of my writing style when I'm addressing an SAF audience is the inclusion of one example from the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The RSAF example was the Super Puma crash.

Fast forward 16 years to 2009 and one finds the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Department (PAFF) exhibiting the same behavior towards SAF deaths.

I’m of the opinion that more pro-active handling of situations involving SAF deaths would crimp persistent and highly-damaging rumours of cover-ups by the system.

I cite the death of an RSAF regular, Corporal Ricky Liu Junhong, in November 2007 as an example. Corporal Ricky collapsed at the tail end of his 2.4km run at Paya Lebar Air Base on 15 November 2007. The 20-year-old was rushed to Changi General Hospital, where he died nine days later on 24 November 2007.

When PAFF apparently failed to issue a news release on CPL Ricky’s death, as is usually expected after a training death, one of his friends tipped off the Today newspaper, a Singaporean free sheet.

RSAF personnel who knew about the incident talked to the newspaper as they thought his loss had been hushed up. The story in Today was published on 29 November 2007. In the Internet age of near-instantaneous news reporting, the speed at which CPL Ricky's death was reported seemed glacial.

CPL Ricky died serving Singapore. He reportedly crawled the last 20 metres to the finish line of the 2.4km run but collapsed before reaching it.

If PAFF had issued a news release the day he died, that would have done much to comfort CPL Ricky's family and friends. Instead, we heard nothing from PAFF. Not a squeak until MINDEF's spin doctors were queried by Today.

The journalist who broke the story, Leong Wee Keat, Senior Reporter at Today, shares how he got the story: “Yes, there was no news release issued. A member of the public called us regarding the death, which we confirmed with someone we knew from the air base. MINDEF did not issue a statement till we contacted them on the incident. When we spoke to the family, the sister was relatively calm (compared to other grieving families we tried before). They also sought answers but MINDEF said the incident was under investigation.”

The 90 cents newspaper did not report this story and I got shelled after the morning post-mortem for missing this story.

In my opinion, situations like this result in PAFF scoring an own goal. Their dilatoriness, apparent command indecision and inability to see the big picture perpetuates the mindset that MINDEF is out to cover-up training deaths. This is most unfortunate because I know MINDEF’s higher leadership works assiduously to assure Singaporeans that the system is transparent and there will be no cover-ups of SAF deaths.

I can see why CPL Ricky’s friends were concerned enough to call Today.

When I queried someone from PAFF, that person explained that they did not see the need to issue a news release as CPL Ricky died more than a week after he was sent to hospital. I could not see the relevance or logic of this weak defence. In my mind, PAFF seemed as if it was trying to keep the tally of training deaths low. That person could have done so reasoning that fewer reports on SAF deaths would mean less damage to public perceptions towards the SAF. It was a noble, if misguided view.

I suppose this is what that person regards as Care for Soldiers? Please see this previous post: Wall of silence.

With this sort of shoddy service, I can see why many Singaporean parents continue to be concerned whenever their sons enlist for two years of National Service.

I can also see why talk of cover-ups continues to make its rounds.

If I had to update my prize-winning essay, I would cite the current day PAFF as another example of the Enemy Within.


Wocelot said...

Good read. Hmm, maybe you could publish that article that you written someday???

Anonymous said...

Izwan Abu Shama said...

It's a cycle which unfortunately will carry on, unless we change the way we do things. I believe in the system, and I still do, but I also believe that things must change for the better and in this instance, we must be professional and say out what must be said, take the criticism and learn from it. To put it simple, suck it up and be a man.

just my opinion.

goat89 said...

MINDEF must be quick on such issues regarding the death of NS men. Perhaps they don't want to have a media furor over NS. OR perhaps, they are just plain slow over the matter, taking no interest in it. they must bark up on the speed and sensitivity on such issues in a reasonable and professional manner

PS: Could anyone explain the example of "he use of day-glo panels as an anti- fratricide device during the first Gulf War"?

David Boey said...

goat89: The day-glo panels were bright orange/pink panels placed on vehicles to show aircraft that the vehicles were friendly. At least one AFV that was blasted by an A-10 did not carry this simple device.