Saturday, December 26, 2009

Blue on Blue: Part 14

28 Dec 2009 Update: Jermyn Chow from 90C has kindly pointed out that the tally for 2009 is 10 deaths. We went through the list line by line and I've found that I missed one incident. This post has been updated.

SAF death tally for 2009 highest since 1987
The 10 deaths reported by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) this year are a grim statistic unmatched in at least 22 years, according to my records.

Greater transparency in reporting SAF deaths will do nothing to arrest this heart breaking trend, but a lack of transparency will almost certainly damage public support for National Service.

At a micro level, it is likely that most Singaporeans would show only cursory interest in the military's safety record. Some would venture to make sympathetic noises, pen heartfelt notes on various discussion boards and go on with their lives.

Cue mental checklist: Yet another SAF death, so young, how sad, I don't know him.

But unless one lives in a social vacuum with no relatives, friends or people you care for, it is quite a challenge living in Singapore without knowing anyone who serves NS as a full-time NSman or an Operationally Ready NSman (i.e. reservist).

It is the mark of a maturing society when Singaporeans look out and care for one another. This includes keeping tabs on the SAF's safety record, especially in a less-than-stellar year like 2009. In a tightly-knit society like ours, every SAF death hits Singaporeans far beyond the immediate pain felt by the dead soldier's next-of-kin. Death is a shared burden.

There are Singaporeans who scrutinise the SAF's death tally not because of a morbid fascination with military deaths, but out of a desire to ensure the system is accountable for the lives of Singaporeans who step forward to serve in uniform. Many of you who follow this blog fall into this category. One would hope that lessons learnt from each tragedy would cascade to all ranks so that future incidents can be prevented. This is the defence mechanism, the mental image that many people nurse to numb the pain and sense of loss that someone died in vain.

In the larger scheme of things, it's worth noting that the fathers of the current cohorts of NSFs inducted into the Third Generation SAF came from the 1st Gen and 2nd Gen SAF. They served Singapore during the time when training deaths were either hushed up or poorly reported.

The Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) may have grown more transparent over the years, but all it takes is ONE public relations (PR) gaffe to undo years of fence-mending. This is because you can bet some fathers of our 3rd Gen NSFs will be there to pass on stories of cover ups to their sons, thereby perpetuating a mindset MINDEF/SAF have taken decades to erase.

In my view, the way in which MINDEF's Public Affairs Directorate (mis)handled news of the death of Republic of Singapore Air Force serviceman, Corporal Ricky Liu Junhong, is an example of how PAFF dropped the ball. Please see:  How Today uncovered CPL Ricky's death

I emphatise with Singaporeans who wonder how many SAF deaths have been hushed up. Looking at the track record of the current leadership at PAFF, I have been asking myself precisely the same question.

For a citizens' army, public support for the SAF is vital. The SAF will remain a hollow force whose order of battle is impressive only on paper if NSmen do not heed the call to mobilise when duty calls. In peacetime, ill-motivated NSmen will probably continue reporting for duty because the threat of a fine or time in prison is a great deterrent to defaulters.

Imagine a hot war when soldiers might reason that spending a limited time in prison is preferable to an eternity in a coffin. The Israelis have discovered that it will take more than the threat of an all-out Arab invasion or terrorist rocket attacks to motivate some of their reservists to report for duty. The number of Israeli reservists drop outs, though small, is sizeable enough that a term has been coined for them. They have been labeled refuseniks.

Would the same happen in the Lion City? How many refuseniks would the SAF have?

The influx of foreign nationals to our shores provides an added challenge for MINDEF on the public relations front. Many of our new citizens harbour the same prejudices, ignorance and fears towards military service as Singaporeans did in 1967 when NS was first introduced.

There is thus a disjoint between the attitudes of new citizens and the existing population base. This disjoint means a one-size-fits-all PR campaign may hit one target audience at the expense of another.

It is only a matter of time before a new citizen is added to the tally of SAF deaths. This is a statistical reality that we all cannot run away from. When that day comes, MINDEF will need a transparent and trusted reporting mechanism to handle the inevitable fallout. I wonder if the current PAFF leadership is up to the challenge?

To be sure, one would be silly to cling onto the notion that transparency will serve as a talisman against SAF accidents. It won't. But the manner in which MINDEF/SAF deals with its dead is looked at not only by Singaporeans, but by defence observers farther afield.

Lack of transparency can be viewed as a sign that we are casualty averse - which is a weakness that shrewd opponents will exploit.

Whether real or preceived, any foot-dragging or unwillingness to discuss training deaths openly and responsibly can be touted by hostile elements during their psychological indoctrination of their own forces. Hostile psyops can rally their forces by portraying the SAF as an army of city folk with a low tolerance for casualties.

In 2009 alone, they had 10 opportunities to monitor our responses and do just that.


FIVE-TWO said...

David, does your fatality tally separates them into training accidents (as in heat exhaustion, crushed by tanks, killed by explosives and ordnance, drowning during mission, etc) vs "administrative deaths" such as dying during IPPT and runs, killed by LR in camp, etc)?

Anonymous said...

There are many who would prefer it if no bad news are ever reported at all, this is the mentality which persists even after four decades.

David Boey said...

FIVE-TWO: It's tough enough compiling the data when officialdom isn't forthcoming. My goal is to achieve the best possible compilation of data and I'll let the social scientists, medical professionals and statisticians trawl through the figures and arrive at their own conclusions.

There was one year when we had a spate of deaths on Wednesdays. How do you explain that?! Poor karma? Mis-alignment of the planets?

re: Blackout on reporting deaths. I agree that there are many who prefer this approach.

Given the unique setup of our national media - and I'm being polite here - it is very easy for the system to impose a total news blackout on all SAF deaths. 90C would comply. So would the state-owned radio and TV stations.

The downside of that is surrendering the initiative to the rumour mill. Cynics would have a field day retelling the story any way they want as there's no official account to set the story straight.

My sense of the matter is that the cost of a news blackout on SAF training accidents would far outweigh any potential gain in saving MINDEF/SAF's image.

FIVE-TWO said...

ref wednesday deaths.

remember I told you about my classmate's fatal accident in 1982? it seems similar accidents involving A-vehicles happened within a few days for two straight previous years. so what can we say except there are somethings we don't understand. BTW in case I did not mention to you, the dates were within the period leading to the surrender of Singapore on Feb 15.

Anonymous said...

"Given the unique setup of our national media - and I'm being polite here - it is very easy for the system to impose a total news blackout on all SAF deaths. 90C would comply. So would the state-owned radio and TV stations."

Interesting given that Field Marshal Boey was once part of the state apparatus and is now a paid casino man under the employment of a foreign entity.

Viper52 said...

Anon @ 28/12 9:21am, and your point is...?

Money Heng said...

This article is worth revisiting in 2019 after another round of accidental deaths.
So much have changed. So much haven't.