Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Singapore Armed Forces Training Safety Audit 2001 to 2010: A look at training halts

Four lives lost from RSS Courageous in the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) worst training accident in the last decade did not result in a training halt.

SAF training also continued throughout 2009, the year which chalked up a grim tally of 10 lives lost. The year emerged as the SAF’s deadliest year from 2001 to 2010.

But two deaths in as many days in June 2008 spurred the SAF to order a “time out for physical and endurance training”. Both incidents occurred off Singapore island.

The first training incident involved full-time National Serviceman Andrew Cheah Wei Siong. He fainted on 10 June 2008 during a 2km walk on Tekong island, off Singapore’s Changi coastline, and died later in hospital. The very next day, a Republic of Singapore Air Force regular, Officer Cadet Lam Jia Hao Clifton, collapsed while on jungle orientation training several hundred kilometres away in Brunei. OCT Lam received a posthumous promotion to the rank of Second Lieutenant.

The three-day training halt was an extreme measure not taken since early 1997. The training halt that year resulted from two deaths in the FH-2000 chamber explosion in New Zealand in March 1997 and one death in Singapore when infantrymen picked up a Armbrust blind (i.e. an unexploded anti-tank warhead from a misfired Armbrust light anti-tank weapon).

The reactions of the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the SAF to training deaths spaced out over a period of time make a noteworthy comparison with official responses to a spike in fatalities.

As a Singaporean, I personally hope the theory that MINDEF/SAF will react more vigorously to deaths occurring one after another compared to a situation with fatalities spread out over time is never put to the test.

What is clear from the SAF’s fatal accident record is the Singaporean military’s move to call a stop order after training incidents claimed two SAF deaths in two days.

This may be prudent. It may have been done to calm public concerns and disquiet among NSmen. But such a move may also be read by defence analysts from neighbouring countries as proof of the Lion City’s aversion to casualties. If and when these analysts do so, it will whittle away the SAF’s value as a deterrent force.

It is this very point, which stems from the public’s hazy appreciation of when a training halt is called and when a situation does not merit one, that underlines why a clear and credible public communications plan should guide information management of training incidents.

While it is arguable that accidents will occur despite the best policies, leadership (or lack thereof) and good housekeeping, Singaporeans should never desensitize themselves to SAF training accidents and near misses.

The 42 lives that SAF training accidents claimed in the decade just ended comprised the following:

Singapore Army: 26 deaths.
Republic of Singapore Air Force: Eight deaths, including the loss of an F-16C.
Republic of Singapore Navy: Seven deaths, including an Anti-submarine Patrol Vessel beyond economic repair.
MINDEF: One Defence Executive Officer (DXO).
The deadliest accidents:
3 Jan 2003, Four RSN women regulars died after RSS Courageous was rammed by a container vessel.
11 May 2007, Two NSFs killed by a ROCAF F-5F which crashed into a warehouse in Taiwan. A third NSF was flown to Singapore for treatment but died in Singapore more than a week later.

We must not be afraid to ask ourselves how situations could have been prevented or risks mitigated in a military organization that trains more vigorously around the globe than any other armed force in Southeast Asia. At the same time, MINDEF/SAF must gird itself for probing questions from citizens whose commitment to defence (C2D) is a cornerstone to Singapore’s citizen’s armed forces.

Singaporeans have endured news of SAF training deaths for more than four decades already, which is why every training death is one death too many. If Singaporeans appear frustrated hearing the SAF's usual line that it will tighten its already vigilant safety regime, then such sentiments must be seen more as a reflection of the need for MINDEF/SAF to communicate its safety message better/more convincingly than a signal to beat down dissent.

MINDEF/SAF must reach out to rebuild trust and confidence in the national service system proactively and as behave a friend to its citizens. If it cannot even handle public reaction anger to a single training death or spate of safety lapses, I worry for its prospects in a hot war scenario where the likelihood of SAF NSFs dying in large numbers is high.

We can expect astute opponents to capitalise on such a perceived weakness.

And when situations arise which – to the layperson at least – appear to mirror past incidents, MINDEF/SAF should take immediate and proactive measures to address the natural concerns that the organization is not doing enough for its people or was asleep at the switch.

Concomitant with such measures is the need for officialdom to keep its processes transparent and open to public scrutiny. Nothing hurts commitment to defence (C2D) more than an opaque mechanism for reporting training accidents which lags behind what citizen soldiers and Singaporeans are saying about Our Army. In a worst case scenario, netizens may be the first with the news with PAFF following up with a somewhat belated news release. In such situations, MINDEF/SAF essentially surrenders the initiative to news gatherers who can work faster than its own information gathering cycle (i.e. planning-direction-collection-interpretation/analysis-dissemination).

A look at MINDEF/SAF incident reports for the 2001 to 2010 period reveals that the MINDEF website does not mention the deaths of 2LT Daryl Loh in February 2001, CPL Ricky Liu Junhong in November 2007 and the near miss in which a Commando was shot by a Thai farmer in 2010.

It also puzzles me why the loved ones of a full-time National Serviceman injured in the shotgun incident had to speak up before Singaporeans learned that the incident involved more than one soldier.

In addition, Singaporeans had to read a Forum Page letter to learn about the incident where Recruit Liam Kai Zheng fainted at the SAF Ferry Terminal in Changi and died in hospital a day later. The letter was written by REC Liam's father.

These lapses/honest mistakes do not win the hearts and minds of netizens. One would hope that the MINDEF Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF), which has at its disposal various communication channels in cyberspace, will use these tools more effectively in future.

Past is not prologue. But it would be ill-advised and simplistic to credit the SAF’s fatality-free record in 2010 to constant reminders on training safety issues. Was the excellent safety record due to, or independent of, the tighter safety regime?

SAF training halts should serve as a time out to improve the organisation and reinforce troop morale, not a cop out from reporting what Singaporeans need to know about their own armed forces.


Chaozhouzi said...

How about a writeup re the LTA ruling for heavy vehicles? Seem to me the SAF is exempted despite the fact the ruling is for the safety of the passengers.

David Boey said...

The MAN 5 tonners have seat belts on the bench seats. So do most of the soft skin wheeled transport and troop carrier AFVs. Land Rovers don't have seat belts for the rear seats but most move quite slowly along public roads.

I'll check on the LTA requirement. Thanks for the suggestion.

Gong Hei Fatt Choy,

Anonymous said...

Out of the incidents resulting in death or loss, how many resulted from lack of observance of proper safety regulations, from over-eager commanders trying to push up their CEP or just plain brain farts? One of the big issues I see is the lack of transparency regarding the situation, circumstances and contributors resulting in these fatal accidents. It gives the impression that certain people may be protected from the consequences of their own mistakes...

Unknown said...

this blog is very informative for me....its a great work from ur side....thanks and congrats...
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