Saturday, September 10, 2011

Singapore Armed Forces military deaths and training safety: Telling it like it is

The public relations message that the Defence ministry is doing all it can to keep military training safe yet realistic is as old as National Service (NS) itself.

Singaporeans have heard it all before, indeed ever since conscription began in 1967. As social media platforms mature, defence-themed PR messages need to be better calibrated as Singaporeans keep defence matters on their watch list.

This is why the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) need to raise, train and sustain a credible PR machinery to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans and shape opinions in defence matters. 

The increasing number of conscripts from families of New Citizens who will enter NS in coming years puts added pressure on MINDEF/SAF's Public Affairs Directorate because these households do not have the benefit of exposure to the NS system that most Singaporeans have. But more on that later.

However large the PR bureaucracy, Rule Number One is telling things as they are and not as you wish they should be. Doing so will earn you credibility and respect. Doing the opposite will build misgivings which could poison years of goodwill.

The above article from 1984 is a good example of how things could have been explained better. You may not realise this when you read the story and take things at face value without any basis for comparison.

But the statistics on military deaths in the article do not, in my opinion, match the reports on training incidents in the period mentioned. In my opinion, the article could confuse defence-watchers rather than clarify questions over training safety. The mismatch in death statistics could provoke more questions than reassure Singaporeans.

According to the article, only one of the 250,000 men trained by MINDEF "last year" - presumably 1983 - died in an accident.

I may have misread the situation but in my mind, the record of SAF training deaths for 1983 appears to tell a different story. According to open source newspaper reports, there were at least seven SAF deaths reported in 1983. With the benefit of the Internet, anyone keen on data mining the paper of record's archives would probably have noted the following fatalities. In my opinion, incidents 1, 3, 5 and 6 appear to be accidents.

Feb 1983: Lieutenant (LTA) Ang Cheng Sing, 20, and LTA Tio Sio Ngee, 19, died when their UH-1H helicopter crashed.
April 1983: Recruit Christopher Rayney, 20, from the School of Basic Military Training (SBMT) died of a viral infection.
May 1983: Private Chin Jee Yat, 20, from 25 SA died when a tyre exploded. Correct: 25 SA, since disbanded.
May 1983: Recruit Tham Wai Keong, 18, from the Infantry Training Depot (ITD) died on Pulau Tekong (Tekong island) during a route march.
June 1983: Private Lim Siang Kang, 19, from 35 SCE died in a crane accident.
June 1983: Commando Sergeant Yeo Soon Seng died several days after a diving accident.

If MINDEF/SAF had a different way of computing such statistics, it should have made this clear to newspaper readers. In my mind, the ministry did not. Try as I might, the numbers could not be reconciled.

The article also mentioned that in the first seven months (Jan to July) of 1984, only two SAF personnel had died.

However, the five SAF training deaths noted for the same period in 1984 are:

Feb 1984: Officer Cadet Lee Marn Wye, 19, found dead in a pond after he went missing during a map reading exercise.
April 1984: LTA Koh Mean Wan, 23, from 38 SCE died in Sungei Gedong. No further details.
April 1984: Recruit Sim Keat Kee, 19, died during a 2-km run.
April 1984: Recruit Bak Yow Hock, 17, died in a pool accident.
May 1984: Hunter pilot Captain Tan Seng Hui, 26, went missing over the South China Sea.

If you can match these tragedies to MINDEF's statistic of two deaths in the January to July 1984 period, please teach me how.

Whichever way you want to count the tragedies, families and loved ones of the dead will mourn their loss forever. In press articles from more than two decades ago, parents of yesteryear voice the same pain that parents of recent tragedies expressed.

Internet resources provide a wealth of data for defence-watchers with the time and energy to build their own records. MINDEF must recognise that the ability for netizens to datamine from one's desktop using net-based search engines means netizens are likely to countercheck every and any statistics that emerge from Gombak Drive. This capability was unavailable to newspaper readers back in the early 1980s and most people were probably none the wiser.

The bitter reality is this: So long as military training continues, the list of SAF fatalities will grow in coming years. As unpalatable as it may seem, this grim statistical fact underscores why a credible information management posture is so vital in the social media era.

Today's cohort of full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) who form the Third Generation SAF come from families whose menfolk weathered a harsher NS life. Stories of cover-ups during the late 1960s and 1970s - whether true or pure urban myth - can be easily passed onto the 3rd Gen SAF warfighters if MINDEF/SAF is not careful.

With the full panoply of social media gadgets at the fingertips of Gen Ys, the longevity of urban myths in era of the 3rd Gen SAF should be obvious.

MINDEF's PR challenge is compounded by New Singaporeans, many of whom hail from foreign countries where the military is best avoided, if not despised. Even if caste-based social groups envy martial traditions, the way New Singaporean families look at NS is little different from those of Singaporeans in the 1960s who viewed the SAF with skeptical eyes.

The impact of negative newsflows on New Singaporeans makes the PR task more complex. Newbies to the Lion City, unbloodied by military service, can be expected to react differently from homegrown Singaporean families who have felt the collective sense of loss many times before. When Death visits, as it will one day, the shock effect on the New Citizen family will be magnified.

I trust MINDEF/SAF had good intentions in sharing the death statistics with Singaporeans during the press engagement in 1984 or a solid basis for its calculations.

If the ministry had a more rigid definition of how it counted the deaths, this was not made clear in the story. The ambiguity that is apparent when one compares official rhetoric with numbers drawn from a file of death reports is unsettling, in my opinion.

There are several other striking examples of an apparent contradiction disjoint between records compiled from open source literature and the version of events from officialdom. But I believe I have made my point and will stop here.

The defence PR strategy may have worked 27 years ago when our island nation was younger and her citizens less discerning.

Alas, PAFF must realise by now the situation today is very different.


Anonymous said...

Wait a minute - The other question is how did he get 250,000 men ? The standing strength of the SAF was about 60,000 - Were that that many reservists ? Almost 200,000 in-processsed and out-processed in the same year ? If their ICT period is 2 weeks, shouldn't we be talking about 8,000 man-years instead ? So it's 60,000 active man-years plus another 8,000 reservist man-years, for a reported fatality rate of one in 68,000 man-years rather that 1 in 250,000. But in any case, the numerator is still wrong.

Anonymous said...

Old school here, we lost quite some back in the 70S, at the Starlight missions as well.

C/S 24S

David Boey said...

Hi Callsign 24S,
The reporting protocols for reporting SAF training incidents in the 1970s to the media was poor to non-existent.

But remember that MINDEF Public Affairs wasn't formed till 1979 (yes, 1979).

In my opinion, the late start contributed to the impression back then that MINDEF/SAF was not transparent and was trying to hide training deaths - a futile enterprise in a small country where word spreads quickly.

This impression continues to stalk MINDEF/SAF till this day.

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

People die everyday and the fact that they are in SAF at that point of time is just a coincidence.

See the obiturary in the newspaper everyday. It is just a fact of life.

Anonymous said...

Why are you always reporting on deaths in SAF? Could you do something more interesting. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous, I believe David has explained very clearly in his post why the deaths matter and are significant given its context. Besides, this is a blog about Spore and defence policies. I believe that's why you've visited this blog as well as you have an interest in this subject.

Anonymous said...

David, Thanks. Thank you for speaking on their behalf and remembering them.

Anonymous said...

A lot of anonymous comments here.... Re 121500, the dominant cause of death among the death reports I saw 20 years ago was Road Traffic Accident - Young men and motorbikes are a very dangerous combination, unfortunately. The deaths that David is talking about are the service-related ones. In the old days, I'd have said "training deaths", but nowadays, there is a growing risk of operational deaths too.

Anonymous said...

What a fine politician. I guess if he was pressed for the truth, he would have hidden behind the shield of the OSA and the sword of the ISA.