Friday, April 6, 2012

Coming to terms with Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths

All of us will die someday, so what is it about Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training deaths that gets Singaporeans so worked up?

The emotional energy that jolts this island nation whenever we hear of yet another death in the Singaporean military is far better than a situation of complete and utter apathy.

After 45 years of National Service (NS), compulsory conscription is a common experience firmly rooted in Singaporean society. Every family who learns about a training incident would therefore be able to commiserate with the family reeling from the loss of their loved one. In their hearts, they know that NS is a risky business and someday, the bearer of bad news could come knocking on their own front door.

Most times, the sentiment that weighs heavily on society is the sense of loss when a son of Singapore dies while serving his country. Such sentiments are stoked by the impression that NS is a waste of time. The life lost was thus wasted in a useless enterprise. Compare this with the sense of selfless sacrifice and commitment that is seeded in our mind whenever someone dies while doing a notable deed (like dying during a humanitarian mission).

The idea that NS is a waste of people's time could be seeded by one of the following reasons.

First, Singaporeans may feel the island nation cannot be defended. Serving the SAF is therefore futile.

Second, Singaporeans may feel the city state is not worth defending.

Third, the SAF cannot do its job. NS is therefore a waste of time even if the island can and should be defended.

Fourth, Singaporeans may feel there is no imminent threat worthy of universal conscription.

Fifth, training deaths may trigger negative sentiments towards the SAF because conscription is compulsory. In coming to terms with the death, society may rationalise that the young man would not have died if the NSF wasn't place in the situation in the first place. In many cases, the sense of loss is magnified in direct proportion to the age of the deceased.

It will be clear that it will take more than a clever public relations campaign to remedy the mindsets listed above. For starters, having a Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF that does not throw smoke screens or belittle concerns of its citizens soldiers would be a good start.

Share BOI/COI results
Singaporeans would benefit from learning results of investigations into training deaths because such knowledge can reinforce the safety first mindset among NSFs, operationally ready NSmen and SAF regulars. Our obsession with secrecy is self-defeating when our citizens' army has to relearn painful lessons in accident awareness, risk mitigation, workplace safety and personal healthcare.

Are results of a BOI/COI really that sensitive our national defence ecosystem would collapse if word leaked out? Are we keeping things under wraps because publicity will compromise security or are we doing so because the findings may embarrass MINDEF/SAF? There's a big difference between the two. Isn't losing face a better option than losing another life?

From time to time, politicians will tell us that no amount of preventive efforts will lead to a zero accident rate. This is certainly true. After 45 years of National Service, most Singaporeans are reasonable enough not to expect a clean slate.

But we owe it to our citizens who step forward to serve that every death was not in vain.


Anonymous said...

Hi David, a long post from me, hope you don't mind.

The first four reasons you suggest why people feel that NS is a waste of time are not something which comes spontaneously, but rather borne from observation and personal prejudices especially from those who experienced NS first hand.

The second idea (not worth defending) seem to be taking a worrying deep root especially with the massive influx of foreigners in the last 10 years and publicized incidents where locals are given short shrift in disputes with foreigners. MP for Aljunied GRC, Mr Pritam Singh actually alluded to this idea ("Jobs for FTs, NS for Singaporeans") in Parliament. Other MPs from the ruling party worsen the issue by criticizing Singaporeans (e.g. asking for reflection during the "Sun Xu Incident"). This severely compromises C2D when those required to serve feel that national leaders are not doing right by the people in defending THEIR interests.

The fifth idea might not necessarily be true, since there are several other equally tragic ways where the lives of young men are ended, either in careless risk seeking, vehicle accidents, sports related fatalities or senseless fights. There is very little the SAF can do (other than not training) to minimise training related accidents but there is always more to do in order to reduce the risk factors or damage caused (e.g. body armor and eye protection during live firing, attention to preventive maintenance of equipment, etc.)

As to why BOI/COI findings are not published, it could be there are names to be protected, especially in the case of individuals with particularly high CEPs, or if it damages confidence in the system (especially if the system meant to ensure fairness or proper procedures is not being followed). Embarassment is definitely a factor, especially if it turns up the fact that commanders are not doing their jobs to the required standard. You probably have first hand experience in knowing that some of the biggest egos in Singapore are not in private enterprise but in Gombak.

David Boey said...

Thank you for taking the effort to share your point of view.

re: Egos. If these personalities cannot deal with or tolerate irritants in peacetime defence info management, let's not even pretend they can cope during a hot war. An astute Enemy would pick up signs of such character flaws and play them to their advantage during psywar ops.

I suspect you have firsthand experience with Gombak too :)

Warm regards,


Anonymous said...


From what I know, the findings of the BOI are called upon and cross-referenced as part of the Coroner's Inquiry, which is vested with the proper authority to give a 'conclusion' to the incident. The CIs will also be privy to other independent reports such as the coroner's report and its findings are therefore more complete. In that sense, whether or not MINDEF publishes the BOI is somewhat inconsequential. However, I do agree that explanations regarding the proceedings of the BOI and CI are lacking. And where there is a void of information, some distrust in the system will imevitably arise.

David Boey said...

Hi (above),
Am of the opinion that system does not lack rigour in terms of investigation protocols and work processes.

Have also read newspaper stories on the Parliament session that explained why results of such investigations cannot be revealed - but that Parliamentary session was decades ago. That explanation is not good enough in today's context.

There is value in sharing learning opportunities to mitigate risk of repeating past lapses as pointed out in last part of your 9:40AM.

Best regards,


P.S. Anyone attending tomorrow's BMTC GP?

Anonymous said...

I think you've missed out the fact that the 'compensation' for death/injury contributes to the negative feeling towards SAF.

With this at the back of my mind I really don't 'risk' myself cause I know that my family has no where to turn to when I'm gone.

I don't earn much but sometimes it seems to me the only way to help NS man that was injured or died is for NS man to start some foundation to help ourselves.

Anonymous said...

May I add a sixth concern?

There is a very reasonable concern that the SAF cannot ensure that safe practices are practiced in concert with common sense throughout the organisation.

The circumstances involved in the deaths are often ridiculous. Think of lone soldiers being found alone and unconscious, crushed by Army or Navy equipment, or have their heads fatally dunked in water in deliberate training events.

While the SAF is a big and complex organisation, many of these deaths stem not from organisational complexity but from stupidity.

Think of cases in which soldiers who have died have been evacuated to a SAF medical centre after much delay, and then to a hospital after further delay when the Medical Officer sees fit, often when unconscious.

It may be understandable when green conscripts make fatal mistakes, but in many cases those involved have been regulars. What the SAF did to prepare them for their posts is a question that needs to be answered.

Add to this the trickle of information that comes out of Mindef, which leaves the public wondering if something rather embarrassing had not transpired.

I disagree with the first comment that there is little the SAF can do to remedy these deficits of leadership and common seanse.

Singaporean Expatriate said...

Many medical officers aren't regulars but those serving on "bond" after their scholarships were paid for by the government. Or are serving their NS after disrupting for medical studies that their families paid for. Many are often lackadaisical. When I was serving NS over 30 years ago, the MO of Pulau Tekong was one such person. I was in sickbay when the SAF CMO (Chief Medical Officer) stormed into the MO's office, slammed the office door and started screaming at him for "trying to cover up" an incompetently handled medical incident that the CMO had to find out through verified and justified complaints from a recruit's family (the door and the walls were thin and everybody in sickbay heard the excoriation). As a culture, we almost deify our doctors but some of these arrogant young punks don't deserve the adulation and need to be taught a lesson in manners and empathy.

Anonymous said...

Most of the deaths so far involved other conscripts and not regulars.

Most of the deaths so far occur at the rank 3SG and below. We all know how much contact officers above PC has with them. Most PCs are NSFs.

The last time regulars were closely involved or contributed to an incident that resulted in death was the commando dunking incident, and that happened almost 10 years ago now.