Monday, August 5, 2013

Death of Taiwan conscript Hung Chung-chiu: The view from a Singaporean blogger

Source: China Post

Reports on the death of Taiwanese conscript Corporal Hung Chung-chiu after he was allegedly mistreated by his military superiors make sad reading, particularly when circumstances linked to the 24-year-old's death are projected to Singapore's context.

This weekend just past, thousands of Taiwanese gathered in Taipei to express outrage over the incident and show their anger towards the island's defence ministry and armed forces.

In the wake of the incident, Taiwan's Minister for National Defence, Kao Hua-chu resigned while senior commanders in CPL Hung's unit, 542 Armour Brigade, were hauled up for investigation.

Could the same happen here? Would the death of a full-time National Serviceman in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) topple the Defence Minister from his perch and lead to widespread protests in Singapore?

Singaporeans will indeed be infuriated by lapses in military leadership. But their fury is unlikely to boil over into large scale street protests (defined as tens of thousands on a scale unseen in Singapore, not dozens of activists in Hong Lim Park) against the SAF, mirroring peaceful demonstrations in Taipei.

This is because the uproar in Taiwan triggered by CPL Hung's death was underpinned by deep-seated communal tensions that outside observers often miss or may be unaware of.

There is a deep societal divide in Taiwan though the people there may look the same. Surnames are an immediate giveaway. Ditto their preferred language or dialect.

This communal divide is between Chinese who are native to the island (ben di ren) and those who trace their bloodline to mainlanders who fled to Formosa after the 1949 civil war. Known as the "outside province folk" (wai shen ren), those who settled on Formosa dominate the upper strata of Taiwan's armed forces.

Until several years ago, it was estimated that more than 90% of the officer corps in Taiwan's military comprised Chinese of mainland descent - a social imbalance long resented by natives on an island which enforces compulsory 12 months of military service for its male youths.

The late CPL Hung was the adopted son of a family native to Taichung. This means Hung did not come from the social strata beloved of Taiwan's military.

Observers noted that his death in a military dominated by non-native Chinese was all it took to ignite a flashpoint long suppressed in Taiwan society. Taiwan's civil-military relations are stratified, with fault lines whose origins go back decades.

228 Incident
Native Taiwanese have apparently not forgotten the pain from the massacre of civilians on 28 February 1947 - an incident known in the island as the 228 incident.

Fury over the deaths of 10,000 to 30,000 civilians (mainly natives) at the hands of Kuomintang troops decades ago have left deep, lingering scars in Taiwan society. Not unexpectedly, it has also fomented wariness over the armed forces in which non-natives dominate the command tree.

The decades-long communal schism and mistrust of the military provides the backdrop necessary for us in Singapore to understand why Taiwan residents responded so furiously to the training death, sad and unfortunate though the circumstances may be.

More background
Taiwan's Defence Minister did not resign solely because of pressure from angry countrymen. That's what one sees on the surface.

Former Taiwan DM Kao Hua-chu, 66, is a cancer survivor.

Following his brush with lung cancer, the Army general had expressed his desire to throttle back from government service some time ago. His cancer treatment proved successful. The general is now in the recovery phase after his cancer treatment. This explains the former minister's wish to scale back on his commitments.

Had the general remained in service, his time at the helm may assure Taiwanese of continuity in defence ministry leadership and the government's desire to get to the root of the matter. This is important as the months ahead are a critical time when investigations into CPL Hung's death get underway.

Playing the scapegoat card right now, particularly at DM level, does not advance the search for truth.

There is a school of thought that if not for General Kao's health scare, he would not have had to resign.

General Kao is afterall an influential figure in Taiwan's civil-military landscape. Prior to stepping up to lead the defence portfolio, Kao was director of the veteran's league.

Now this is a vastly different entity from the SAF Veterans' League.

Taiwan's version commands a membership of some 7 million former military men - a vast vote bank for the KMT if you think about it.

Lessons for Singapore
Strip away the political and historical background which complicates Taiwan's efforts to generate and sustain commitment to defence, circumstances reported after CPL Hung's death would have infuriated civil society activists in any citizen's army from South Korea to Switzerland, Israel and Singapore.

CPL Hung's fate was sealed when he was caught in a military camp with a mobilephone. This in itself was not a hanging offence.

But it is said that the Taiwan NSF's attitude riled his superiors: Reports claim he challenged his officer by asking what he could do to him, since the 24-year-old was due to complete his full-time NS within 72 hours.

News of his combative attitude reportedly went up to the brigade commander of his armour unit. Physical punishments said to have been meted out by his superiors - all regulars - started the fateful series of events that could have claimed CPL Hung's life.

It is said that CCTV footage in the detention centre where CPL Hung was made to perform physical exercises to the point of exhaustion (he died subsequently in hospital) were missing, unaccountable and suspected to have been destroyed.

The loss of CCTV footage which could have explained what happened quite naturally added fuel to the fire.

Media landscape
The media landscape in Taipei could have played a part in helping street protests move from concept to reality.

There are apparently no less than 12 newspapers published in Taipei itself. Every news outlet is a profit-driven, uber competitive news hub which races against its rivals to publish news which sells. The details will sort themselves out. What matters is raising circulation in a market where news consumers have ample alternatives

So the street protest idea essentially became a self-fulfilling event when fanned by a ferile press whose coverage of CPL Hung's death proved an instant incentive to buy the newspaper with the juiciest story.

The safety net which the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF have built in our society are the multiple layers of touchpoints which serve as conduits for feedback and yes, criticisms during periods of internal tension.

These range from committees made up of elected officials (which have included Opposition MPs), advisory councils comprising common citizens and assorted engagement efforts with grassroots leaders in communities which live in the vicinity of SAF camps, as well as outreach by individual SAF units in selected schools.

The individual SAF serviceman may not see the importance of such outreach.

But taken collectively and sustained year after year, the combined MINDEF/SAF effort gives our defence eco-system the rigor and flexibility to weather trying situations.

Make no mistake: Every SAF casualty is a defence information challenge that is complex and difficult to deal with, and whose endgame defies easy prediction.

At the heart of everything is making sure trust with citizens who underpin our citizens' army is never compromised nor taken for granted. That family members will get the answers they seek and the support they need.


Anonymous said...

@That family members will get the answers they seek and the support they need.

Do you think that the families of SAF NSmen who died in incidents in recent years have been asking the right questions, and that the answers that they have received are to their satisfaction?

Anonymous said...

Hi David, your attitude will change if the solder that die is your family, put yourself in the shoe of the parents who's kid died because of too much smokes or the one that died because of passionate dunking in water.

Anonymous said...

David, can do a write up on the Israeli's NS experience?


Anonymous said...

Singapore government likes to make fun of what happens in Taiwan's democratic parliament as an inevitable result of multiple parties being elected. But this incident in Taiwan shows that large demonstrations are possible without any violence. Contrary to what the PAP says, these demonstrations do not damage the economy, do not cause violence and do not compromise Taiwan's national security and defence.

Anonymous said...

@Anon Aug 15

Their economy has already been stagnating for a decade. No need to wait for a demonstration to do anything. A fresh college graduate from Taiwan with any decent command of English can make 1.5-2x the salary of what they can get back home just by coming to Singapore. And these are merely entry level service industry jobs.