SINGAPORE: In the wake of recent National Service (NS) training deaths, parents who worry for their sons' safety during NS can be assured that each and every soldier has the right to stop unsafe training, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (Feb 11).
READ: ‘I am deeply sorry’: Ng Eng Hen on recent NS training deaths, vows accountability for every soldier
"I’ve said very clearly, on no uncertain terms, that anybody can stop unsafe training," Dr Ng said in response to clarifications from Members of Parliament (MP) regarding his ministerial statement addressing the deaths.
"If you think it’s unsafe for your buddies, yourself, raise it up. If you think that someone is pushing beyond his means to physical harm, do so. I think that’s the way we maintain realistic training and give comfort to our parents."
READ: Death of NSman Aloysius Pang: SAF investigation branch looking at possible military, criminal prosecution
Dr Ng was responding to MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Alex Yam, who said many parents in his constituency had asked him about safety for their children.
"None of the parents who spoke to me said we should do away with National Service ... but with four recent incidents they are worried, so how do we reassure them that safety is paramount, that their children will be taken care of?" he asked.
The most recent incident was that of national serviceman Aloysius Pang, 28, who died on Jan 23 after sustaining injuries while carrying out repair work on a Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer as part of his reservist duties.
Last year, full-time national serviceman (NSF) Liu Kai, 22, died on Nov 3 after a Bionix vehicle reversed into the Land Rover he was driving, while NSF Dave Lee, 19, died on Apr 30 last year, nearly two weeks after showing signs of heat injury following an 8km fast march.
NSF Gavin Chan, 21, died on Sep 15, 2017 after he was ejected from a Bionix during another overseas exercise in Queensland, Australia.
READ: Death of NSF Liu Kai: Bionix driver continued reversing despite stop commands, police investigating comms between crew
These servicemen wanted their training to be as realistic as possible, Dr Ng said, noting that Corporal First Class Lee "pushed himself beyond what he was able", while Third Sergeant Chan refused to switch on the Bionix's headlights as he did not want to give his position away to the enemy.
"We've come very far when national servicemen say I want to train as realistically as I can," Dr Ng said. "What if we had the reverse situation where everyone attends training but nobody trains? I think we have to take what is good in our system and respond practically."
Nevertheless, Dr Ng said there needs to be a culture of safety at every level of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), although he acknowledged it could take many years to inculcate this.
"Who decides the culture? It’s all of us, our children, our friends, our relatives," he added.
READ: Enhancements to Bionix safety among measures put in place following COI findings into NSF Liu Kai’s death
UNFAIR PUNISHMENT FOR REPORTING UNSAFE PRACTICES?
In a follow-up question, MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah asked how servicemen can be reassured that they would not be dealt with unfairly after reporting unsafe practices.
"I stated very clearly that there is a TSR (Training Safety Regulations) and anyone can stop it," Dr Ng replied, noting that there are conducting and safety officers on the ground during training.
"If you bring it up to them, we want a culture where the person can assess if safety is at risk. So on the ground there are avenues, that’s in real time."
If there are recurrent safety lapses or risky behaviour, Dr Ng said servicemen can use safety hotlines to report these anonymously, or they can write in and "we will take action".
"I think the message is very clear to the units after this statement," he added. "It’s always been, but if it needs to be clearer after the reiteration, then remember that unsafe practices will not be tolerated."
SENIOR MILITARY FIGURES TO TAKE MORE RESPONSIBILITY?
Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan questioned if there is a need for more senior commanders to take responsibility for NS training deaths.
"If senior leadership has to go because they have been involved or have been derelict, then I don’t think our population will stand for that," Dr Ng said.
"If you think that improves the system, push for it. But let’s deal with the issue on the ground."
Dr Ng said he has presented all the facts concerning the deaths as much as he can, with independent parties "looking into the problem".
"If they decide that the change of the most senior leadership makes a difference, well it’s up to them to recommend," he added.
"But for MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) and the SAF, we want to deal with day-to-day issues, aligning our incentives and disincentives so we get the whole system moving, and making sure the effect is felt on the ground rather than posturing or politicking."
READ: Aloysius Pang death: Our responsibility to ensure safety of our children, says Chief of Defence Force
Dr Ng also said that all those serving NS should point out where the system has "degraded", if they think that it has, so that the issue can be fixed.
"Deal with the issue, strengthen the system bit by bit and it will take years," he said.
However, he cautioned against punishing indiscriminately even those who were not involved.
"Do we want a system where everybody’s afraid? You walk into a room and everyone is frightened that if anything happens, his head will (be) chopped, more heads will (be) chopped," he said.
"I noticed that the best organisations (are) not ones which are on tenterhooks; fearful of reprisal so that they dare not do anything, and not ones that are slack."
Dr Ng had earlier said he was "deeply sorry" for the recent training deaths in a ministerial statement, and pledged to hold MINDEF and SAF accountable for every soldier entrusted to them.