SINGAPORE: Several measures have been introduced to strengthen the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) investigation processes, following the recent deaths of full-time National Servicemen (NSF) Gavin Chan, Dave Lee and Kok Yuen Chin, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in a ministerial statement on Thursday (May 17).
Dr Ng said in Parliament that any death among SAF soldiers or Home Team personnel is “grievous”, as they serve the nation with loyalty, commitment and pride to defend the island – “often in challenging and dangerous circumstances knowing the risks to themselves”.
“Especially painful is when young NSFs die – all of us feel it acutely,” he said. “This House offers our deepest condolences to the families of 3SG Gavin Chan, CFC Dave Lee and SCDF CPL Kok Yuen Chin. We know that mere words cannot replace their loss.”
The minister’s statement was in response to parliamentary questions by MPs Henry Kwek and Vikram Nair, Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan and Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram.
The minister also reiterated the Ministry of Defence’s (MINDEF) commitment to make sure training deaths within the SAF can be eliminated through designing safety systems and enforcing them. It’s a “difficult goal”, he acknowledged, but one they must reach because if not, another “precious son (is) lost to a family”.
IMPROVING TRAINING SAFETY
In terms of training safety measures, Dr Ng said following CFC Lee’s death, SAF is currently evaluating the use of individual wearable devices to monitor a soldier’s condition in real time.
MINDEF will also commission an External Medical Panel, as it did in 2010, to review the armed forces’ policies and measures for the management of heat injuries, particularly as recorded temperatures here have gone up over the last two decades, he added.
Following these deaths, independent and impartial investigative processes will be taken to determine the key facts, arrive at appropriate conclusions, take corrective measures to ensure that mistakes are not repeated, Dr Ng said.
“This includes punishing those who contributed to the death through reckless and negligent acts,” he said.
Evidence of these processes can be seen in the aftermath of CPL Chan’s death, as well as with CFC Lee’s given that the Committee of Inquiry (COI) and police investigations are ongoing, the minister pointed out.
The minister also took the opportunity to acknowledge the accusations levelled at the commanders of CFC Lee. “But we should let the independent COI and police fully investigate the circumstances to establish the facts. We will deal with any wrongdoing thoroughly.
"Those who deserve to be punished, will be punished,” he said.
EXTERNAL PARTY TO BE PART OF COI
To add another layer to the process, Dr Ng said MINDEF has discussed with the External Review Panel on SAF Safety (ERPSS) to have one of its members to be part of the COIs for training-related deaths.
The ERPSS consists of safety experts and professionals outside the SAF and helps MINDEF “scrutinise” the armed forces’ safety management system. It reports periodically to the Defence Minister on the rigour of the system and presents recommendations to improve.
Additionally, the COI will submit its full report to the ERPSS for “further questions, comments and views”, and the panel will provide a written public report on the COI findings, the minister said.
“With these multiple layers of safety and with experts within and outside assisting the SAF, we can move decisively to make zero training deaths the norm,” Dr Ng said.
He noted that over the last two decades, there has been one NS training-related death each year on average and, while admitting it is “difficult”, eliminating training deaths “must be done”.
“Chief of Defence Force and service chiefs have assured me that safety has always been, and will continue to, get their highest command attention to achieve zero fatalities,” Dr Ng said.
“But we need every level to play their part, down to the individual commander and soldier to protect their own wellbeing and that of their men and their buddies.”
MPs further asked Dr Ng about various aspects of NS training following his statement, with 13 of them asking follow-up questions.
NCMP Tan, who had filed a parliamentary question on the Shoalwater Bay incident as well as posed supplementary questions after, said he did so last Monday "as it has been more than half a year since the accident and no information has been shed on how the accident took place and what lessons have been learnt or changes that will be made for SAF training protocols" as a result.
The Defence Minister had in his ministerial statement also shed more light into 3SG Chan's training death last September, including making public the Queensland coroner's report which was signed off on Mar 6 this year.
"The minister has answered my questions," Mr Tan told Channel NewsAsia in an email.
Mr Kwek, who also filed a question that Dr Ng responded to in his ministerial statement, said he did so earlier because it is "important to establish the facts for serious training incidents, including this one".
The PAP backbencher, who is also part of the government parliamentary committees for defence and foreign affairs, said his will withdraw his parliamentary question following the Defence Minister's statement and "robust" accompanying debate.
Others who posed supplementary questions include MP Lee Bee Wah, who asked if the "tekan culture" continues to exist in NS after a resident shared concerns, while Mr Murali Pillai asked about possibly opening up COIs and BOIs to family members looking for answers. Mr Ang Hin Kee, who said he has a family member in the same platoon as CFC Lee, wondered if MINDEF had spoken to the platoon mates and their families to allay their concerns over training.