SINGAPORE: An external panel, convened in May after the death of full-time national serviceman Dave Lee, has said that improvements could be made to how the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) prevents and responds to heat injuries, Chief of Defence Force Major-General (MG) Melvyn Ong revealed on Tuesday (Jun 19).
Corporal First Class (CFC) Lee, a Guardsman, died on Apr 30 nearly two weeks after "displaying signs of heat injury" following a fast march at Bedok Camp, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said.
MINDEF convened the five-member panel on heat injury management, comprising experts from the Singapore General Hospital, Changi General Hospital, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and DSO National Laboratories, to independently review existing strategies for heat injury prevention and management in the SAF.
“This panel has been going through the processes, measures and policies for heat injury management in the SAF,” MG Ong said in an interview ahead of SAF Day on Jul 1. “Two of the areas that they have suggested improvements are in the areas of prevention and response to heat injuries.”
However, MG Ong said he was unable to disclose further details as the panel is “not ready yet”, adding that it will take a “few more months”. “We will wait for the findings and then we will share,” he added. “We’re working as quickly and as thoroughly as we can so we’ll get it out as soon as we can.”
MINDEF said the panel has visited Bedok Camp to review the implementation of heat injury policies on the ground. The visit included a brief by Headquarters Guards and a demonstration of how heatstroke cases are treated at the medical centre.
“The panel has provided feedback that the SAF’s heat injury policies and measures are essentially sound and aligned with prevalent industry and foreign military practices,” MINDEF said.
At the same time, MG Ong said separate investigations into the incident are still ongoing. Besides the external review panel, a Committee of Inquiry is also investigating the circumstances leading to the death of CFC Lee.
“Those who have been shown to have done something wrong over the course of the incident will be held accountable,” he said. “This, I guarantee you.”
MG Ong’s pledge came as CFC Lee’s mother, in her son’s eulogy, called for an immediate halt to “tekan” or punishment sessions in the SAF.
When asked about public comments regarding a “tekan” culture in the Guards formation, MG Ong said “there is a certain purpose to every training that we do”.
“If there is no purpose, and the training is levied on the soldiers without reason, and there is an abuse of the way training is conducted in the process, we will hold them accountable,” added MG Ong, who is also a former chief Guards officer.
MG Ong did not say whether commanders have been directed to stop “tekan” sessions, instead reiterating that the training purpose needs to be in line with what he called the unit’s mission essentials.
“What the Army did in the aftermath of this incident was to emphasise that training needs to be accompanied with instructions, ample safety coverage and all the administrative practices and procedures that come along with it,” he added.
When asked if “tekan” sessions could be conducted with the right purpose and safety coverage, MG Ong said “it’s important to realise that we need tough training”. “But the training must … relate to their task and be accompanied by the right reasons.”
To that end, MG Ong said commanders from the top down have emphasised the need to ensure all training and practices are correctly implemented.
“We have to look within ourselves, examine our safety processes and training programmes to make sure they’re all doing the right thing,” he added. “We’re reasonably confident that commanders are aware of their responsibilities and continue to train to one’s requirement.”
Still, MG Ong said commanders were “affected and pained” by CFC Lee’s death. “The loss of every soldier hits to the heart, hits to the core of all that we are,” he stated. “We want all soldiers to go back to their families and when they don’t, we are deeply saddened.”