SINGAPORE: The Defence Ministry’s (MINDEF) recent message to make zero-training deaths the norm is not only unrealistic but also wishful considering the risks involved in training a military force, Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh said on Monday (Feb 11).
Speaking in Parliament on an adjournment motion regarding training safety in the National Service, Mr Singh said that in the aftermath of the death of national serviceman (NSman) Aloysius Pang, MINDEF’s narrative appears to have shifted somewhat to a "zero-accident mindset".
“As a result of the expectations created, every time a training fatality occurs, the public pressure on MINDEF and SAF commanders down the leadership chain takes on a very corrosive edge. This damages not just the SAF, but the institution of National Service too,” said Mr Singh.
While it is clear that the underlying message behind MINDEF's "zero-accident mindset" is that it takes safety seriously, the public will focus on the word "zero" and this is a goal that cannot be achieved, even in industries with notoriously strict safety standards, said Mr Singh.
“No organisation, let alone one that is in the business of war and defending Singapore’s sovereignty, can realistically promise zero fatalities or training incidents even as the public must insist on the strictest training safety parameters for the SAF, and MINDEF strives for the same,” he added.
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In response, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen acknowledged that while the goal for zero fatalities is “very difficult” and perhaps even "impossible", MINDEF still has to aim for it.
“Our own experience shows, some years we may be able to achieve it. Can anyone guarantee that it will be zero fatalities for the rest of our future? Surely not,” said Dr Ng.
“But that zero fatality sears into the consciousness of every commander and every soldier that to get there, you better be careful about what you are doing. That safety lapses will not be tolerated, that it will be safety first because at the end of the day, I want to train you, and I want you to be alive, to be able to fight when Singapore needs you,” he added.
READ: ‘I am deeply sorry’: Ng Eng Hen on recent NS training deaths, vows accountability for every soldier
Earlier on Monday, Dr Ng had highlighted in his Ministerial Statement that there were no NS fatalities between 2013 and 2016, following four deaths in 2012 alone.
“This was probably due to multiple factors, but I think the new safety measures we put into place after the devastating incidents of 2012 had an effect,” Dr Ng said. “If we put our minds and efforts to achieve zero training fatalities, it can be achieved.”
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Additionally, Mr Singh also suggested that Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act be reviewed to allow soldiers to file a civil suit if there has been an “egregious breach of safety” by MINDEF or a negligent commander.
Doing so would “drive home the centrality of safety for the SAF’s peacetime mission” and create room for the Government to inject greater accountability into its protocols and processes, he said.
Mr Singh elaborated that a possible exception to Section 14 on the grounds of training safety would only apply if a commander behaves recklessly, maliciously or displays a wilful disregard for safety considerations.
“For example, if a commander had deliberately chosen to cancel a safety briefing, disregarded training safety regulations, had not catered for sufficient rest before or between training and missions without adequate reason or risk mitigation approved beforehand by a more senior commander, then the blanket immunity provided under Section 14 should not apply. It would follow that a court of law should be left to determine whether MINDEF or the commander in question must be held liable,” he said.
Mr Singh added that such a change would make the institution of National Service more accountable instead of undermining it.
“It would buttress public confidence in the importance of National Service, why safety is critical, and the lengths MINDEF and any Government of the day would go to protect the institution, even if it means putting MINDEF’s own reputation and that of its commanders on the line. In doing so, MINDEF would send a clear and unambiguous message - which the buck stops at the top.”
Dr Ng said that Mr Singh's suggestion was “a very tangential argument” that “misses the point” as MINDEF holds commanders accountable through criminal prosecution.
READ: Death of NSman Aloysius Pang: SAF investigation branch looking at possible military, criminal prosecution
"I do not need for those who want to sue the government to do so before the commanders are held accountable.
“We have taken commanders or NS men who have been derelict, who have not done their duty to criminal prosecution. Not just civilian payouts in the courts - they go to jail,” said Dr Ng.
“Their lives, in that sense, and careers are ruined. And justly so, they deserve it,” he added.
SAFETY A CORE VALUE FOR SAF
In the immediate days after Aloysius Pang died, Mr Singh wrote in a Facebook post that the death “hit close to home” for him, as he was then on reservist duty.
In Parliament on Monday, Mr Singh reiterated that whenever any soldier falls, everyone feels a collective pain “for a life that holds so much hope and promise”.
“We also share in the loss of their family members who live with the grief and regret of losing a son or daughter in peacetime and in service of the nation,” he said.
He noted that taking safety seriously is a core value of the SAF, because it is “a largely conscripted force”.
“There are potential safety gaps that need to be considered and improvements which need to be made. I hope that these can be swiftly and thoughtfully instituted with the professionalism the SAF is known for, so that Singaporeans can rest easy knowing our military women and men are operationally ready to keep Singapore safe and secure at all times,” he added.