SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) leadership "take safety with utmost seriousness", following a spate of National Service (NS) deaths.
In a Facebook post on Friday (Feb 15), his first comments on the deaths, Mr Lee said that the recent incidents have been “very painful, because they cost precious lives”.
“I know how heartbreaking this is to all of us, and especially the families. When it happens to a well-known figure like Corporal (First Class) Aloysius Pang, the emotional impact is greater, and the loss is even harder to take,” he wrote.
Mr Lee said the SAF has put enormous emphasis on training safety and aims to achieve zero fatalities.
“After every incident, we make sure the injured get the best medical care. When a soldier dies, the SAF grieves deeply. His comrades understand how his family feels, because they feel the loss keenly too. But they try to put aside their emotions to take care of the bereaved family, and continue carrying out their SAF duties,” he said.
READ: Death of NSman Aloysius Pang: SAF investigation branch looking at possible military, criminal prosecution
At the same time, Mr Lee said the SAF will investigate the incident and identify its causes. SAF processes and training procedures will be improved, so that this does not happen again, he added.
“We know zero fatalities is extremely hard to achieve. But we will strive for it, because every life is precious to us,” he said.
Mr Lee said that he speaks from personal experience, both as a unit commander and when he served on the General Staff.
As unit commander, Mr Lee said he was responsible for his men’s training, safety and welfare: “In a way, I was standing in for their parents.”
When serving on the General Staff, Mr Lee said he had to deal with training incidents, decide what needed to be fixed, whether anyone should be punished as well as what must be continued or stopped.
“I had to account to the bereaved families, and think hard how to keep servicemen safe while still fulfilling the SAF’s mission,” he wrote.
As Prime Minister, Mr Lee said he has made sure that the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has capable leaders and that when a training accident happens, the Government answers not only to the family but also to all NSmen and the public.
“That is essential for the SAF and national service to retain public confidence and support.
“I can therefore assure you that I and the SAF leadership take safety with utmost seriousness. It was so when I was there, and I am confident it is even more so today,” said Mr Lee.
In his Facebook post, the Prime Minister also said that Singapore has to put its servicemen in harm’s way during war, but owes it to servicemen not to compromise their safety and endanger their lives during peacetime training.
Mr Lee added that the SAF has to carry on training and fulfilling its operational duties.
“We cannot outsource our security and defence to anyone else; we have to defend Singapore ourselves. Because we have a strong and well-trained SAF, Singapore enjoys peace and security, and can maintain friendly relations with other countries.
“I thank Singaporeans for supporting the SAF and national service. Your support has helped us to build a strong and professional SAF, with a comprehensive order of battle, and well-equipped, well-trained, and well-motivated soldiers.
“So when something goes wrong, I hope you will see things in perspective. We must never gloss over shortcomings and failures. But neither should we forget the SAF’s progress and achievements, and its contributions to Singapore’s peace and security,” he said.
Mr Lee's comments came after four national servicemen died in training-related incidents within a period of 18 months.
NSman and actor Aloysius Pang died on Jan 23 after sustaining injuries while carrying out repair work on a self-propelled howitzer, as part of his reservist duties in New Zealand.
On Nov 3 last year, full-time national serviceman (NSF) Liu Kai died on after a Bionix vehicle reversed into the Land Rover he was driving. Six months before that, 19-year-old NSF Dave Lee died nearly two weeks after showing signs of heat injury following an 8km fast march.
READ: Death of NSF Liu Kai: Bionix driver continued reversing despite stop commands, police investigating comms between crew
NSF Gavin Chan, 21, died on Sep 15, 2017 after he was ejected from a Bionix during another overseas exercise in Queensland, Australia.
On Thursday evening, a 33-year-old Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regular serviceman was found motionless at a stairway landing of a building in Kranji Camp II. His death was non-training related, MINDEF said.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament, pledging to hold his ministry and the SAF accountable for every soldier entrusted to them.
READ: ‘I am deeply sorry for the loss’: Ng Eng Hen on recent NS training deaths, vows accountability for every soldier
There were no training fatalities from 2013 to 2016, Dr Ng noted, although there were four deaths in 2012 alone.
SAF unit commanders found to have committed safety lapses will be penalised during their performance review, even if accidents have not occurred, he said.
He also reiterated that servicemen, regardless of rank, are encouraged to report “unsafe practices and risky behaviour” to their superiors without fear of reprisal.
MINDEF said on Jan 31 that it will set up an Inspector-General's Office to ensure a command emphasis on safety across all SAF units.