SINGAPORE: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament on Monday (Feb 11) he was sorry for the recent National Service (NS) training deaths, as he pledged to hold the Defence Ministry (MINDEF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) accountable for every soldier entrusted to them.
“I am deeply sorry for the loss of four precious NSmen (national servicemen) in the last 17 months,” he said in a ministerial statement addressing the deaths. “MINDEF and the SAF will hold ourselves accountable for every single NSman entrusted to us.”
The most recent NS training death was that of NSman Aloysius Pang. The 28-year-old died on Jan 23 after sustaining injuries while carrying out repair work on a Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH), as part of his reservist duties in New Zealand.
Before that, full-time national serviceman (NSF) Liu Kai died on Nov 3 last year 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.
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.
“This imperative of NS and our national defence does not absolve or reduce the accountability of MINDEF and the SAF in any way, to ensure safe training,” Dr Ng said.
“On the contrary, it compels MINDEF and the SAF to do all that is humanly possible to prevent training deaths for NSmen because precious sons have been entrusted to us by their families.”
Dr Ng’s statement comes after MINDEF announced on Jan 31 that it will set up an Inspector-General's Office (IGO) to ensure a command emphasis on safety across all SAF units.
The IGO will be headed by the SAF Inspector-General. This role will be assumed by the Chief of Staff-Joint Staff (COS-JS), an existing appointment that is equivalent to that of a Service Chief.
"This dual function is synergistic as the COS-JS has an overview of all operations and as Inspector-General, will have the authority to ensure that 'safety first' habits and processes are incorporated at all levels of training," Dr Ng said.
“This move also responds to ERPSS (External Review Panel on SAF Safety) finding that while the safety policies and management systems of the SAF are largely in place, there was a need for more compliance checks and ground level audits.
COMMANDERS PUNISHED FOR SAFETY LAPSES
Among several measures to drive home a culture of safety and enforcement against slack practices, SAF unit commanders found to have committed safety lapses will be penalised during their performance review, even if accidents have not occurred, Dr Ng revealed.
“Commanders of units which do not meet standards and have committed lapses in safety procedures and processes will have this marked against them in their performance reviews,” Dr Ng said.
“Let me emphasise that such commanders will be marked as having performed unsatisfactorily even if accidents have not occurred. This is the right emphasis to prevent accidents.”
The SAF will also increase safety audits of units by inspection teams – supervised by the IGO – at the Services, Dr Ng said. “More safety officers will be deployed to assist individual units and supervise training activities,” he added.
Several Members of Parliament questioned if the SAF punished safety lapses even if they do not lead to death.
Dr Ng noted that over the past three years, an average of 2 per cent of servicemen a year were punished under the SAF Act for safety lapses.
Punishments ranged from a fine to detention, he added, as well as administrative penalties like delays in promotion and reduction in benefits.
READ: Death of NSman Aloysius Pang: SAF investigation branch looking at possible military, criminal prosecution
Dr Ng also reiterated that servicemen, regardless of rank, are encouraged to report “unsafe practices and risky behaviour” to their superiors without fear of reprisal.
“Once notified, the Conducting Officer should verify the report and when necessary rectify the safety breach or unsafe practice,” Dr Ng said, referring to the Training Safety Regulations. “The Conducting Officer must update the Supervising Officer on the measures taken to rectify the safety breach or unsafe practice.”
Servicemen can also report safety incidents and near-misses through a 24-hour safety hotline, Dr Ng said, noting that the hotline receives about 140 calls each year.
On the other hand, servicemen who demonstrate safe behaviour will be rewarded, Dr Ng said. These units and individuals are recognised during the Service’s respective annual Safety Day.
“If we are to achieve zero fatalities during NS training, we must have a strong safety culture in all our units, and safety consciousness down to the last soldier,” Dr Ng said, stressing that commanders and supervisors must lead by example.
“Soldiers must have a strong respect for safety rules, take care of one another, and speak out on safety concerns. Incentives and disincentives must be aligned to achieve the right safety outcomes.
“Ultimately, safety is both a command and individual responsibility, and everyone needs to play their part because precious lives depend on it.”
Beyond internal safety measures, Dr Ng said an external agency – the ERPSS – also reviews the SAF’s safety system. The ERPSS comprises prominent safety experts and professionals outside the SAF.
The SAF's safety system is also aligned to international frameworks and regulations, Dr Ng said, adding that it comprises rules that mitigate safety risks, reporting mechanisms to ensure rules are followed, and consequences if they are not followed.
Dr Ng also said it was not possible to outsource all maintenance work with heavy vehicles or machinery as complex maintenance tasks that require specialised tools and equipment are already outsourced.
“But we still need NS technicians to be with their units to perform basic maintenance so that the equipment can function during operations,” Dr Ng stated.
Despite that, Dr Ng maintained that servicemen are given time to adjust from civilian to military settings.
For instance, a safety brief is held before any activity to ensure guidelines are fresh in the minds of participating soldiers. Inspections are also conducted to ensure soldiers are in good physical state, and that vehicles and equipment are serviceable.
“Soldiers must also complete an individual risk assessment checklist and raise safety concerns to their superiors for mitigation before an activity begins,” Dr Ng said.
NS training is also progressive, Dr Ng said, noting that it starts with refresher training for individual skills and proficiencies before operations are conducted. Prior to deployment, further training - such as with a simulator - is conducted.
“The IGO will review if further mitigating measures are needed to help NSmen adjust from civilian life to ICT (In-Camp Training),” Dr Ng stated.
FOUR DEATHS IN 2012
Besides the recent NS training deaths over the past 17 months, there were four deaths in 2012 alone. This includes the death of NSF Dominique Lee after sustaining breathing difficulties due to fumes from smoke grenades.
But Dr Ng pointed out that there were no fatalities from 2013 to 2016.
“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.”
READ: Enhancements to Bionix safety among measures put in place following COI findings into NSF Liu Kai’s death: Ng Eng Hen
If a death does occur, Dr Ng said MINDEF will consider requests from a deceased serviceman’s family when deploying immediate family members during NS.
“As deep as the hurt, as great the loss, we must not forget why we suffer them,” he stated.
“When the founding generation pledged themselves to build a strong SAF, they were fully conscious that a strong military is only possible with fully committed NSmen drawn from every family in Singapore.”