NSF Liu Kai's death: Bionix driver kept reversing despite commands to stop

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
The funeral wake of Corporal First Class Liu Kai, who died on 3 November 2018, following a vehicular incident during a field training exercise at Jalan Murai near Choa Chu Kang. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

During the incident that resulted in the death of full-time national serviceman Liu Kai last November, the driver of a Bionix vehicle continued to reverse his vehicle despite repeated commands to stop, said Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen on Monday (11 February).

Dr Ng was presenting the preliminary findings of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) convened to investigate the incident. These revelations were part of his Ministerial Statement on national service training deaths and enhanced safety measures for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

He added that the four-man Bionix crew had tested their communications equipment beforehand, and had been able to communicate via their helmet intercom earlier in the exercise.

“To determine culpability, separate and independent from the COI, police investigations are ongoing. Thereafter the Attorney-General will decide if any persons should be prosecuted,” said Dr Ng.

“Internally, MINDEF will conduct its own investigations and may charge persons who breach military law in the Military Court, even if the AG does not file criminal charges.”

The death of Liu Kai

Twenty-two-year-old CFC Liu, a transport operator from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Transport Hub West, was operating a Land Rover as part of a field training exercise when a Bionix vehicle reversed into his Land Rover at around 9.58am on 3 November 2018.

The full-time national serviceman (NSF) then lost consciousness and was attended to immediately by the on-site medic. CFC Liu eventually succumbed to his injuries.

The cause of death as determined by post-mortem was traumatic asphyxia. Liu was posthumously promoted to CFC.

Based on camera recordings from the Land Rover and statements from multiple witnesses, the COI has put together a detailed chronology of the events that led to Liu’s death.

How the incident occurred

On 3 November 2018, the 42nd Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) was conducting a two-sided company mission exercise at the Jalan Murai training area.

Liu was tasked to ferry a regular trainer holding the rank of Captain from the Active Unit Training Centre, who was assigned to evaluate exercise troops. It is standard procedure for a trainer to evaluate all such exercises.

At the time of the incident, Liu and the trainer were in their Land Rover following their assigned Bionix.

The Bionix crew comprised four full-time national servicemen: the vehicle commander (Second Lieutenant), a rear guide when the vehicle reverses (Third Sergeant), the driver and a gunner (both Corporals). As the Bionix driver is unable to see behind him, the rear guide directs the driver in reversing the vehicle.

At around 9.58am, the Bionix crew spotted several exercise vehicles passing by at the junction ahead of it and stopped their vehicle. In response, the Land Rover driven by CFC Liu also stopped.

Shortly after the trainer had instructed Liu to overtake the Bionix, shots were fired as part of the exercise. Upon hearing the gunshots, Liu stopped the Land Rover again.

Inadequate safety distance

Based on the COI’s calculations, this final position of Liu’s vehicle would have been at a distance of “at most 19.8m from the Bionix, but short of the safety distance of 30m stated in the Training and Safety Regulations (TSR)”.

“The COI noted that ensuring the safety distance is the responsibility of the vehicle commander of the Land Rover. In this case, the Land Rover ended up in a position that was less than the required safety distance from the Bionix,” said Dr Ng.

Four seconds after the Land Rover had stopped, the Bionix started to reverse as part of the extrication drill ordered by the Bionix vehicle commander, in response to the shots. As it did so, the Land Rover was initially not in its path.

The COI found, however, that the Bionix had “drifted” while reversing, leading to the driver making a slight steering correction. This brought the Land Rover into the path of the Bionix.

According to the COI, no mechanical problems were found with the Bionix’s steering equipment.

Communications failure

Almost immediately after the Bionix started reversing, the video recordings from the Land Rover’s front-facing camera show the Third Sergeant rear guide “gesturing at the Land Rover to move away and then pushing the mic of his helmet closer to his mouth”.

The COI found that the rear guide issued stop commands into the intercom of his helmet set when the Bionix started reversing and did so repeatedly. The intercom is the rear guide’s only means of communication with the other crew members in the Bionix.

However, the Bionix continued to reverse.

The video recording of the interior of the Land Rover cabin showed the Captain trainer tapping Liu and signalling him to reverse the Land Rover. From the beeping sounds, it also indicated that CFC Liu did engage the reverse gear.

Both the trainer and Liu shouted and gestured with their hands for the Bionix to stop. The trainer also attempted to reach for the handset of the radio set to communicate with the Bionix crew.

Fatal collision

Approximately eight seconds after it started reversing, the Bionix collided with the Land Rover and mounted the driver’s side before coming to a stop.

The trainer could extricate himself but Liu remained trapped. Liu was pronounced dead by medical officers at around 10.35am.

“The COI was of the view that the servicemen involved had had their rest in accordance with Training Safety Regulations (TSR), and that their mental and physical states were fit for participation in the activity and did not appear to have an effect on their attention to safety protocols,” said Dr Ng.

The COI also noted that the rear guide had repeatedly given the order for the driver to stop reversing and that the intercom system was working earlier in the exercise. It has asked for an independent technical assessment report on whether the intercom system was working properly all the time.

“In parallel, police investigations, too, are also focused on the communications between the Bionix crew, and whether this was affected by the equipment. This is an important point that needs to be resolved but we will have to await the outcome of police investigations,” Dr Ng added.

Including Liu and local actor Aloysius Pang, there have been four SAF-training related fatalities between September 2017 and January this year.

At a Parliamentary sitting last May, Dr Ng said that there has been an average of one NS training-related death a year over the past two decades. He also noted that there were no training-related deaths from 2013 to 2016.

A timeline of the training incident that led to the fatal collision. (Graphics: Mindef)

Related stories:

NSF death: Liu Kai was going to celebrate his sisters’ birthdays

Death of Aloysius Pang: Two other SAF personnel in vehicle at time of incident were ‘similarly qualified’

Timeline: Death of actor Aloysius Pang and his return to Singapore

Aloysius Pang’s death: ‘Don’t cry, mom. If you cry, I will cry too’