After four training deaths in 17 months, I had expected the Defence Minister to talk more about the inherent risks of military training. Instead Dr Ng Eng Hen said: “It is not true that we cannot train safely if we want to train realistically.” I guess he couldn’t have said otherwise. Not if he wanted to re-assure wives and mothers who wondered if their sons and husbands were stepping into a minefield when they stepped into their army boots.
Then again, the Singapore Armed Forces had a perfect zero score for a few years after a disastrous 2012, when four of its own died. Dr Ng thought the safety measures put in place then worked. But why not now?
The C word – culture – was invoked often. He didn’t call it bo chup although he did refer to “slack” practices. But he was clear about where the responsibility for instilling a safety culture laid – the commander level. Commanders will be “marked” down if safety lapses were detected even if nothing untoward happened. And the rank-and-file will be empowered to point out and even stop unsafe practices as and when they see them.
Beyond that, Dr Ng was hard put to explain what he meant by a “safety culture”. At one point, he told an anecdote about two Nordic countries which built a bridge, each from its own end. When the bridge was constructed, one country had half the fatalities of the other.
I suppose it’s about everyone possessing an antenna that can detect danger and which will sound an alarm before harm is done. I presume from what he said about culture was that SAF doesn’t have a strong antenna or good enough sound equipment.
Enter the new office of Inspector-General.
Much was made about the person being at a high enough level to report to the Chief of Defence Force. “If the Chief of Joint Staff calls you, you will listen,” Dr Ng replied when asked how the office could be compared to the current Safety Systems and Review Directorate, set up in 2013. I wish he had said more, to dispel cynicism about yet another bureaucratic structure set up to save the day. I wish he would confirm if he is talking about BG Kelvin Khong.
In September 2017, Third Sergeant Gavin Chan was flung out of his Bionix vehicle when it overturned on a steep embarkment during a night-time exercise in Queensland, Australia. He had been half-out of the turret giving directions on reversing and he didn’t want the headlights on lest they gave their position away to the “enemy”. Safety lapses occurred but there was no negligence.
In April 2018, Corporal First Class Dave Lee collapsed after a fast march and wasn’t treated adequately or evacuated quickly enough. He succumbed to heat stroke. One SAF officer has been charged in court and six others will face military probes.
On Nov 3 last year, Corporal First Class Liu Kai, 22, was crushed when a Bionix vehicle reversed and ran over the Land Rover he was driving during a training exercise in the Lim Chu Kang area. The Committee of Inquiry has completed its report. Police are investigating.
On Jan 19 this year, Corporal First Class (NS) Aloysius Pang, 28, was crushed between a lowered gun barrel and the cabin of the howitzer he was called in to repair. He was taking part in an artillery live-firing exercise in New Zealand while on reservist duty. A committee of inquiry of independent (but unnamed) members, has been set up.
It was painful to hear how corporals Liu and Pang died. Dr Ng had pictures and graphics put up on the TV screens in Parliament. Because they were still “open” cases, he would stick to the facts, so as not to point the finger at anyone and anything, he said. But even as he took the House sombrely through the last moments of two men, what he did not say seemed more important than what he said.
To keep a long story short, Corporal Liu was driving the Land Rover, with a trainer, a regular Captain in the passenger seat. They were trailing a Bonix when the Bionix received “enemy fire”. The captain wanted Cpl Liu to speed up and overtake the Bionix but the big vehicle started reversing. In fact, it started veering into the Land Rover’s path. The Land Rover, at this time, was just 19.8m away from it, not even close to the 30m safety limit. Cpl Liu started reversing but it took just 8 seconds for the Bionix to run over his side of the Land Rover.
So what happened? The Bionix had a rear guide who was signalling frantically to the two men in the Land Rover. He was seen mouthing into the helmet intercom which was the only means of communicating with the Bionix driver. But the driver continued reversing. Dr Ng said the intercom was working well earlier and the matter was now with the police. You go figure.
Some outcomes: Horns and rear view mirrors and cameras will now be fitted at the back of heavy vehicles. The trainer will join the crew, and not tag along in another vehicle. Reversals can only take place with the explicit consent of the rear guide.
In the case of Corporal Pang, whose death is now being investigated by a COI, there were even more blanks. He shouldn’t have been at the place where the barrel was being lowered if safety processes were followed. The gun commander should have shouted “clear away” and “standby” and checked that there was no one in the way before lowering the gun. Dr Ng gave the process and even showed a training video. But he didn’t say if this had happened. There were also three red emergency buttons in the howitzer, but he didn’t say if any was pushed.
The self-propelled howitzer, in use for the past 15 years with no mishaps, takes just nine seconds to lower itself to the horizontal level. Dr Ng also made it clear that the Corporal Pang wasn’t new at repairing howitzers, had a refresher course last February and had already worked on 10 howitzers so far. Also, he was to do only basic repair work. Higher level repairs were assigned to a regular mechanic. In this case, there was such an expert mechanic, of 16 years experience. The gun commander is a Third Sergeant on his eighth in-camp training.
Dr Ng didn’t try to paper over the tragedies. Instead, he said with a choke in his voice: “We must not forget why we suffer them”. Those were pretty strong words which make a change from the usual “wake-up call” speeches. So suffer them we must if we do not want to be invaded, like Kuwait was by Iraq in 1990, or have shipping and air routes blocked, as is the case now with Qatar.
“This imperative of NS and our national defence does not absolve or reduce the accountability of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and the SAF in any way to ensure safe training.
“On the contrary, it compels Mindef and the SAF to do all that is humanly possible to prevent training deaths for NS men because we are fully aware that precious sons have been entrusted to us by their families,” he added.
For a while, I thought Dr Ng was a mass of contradictions. Training is inherently NOT safe then, correct? I can, however, reconcile this by looking at zero fatality target as an aspiration, even if it can’t be a rule. What’s also useful is to separate incidents based on systemic flaws from those based on human error. You simply can’t account for human frailties. Third Sergeant Gavin Chan, for example, was operating his Bionix in a black-out to avoid being sighted by “enemies”.
What happens now?
That safety time-out has been lifted for some units but there’s still no word on what has or would be changed. Dr Ng repeatedly said that this was a “command” issue, which means that he would leave it to the SAF to make any announcements. One interesting bit emerged about the necessity of the SAF’s other non-operational duties, such as organising the National Day Parade. He said he would leave it to them to say what will or won’t be done.
And of course, there is this question of where “command” starts and stops. It was asked by Workers’ Party NCMP Dennis Tan, who referred to the resignation of the Taiwanese Defence minister over the death of a soldier and the sacking of the Admiral in charge of the US seventh fleet. It was almost an invitation for Dr Ng to resign. The minister gave him pretty short shrift about “posturing and politicking”.
It’s not the time, I suppose, for recriminations. Let’s see what the SAF, especially the Inspector-General, says and does.