Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Intervention Needed In The SAF

It is not business as usual in the SAF, that much should have been pretty apparent a decade ago. The situation is so bad now that some drastic, preferably external, intervention is needed to shake up the organisation. The safety problems of the SAF are so deep-seated, it’s not something they can fix from the inside.

I want to say that the SAF should be thoroughly ashamed of itself, but unfortunately, I think they are just not capable of feeling ashamed. Perhaps that’s one of the characteristics demanded of military commanders, to be able to discharge their duties and carry out their orders without emotion.

Until the investigations into the most recent death, that of Aloysius Pang while in New Zealand last month, are fully completed, it is too early to assign blame. We don’t know exactly what happened. I am not jumping into conclusions to fault the SAF on this specific matter.

I am concerned about the manner in which safety matters have been handled in over the last decade or so. I have no confidence that the SAF is capable of keeping our children safe. The top SAF commanders have said a lot of things that may have appeased the public in the short term, but the events in the last ten years speak for themselves.

I don’t think the SAF has fully grasped the situation they’re in.

A recent SAF officer’s post on Facebook extolling the prevalence and focus on safety in the SAF is extremely disconcerting. I’ll say why in a moment. He tries to impress us with how much the SAF has done in the name of safety. For example, there is a Conducting Officer, Supervising Officer, and Safety Officer in every activity. I am offended about his reference to “do nothing medics”, but sure, there are medics who, in his words, “do nothing but watch out for soldiers”.

May I ask if there was a Safety Officer around during the training incident that least to the death of Private Dominique Sarron Lee?

May I ask if there was a medic around when Private Dave Lee collapsed and ultimately died?

Soldiers can fall out anytime they’re not feeling well? Don’t make me laugh.

How deluded is this officer?

It is precisely because of officers like him that worries me a lot, especially if this is in fact representative of the kind of commanders in the SAF. You can have words, you can have procedures, you can have special personnel appointments, but ultimately, it is the culture that needs to be ingrained in the people. Do the people actually care about safety at all?

Did Captain Najib Hanuk Bin have the safety of Private Dominique in his mind when he threw six smoke grenades, let alone even giving thought to the safety regulations that he flouted?

Did the Master Sergeant Lee Kong Kean have anyone’s safety in mind when he ordered Third Sergeant Cavin Tan, who isn’t licensed to drive, to drive a jeep? That accident resulted in the death of Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng.

We are only talking about serious accidents that lead to death. You’d wonder how many more other less serious incidents have happened.

As parents, we will always worry for our children. When we send our children to Primary Five camp, or Outward Bound School, we may have some apprehension, but we reasonably believe that our children will be safe. I know National Service is not quite the same thing, and defending our nation is a whole different ball game. Still, I believe the SAF owes us parents the same thing: give us the confidence that our children will be safe.

A sky-diving school is going to very quickly go out of business if their students die, and the deaths are found to be due to negligence of the instructors or otherwise attributable to the school. You should have known the risks, and it was your choice to go sky-diving school. Our soldiers don’t have a choice when it comes to National Service. It is precisely because our soldiers don’t have a choice that the standards which we need to hold the SAF up to must be significantly higher.

I am not demanding that there be no injuries. Accidents happen. You can get injured at soccer practice. The stakes are higher in National Service, and injuries will happen despite our best efforts. However, we must put our best efforts to prevent serious injuries, especially those that lead to death or permanent disabilities, when they are preventable.

The very first training death was already unacceptable. Yet we continue to see many more cases of deaths due to negligence, blatant violation of rules, and other reasons that could be so easily avoidable.

I don’t mean any disrespect to the late Aloysius Pang. His celebrity status has provoked significant public reaction. However, all the other training-related deaths deserve equal accountability from the SAF.

In the case of Private Dominique, for example, had the incident happened in a private enterprise, his Platoon Commander would probably be charged with murder. His Safety Officer would probably be charged with causing death by a negligent act. Yet, because it was the SAF, they can’t be prosecuted, and the SAF is likewise immune to prosecution.

The SAF just wants to say sorry, pay a bit of money, say some more that they will improve, and then hope everything goes away.

The recent formula adopted by the SAF after a serious accident is to have a timeout, a review, and then (presumably) implement an incremental improvement. Just rinse and repeat at each occurrence. This sounds suspiciously like how you’d handle product defects on a manufacturing line.

Is the SAF treating our soldiers like products moving through a factory manufacturing or assembly line?

Human beings are getting injured, sometimes losing their lives. They are not damaged products. Does the SAF understand these are human beings, not NRIC numbers in a nominal roll?

This time around the SAF is setting up a new Inspector General’s Office to scrutinize and enforce safety processes. I am not impressed. This sounds to be like the Safety Officer every activity is supposed to have, except with broader scope and at a bigger scale.

The top SAF commanders know how to say the right words, or at least they mostly know how to say mostly right words, but I can’t say for sure if their heart is in the right place. Their body language is just totally wrong during the press conference after Aloysius Pang’s death. What is it with the Chief of Defence Force Melvyn Ong’s waving of a loosely-clenched fist?

Someone needs to quickly teach the SAF this. It is said that 70% of communication is in body language, 23% is in the voice (tone and inflection), and just 7% is in the actual verbalized words. I truly cringe when I watched the top SAF commanders during the press conference. The words that come out from their mouth just don’t gel with the body language.

The COI looking into Aloysius Pang’s death has started work. Mindef said that in the last 15 years of SSPH operations, there has not been any reported injury of servicemen due to the gun being lowered for maintenance, or when operating in or firing the SSPH. The careful choice of words leads me to wonder if there were other incidents involving the SSPH in other circumstances.

However, whether there are or there aren’t other incidents isn’t important. There is always a first time for everything. So what if there hadn’t been any reported injury of servicemen due the gun being lowered for maintenance, or when operating in or firing the SSPH? So what if there hadn’t been any reported injury of any sort involving a SSPH? You don’t wait for a first death before you start to think about safety, do you?

One of my work-related portfolios include overseeing IT security. When an IT security incident happens, such as a data breach, you don’t ask if that security hole has ever been exploited before. So what if it hasn’t happened before?

Would you feel different if you were told the problems leading to SingHeath’s 2018 data breach have never happened before? The problems that led to the hepatitis C outbreak at SGH in 2015 had never happened before? So what if they never happened before? It’s never happened before, so please excuse us, we will learn and improve, is that it? Meanwhile, a soldier has died, we are sorry?

At the COI, Mindef talked about procedures, protocols, and drills. I am just wondering, can they tell us if these are actually being adhered to? I know they are supposed to be, but the problem is always with the people. Do they actually do all that?

Just to take an example from outside the SAF, the two SMRT employees who died on the tracks in March 2016, their accident wasn’t because there weren’t procedures and protocols. The operating procedures and protocols were clear. There were multiple layers of protection. People broke the rules. That the accident was even possible means that many rules were broken, and a sign hat the problems at SMRT were systemic.

I appreciate that the SAF has a tough job. Armed forces training isn’t easy. There needs to be an element of realism in the training in order to develop a credible fighting force to defend Singapore. However, I don’t think that safety is orthogonal to the training and operational needs of the SAF.

The track record of the SAF, however, shows that they are unable to fix their safety problems themselves. Some transformation is needed in the organisation. You cannot leave it to the same people, or the same type of people, to solve their problems from within anymore. Some intervention is needed.

I’m not saying to have all the top level commanders replaced. However, leaving them all in place is not likely to result in the kind of sweeping changes the SAF clearly needs. I can just see the top brass biding their time, hoping to ride the storm until they retire from the SAF to some cushy CEO job somewhere and screw up another company. By sweeping changes, I mean to question everything, and change anything that needs changing. Leave no stones unturned, nothing is off limits, even the talent management practices in the SAF, like how scholars become generals.

The SAF needs to realise they are in a crisis. It’s not just not business as usual. The Chief of Army has seriously downplayed the problems that the SAF is in.

The creation of the new Inspector General’s Office looks to be to appease the public, but it will likely not produce any revolutionary change in how the SAF deals with safety.

If you want to build a credible defence for Singapore, protect our own soldiers first.

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