By Gerald Giam
Army Second Lieutenant (2LT) Li Hongyi's June 28 email complaint sent to all the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) head honchos has caused ripples on the Internet for the past two weeks. Much mud has been slung at 2LT Li for his brash act.
"Who does he think he is anyway? He thought he could go to Uncle Chee Hean and complain," complained one of my friends. (Teo Chee Hean is the Singapore Minister for Defence.)
A "blatant abuse of family ties," cried another blogger.
As it turns out, the son of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did end up getting formally charged and was administered a reprimand after a summary trial by the military for not adhering to the chain of command when making his complaint.
This incident has also made its way to the international news wires, with Reuters having reported it this morning. Despite all the brickbats that Li Hongyi, Mindef and the “Elite Establishment” are receiving over this incident, I feel that the way this saga has played out is actually quite heartening for Singapore.
White Horses not immune from punishment
Firstly, the fact that the son of the prime minister got charged for contravening a relatively minor military General Order shows that not even a "white horse" (the son of a VIP) is immune from punishment for wrongdoing. I say "relatively minor" because 2LT Li's misdemeanour was his overzealousness in reporting an offence.
He was not derelict in his duties as a soldier, nor did he cause any injury to anyone. Furthermore, he sent his email only to fellow servicemen within the Mindef Intranet, and not to anyone outside Mindef.
Nevertheless, he was wrong to have emailed the Minister for Defence, the Chief of Defence Force, the Chief of Army and so many other servicemen (possibly hundreds, based on the distribution lists in his carbon copy list). There are many more senior officers in the chain of command above his Officer Commanding (OC) that he could have reported this incident to.
Secondly, after reading 2LT Li's email, one can discern that it wasn't just some immature rant against the army (like so many of us, myself included, like to write). It was a detailed account of what is wrong with the system of enforcing discipline in his army unit. It demonstrates that this young man was intent on setting things right before he disrupted his service for overseas studies.
Our views of government ministers' children are probably coloured by Wee Shu Min (pictured left), the daughter of a PAP MP who wrote a very haughty blog last year. 2LT Li's email is different. It shows a degree of public spiritedness that is sorely lacking in most of our young Singaporeans nowadays.
Complaint taken seriously by Mindef
Thirdly, Mindef took this complaint seriously. The lieutenant that 2LT Li complained about will be court martialled soon and will probably be sentenced to Detention Barracks (DB) for a couple of days. The lieutenant's superiors were also issued warning letters for not meting out harsh enough punishment when the infraction was first reported to them.
Critics would say that Mindef took action only because the son of the PM made this complaint. If this was the case, why didn't 2LT Li's OC and Commanding Officer take appropriate action when he first reported it?
Fourthly, 2LT Li's wrongdoing was not exactly covered up because of his status as the son of the PM. Even before the mainstream media reports came out today, and the chatter on the Net took off a week earlier, the Commanding Officer of 2LT Li's unit had given a speech to the entire unit the next day (presumably the day after he wrote the letter) about "following the chain of command".
Mainstream media, New Media
That in many ways amounted to a public, albeit informal rebuke. Today's mainstream media's reports about 2LT Li's punishment (complete with pictures of the young officer) all signal a gradual relaxing of the Singapore media's unofficial policy of self-censorship to avoid embarrassment to senior government officials.
It is unclear whether 2LT Li's charge was issued before or after the news got leaked on the Net. It appears that his email only got circulated widely on the Net late on Thursday, 12 July.
But given that he committed his offence on June 28, and Mindef announced to the press less than two weeks later (on July 12) that he had already been charged at a summary trial, indicates that relative quick action was taken against this offender.
Lastly, there is no doubt that the new media helped to highlight this matter to the public. There would be no Straits Times or Channel NewsAsia report, nor would Mindef have issued a statement, if not for the fact that this was already a widely discussed issue on the Net.
It is heartening to note that the new media is fast becoming an effective watchdog on the powers-that-be in Singapore.
*Picture of Li Hong Yi above is taken from the Straits Times.
Visit Gerald’s blog at SingaporePatriot.