Shouldn’t MINDEF be more transparent about servicemen deaths?

Joel Tan investigates the sudden deaths of NSmen.

Breaking News: Another servicemen dies on Wednesday (Earthtimes). June 12 – SAF suspends physical training after two deaths in two days. (CNA). Singapore‘s Ministry of Defence has declared a three-day time-out (12-14 June) on all physical and endurance training activities in the army, navy and air force.

Joel Tan

The last line of the Singapore Armed Forces pledge states that all of us servicemen, active or otherwise, should be prepared to defend Singapore (cue shout) “with our lives!”.

Indeed, this has manifested itself very literally and very unfortunately in several instances, and mishap, understandable in the struggle to balance realism with safety, has caused many soldiers to lose their lives while in active service to the nation.

The latest case of death in the SAF surrounds recruit Andrew Cheah Wei Siong who, during a 2 kilometer walking exercise at Pulau Tekong’s BMTC on Tuesday morning, collapsed and was later pronounced dead at the Singapore General Hospital where he was evacuated to.

Sudden deaths

Cheah had only been enlisted 5 days prior to the incident, and his sudden passing is both shocking and puzzling. As the Channel News Asia report on Cheah’s death was quick to point out, the major causes for the sudden deaths of otherwise fit young men are myocarditis, an infection of the heart muscles causing inflammation, or an inherited condition that leads to the thickening of the heart muscles. Both can lead to sudden cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac arrhythmia, which are fatal.

Either condition, according to the above report, is easily detected through the use of an electrocardiogram (ECG), which the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) applies during its pre-NS medical screenings. Apart from mild obesity and childhood asthma, Cheah was given a “clean bill of health”.

Putting aside the causes for Cheah’s death and looking at the circumstances, we find that his is not an entirely unfamiliar story. Earlier this year, 40-year old Major Tan Yit Guan collapsed during a self-paced run and, in 2006, Lieutanent Lionel Lim, 24, encountered unspecified difficulties during training in a swimming pool and died soon after being evacuated to hospital. In 2005, 19-year old 3rd Sergeant Ivan Ong and 2nd Warrant Officer Teh Kok Lian, 39, both died after collapsing during runs, following 2nd Sergeant 25-year old Rajagopal Thirukumaran’s and 20-year old Recruit Andrew Chew Heng Huat’s similar deaths during training in 2003. In addition, we have four more similar cases between 2001 and 2002, and two cases of servicemen found unconscious and who died later, the first in 2002 and the other in 2006.

Tight-lipped MINDEF

Of all the above cases of sudden death, MINDEF has only offered the coroners’ reports (deaths from complications of the heart) in two instances- one in 2003 and 2005, in the form of addresses to Parliament by then Defense Minister, Teo Chee Hean. Otherwise, the results of the MINDEF-led investigation into the deaths are never disclosed.

If we look carefully at the two occasions above, we will notice that 2003 and 2005 were particularly exceptional in terms of service personnel deaths. In 2003, MINDEF saw the death of three servicemen, all within a relatively short span of two months. All three were unrelated incidents except that two were deaths during strenuous exercise (the third death relates to the infamous commando head-dunking incident). Had MINDEF remained quiet in this instance, it would have been a public relations disaster. Similarly, in 2005, the reports were only made public when Minister Teo was queried in Parliament, and this perhaps because the two sudden deaths in 2005 happened one week apart from each other.

At risk of sounding churlish, it appears that MINDEF is incredibly tight-lipped about deaths in the military, particularly when it comes to cases of sudden deaths during training or exercises, all the more urgent in the level of occurrence in the past eight years.

In fact, MINDEF only begins to report deaths of servicemen on its website from 2001, despite having archived official releases from as early as 1996. If we are to believe that no deaths, sudden or not, happened in the SAF before 2001, then we will not understand why Minister Teo said, in the above mentioned 2005 parliamentary address, that “over the period from 1996 to 2005…. there were 19 cases of sudden cardiac deaths (in the SAF), that is about 2.1 cases a year. Of these, five had collapse during training; the others were not during training.”

MINDEF also offers no clear statistics as to deaths within the SAF and also has no comprehensive breakdown of this information offered to the public.

In writing this article, I drew up the table below, which profiles reported servicemen deaths between 2001 and today, compiled from existing reports made on MINDEF’s website. Some 48 per cent of these deaths correspond to the “sudden death” pattern of servicemen collapsing during training and dying soon after.

S/N
Name of serviceman, age
Unit
Activity
DOD

DD/MM/YY

Cause of Death
Summary
1
1WO Loke Meng, 49
Navy
2.4km run
06/04/01
Undisclosed
Collapsed during run
2
CPL Kwok Wei Ming, ?
Commandos
Training
29/10/01
Undisclosed
Collapsed in camp (ST reported “collapsed during training”)
3
OCT Tan Kim Keng, 23
OCS
Group navigation exercise
25/02/02
Undisclosed
Collapsed during exercise, evacuated to hospital and was pronounced dead
4
LCP (NS) Mohd Shahlan bin Abdul Rahim, 32
?
IPPT
15/05/02
Undisclosed
Collapsed during exercise on 14/5/02, evacuated to hospital and passed away on 15/5/02
5
REC Ivan Ho Yong Hua, 22
BMTC
NA
10/10/02
Undisclosed
Found unconscious at training ground
6
CPL Goh Hui Ling, 22
RSN
NA
?
?
Body found in RSS Courageous after collision at sea, 5/1/2003
7
1SG Heng Sock Ling, 24
RSN
NA
?
?
Body found at Bintan Lagoon after RSS Courageous collision 5/1/2003
8
1SG Seah Ai Leng, 25
RSN
NA
?
?
Body found at Sebong after RSS Courageous collision 5/1/2003
9
2SG Chua Bee Lin,
RSN
NA
?
?
Believed dead, body still missing after RSS Courageous collision
10
2SG Hu Enhuai, 19
Commandos
Combat Survival Training
21/07/03
Asphyxia and Near Drowning
Malpractice on part of trainers; water treatment forced into body
11
2SG Rajagopal Thirukumaran, 25
Commandos
Ranger Selection Test
3/09/03
(Postulated) Sudden Cardiac Arrhythmia
Collapsed after completing a 5-km run
12
REC Chew Heng Huat, Andrew, 20
BMTC
IPPT Categorisation Test
23/09/03
(Postulated) Sudden Cardiac Arrhythmia
Collapsed during exercise, evacuated to hospital and died later
13
2WO Teh Kok Lian, 39
?
Routine run
22/06/05
Sudden Cardiac Arrest
Collapsed during run, evacuated to hospital and died later
14
3SG Ivan Ong Peng Ghee, 19
BMTC
Informal run
29/06/05
Undisclosed
Collapsed during run, evacuated to hospital and died later
15
1SG Shiva s/o Mohan, 24
Commandos
Rappelling Instructor Course
14/07/05
Died of injuries
Fell 20 meters while rappelling from the helicopter
16
REC Mohd Sufian Jamil, 18
BMTC
NA
01/02/06
Liver and organ failure
Died after developing complications upon reacting to anti-malaria drug, Maloprim in 2005. Death described as unprecedented.
17
LTA Lionel Lin Shi Guan, 24
Commandos
Training at pool
21/06/06
?
Encountered difficulty during exercise and went under the surface, evacuated to hospital and pronounced dead
18
PTE Yeo Chang Wen, Ambrose, 20,
HQ Supply and Transp.
NA
18/09/06
Undisclosed
Found unconscious, pronounced dead at hospital
19
2WO Tan Boon Toon, 45
? (Senior Tech)
NA
17/11/06
Undisclosed
Reported sick for chest pains, collapsed and evacuated hospital; pronounced dead
20
3SG Isz Sazli Bin Sapari, 19
?
NA
11/05/07
Died in accident
Killed when aircraft crashed into storeroom at Taiwan military facility
21
PTE Fan Yao Jin, 23
?
NA
11/05/07
Died in accident
Killed when aircraft crashed into storeroom at Taiwan military facility
22
LCP Chow Han Min Calvin, 19
?
NA
28/05/07
Severe burns
Died of burns after being flown back to Singapore following incident in Taiwan
23
MR Quek Meng Chua, 58
Senior Defense Exec.
Treadmill
15/06/07
Undisclosed
Collapsed while exercising, transferred to hospital and passed away
24
MAJ Tan Yit Guan, 41
Logistics
Self-paced run
02/02/08
Undisclosed
Collapsed while running
25
REC Andrew Cheah Wei Siong, 20
BMTC
2km walking activity
10/06/08
Undisclosed
Fainted during walk, evacuated to hospital and pronounced dead

+ The above information was extracted where possible from http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/news_and_events/

+ The data profiles deaths of personnel in active service during active duty between 2001 and June 2008

+ The data profiles such deaths and relevant details as were reported by MINDEF on its website

+ Where cause of death is indicated as “undisclosed” or “?”, MINDEF stated that investigations as to the causes to the serviceperson’s deaths would be carried out (only for the former); no subsequent reports were found

Undisclosed and missing information

If you notice, there are several instances where the word “undisclosed” relates to “cause of death”, and there is occasionally missing information like the serviceman’s age and unit, and this does not seem acceptably transparent, especially when relating to a very public issue like deaths in the military. I am not, of course, about to suggest that MINDEF is responsible for any of these deaths, but all this clearly shows a timidity with regards to transparency, and only compounds the mystery surrounding sudden deaths in the military.

It may strike you as nitpicky behaviour on my part, but there are several reasons why MINDEF could stand to be more transparent about these matters, especially sudden deaths.

On one level, MINDEF would be doing itself a favour by systematically releasing information about the cause of sudden deaths in the military- if, indeed, it has nothing to hide, this will help to dispel pet conspiracy theories and the general intrigue surrounding servicemen’s deaths. An already unpopular institution like National Service could do with the clearing of some air surrounding such an unpleasant situation.

Why MINDEF should be more transparent

Greater transparency would also help to alleviate fears about corrupt practices and complacency within the SAF, especially considering how, on the outset, it looks like the same situation has been replaying itself over and over. If these servicemen can be shown to have died from unpredictable conditions, be they heart-related or otherwise, and if on-the-ground medical attention can be shown to have been quick and efficient according to protocol, then MINDEF can raise public confidence in its practices and safety values. This is particularly important to parents who send their young children off to the military, and is even more poignant considering how a large number of those who died suddenly in the SAF were 25 years of age and younger.

So far, the SAF has reviewed its safety practices and has made these public. This is a positive development, but since sudden deaths still happen, the public has a right to know if these were unprecedented or similar to previous sudden deaths. MINDEF may be playing on the fact that public interest in the matter wanes fairly quickly, but as a branch of the government, it has a responsibility to make such critical information readily available, instead of when it is simply politically expedient to do so.

As is typical of our government, official reports do not have to be released to the public and, arguably on the grounds of preserving classified information, and, especially in the sticky issue of deaths in the military, this has been the accepted status quo for many years. Yet, with the number of recent cases of sudden and mysterious deaths in the SAF, can we, who either go through national service or see loved ones go through national service, afford not to have all the information at our disposal?

A look at our neighbour Malaysia shows their National Service, introduced in 2004, grappling with teething problems- parents have started to campaign for an end to NS in Malaysia on the grounds of abuse, corruption and servicemen deaths. NS in Singapore is a much more established, ostensibly much safer institution. Unlike in Malaysia where the main purpose of NS is to foster national unity, NS in Singapore has a critical role to play in our national security, and already it is not particularly popular for reasons best known to people who have been through “the system”. Moving towards greater transparency in MINDEF, on any level, can help to reduce a natural disdain for an institution that our government constantly lauds as critical to our national interests- it would, in fact, seem like the logical thing to do.

Indeed, just as our political figures do with their many opponents, so must MINDEF show it has nothing to hide by confronting Truth in the open court of the public domain.

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About the author:

Joel Tan is currently an under-undergraduate, awaiting matriculation at NUS to enjoy the intellectual buffet of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences where he hopes to develop his interest in understanding the world and its related baggage from what academics have had to say on the matter. He can be found pontificating at The Daily Backtrack.

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This entry was posted in Current Affairs.