Sunday, 1 October 2023

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National service, national responsibilities

There is a saying in my office: the job of the Military Medicine Institute is to prove that you don’t have what you say you have. It began as a joke, based on observations that we have made during our time in Basic Military Training. Unfortunately, it seems that the statement is truer by the day.

I told my colleagues the story of a recruit in my company in Pulau Tekong. He suffered from severe flat feet. The arches of his feet would collapse after running for too long, making him highly unsuitable as a frontline soldier.

He demonstrated that he had flat foot during his medical check-up. He even went to a private specialist to confirm his condition. But he was sent for PES A/B training. It took over a month before he was officially downgraded and posted out – in the interim, he was pulled out of training and spent his days sitting in the company office and running simple errands.

Fiction? I wish. It is merely just another case of irresponsibility.

The price we pay

Every time a recruit is declared ‘Out of Training/Course’ in BMT because of a pre-existing medical condition that could have been detected but was not, he would have to be sent for the next BMT recourse that caters to his actual PES status. All the money heretofore spent on him, from food to utility bills to ammunition, would effectively be wasted – and that money comes from taxpayers’ wallets.

Pre-enlistees, too, have to bear the cost of a medical misdiagnosis. My former company mate scrambled to have a private specialist to diagnose him with flat foot, after realizing that the doctors at the Central Manpower Base would send him for PES A/B BMT. Armed with this documentation, he proved to his superiors that he should be medically downgraded, and was declared OOT from the third day.

Had he not consulted his specialist, there is a very high chance that he would have suffered feet injuries before the MMI realized its mistake. But it is absurd that he had to pay a private specialist to perform a service that a military doctor could, and ought to, have done just as competently, and for free. Private specialists charge steep prices; should a pre-enlistee with a medical condition be unable to afford a specialist, and be wrongly classified during his preliminary medical check-up, he would be in for a spell of bad luck and trouble. And the SAF would then have to pay for his treatment.

Worse still is the effect on the recruits’ health. One of my colleagues has scoliosis, curvature of the spine, and was sent for PES C BMT. The simple act of carrying his military and civilian clothing and equipment to his bunk injured his spine, and he had to be excused from carrying heavy loads. It should have been a given, considering his back problem, but nothing in the SAF seems to exist unless it is officially documented in triplicate.

A few months later, he was ordered to wear a fully loaded Load Bearing Vest to the live-firing range for nearly the whole day, further aggravating his injury. He now has to perform personal physiotherapy every other hour, courtesy of several slipped discs, and can only sleep on a waterbed because regular ones would aggravate his condition. Here, the SAF has to spend time to process his injury report – his case stretches back to December 2007, and has yet to be resolved – and determine if he was eligible for compensation. A medical board is being convened to determine if he should be downgraded to PES E9L9, the lowest grading a serviceman may get before being discharged on medical grounds. The result: even more time and money spent to rectify something that could have been prevented.

Perhaps the most debilitating of all is the effect on the morale of affected servicemen. My colleague now bears a grudge against his former commanders, refusing to refer to them without using unprintable vulgarities. Every serviceman who had had to turn to a private specialist because the military doctors have failed in their job would lose his faith in the MMI, because of that failure, and would have judged it rightly. Left unchecked, the negative attitude that emerges from each lapse would extend to embrace the SAF in its death grip. Indeed, to the disaffected, ‘SAF’ is an acronym for four words. The first two is ‘serve and’, and the last is ‘off’. I will leave you to speculate what ‘F’ means.

Should his ennui be entrenched by future incidents, the serviceman would lose any incentive to do his best while serving his National Service liability. The efficiency of his unit would then be compromised in the area he is currently responsible for, be it logistics or clerical work. From a macro perspective, compounding the negative effects of each disappointed soldier, the overall effectiveness of the SAF would be further compromised – and therefore, its ability to defend Singapore.

The price of every misdiagnosis and every act of negligence is in the currency of money, time, operational readiness, and blood. We, the people of Singapore, are the only people who can pay for it.

Duties and expectations

The military sees National Service through the paradigm of duty. The average citizen, however, sees it through the paradigm of compulsion. The SAF wants to instil a sense of loyalty in every serviceman, to have him understand that National Service is a duty imposed upon all male Singaporeans to provide for the common defence, because there are too few people to sustain an army of regular soldiers. But many Singaporeans simply see National Service as a mechanism that tears their sons, brothers, fathers, husbands and lovers away from them.

Neither side is wrong. But their perspectives are irreconcilable. The death of every serviceman attributed to a military lapse would heighten the tension between them, and eats away at the military’s core. The military, in turn, would want to play down the extent of any lapses, because it – and its political masters – have no desire to lose the public’s support, which was never significantly high to begin with. I would not be surprised if stories of cover-ups were to surface; after all, nobody, least of all a regular soldier, would want to lose face. Yet this is only a temporary solution at best. It does not at all resolve the situation.

What should be done is the recognition of responsibilities on both sides. The military must recognize that it is a public organization that is mostly staffed by people against their free will. This restriction of such a basic human right must be recompensed through a pledge of honour and professionalism, to develop each enlistee’s potential to the fullest.

In the event of a lapse, especially one so severe that it leads to death or injury, the SAF must spare no effort in investigating its cause and punishing the guilty, and it must be done as transparently as possible. The military must aim to minimise the cost of maintaining the SAF, especially the cost imposed by negligence and misdiagnoses. Nothing less will do, because the survival of the nation and the honour of the military rest on the SAF’s shoulders. It is the public’s duty to urge the government and the SAF to do so, to prevent bureaucratic inertia from suffocating the investigation, as it is the public that must bear the cost of military irresponsibility.

Recognising responsibilities

Civilians, in turn, ought to recognise that they must provide for and support the common defence. Pre-enlistees should realise that only they can defend their loved ones, because there are not and never will be enough regulars to do so for them. They should play their part by meeting the rigours of National Service – servicemen by doing their best, civilians by supporting them. The legal system assures us that anybody who chooses to renege on his national duty would be punished if caught. But it is education, public messages, and the attitude of the military towards servicemen that would influence what people truly think of National Service.

The ultimate objective of this exercise is to reduce the cost borne by the public caused by negligence and misdiagnoses. When the military recognises its responsibility and acts professionally, doctors would examine pre-enlistees more carefully, commanders would care more for their men, clerks would pay more attention to their work, and so on. The citizenry would support the military in its task, and take it to task when needed. This means less public money spent on recourses and resources, less time wasted for new postings, less blood spilt and hearts lost by trainees, and a lower chance that the SAF, should it be needed, would be found wanting.

In times of peace, sons bury their fathers. In times of war, fathers bury their sons.

Let us hope that it becomes so.


The author wishes to remain anonymous.


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