By Terry Xu
Captain (Capt) Jessie Goh of the 24th Battalion Singapore Artillery (24 SA) took the stand last Thursday, to testify at the Coroner’s Inquiry into the causes behind the death of National Serviceman Private (Pte) Ganesh Pillay Magindren, 23.
He was found dead at the bottom of a Sengkang condominium where he lived on 5th July. He had been suffering from schizophrenia and was serving his National Service at the time of his death.
Cpt Goh was appointed the manpower officer (or what is commonly known as S1 in military terms) and the officer in charge of Pte Ganesh who was assigned to her branch.
Felt that serviceman’s depression was just being “sad”
When Ganesh first arrived at his unit on 7th November, he shared with Cpt Goh that he was suffering from depression and had been seeing a psychiatrist.
However, Ganesh did not elaborate. Cpt Goh, on her part, said she did not enquire further with Ganesh on this. She said she had assumed that Ganesh’s depression, which the latter had informed her of, was just simply Ganesh being “sad”. Cpt Goh did not think much of Ganesh consulting with a psychiatrist either.
She felt that people who seek the help of a psychiatrist just need people to talk to. To her, it does not necessarily mean that it may be something serious.
She put down Ganesh’s behavior to that of him being in the initial stages of NS.
Not curious of his PES E status
While Cpt Goh said she knew Ganesh’s medical grade was PES E, she was asked by the Coroner if she knew the reasons behind the grade..
“I did not know”, Cpt Goh said.
Mr Imran asked again, “Did you ask the unit medical officer why he was classified as PES E?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Cpt Goh
“You’re not curious?” the Coroner asked.
“No, I wasn’t,” Cpt Goh said.Cpt Goh
Cpt Goh explained that she did not have access to servicemen’s medical documents. Only the unit’s medical centre would have them.
Should not be exposed to “severe stress condition”
Cpt Goh only knew that Ganesh was suffering from schizophrenia after Ganesh presented a letter to her from his attending psychiatrist, Dr. Paul W. Ngui, on 6th April 2013.
The letter indicated that Ganesh had a vulnerable personality and should not be exposed to severe stress conditions.
Mr.Imran asked if Dr. Mogilan contacted her when the same letter from Dr Paul was given to the medical officer. She replied that the he did not give any medical input of how to handle Pte Ganesh.
The Coroner asked,, “You think it would be useful?”
“Perhaps,” said Cpt Goh
“Perhaps doesn’t sound too convincing,” replied the Coroner.
When she first saw the description, schizophrenia, she thought it was split personality disorder as the letter did not elaborate.
So even after reading the letter given by Dr Paul, she did not change how she treat Ganesh or her expectations of him in the unit.
She said she had sought advice from the SAF Counselling Centre (SCC) after she received Dr Paul’s letter. There was, however, no response from the SCC, she said.
“Harsh” treatment of serviceman
The Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) pointed out that a camp mate of Ganesh had said in his testimony that Cpt Goh was stricter and harsher with Ganesh and had ticked him off in front of his camp mates.
Cpt Goh replied that this observation is subjective. She said that she had put in a lot more effort in monitoring Ganesh compared to the other soldiers under her care. She said that she had engaged in conversations with Ganesh and even added him on Facebook. Occasionally she would also invite him to play basketball with his camp mates as Ganesh seemed fond of the game.
Dr Moligan, the medical officer at the unit’s medical centre, said that Ganesh told him that people in the office were treating him “funny”, and that he was being scolded on occasions because he was a “bad” person. Dr Moligan said he conveyed this to Cpt Goh in a phone call on 4th July to see if she could do anything about it.
Punishment meted out for serviceman’s tardiness
Cpt Goh had also meted out punishments to Ganesh.
These, she said, were for infringements such as toothpaste being found on his boots, wearing singlets with an obvious black patch, failure to brush his teeth, to iron his clothes, to report his whereabouts and also failure to provide updates on drafts of the poster designs assigned to him by her .
Cpt Goh said punishment in the form of extra duties is the most suitable form of punishment for Ganesh. Cpt Goh also noted that there were instances where officers apart from her wanted to give extra duties to Ganesh for certain reasons.
However Mr Imran pointed out that the improvements from Ganeshwere transient as Ganesh would return to his old ways.
Nonetheless, Cpt Goh said that Ganesh never expressed to her that the punishments were unfair.
Cpt Goh emphasized that Ganesh did not complain or showed unhappiness when she punished him with extra duties.
She said that Ganesh was calm and seemed to understand where she was coming from even when she gave him the 14 weekend extra duties on 4th July, a day before Ganesh fell to his death.
“Before you meted out the extra duties, did you see the need to consult the medical officer?” asked Mr Imran.
Cpt Goh replied that she did not think that Ganesh’s difficulty with the daily routine was linked to his medical condition. To her, it was just a symptom of adjusting to military life.
Mr Imran asked if Cpt Goh was painting all servicemen with a broad stroke with her assumptions.
It was only after Mr.Imran passed a book depicting the symptoms of schizophrenia to Cpt Goh and have her read the description of the illness that she agreed that his behavioral pattern might have been tied to his mental condition.
Cpt Goh also felt that she had not gone against the advice of Dr Paul by being more strict with Ganesh.
She said the “severe stress condition” mentioned by Dr Paul was too generic for her to understand and she would have preferred it to be more specific and detailed.
She said that Ganesh seemed fine to her, so it did not occur to her that he might be stressed.
Letters which should have been seen earlier
A letter by Dr Paul in January 2012 was given to Cpt Goh to be read. This letter was given to Central Manpower Base (CMPB) when Ganesh first turned up for the registration of National Service to inform Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) of his condition.
Although she said that the letter would have made her send him straight to the medical officer, but the information would still not have persuaded her to contact the unit medical officer to understand his condition.
Mr.Imran asked if she would have been concerned about the impact of the punishment meted to Ganesh if she had known about the contents of the letter given to CMPB.
“Yes,” replied Cpt Goh. She explained that this is because the letter contains more details about the reasons of why Ganesh was earlier sent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the course of events after he left the hospital.
There was also no prior letter sent to the unit informing the unit commander or the officer in charge of Ganesh’s medical condition.
It was only after Ganesh’s visit to the Psychological Care Centre (PCC) at Military Medicine Institute (MMI) on 3rd of July that a letter was sent on 4th July (1 day before Ganesh’s death) from the Control of Personnel Center (CPC) informing Cpt Goh of Ganesh’s medical condition that she understood the seriousness of this issue.
Not well-equipped with skills to handle servicemen with mental psychiatric problems
At the end of Cpt Goh’s testimony at the stand, Mr Imran asked, “Did you find that you were well equipped to handle a serviceman like the deceased?”
“Not at all” said Cpt Goh .
She said that she only attended courses on counselling and to her knowledge, there are no courses to teach officers how to deal with soldiers with psychiatric problems.