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Advocacy must be partisan, but cannot abandon objectivity

By Daniel Ling

Social media advocacy is a noble cause. By definition, it must be partisan. But we cannot abandon objectivity in our quest to give voice to the voiceless. Objectivity means keeping an open mind, and this means that all narratives, mainstream or otherwise, have to be questioned. With the unfortunate cases of Benjamin Lim, Dominique Sarron Lee, and the CRL currently dominating newsfeeds, it’s timely to examine how we sometimes mangle the truth when emotions run high and narratives get reduced to slogans.

A social media outcry has erupted once again concerning the unfortunate case of Dominique Sarron Lee. Trust me when I say I am no government apologist, but in this case, I find myself siding Mindef.

I think many people are upset because they think that the government offered paltry compensation, lawyered up, refused to admit responsibility, and treated the case dismissively in general. That's how the story has been sold in alternative news outlets[1].

Compensation amount

Disturbed, I went to do some digging. The truth is that the family was offered substantial compensation of what is likely a couple hundred thousand[2] (an offer which still apparently stands), the Minister offered his deepest apologies on multiple occasions[3], and far from being swept under the carpet, the case was aired in no less than Parliament itself (and reported in the press), where Mindef accepted that they were negligent, although they did not criminally prosecute the officers cos they found that while there was negligence, the outcome was not foreseeable[4].

Legal fee outrage

Furthermore, Mindef has so far waived the legal fees that have been awarded to them[5], and their press release today shows no indication that they will force them to pay this time (though they didn’t say that they wouldn’t).

It is thus premature to be crying injustice over the court order for costs (which, again, is not Mindef's fault- it's the court's decision, and even then, the court is often rules-bound to do so).

Evaluation

Monetary compensation, admission of liability, a public apology, and measures to ensure his death wasn't in vain and similar incidents won't happen again.

If there is more that Mindef can do to atone for the death, I don't see what that would entail.

The family’s reaction

On the other hand, the family did not accept the compensation[6], and instead sued for a substantial sum (more than $250,000, as the case was brought in the High Court. I would assume it is substantially more, given that Mindef’s compensation offer looks to be in that ballpark already), including $34,300 for Dominique's tombstone[7].

Admittedly, I have not seen the Statement of Claim for the case that was just dismissed, and hence some of what I mentioned is speculative. However, earlier, they had claimed that their point of contention is the Coroner's Inquiry absolving Mindef for wrongdoing[8], when in actual fact Mindef did admit that their officers were negligent. It simply found that the negligence led to unforeseeable outcomes (which I agree with- who'd have guessed a smoke grenade could kill someone?), and thus decided not to criminally charge the officers. The officers were, however, disciplined.

I note that the SAF is not shy about prosecuting its own officers criminally in civil court. In the RSS Courageous case, the Officer of the Watch Ng Keng Yong[9] was found guilty of criminal negligence, as was commando instructor S Balakrishnan[10] (and 3 others) in the dunking case. I am thus sceptical of accusations of a cover-up.

I will now state clearly that I sympathise with the mother: she has lost a son and nothing will bring him back. But we have to recognise that there is a limit to what the SAF can and should to to atone for the death.

To put it very, very bluntly, it would seem that while the social media posts make it appear that she is seeking justice for her son[11], what she is really looking for in court is a more substantial compensation. While we cannot blame her for doing so, this part of the narrative has not been explored by the alternative news media, and mainstream media (I’m guessing out of respect for the family) have not brought it up.

Section 14 Immunity: Misconceptions

Lastly, there have been some misconceptions regarding the S14 Immunity, which many assume the government is hiding behind to avoid liability. That’s not the case at all.

What’s up with S14? Well, S14 immunity is specific to Mindef, and this provision is to avoid double liability, because Mindef mandatorily compensates families for deaths in training[12].

To put this in perspective, even under a normal Workmen's Compensation claim, you can EITHER take Workmen's Comp OR sue, but not both, as that would be double liability (compensation + lawsuit). I’m guessing Mindef closed off the lawsuit option because of the potential security sensitivity (I could be wrong- I didn’t research this point).

However, the inability to sue does not mean that there was an injustice. The question to ask is, was the grievance properly remedied?

Well, the compensation offered was not some paltry sum. In this case, the compensation amount was 2-4 times a comparable Workmen's Comp claim[13]. A normal Workmen's Comp claim for death ranges between $57,000-170,000 (till 2015; it’s since gone up). 2-4 times this amount is pretty large, and I think reasonable compensation for Dominique’s family.

Conclusion

I'm skeptical whenever a sympathetic case goes viral on social media, because once it touches an emotional nerve, the truth gets lost in a flurry of facebook sharings. Basic facts, such as Mindef's admission of negligence, and their waiver of past legal fees, get buried or lost. While it's good that vigilant citizens keep the government on its toes by challenging its narrative, these same citizens have to remain objective (if partisan) when doing their job, or risk losing the public's trust.

Bottom line- we should keep sharing social justice stories. It's important to give voice to the voiceless (e.g. vulnerable migrant workers), and advocacy is noble and worthy work. But while advocacy has to be partisan, that doesn't mean it should lose sight of objectivity. Everyone benefits from a credible alternative voice.

Editor's note - It is in my opinion that this letter is filled with wild assumptions portrayed as facts but published it in view that Daniel wishes his opinions to be presented in the public. Please read the open letter written by Dominique's family for their actual intention of the lawsuit.


[1] http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2016/03/wheres-the-justice-in-that-asks-friend-of-dominique-sarron-lee/

[2] http://www.mom.gov.sg/workplace-safety-and-health/work-injury-compensation/changes-to-wica-in-2016 The WICA compensation framework, which Mindef has indicated they peg their compensation to. Note that Mindef has said they added a 2-4x multiplier to the indicated amounts, because the death was training-related. See Footnote 5, below

[3]In both its 2012 Parliamentary address and its recent FB post below at FN5, probably many more times in between. 

[4] See above, footnote 3.

[5] Key findings from the Singapore army.

[6] http://themiddleground.sg/2016/03/05/can-sue-g/ See clarification at the end of the article

[7] http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/dead-soldiers-family-sues-singapore-armed-forces-two-officers

[8] See below, footnote 11

[9] Ng Keng Yong versus Public Prosecutor 

[10] http://www.singaporelaw.sg/sglaw/laws-of-singapore/case-law/free-law/high-court-judgments/12680-s-balakrishnan-and-another-v-public-prosecutor-2005-4-slr-249-2005-sghc-146

[11] https://www.facebook.com/DomSarronLee/posts/610102995700969?hc_location=ufi I understand this is dated 2013, but my friend posted this in retort when I pointed out that the govt had admitted liability.

[12] https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00065471-ZZ&currentPubID=00069773-ZZ&topicKey=00069773-ZZ.00065471-ZZ_1%2Bid008_19961211_S0002_T00021-bill%2B

[13] See footnote 3