Punishment for officers in NSF Dominique Sarron Lee’s case appropriate: MINDEF

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) in a reply to commentary in Lianhe Zaobao “Societal trust should not be taken lightly”, stated that the military would have overstepped its powers and be legally challenged if it had punished two of its officers who were involved in the incident beyond the level of their offence.

Full-time national serviceman, PTE Dominique Sarron Lee died from an allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades in a training exercise in 2012.

A Commission of Inquiry was conducted in 2013 for the death of the serviceman, it found that the number of smoke grenades used in the exercise exceeded the limit specified in training safety regulations.

The Training Safety Regulations, or TSR, stipulate that the minimum distance between each thrown smoke grenade should be not less than 20m and that the minimum distance between troops and the thrown smoke grenade should not be less than 10m. Based on the exercise layout, not more than two smoke grenades should have been used, but the Platoon Commander had thrown six grenades instead.

The COI opined that “if the TSR had been complied with, PTE Lee and his platoon mates would not have been subjected to smoke that was as dense as that during the incident, and… for as long as they were during the incident” and that “reduced exposure to smoke would have reduced the risks of any adverse reactions to the smoke.” The COI concluded that “the cause of death of PTE Lee resulted from inhalation of the fumes from the smoke grenades used in the incident”.

The COI  also expressed its opinion that the actions of the Platoon Commander, a Regular Captain, were negligent as he was aware of the specific TSR but did not comply with it.

Lim Chuen Ni, Director of Public Communications at the MINDEF Communications Organisation states that according to the Coroner’s Inquiry on August 2013, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) decided not to prosecute anyone involved as the Coroner found that Lee died from “acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes” and that the reaction was “unlikely to have been predicted”. Taking into account that it was unlikely to have foreseen Lee’s allergic reaction, it was decided that it would be unfair to prosecute the two Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regulars involved in Lee’s death – the exercise’s chief safety officer Chia Thye Siong and Private Lee’s platoon commander Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal.

Instead, the AGC informed MINDEF to consider carrying out disciplinary action against the servicemen who had breached Training Safety Regulations. Captain Najib Hanuk Bin Muhamad Jalal had thrown six smoke grenades instead of two in the training exercise. He and Captain Chia Thye Siong have been relieved of their duties and have been re-deployed to assignments which do not oversee soldiers in training or operations.

Commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command, Brigadier-General (BG) Chan Wing Kai had earlier revealed on 7 March that before Lee’s family sued, his then-platoon commander Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal and chief safety officer of the exercise Captain Chia Thye Siong had been summarily tried and found guilty in 2013 for negligent performance of lawful order or duty. The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) did not comment on the specific punishments the duo received.

Ms Lim acknowledged the outcry from members of the public as well as Private Lee’s family, who disagreed with the Coroner’s findings.

She stated that despite members of the public pushing for the punishments of the two SAF regulars involved to be more severe, it would be “wrong to punish servicemen beyond the level of offence determined by impartial judicial processes.” Doing so would be MINDEF “overstepping its powers.”