Army’s response to PTE Dave Lee’s passing and a look back at what happened to PTE Dominique Lee’s case

(PTE) Lee Han Xuan Dave was a Guardsman from the 1st Battalion Singapore Guards, who passed away on Monday (30 April) at 5.32 pm at Changi General Hospital (CGH) at the age of 19 years old.

Mindef in an earlier statement said that PTE Lee was found to display signs of heat injury at about 08.35 am on 18 Apr 2018, noting that he had just completed an 8km fast march in Bedok Camp. It also said that a SAF medic attended to PTE Lee immediately to bring down his core temperature and he was evacuated to the camp’s Medical Centre where body cooling measures and treatment were continued by the SAF medical team. He was then transferred to Changi General Hospital (CGH), where he was warded in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) since 18 Apr 2018.

His condition did not improve in the ICU and worsened during the hospitalisation. PTE Lee was pronounced dead at 5.32 pm on 30 Apr 2018 at CGH.

Family asks for full explanation from SAF to the public

PTE Lee’s aunt, Cecilia Yeo, had shared on her facebook, an alleged witness account from one of the soldiers with PTE Lee. The original Facebook post has been removed on Monday night and the reddit post also had its content deleted.

Ms Yeo wrote, “…while the truth can’t bring my nephew back, he deserves the truth to be told. I am sharing this in pain but we demand full explanation from SAF to the public, who trustingly sent their children to serve the nation. I hope you share our pain and support that SAF must release full investigation and identity of all culprits to the public.”

The post wrote that the night before the 8 km fast march, the entire recce platoon was turned out after lights out by their sergeants. It wrote, “(the sergeants) forcing us to bear crawl to the SOC grounds at Bedok camp, doing their usual tekan of making us roll in the sand and have water poured on us, to satisfy their own sadistic pleasure.” It goes on to claim that the soldiers did not have the adequate seven hours of rest mandated by the training safety regulation required for the fast march the next day, as a result of the turn out.

The soldier then recalled that during the fast march, PTE Lee struggled to complete his fast march and was dragged by senior commanders, forcing him to finish the fast march even though he was showing signs of extreme physical exhaustion. It was alleged that PTE Lee collapsed after collecting his timing chip at the company line.

It was also claimed that ground commanders did not follow the proper protocol for a soldier in heat exhaustion. Such as PTE Lee’s cloths were not removed, no ice pack placed at the vital heat dissipation points in his body, and the medic was even blurred, not knowing what to do.

The soldier also recalled that the safety officer was nowhere to be found during this whole time and the commanders left his body under the hot sun instead of bringing it to a shaded area, taking them almost 30 minutes to an hour before they even stretched him away to the medical center before he was even transported to a hospital using the military ambulance.

BG Chan assures personnel responsible will be held accountable if there be training safety violations

In a Facebook post published on 1 May 2018, the Singapore Army wrote,

“The Army is saddened by the passing of the late PTE Lee Han Xuan Dave, and extend our deepest condolences to his family. The Army will do our utmost to support his family in this time of grief. We will give a dignified send-off for our fallen soldier, to honour his memory. In recognition of his service, he was accorded posthumous recognition of the rank of Corporal First Class (CFC). CFC Lee will also be awarded the Guards and RECON military tabs, and the Guards beret he was training hard for. We will also accord him a military funeral.

As with all training related deaths, the Armed Forces Council will convene an independent Committee of Inquiry (COI), chaired by a senior civil servant from outside MINDEF/SAF, to investigate the incident. The COI has full powers and access to information and personnel to investigate the circumstances leading to death, determine the contributory factors, and make recommendations to rectify any lapses or inadequacies uncovered. Should there be training safety violations, the personnel responsible will be held accountable.

Safety is of utmost importance to the SAF. The Army had declared a safety timeout for all training on 30 Apr 18. Training and safety management plans were reviewed to ensure that all appropriate safety measures are in place. The Army is determined to ensure that all our soldiers can train realistically and safely.

BG Siew Kum Wong
Chief of Staff – General Staff”

But before you are contented with BG Siew’s assurance that lapses will be rectified and personnel responsible will be held accountable, let us revisit history on how SAF holds its personnel accountable.

COI found that two officers were negligent 

A Commission of Inquiry (COI) was initiated to look into the death of PTE Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron who died from “acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes” after participating in a training exercise at the Murai Urban Training Facility at Lim Chu Kang on 17 April 2012. Zinc chloride is a primary component of smoke grenades currently used in the SAF.

The COI found that the number of smoke grenades used in the exercise, exceeded the limit specified in training safety regulations.

The Training Safety Regulations (TSR) stipulate that the minimum distance between each thrown smoke grenade should be not less than 20 metres and that the minimum distance between troops and the thrown smoke grenade should not be less than 10 metres. 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 is of the 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.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen then said, “…every Singaporean son is precious and any injury or death in the SAF is one too many. But to prevent injuries and death, our commanders and soldiers must observe training safety regulations. Any commander who ignores safety regulations, whether wilfully or negligently, puts his soldiers at risk, is not fit for command. Our soldiers can train realistically and safely. There need not be a compromise. Indeed, the more we ensure that conditions are safe, the greater confidence our soldiers will have in training. These two deaths could have been avoided if safety instructions had been followed. The SAF will learn from the incidents, correct any inadequacies and punish those who disregarded safety regulations. ”

What spurred PTE Lee’s family to seek legal recourse

TOC understands from PTE Lee’s family that the army did not reply questions by the family about how the officers were dealt with and what changes to the TSR were made in response to PTE Lee’s death.

The family was not given the full findings of the COI but a summary similar to what Minister Ng delivered in Parliament. After hitting a brickwall with MINDEF, the family was compelled to file a legal suit for discovery of information against the two officers who were found to have disregarded safety regulations.

However, MINDEF intervened during the legal process, stating that the information belongs to the ministry and had the court to terminate the proceedings. Cost of the legal challenge was borne by MINDEF.

During the mediation process between the family and MINDEF to cease their legal challenge, the family had laid down two terms for MINDEF. One for MINDEF to pay for the cost of PTE Lee’s tomb and for the Minister of Defence to apologise for causing the death of PTE Lee. According to the family, MINDEF offered an amount that was over $30,000 as compensation but said it is impossible to get the Minister to apologise to the family for PTE Lee’s death.

The family states that they had mentioned in the mediation in front of the mediator that they do not want to talk about compensation and also stated to the officer in charge of that they could pay MINDEF whatever they are offering in return for PTE Lee back alive.

As the mediation failed, a writ of summon was filed against the two officers and MINDEF in April 2015. The family filed for claims against the two officers for negligent and by acts and/or ommissions unconnected with the execution of their duties as members of the armed forces did cause the death of PTE Lee and SAF for breaching its contract of service between itself and PTE Lee. The family had asked for claims of $34,300 with interest and legal cost.

MINDEF declined to clarify questions

When TOC approached MINDEF for its comments in March 2017, MINDEF was invited to clarify or dispute the points listed below:

  • Family said that MINDEF refused to share the details of the punishment melt out to the two officers who were found guilty of negligence by the Commission of Inquiry
  • Family said that MINDEF declined to share more information on the changes to training protocols or attributing any other changes in the army to PTE Lee’s death. ie. the change of new smoke grenades.
  • Family said that MINDEF in the mediation session, said that the MINDEF representative declared that the MINDEF or Minister of Defence would never apologise to the family.
  • Family said that the Chief of Army in 2012 turned up for the 3SG who passed away in a traffic accident and did not turn up for PTE Lee’s funeral. Why the discrepancy?
  • Family said that MINDEF refused to hand the copy of the full COI on the death of PTE Lee and only gave a summary of the COI. If so, why?
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MINDEF responded, “you may wish to refer to official reports at” (a link that is not working)

SAF officers punished with delays in promotion

On 24 March 2016, Non-constituency member of Parliament, Dennis Tan filed a question to the Minister of Defence to ask what are the punishments that have been given to the two SAF officers under military law. This was in response to the outcry by the family members of PTE Lee who said that the officers involved in his case were let off lightly.

Minister Ng replied, “Following the AGC’s decision not to prosecute, the two SAF officers were charged under military law in November 2013 for breaching safety regulations. They were also punished with penalties consistent with other servicemen who have committed similar offences, through fines and delay in promotion. Both officers have suffered a setback in their careers. The monetary cost of the promotion delays is significant, amounting to about half of their total annual salaries.”

Government protected by Section 14 of Government Proceedings Act

However, the legal suit was struck off in March 2016 as the court found that under the Section 14 of Government Proceedings Act, members of the SAF “are not burdened by the prospect of legal action while training or while conducting operations”. This immunises members of the SAF from liability when an incident is connected with the execution of the member’s duties.

The court also found that the enlistment of a serviceman is an act done as “a discharge of duty imposed on him” by the law,”…“Therefore, (Pte Lee’s family) could not sue the AG (attorney general acting on behalf of MINDEF) for breach of contract.”

While MINDEF did not seek legal cost from the family, the family had to bear a five-figure legal fee for the proceedings. The family was also attacked by online critics after the dismissal of the court case, alleging that the family was seeking to profit from the loss of their family member.

When TOC asked the family about why they had sought the amount of claim, they said, “The family is seeking for $34,500 in respect of the tomb. And this amount is specifically to do up the tomb. We have the receipts. No others sums were mentioned or we sought in our case. We did not seek compensation. But we did ask SAF to pay our legal fees. No one should need to spend money on legal fees to get answers from the govt.”

Defence Minister: Section 14 continues to serve a vital purpose as intended

Following the verdict of the case, NCMP Tan suggested through a motion in Parliament that section 14 of the GPA should be amended to allow civil liability in the tort of negligence in respect of a member of the armed forces or the Government for death or personal injury during training as a result of any conduct by any officer during training that conspicuously violates safety protocols, procedures, and regulations.

In response to the NCMP’s suggestion, Minister Ng said,

“Each country will have to decide how it provides its public security agencies as a whole and their personnel – in our case the SAF, SPF and Civil Defence – the confidence to train and perform their duties diligently without this fear of litigation against them. Note that section 14 does not accord any of our servicemen any protection against criminal proceedings or civil litigations brought by civilians for compensation or damages, which I have already stated earlier. It only precludes legal suits brought against the Government – the SAF in this case – or its individual servicemen by servicemen and their Next of Kin themselves.

Note that as Kannan JC highlighted, that the immunity conferred by section 14 does not extend to acts that amount to an intentional act committed by an SAF member, which is separate and independent of the member’s duties, for instance, punching his superior.

For Singapore, section 14 continues to serve a vital purpose as intended. SAF soldiers train realistically, conduct many operations overseas. Because they train realistically, without the commanders or the individual soldiers themselves in each instance wondering if their organisation or they themselves could be sued by other servicemen, when injuries and fatalities occur, removing section 14 is not likely to improve outcomes as the Member says, and indeed, may do us harm.”