Dear SAF, it’s time for change

by KS

The recent passing of CFC Dave has sparked fierce online debates on the treatment of National Servicemen-Full Time (NSFs). An online account allegedly written by a platoon mate of the deceased read like an explosive exposé, which, if true, depicts a clear overstepping of boundaries by the serviceman’s superiors.

For some, it was confirmation of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)’s toxic culture of power abuse and its leaders’ mentality of “anything is possible as long as you can get away with it”. For older NSmen, it was a rude awakening that even after 20/30 years of completing their NS where they were forced to participate in illegal, tortuous activities forced on them by their superiors, these activities are still carried out and are fully ingrained in the “culture of the unit and experience of current servicemen”, something which is almost explained in an endearing way.

Regardless of the investigation outcome, there are definitely ways for the SAF to improve its work processes. This is most evident in any online army-related comment section where servicemen (current and ex) often share how protocols are not followed properly, and collectively expressing doubt if the true cause of CFC Dave’s death would be revealed to the public.

The very fact that we are not dismissing this online account shows that our faith in army superiors to do the right thing is non-existent. With so many other personal experiences being shared, the platoon mate’s account of CFC Dave does not look out of place.

This is a military me-too movement in the making.

As such, I would like to highlight some issues which SAF should (hopefully) examine and when necessary, change work protocols for the better.

1. Adequate sleep for every combat soldier

7 hours of mandatory, uninterrupted rest is not the rest you are thinking of – instead of sleep, activities such as cleaning your rifles and area cleaning are apparently considered part of that 7 hours.Our soldiers go through tough training programmes in intense heat conditions. Perhaps it is time to define a specific number of hours set aside from sleeping. After all, with all the wait to rush, rush to wait situations, there is definitely enough time to accommodate at least 6 hours of uninterrupted SLEEP.

2. Rethink guilt-tripping as a leadership tactic

“Chao keng” is by far the most common phrase used to guilt trip already sick soldiers into completing an activity or work task. It works because the embarrassment and humiliation one would like to avoid, which would likely last until the end of the course or even ORD.Peer pressure also contributes to this formidable tactic. A sick soldier might see others who are sicker than him but they do not report sick and fall-out, convincing him that he is not sick enough to do so too.

And the reason for the others to grit their teeth and endure through the training? Not to be humiliated – it is a vicious cycle which has undoubtedly led to many mishaps. This peer pressure is real, and much more intense when one is 18-20+ years of age.

What happened to ‘you know your body best’? Superiors should never decide determine whether or not one can report sick, as it is a right. Cut out all the useless gossip and chao keng complaints and give soldiers the benefit of the doubt – reserve judgement till after the diagnosis by the MO.

3. Treating every sick personnel with respect and care

We are all human; we can fall ill, especially during tough training sessions with not enough sleep. Reporting sick is by no means a form of weakness or sign of giving up – it simply means that the solider believes he is too sick to carry on with the tasks assigned to him.

Superiors should care for men under their charge, which includes the time when the men are sick. Showing care and concern is a leadership trait which our superiors should have.

There are MOs who also act unprofessionally. These “doctors” carry a disgruntled look on their faces and are rude, with some going as far to assume you are a chao keng soldier until being examined. Such MOs should be called out for having such behaviours and have their vocations changed if they do not have a heart for their patients.

If the online account of what happened to CFC Dave is true (read: lack of seriousness towards the incident), this is not only a gross violation of military law, but also evidence of a highly deplorable and immoral attitude they have towards men under their supposed care.

4. Concrete evidence and corroboration; No wayang safety measures

There is a reason why public trust of the SAF is low, with some going as far to say that evidence will be buried, witnesses will be silenced and the investigation would be a cover-up in disguise. Many servicemen have experienced injustice during their time in NS, and they know that culture of pushing responsibilities plays a big part in navigating the politics of the organisation.

Now that a soldier has passed on, we deserve the right to know the truth, so additional preventive measures can be put into place for soldiers to participate in the safest training programmes possible.

Anyone can make a generic statement which reads “temperature takings were normal prior to training activity”. A statement from the Chief of Army would rely on the verbal testimony of those present at that time (likely the commanders) to make that statement, as he was not there for the training on that day.

Would it be better to have more concrete evidence than to just rely on witness’ verbal testimonies? A simple written record of the soldier’s temperature, witnessed and signed by the soldier’s buddies can immediately squash any doubt of false statements. It is a safer and more transparent way to seek the truth should an investigation take place.

These measures will ensure that superiors do not just simply go through the motion of conducting safety checks without paying close attention to any warning signs exhibited by the soldiers. It is only through added measures of written records then can we be sure of effectiveness of the safety measures being put in place.

5. Full immunity results in true testimonies

I am in no position to comment on how the Commission of Inquiry works, as I am unfamiliar with the investigation process, but this is to reiterate what CFC Dave’s aunts already said – CFC Dave was training alongside his buddies, section mates and platoon mates. There were at least 2 pairs of eyes keeping track of his progress and to ensure attention is brought to him when something goes wrong.

Each platoon member should be probed on what happened that fateful day, and no stone should be left unturned for the truth to be told. If the accusations of CFC Dave’s commanders are true, there would be an understandable fear of coming forward and agreeing with the whistle-blower. Just think, who knows what the commanders would do to punish them for telling the truth?

This is why the independent investigators should obtain full witness accounts of the training, with every detail of the incident documented and used for consideration of the investigation findings.

6) One of us died, at least act like you care.
So far, the statements from the SAF were nothing short of cold and scripted, suggesting that his death is nothing more than a ‘problem which can be solved’. Worse still, it was in bad taste for one of the statements to include a statistic which boasted a track record of “no recorded fatalities in the past nine years (as a result of training measures)”. The soldier is more than just a red, underlined statistic in a report, and one death is one too many. Have a thought for the grieving family and spare them the report numbers.

Stop the ‘damage control’ mode and address the root of the problem. Whether the death was caused by the superiors’ lack of ability to lead does not change the fact that there are problems in the SAF which needs serious fixing.

I believe in the concept of NS, and I agree that we have progressed since its inception, which deserves celebration, like how we did last year during SG50. But some problems are too large to ignore, and with an unverified online account of the circumstances which led to CFC Dave’s passing, it completely changed the narrative of how the public perceive the army. We cannot let these problems continue to endanger the lives of our men, and destroy public trust in the army.

Acknowledging the problems is the first step to positive change, and the burden is on us to ensure that they pay attention to these issues. To be apathetic about it would only endanger future generations of soldiers.

We should not let CFC Dave’s death be in vain.