Leaders must treat their men as equals and peers, not as a lower lifeform

by James Lee

In an unfortunate training accident, we have lost one of our own. Any life lost during peacetime training is one too many. I am sure the fallout will affect many people in the force, one way or another. A COI has been called and there is a lot of work to be done. I only hope that the work of the COI is thorough enough. As an auditor, I would like to share my perspectives through my lenses.

As with any non-compliance, regardless of the severity, one of the important things to do is to examine why the non-compliance happened. Depending on how far the team digs, the causes can be many, but there are usually only one or two root causes, which when eliminated or addressed will nick the problem in the bud. There are many tools out there available to find such root causes – Fishbone diagram, 5 Whys, Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) just to name a few. I am not sure if the SAF utilises or would be utilising these tools to find out the root cause. I sincerely hope so if they want to address the issue. It would be the least the SAF can do as a closure to Dave’s parents and assurance for parents whose sons are serving or going to serve NS.

In my opinion (caveat is that I am no expert), it boils down to three things which the SAF needs to address – Leadership, positive NS experience and Conscript Army.


By this, I do not refer to strong command leadership, or being able to make decisive decisions. I refer to leadership by treating subordinates as peers and equals. I have read the anonymous account posted by Dave’s aunt where it was alleged that the sergeants were insensitive to Dave’s request to fall out from the march; they assumed he was malingering.

Too many times, commanders (specialists and officers alike) behave in manner where there exists a divide between them. It is as if the officer corp is the elite, the specialists are the middle class and the men are the lower class. When this happens, be it in the army or in society, there will always be resentment between the classes. The elites will look down on the rest, and the middle class shows disdain for the lower class.

By the same right, the feeling is mutual in the opposite direction. If anyone is not convinced, look at the Mercedes driver vs pump attendant incident. Or the Bugis Ferrari crash which killed a taxi driver incident. I could go on, but the point is succinct – having a class divide is detrimental. More so, in the army where everyone is supposed to work together to achieve the mission objective.

The SAF needs to recognise and train its leaders in leadership through respect. Leaders must treat their men as equals and peers, not as a lower lifeform. Only then, there can be trust between leaders and men. The rank is only there to differentiate the chain of command and accord the leaders the necessary title; it must not be mistaken as something which gives the leaders absolute power over all the lives under them. Therein lies the problem of leadership. This leadership, although known and advocated, is not practised.

Since the incident, many have came forth with their own accounts of ‘tekan’ sessions by their commanders – stand by universe, change parades, wee-hour turn outs. Now, take a guess where the commanders got these ideas from? That’s right, the Officer Cadet School and Specialist School. I do not know if it is still true, but cadets and trainees are often regarded as the lowest lifeforms in these schools, even lower than the storeman who is a corporal. These trainees, myself included, have been subjected to many a tekan session whose punishment always seem too severe for the ‘crime’. One platoon falling in late meant that the whole company had to wait for that platoon in push up position with Full-battle Order on in the blistering hot parade square of the mid-day sun. Even when that platoon has reported, the rest of the company is still accorded added punishments like running around the parade square, or doing push ups while that platoon watches. I am sure there are many examples but my point is that the leaders trained in these schools take the examples of the leaders who trained them. If the trainers treat the trainees as lower lifeforms, why is it a surprise that when these trainees graduate and go to the units, they treat their men in the same fashion?

When the leaders graduate with such a mindset, the class divide is already drilled in their minds. Change the way you train, and the leaders will follow. A very apt parenting related phrase here is ‘Good manners begin at home’. So, teach our future leaders how to respect their men as peers, let the trainers respect the trainees as equals and the graduating leaders will do the same in their units.

Positive NS experience

Because of the class divide between the commanders and men, the soldiers often feel that they are forced to take instructions, often begrudgingly. Hence, sometimes instructions can be baffling and unreasonable to soldiers, in the same way they were baffling to the trainee officers and specialists. No one knows why but do it this way because I am your sergeant and I say so! The result is the development of a culture of malingering, or in army-speak, ‘chao keng’. This ‘chao keng’ culture is not unique only to the SAF. It is found in almost every work place and is not something you can eradicate that easily.

‘Chao keng’ is a rather derogatory term but what I am implying is that you will find people who always try to do the bare minimum just to get by, whether is it 2 years NS or 10 years reservist liability, or in the workplace. There is nothing inherently wrong with this mindset or this group of people (Let’s call them ‘floaters’ or ‘lallang’, because they float wherever the wind blows them. At the end of the day, you can’t deny that they have high survivability.

However, it would be foolish and naïve to pin the blame on the floaters for having this mentality. Of course, there are the extreme cases who should be called out for what they are – malingerers. But I digress. The true fault lies in the organisation who did not provide them with the right fit of the job. In the workplace, a disgruntled floater can just resign, but the NSF/NSman does not have that luxury, so they just do the least to get by the years.

It is therefore up to the SAF to provide that positive NS experience to every soldier, every Singaporean son that puts on that uniform, regardless of PES status, rank, appointment, NSF or NSman. When a person finds value in his work, knowing that it contributes to something greater, he would put more effort into it. When that happens, there is no need to worry if he is committed to defence or is just trying to pass the time. Every soldier and vocation has a part to play, from the Division commander down to the armskote man. I see the SAF taking the right approach in this by allowing soldiers to indicate their preferred vocation, in order to make sure that they are gainfully employed in their two years of service.

However, the same principle needs to be extended to the conduct of training in the units. The training objectives have to be clear and training methodology must be aligned to achieve that same objective. Tekan sessions do not achieve that and it is bullshit reasoning if one says that it builds character. Tough training builds character, not mindless and unreasonable punishment.

Conscript Army

The unique feature of our defence force is that it is a conscript army, not a volunteer one. The inherent issue with this is that our soldiers are all hot-blooded teenagers at tender ages of 18 – 20. Compounding the problem is the fact that as a result of being a conscript army, the commanders are also in the same age range. I will admit, even in hindsight, that I did not have the maturity when I was a young officer at 19 years of age. And I have 34 soldiers under my command, including 5 specialist leaders, one of them my platoon sergeant (PS) who was a regular and more seasoned than me in terms of age and experience.

Who was I then, a young upstart who got posted into the unit, to say I was better than him even if I outrank him? Most of my platoon were also poly/ITE students and older than me by at least 1 – 2 years. I guess the problem is that at such an age, it is hard for leaders to be able to have that maturity to manage situations. Although there are safety procedures in place but when shit hits the fan, how many of us can stay calm objectively to deal with a life and death situation at less than 20 years of age?

It is therefore wrong and perhaps impetuous to blame the leaders in Dave’s platoon. The knee jerk reaction is to blame the leaders for not following safety regulations, training procedures etc. But that is only scratching the surface of the problem. The real issue could be that an 18-year old may not be suited to handle emergency situations, even with all the training he has received. Even if the SAF develops procedures or controls in place, it does not change the fact that subsequent batches of soldiers will have an 18-year old as their sergeant/officer. Hindsight is 20/20 and we as adults, can say many things but think back of the time when you were 18 and you saw Pte Dave Lee collapsed at the endpoint and foaming at the mouth. What would you do?

I do not have a solution to the problem of having leaders who are young and perhaps not mature enough to handle complicated emergency situations as this is an inherent problem of having enlistment at age 18 and due to the fact that we are a conscript army. It is not feasible to have a leader who is a regular in each platoon because of the astronomical costs and manpower shortages. This is a problem which the SAF really has to give deep thoughts and creativity to think beyond the box.

In conclusion, I hope whoever is tasked to look into this case, uses the proper tools and asks the right questions. I hope this is done right and done well, so that we do not have to lose another Singaporean son in peacetime training.