An SCDF officer being dragged on the floor during a ORD ragging ceremony and to be dumped in the pump well. (Screenshot from Channel News Asia)

What kind of responsibility should the higher authorities take in Singapore?


The entire saga of Najib’s rise to power and his subsequent demise has one glaringly obvious lesson in leadership – that of accountability or lack thereof. As Mahathir forms his new government, a clear message of greater accountability to the public has been sent out.

Whether that will have enduring positive results remains to be seen but the desire for reform and accountability has been demonstrated loudly by actions such as the reduction of ministerial salaries and the abolition of the anti-fake news act. Public actions have also been taken to investigate the corruption perpetrated by the Najib regime.

In this atmosphere of airing out your closets just across the causeway, I wonder if we can take a leaf out of Malaysia’s book and examine the issue of accountability and responsibility in the Singaporean context. By this, I do not mean flagrant corruption or embezzling. I just want to examine the concept of “taking responsibility”.

In recent years, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have come under some pressure in relation to the deaths of a number of our national servicemen. Yet, despite media pressure exerted by various news websites and court actions undertaken by the family of the late PTE Dominique Sarron Lee, there doesn’t appear to be any senior personnel taking responsibility.

Despite many issued statements by various government departments, the most serious consequence that was meted out was the delay of promotions and fines. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting punishing individuals disproportionately. While then Platoon Commander Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal and Chief Safety Officer Captain Chia Thye Siong was complicit in this tragic death of Lee, they are but cogs in a much larger machine which enabled this incident to tragically arise.

What of responsibility higher up?

Brigadier General Chan Wing Kai and Dr. Ng Eng Hen have issued statements but as the chiefs at the helm – shouldn’t they take greater leadership responsibility?

This isn’t just a case of money being lost or train delays. A young man has died under the care of the state when the state has made it compulsory for him to serve national service! He wasn’t there by choice. The state and the responsible departments must, therefore, bear a greater responsibility.

To make matters worse, Lee’s death was not a once off incident. Just this year, another young man, PTE Dave Lee died from heat stroke due to procedures being breached. How often are procedures not followed? What level of training do we provide to the men in charge of other men?

Other than Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Home Affairs also has its own fair share of accountability to answer. Kok Yuen Chin, a 22-year-old full-time serviceman from the Singapore Civil Defence Force died after being thrown into a 12m pump well, filled with 11m of water, in a ragging ceremony to mark his Operational-Ready-Date. Kok was found with bruises on his body and his two teeth missing.

A whistleblower recently sent a video to Channel News Asia and said, “These rituals are a real act of nuisance and fun to those who are the bullies. It has never been fun to those who are getting bullied or the victim of the hazings,”

It was revealed that such “ceremonies” have happened in the past and at least five reported incidents of ragging in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) in the past eight years.

It is all well and good to point fingers at those in charge at the scene. While they may bear “at the scene responsibility”, they are but “small fry” But what about those who are responsible for the entire system and machinery that permitted this to happen under their watch? Punishing the little people will not bring about systemic change and deaths such as these might still occur, God forbid.

A similar incident occurred in Taiwan some years ago where a young conscript died from heatstroke, after being subjected to unreasonable punishment by his superior in camp. It was revealed through the media that his superiors abused the system in order for the conscript to be punished and that there had been a series of cover-ups over his death by army officials. Members of public marched onto the streets seeking for justice and an answer from the government as Taiwan Defence Ministry failed to perform its duty to prevent such happenings and it took the death of a conscript to  the pre-existing systematic issue.

In that case, Taiwan’s Defence Minister resigned amid public outcry. While that does not bring back the dead, it does provide an incentive for measures to be taken higher up to prevent future incidents. It is not business as usual.

A good leader is not just one that issues statements. A good leader is one that can face the pressure and take responsibility.

The government has made national service compulsory and so, it owes an even greater responsibility to the public. We need a little bit more than just motherhood statements.