Chief of Defence Force MG Melvyn Ong avoids answering questions on “tekan culture” in SAF

In a media interview today (20 Jun), Chief of Defence Force MG Melvyn Ong told reporters that the external panel, convened in May after the death of NSF Dave Lee, had said that improvements could be made on preventing and responding to heat injuries.

Dave died of heat stroke on 30 Apr. He was admitted to Changi General Hospital in the middle of April after suffering a heat stroke during a training exercise. After struggling for his life close to 2 weeks at the hospital, he passed away.

In her speech at Dave’s funeral, the distraught mother said she often imagined what it would be like to give a speech at her son’s wedding – a few words for him “to remember me for life”.

“(Little) did I know I would be delivering Dave’s in this manner,” she said.

She also called for the ‘tekan’ culture to be stopped in SAF, “The definition of turnouts should be duly defined. Outdated traditional ‘tekan’ or punishment sessions should be put to an immediate stop. Heatstroke kills, so put all possible measures to counter it. It is not to be taken lightly.”

There have been allegations that Dave was ‘being tekan’ during training, which may have caused him to suffer from heat stroke.

“If I have to sacrifice my only son to bring this message across, make sure it is one that brings forth solid changes to seemingly perfect training systems,” she added.

In this regard, MG Ong said that investigations into the purported “tekan” incident are still ongoing. A Committee of Inquiry is presently investigating the circumstances leading to Dave’s death.

“Those who have been shown to have done something wrong over the course of the incident will be held accountable,” MG Ong told the reporters. “This, I guarantee you.”

“Tekan culture”

When the reporters asked about the question of a “tekan culture” especially in the Guards formation, MG Ong said “there is a certain purpose to every training that we do”.

“If there is no purpose, and the training is levied on the soldiers without reason, and there is an abuse of the way training is conducted in the process, we will hold them accountable,” added MG Ong, who himself is also a former Chief Guards Officer.

MG Ong did not say whether commanders have been directed to stop all the “tekan” sessions, instead reiterating that the training purpose needs to be in line with what he called the unit’s mission essentials.

“What the Army did in the aftermath of this incident was to emphasize that training needs to be accompanied with instructions, ample safety coverage and all the administrative practices and procedures that come along with it,” he added.

When pressed on by reporters if the “tekan” sessions could be conducted with the right purpose and safety coverage, MG Ong avoided answering.

He merely replied, “It’s important to realise that we need tough training. But the training must… relate to their task and be accompanied by the right reasons.”

To that end, MG Ong said commanders from the top down have emphasized the need to ensure all training and practices are correctly implemented.

“We have to look within ourselves, examine our safety processes and training programmes to make sure they’re all doing the right thing,” he added. “We’re reasonably confident that commanders are aware of their responsibilities and continue to train to one’s requirement.”

And finally, MG Ong said that his commanders were “affected and pained” by Dave’s death. “The loss of every soldier hits to the heart, hits to the core of all that we are,” he said. “We want all soldiers to go back to their families and when they don’t, we are deeply saddened.”

In Singapore, many SAF generals and admirals would eventually be selected and become PAP politicians. That being the case, it appears that MG Ong would be a good choice since even before becoming a politician, he has already learned the art of avoiding answering tough media enquiries.