Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

It would seem that the preliminary findings by a Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the untimely death of the late Corporal First Class (CFC) Dave Lee has concluded that there have been lapses in procedure which contributed to the tragedy.  Following the Parliamentary session, Minister for Defense, Mr Ng Eng Hen stated that “those responsible for the lapses will be punished after police investigations conclude” He further added that  “if no criminal charges were filed, the Defence Ministry would prosecute persons responsible for lapses in the military court.”

While I am heartened that this may provide some semblance of closure for the Lee family, I can only hope that the people punished will indeed be the ones that were 100% responsible for CFC Dave’s death and not just scapegoats pulled out to front the punishment for what was caused by a larger systemic problem.

This is not the first death to occur during national service nor will it, I fear, be the last. While there may have been lapses in judgement on the part of the officers in charge of CSC Dave, they were probably only following a practice of doing things that they were themselves subjected to. If they are to be punished, what about those at the very top that allowed this type of practice to go on in the first place?

This is a serious incident. Someone’s life has been cut down in his prime. Shouldn’t there be some semblance of responsibility at the top? I sincerely hope that this will not be a “punish some 20 year old officer who is also serving his national service and then case close”. At the end of the day, we must remember that these are simply late teens policing each other. It is the authority figures with their fancy titles that come up with policy, practice and procedure. To what extent did those higher ups do their part to ensure that proper procedure was inculcated in the officers? There may be so called proper procedure on paper but to what extent were these implemented? Were the officers running that fateful exercise simply doing exactly what was done to them?

The COI needs to go beyond just that day to get the answers to these questions.

Let us not forget the death of Pte Dominique Sarron Lee. The family shared with TOC that similar to Pte Lee’s case, it was revealed through the coroner’s inquiry that the medics were not proficient in dealing with the injuries sustained and they did not have the equipment on hand with them. This is coupled with the delays in sending Pte Lee immediately to the hospital for treatment.

A family member of Pte Lee said, “…we do feel that MINDEF has not learnt anything. After 3SG Tan and Dominique’s death, Ng Eng Hen said that they set up a safety inspectorate to enhance safety. Heat injury takes time to manifest and yet they allowed it to happen. What has the safety inspectorate been doing? We have seen MINDEF at work. They do not walk the talk. They do not feel any pain for the deceased or their families, they only feel the pain of more work handling the public uproar. ”

Pte Lee’s family fought hard to try to find answers as to how the errant officers involved in his death were dealt with and how the army had improved its operation since Pte Lee’s death, but Mindef refused to share with the family. They only got to know what happened to the officers after pursuing through their legal suit, which is one-year deferment to their promotion but in the end, they never got to see the full report of the COI which they had asked for. All they got, was the truncated report which Dr Ng recited in Parliament in response to public concern.

If we simply stop at the officers that day, the true systemic problem may never be resolved and this could lead to more unnecessary fatalities.

As CFC Dave’s mother, Jasmine Lee, poignantly said: “I see army boys and boys of Dave’s age every day… Maybe tears collected can form a reservoir by now…..I just want to let all officers involved know that my son meant the world to me; my family portraits will never be complete.”

This was someone’s life and someone’s son with so much unfulfilled potential lost. To honour his life and that of others who have tragically died in service, I can only hope that the COI looks beyond the officers and thoroughly investigates common practices of “tekan” which are routinely meted out. These will not be on paper but yet they are condoned and even encouraged by the seniors or “lau jiao” as we call them. While the officers’ actions did cause the death of this young man, they were perhaps only carrying out actions that were done to them in their time.

It is the entire practice that needs to be overhauled. This goes beyond punishing individuals.


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