The Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the untimely and avoidable death of Corporal First Class Dave Lee (CFC Dave Lee) has issued its preliminary findings in relation to the processes and procedures that led up to his death. Further, Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen has pledged that “those found responsible of the lapses” at the conclusion of the investigations will be punished.
I understand that investigations take time but it is important to note that all statements made thus far have been very general. What does Ng mean when he says “those found responsible for the lapses”? If there are lapses in the policies themselves, will those responsible for drafting those policies also be punished? Or will it just be limited to the officers in charge of the exercise on that fateful day?
While the officers in charge that day played a role in CFC Dave Lee’s death, were they given adequate training to recognise symptoms of heat stroke? Did they understand how serious the condition could be? Has the idea that those who struggle at exercises are lazy been drilled into them such that they always presume that anyone who struggles is simply lazy? If so, will the entire structure that perpetuates this false impression also be punished?
While ignorance can amount to negligence, punishment at that level will never really solve the problem and more deaths will likely occur. Punishing commanders who do not understand heatstroke and are conditioned to assume laziness will not prevent further accidents. Looking at the accounts of those who were present that day as published by CFC Dave Lee’s aunt on Facebook, it is evident that the officers were not trained to react to or understand the symptoms of heatstroke. Given that Singapore is such a hot and humid country, that gap in knowledge surely amounts to gross negligence on the part of the people far higher up than the commanders that day. Who are the people that come up with the training agendas and who assess the suitability and maturity of the officers?
Based on those first hand accounts, it is manifestly clear that the officers felt entitled to bully the newer recruits. Who inculcated that culture of bullying? It is neither macho or manly. Rather, it smacks of unprofessionalism, poor training, childish and immature commanders. This is a systemic issue that goes all the way to the top. Will the COI deal with all of the systemic problems within the Singapore Armed Forces ranging from officer selection, to training agendas to mindsets? Are mental and emotional maturity given enough weight when selecting officers?
Secondly, when Ng talks about punishment, what type of punishment is he talking about? A slap on the wrist? A fine? Jail terms? The problem with such a general statement is that it allows Ng to backtrack depending on the findings of the COI.
For the COI to be meaningful, it is crucial that it cannot be limited just to the commanders on that day. It has to examine the underlying mindset, the adequacy of their training and the selection of officers just to name a few. If Ng is committed to making amends, then there should be no sacred cows in the COI. Nor should there be any secrets.