by James Lee
First of all, my condolences to the family of Aloysius Pang. With the passing of another Singaporean son, another witch hunt begins. This time, the hunt is directed towards those at the top – Goh Si Hou, Melvyn Ong and Ng Eng Hen. Once again, the question of NS is being put into the spotlight, and similarly, the calls for resignation. This time, the voices are louder, with the lynch mob even extending to politicians and insurance agents all using Aloysius’ death for their own personal agendas.
For those who are demanding for heads to roll, I implore you to please take a step back and rationalise. Resignation does not solve anything. Yes, there must be responsibility and accountability, but who are those who are really responsible? The Defense Minister, Chief of Army and Chief of Defence Force have some responsibility, but not entirely, so who? I will answer that question later. Suppose that all three of them really resign, what purpose would that serve other than to feed the ‘supposed revenge or injustice’ that one feels. Once that is over, someone will just replace them, but the problem remains. And who is going to solve that problem? The person who is going in to pick up the pieces, or as we always say, kio sai. We all know the person going in to kio sai is not going to do a good job because he did not create the mess in the first place. So, firing the COA, CDF does not solve the problem. Moreover, if there is already no trust in the top guy in the Singapore Armed Forces, surely you wouldn’t trust his replacement, right?
With that now out of the way, we can look at how the problem can be solved.
I spent 9 years of my life in a shipyard and safety is always paramount. There are some similarities to the artillery formation (although I am not from one) in terms of heavy machinery and moving parts. There is a well established system in the industry for dealing with hazards called the hierarchy of controls and it looks like this:
The diagram is self-explanatory, with the top tiers being the most effective, but also sometimes impractical. To apply to the context of the howitzer, the hazard is the pinch point between the wall chamber and the gun barrel. To physically remove the gun barrel may not be practical. Is there a way to substitute it? Yes, design a bigger chamber, but only applicable for future models and does not solve the immediate problem. Engineering controls means putting in place certain system locks. E.g. the gun barrel cannot move if the chamber door is open. However, as this was a repair case, it is highly likely that this safety lock was disabled so that the crew can go in and perform the works. That leaves administrative controls, which in my guess is where things went wrong.
The army has its safety systems in place and lowering a gun barrel would require close communication between the operator and someone who is supposed to ensure that no one is at the pinch point. It could be that the deceased was overzealous, or could be a lack of communication and coordination amongst the crew. The reason is for the Commission of Inquiry (COI) to find out. In any case, there was a bypass of protocol and if you want to identify the responsible party, it is the entire crew who were doing the repairs. But to blame the crew does not solve the root cause of the problem still. You have to apply the 5-whys technique until you find the root cause. When that root cause is solved, and controls put in place, will the problem go away. It could be a lack of a safety culture, or tired soldiers after exercise, or time pressures, or fear of punishment, or even perhaps the gun barrel jammed and the deceased attempted to dislodge it. Right now, we don’t know, but what I know is that the very least the SAF could do is to find out the root cause and give some accountability and closure to Aloysius’ family. With the root cause, proper training, procedures has to be put in place to prevent recurrence.
The next part is about the SAF safety culture, which I have gone through 13 years as a ROVER now. Safety culture is everyone’s responsibility, not only the generals, but down to the individual soldier. Complacency is usually one of the causes of accidents, and this is manifested by soldiers who claim that they are seasoned soldiers, hence do not need to be subjected to the system. E.g. soldiers overconfident in their weapon drills until someone accidentally misfires at the range. In my opinion, safety culture should not be not top down, but bottom up. Any person should have the right to say that an activity is not safe, and his superior has the duty to listen to him, and not think that he is trying to malinger. However, in many organisations, not only the SAF, it is a top down approach, which then becomes additional protocols and red tape which has to be followed, and often end up being flouted.
Last, there will be accidents in every organisation. Nobody goes to work, or goes for reservist expecting to lose a limb or a life. It is unfortunate that accidents happens, but did you know that in the construction sector, 8 foreign workers died in the first half of 2018 alone? I did not see netizens demanding for the construction companies to be accountable. Nor were there calls for the Manpower Minister to resign. What is the difference in this case? Was it that foreign worker lives do not matter as much? Was it because Aloysius was a celebrity? Or was it because we are forced to serve NS and hence there is some innate dislike for it? So, whenever there is an opportunity to showcase the flaws of NS, we immediately jump on it. If that is the case, then there is a lot of hypocrisy in this witch hunt, and even more so for those who politicised Aloysius’ death for their own agendas.
I hope that Singaporeans in this time can come together and mourn the passing of a fellow Singaporean. Yes, there is injustice, anger and indignation. But let us be level-headed here in trying to solve the problem. Remember Master Yoda’s words – anger leads to hate; hate leads to the dark side.