With the spate of deaths that have occurred within national service or reservice which have been increasingly capturing the attention of the public, Singaporeans might be wondering what recourse they might have if ever, God forbid, they find themselves in the same unfortunate situation. As we grief the most recent reservice casualty, local actor Aloysius Pang, it is important to transform our grief into lasting systemic changes which can both prevent future deaths and also provide better recourse to any mishaps that may still occur despite our best intentions.
In previous incidents which took place within national service or reservice, Committees of Inquiries (COI) have been convened. These COIs however were not open to the public and how much of its contents actually made its way into the public domain is anyone’s guess.
In the case of the late Private Dominique Sarron Lee (Pte Lee), his family had tried to sue the military over his death. While this lawsuit never materialised, it is important to remember that the family of Pte Lee only proceeded to sue the two officers and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after the SAF blocked the family’s attempt to seek more information through official request and subsequently legal means after the mediation between the family and the SAF failed. SAF had declined to share what punishment was given to the two officers, detailed findings of the COI and the changes to the training and safety procedures after Pte Lee’s death. As a family who had lost a treasured son and brother while performing his state sanctioned duties – is this fair?
I cannot but reiterate that national service and reservice in Singapore is not a choice. It is a legal requirement for every able bodied male. If you force our boys to do national service, then you owe an even greater duty of accountability and responsibility to their families to be transparent and open. The government has forced us to entrust our sons to their care but in these fatalities, not only has the government failed in its duty, it has also refused to provide detailed accounts of the entire truth. How can they ask us to trust them if they remain opaque even in the face of death?
Currently, all we have are assurances from the government that changes will be made. COIs are still held behind closed doors which means that they are subject to editing and potential whitewashing. Where is the accountability there? How can systemic changes be made if we don’t even know the full measure of what the errors are? We are therefore wholly reliant on the government and the military self regulating itself in this instance. To make matters worse, the bereaved families are also unable to take the matter to open court to seek an impartial and objective ruling leaving the family with no recourse other than to accept the loss of their son and shut up.
As it is, military COIs do not appear to have resolved any issues. Shouldn’t the courts be allowed to step in?
All military deaths are tragedies. However, what exacerbates the tragedies is how the families are being prevented from getting the full truth. Without public disclosure, there is simply no guarantee that this will not happen again. The only way for real change to materialise is if COIs are made completely public and for the affected families to be able to take action in open court.