Following the recent National Service (NS) training death and subsequent discussions about safety policies in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament on 11 Feb that if a servicemen feels that they or their peers are in an unsafe situation, they should speak out.
He said, “If you think it’s unsafe for your buddies, yourself, raise it up. If you think that someone is pushing beyond his means to physical harm, do so. I think that’s the way we maintain realistic training and give comfort to our parents.”
He went on to say that there needs to be a culture of safety at every level of the SAF which he knows could take years to inculcate.
“Who decides the culture? It’s all of us, our children, our friends, our relatives,” he noted.
And in response to a question from Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah about how servicemen can be reassured that they would not be dealt unfairly after reporting unsafe practices, Dr Ng pointed to the Training Safety Regulations (TSR) which he says empowers anyone to stop unsafe practices.
He added that there are also safety officers on the ground during training who servicemen can reach out to. “If you bring it up to them, we want a culture where the person can assess if safety is at risk. So on the ground there are avenues, that’s in real time,” he added.
He added also that servicemen can use the existing safety hotlines to report risky behaviour and safety lapses anonymously, or write in. The relevant authorities will then take appropriate action based on their report.
Unfortunately, what the minister is suggesting is a far cry from the reality. There is a culture within the SAF where servicemen do not feel empowered to voice out issues, especially when it relates to their superiors. This is something you can pick up on when looking at social media posts from people sharing their own experiences of pointing out safety risks.
The person who points out the risky behaviour and unsafe practice, the whistle blower, usually bears the blunt of the fallout. That is what has happened time and time again, so who would deign to speak out nowadays?
For example, back in 2014 there was a case of a full-time national serviceman who was punished for bringing attention to an act of animal abuse by a warrant officer. The servicemen, Samuer, who caught the abuse on camera was punished for shooting the video and was subsequently told that he was “not allowed to speak of this incident”. Samuer was eventually given 21 days of Stoppage of Leave (SOL) for the use of recording devices in the camp.
The abuser caught on tape, a Lieutenant Colonel (LTC), was let off without punishment even though he had apparently confessed to committing the offence, a source told TOC back in 2014.
At the time, it seemed that Samuer’s Commanding Officer did not want to punish him for whistleblowing but had little choice in the matter as higher authorities (MSD, MINDEF) decided to go ahead with the charge. In this situation, it’s clear that the person who reported an abuse ended up being punished even though the reason behind him breaking the no-recording rule was morally clear.
When soldiers who expose certain misdeeds committed by the higher authorities are punished regardless of motivation of contravening the regulations, there will no longer be any protection of ‘whistleblowers’ who wish to keep their identity a secret from the rest. Add to that the fact that any Committee of Inquiry (COI) launched to investigate incidents such as training deaths would mean that the officer who initially complained about the violation would likely be named.
Naturally, this would deter many servicemen from speaking up against unethical behaviour (like animal abuse) and even safety violations by their superiors. All this talk about empowering servicemen to voice their concerns and encouraging them to take a stand is just that – talk. The reality on the ground doesn’t not match up.