It is “unrealistic” and “wishful” for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to expect zero fatalities in National Service (NS), given the foreseeable and inherent risks involved in military training in general, said Worker’s Party secretary-general Pritam Singh in Parliament on Monday (11 Feb).
Mr Singh added that the “zero-accident mindset” adopted by MINDEF following the death of reservist Corporal First Class (NS) Aloysius Pang at the end of last month places an unrealistic burden on SAF commanders and the armed forces as a whole, stating that such a standard is generally impossible to achieve “even in industries with notoriously strict safety standards”.
“No organisation, let alone one that is in the business of war and defending Singapore’s sovereignty, can realistically promise zero fatalities or training incidents even as the public must insist on the strictest training safety parameters for the SAF, and MINDEF strives for the same”, he stressed.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, however, gave the counterargument that MINDEF should strive for a “zero-accident” or zero-fatality mindset in spite of any difficulties that may arise.
Dr Ng argued that experience has proven that such a goal is not impossible, and will in fact push commanders and recruits to do better in their training.
“Can anyone guarantee that it will be zero fatalities for the rest of our future? Surely not … But that zero fatality sears into the consciousness of every commander and every soldier that to get there, you better be careful about what you are doing”.
He added that a “zero-accident” mindset sends the message that “safety lapses will not be tolerated” and that “it will be safety first”.
“At the end of the day, I want to train you, and I want you to be alive, to be able to fight when Singapore needs you,” he added.
Review of s.14 Government Proceedings Act could lead to “greater accountability” and prioritisation of safety, particularly in NS
Mr Singh proposed the review of Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act (GPA) to enable soldiers to file a civil suit in the event of an “egregious breach of safety” against MINDEF or a negligent commander.
s.14(1) of the Act stipulates that no act or omission “by a member of the forces while on duty as such shall subject either him or the Government to liability in tort for causing the death of another person, or for causing personal injury to another person, in so far as the death or personal injury is due to anything suffered by that other person while he is a member of the forces”.
s.14(1)(a) states that the provision applies should the act or omission take place when the member of the forces in concern is:
“(i) on duty as a member of the forces; or
(ii) though not on duty as a member of the forces,” is on any vehicle or journey in relation to the forces.
A possible exception to the rule, argued Mr Singh, should only be allowed in the event that “a commander behaves recklessly, maliciously or displays a wilful disregard for safety considerations”.
“For example, if a commander had deliberately chosen to cancel a safety briefing, disregarded training safety regulations, had not catered for sufficient rest before or between training and missions without adequate reason or risk mitigation approved beforehand by a more senior commander, then the blanket immunity provided under Section 14 should not apply,” said Mr Singh, adding that the judiciary should be left to decide whether commanders or MINDEF as a whole should be liable for the act or omission.
Such a change in the law “would buttress public confidence in the importance of National Service” and demonstrate “why safety is critical, and the lengths MINDEF and any Government of the day would go to protect the institution, even if it means putting MINDEF’s own reputation and that of its commanders on the line”, he said.
“In doing so, MINDEF would send a clear and unambiguous message – which the buck stops at the top,” stressed Mr Singh.
Dr Ng, however, rebutted Mr Singh’s proposition, saying that it “misses the point”, given that commanders are prosecuted by MINDEF under criminal law.
“We have taken commanders or NS men who have been derelict, who have not done their duty to criminal prosecution,” he said.
Errant commanders, added Dr Ng, are not merely subject to making “civilian payouts in the courts”.
“They go to jail,” he said.
Important not to conflate risks in training with those in operations: NCMP Dennis Tan
Two years ago, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Dennis Tan had also proposed the amendment of s.14 of the GPA to waive the immunity of SAF commanders and MINDEF in the event that a personal injury or death occurs as a result of an act or omission on the part of any officers during training that “conspicuously violates safety protocols, procedures, and regulations”.
“An example would be,” said Mr Tan during the Parliamentary motion, “if an officer or instructor fails to comply with Training Safety Regulations (TSR) or any training safety protocols recommended in any SAF lesson plans or, manuals”.
“There should be a clear distinction between training and operations for purposes of liability under section 14 GPA. Such an amendment to the GPA can better protect our troops and better enhance public confidence in the SAF in the area of training safety.
He acknowledged that while “tough and realistic training is important for the SAF”, training “occurs in a controlled environment by design, unlike operations that by their nature have higher levels of risk, uncertainty, and unpredictability”.
“Managing the training environment ensures that not only learning takes place, but that service personnel do not face unnecessary physical risks. Our servicemen must remain safe, healthy, fit and ready for operations when called,” said Mr Tan.
He added that “the SAF has always recognised this distinction between training and operations”, hence the “Training Safety Regulations (TSR) and other safety directions in lesson plans”.
“Training situations are and should remain qualitatively different from operational circumstances. It is important not to conflate these very different situations. Operations are not, at their core, meant for practice and learning,” he added.
Commanders should be held accountable for violation of “established protocols”
Mr Tan emphasised that “training conditions have clear safety codes laid out, and commanders have a duty to comply” with such codes.
Consequently, he added: “When commanders violate established protocols, they are sending out a signal that they do not care enough about measures put in place for protecting those under their charge, that they are willing to put their men at unnecessary risk.
“The SAF should not tolerate, much less condone, such behaviour, and it is important to make this clear both within its ranks and to the public,” he said.
Mr Tan agreed with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen that while the latter was correct in saying that “a civil suit is not trivial”, the gravity of a civil suit is “precisely why there are circumstances where civil claims should be allowed” in cases involving the violation of safety procedures in the controlled environment of NS training.
“When a training accident occurs because of clear, and especially deliberate breaches of established safety codes by officers responsible for conducting the training or recklessness as to its compliance, there should be channels for civil liability, just as there are channels for criminal liability.
“There may be situations that are not criminal but where victims and their families should still be able to seek legal recourse directly.
“I am not calling for a blanket civil liability for accidents – just for accidents during the controlled environment of training,” he stressed.
“Knowledge of the potential seriousness of consequences can encourage those responsible for the lives of our women and men in uniform to be more careful and treat their duties more seriously, and be less cavalier about non observance of TSR or safety considerations in lesson plans,” argued Mr Tan, adding that it “reduces the moral hazard by making the gravity of consequences more evident”.
He added that commanders who have reasonably and adequately adhere to safety protocols and regulations in training should not be worried about being held for civil liability.
Citing Dr Ng’s statement in which he claimed that “punitive actions have, in the past, been taken against errant officers by way of criminal proceedings or proceedings under military law” via “court martial proceedings or summary trials”, Mr Tan argued that “such actions are very different from the rights of an injured serviceman or the family of a deceased serviceman having to commence a civil claim in negligence against any errant officer or the SAF”.
This is because, according to Mr Tan, “the serviceman or his family has no say whether criminal proceedings, court martial proceedings or summary trials are to be commenced”, and such proceedings or trials are “completely at the discretion of MINDEF or AGC”, in contrast to a right to a civil claim “where the decision to commence action lies with a serviceman or his family”.
“By allowing them to have the right of suit, once the suit is commenced, the courts will decide on liability based on the evidence and arguments that are presented before it. The defendants have the right to defend themselves.
“The injured serviceman or the family of the serviceman bringing the suit still has the burden to prove his or their case as is required for all civil cases. Ultimately, it is up to the civil courts to decide based on the merits of the case,” he said.
Mr Tan added that “the independence of the judicial process through the civil courts will help to prevent any undesired impression or accusation of cover-up and underscore that MINDEF or the SAF are above board”, and such “legal scrutiny” will build “public confidence” in MINDEF and SAF.
Dr Ng, however, reiterated the need to retain the immunity provided for SAF commanders and the Government in s.14 GPA.
“For Singapore, section 14 continues to serve a vital purpose as intended. SAF soldiers train realistically, conduct many operations overseas. Because they train realistically, without the commanders or the individual soldiers themselves in each instance wondering if their organisation or they themselves could be sued by other servicemen, when injuries and fatalities occur, removing section 14 is not likely to improve outcomes as the Member says, and indeed, may do us harm.”