Following the death of full-time national serviceman (NSF) Muhammad Ahad Lone last year which was ruled a suicide, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said it has enhanced its support programme for National Service recruits who are struggling to adjust. These include changes to the interview session and providing additional assistance to those who do not have family locally.
The conversation around mental health of servicemen is not often talked about but has recently started to gain more attention.
One woman who has been vocal about the issue is mother of two, Carena Tan who slammed the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) for not having the expertise to diagnose or deal with people with mental problems in her speech at the NO CECA, NO 6.9 Million People” rally on 3 November at Hong Lim Park.
The single-mother of two took to the stage at the rally to talk about the challenges her elder son, Ian Loh, faced during National Service and the effects it has had on him and the family since. She shared how her son did not want to go for national service but she and the rest of the family pushed him and insisted that he go because it was compulsory.
She said to him, “This is the law. If you don’t go, we will get into trouble. You will get into trouble.”
“So we just blindly followed the law,” she lamented.
However, Ms Tan said that when they enlisted him in the national service, they did not know at the time that Ian was struggling with mental instability. Unfortunately, his time in NS exacerbated the condition but Ministry of Defence did not really know how to handle him.
“MINDEF shockingly do not have the expertise to diagnose people with mental problem,” said Ms Tan.
When Ian was enlisted, he tried to get out of conscription by taking illegal drugs hoping that he would get caught and be sent to a drug rehabilitation centre (DRC), said Ms Tan. She said he did it as a way to escape NS, however, he did not get his wishes.
After serving time in the DRC, he was sent back to NS to serve detention and then later to the civil defence. There, Ian had to go through the tedious drills that the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) runs and endure the tough conditions. The SCDF comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) which, according to Ms Tan’s experience, is similarly lacking in expertise for dealing with such issues.
Ms Tan explained that Ian’s mental instability meant that he was unable to handle the “vulgarities and verbal abuse” that was hurled at him every day. “I mean how would you feel as a boy if your officers when they open their sentence, they use vulgarities aiming at your mother’s genitals?” Ms Tan asked the crowd.
She continued, “This is unacceptable. I mean you have double standards. Inside, you are supposed to behave like a civil person. But inside, you have officers screaming vulgarities at them every single day for two years.”
Ms Tan explained that when Ian expressed suicidal tendencies, the treatment he received was to be chained to the bed on two different occasions for more than a month with a light shining on him. Ms Tan said this was akin to “mind-rape”.
When Ian was finally discharged from civil defence, his mother said he was “totally broken”.
After being discharged, the family took Ian to different doctors at the Institute of Mental Health, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the National Addiction Management Service before he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia.
This year in June, Ian again resorted to taking drugs because “the voices in his head told him to” which led him back to a DRC. And yet again, when he was suicidal, his treatment was to be chained to the bed.
Ms Tan said she has been writing to various ministries and the Prime Minister since 2012 to talk about Ian and to request that they stop the ‘barbaric treatment’ they’ve given her son but she has yet to receive even one response. She is also fighting to make National Service voluntary instead of compulsory.
She said, “We don’t want to have another Aloysius [Pang], we don’t want to have another Dave Lee.”
This is not an isolated case
Ian is not the only case of a serviceman with mental health issues that weren’t properly handled. Back in 2014, Private (Pte) Ganesh Pillay Magindren was found dead at the foot of his condominium. The state coroner noted that the death was a deliberate act and ruled out foul play.
Pte Ganesh was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he enlisted but was given a PES E (E9L9) medical fitness grading as a result of his mental illness. This classification is just one grade above the PES F which would have exempted him from having to serve national service.
In Pte Ganesh’s case, it was found that his officer in charge lacked curiosity about his condition and did not attempt to find out more. She also did not associate his inability to perform daily duties with his mental illness.
The coroner had noted that she was “out of her depth” to handle Pte Ganesh.
In the end, MINDEF simply extended their sympathies to the family for their loss in a public statement and said that they would study the coroner’s findings to improve and tighten procedures to ensure better compliance by SAF units in dealing with soldiers with mental problems.
However, the family said that no apologies were made directly by MINDEF to the family and that the single counselling session held by MINDEF for the family after Pte Ganesh’s death was more like a survey than anything else with questions like “How was the family close to the deceased, grade from 1 to 5?”
MINDEF is untouchable under the law
Now, if Pte Ganesh’s or even Ms Tan wants to sue MINDEF for how their sons were treated while in the SAF, they can’t as MINDEF and any SAF commanders or officers who may be involved in the death or injury of NSmen or NSF’s are protected from civil suits under Section 14 of the Government Proceeding Act.
Back in 2016, the High Court dismissed a civil suit brought against two SAF officers involved in the death of Private Dominique Sarron Lee in 2012. The then-platoon commander and chief safety officer involved were both summarily tried and found guilty in military court for negligent performance of lawful order or duty.
But the High Court judge said: “Whilst the tragedy behind this case, and the pain and anguish it has engendered, should be recognised, we should not forget that this case also engages a matter of great importance — the ability of the SAF and its members to safeguard our nation and her security without being burdened by the yoke of tortious civil liability.”
“The immunity accorded by (Section 14 of the GPA) does not mean that the SAF and its officers have carte blanche to act without sufficient regard to the safety of the young men and women whose lives are entrusted to them. Indeed, to the contrary, the fact that such immunity exists in and of itself imposes an even heavier moral burden on the SAF and its officers to exercise utmost care in looking after their young charges.”
The judge added that whether a mishap was the result of negligence did not matter under the GPA. As long as the victim was on duty, immunity from a lawsuit applies.
Worker’s Party attempted to change the law
Later in 2017, Worker’s Party NCMP Dennis Tan filed a motion in Parliament proposing amendments to Section 14 of the GPA to allow for certain situations of liability to be prosecuted in civil court, particularly during training and when safety protocols, procedures and regulations were found to be violated.
Unfortunately, the PAP-dominant parliament rejected Mr Tan’s motion.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that the statute in question continues to serve a “vital” purpose — to allow soldiers to train realistically. He said that the legislative intention behind Section 14 was to ensure that the government and the members of the armed forces are shielded from liability to ensure effectiveness and decisiveness of the armed forces in training and operations, “without being burdened by the prospect of legal action” when training or having to “second guess” the consequences of every action.
However, Minister Ng did note that those who have been reckless or negligent are not protected from criminal prosecution.
Mental health is a serious issue. Unfortunately, stories like that of Ms Carena Tan’s son Ian Loh and other servicemen with mental health problems highlight the urgent need for MHA and MINDEF to put in place the right measures to deal with such cases.