On Friday (5 February), a redditor on r/Singapore shared screenshots of the acknowledgments in the thesis of New Zealand-based Singaporean Dr Soh Kian Wee in which the latter touched on the challenges his faced during his time with the Singapore Armed Forced (SAF) in 2015 when the SAF “maliciously revoked” his orthopaedic specialists’ medical certificate which led to him needing spinal surgery.
The surgery did not go well. Consequently, Dr Soh had to quit his teaching job on medical grounds.
The post spurred several servicemen on reddit to share their own experiences of how their personal injuries were handled during their service.
One person noted that when they had partially torn their ligament during basic military training, none of their superior officers believed that they were injured and ordered them to “complete the road march, etc”.
Later, an x-ray confirmed their injury and they were “kicked out of OCS (officer cadet school)”.
Another shared the story of how their commander asked them to force their boots on in order to book out despite the fact that they recently had surgery on their toes and it was covered in bandages.
Another person recalled a medical officer (MO) accusing them of feigning injury when they reported a knee issue. This is despite the fact that a previous MO had asked them to revisit the medical centre if the pain persisted. This redditor noted that the second MO did not even read their medical records, and that the SAF determined it to not be a service-related injury, which prevented them from claiming compensation.
Background of Dr Soh’s case
In his thesis acknowledgement, Dr Soh recounted how the problem unfolded, starting with the SAF conducting an investigation on the matter of his injury without taking a statement from him.
He noted that the reservist doctor has initially endorsed the medical certificate from the specialist but later withdrew it, “possibly due to pressure or orders from the (non-medical commanding officer)”.
“The SAF unreasonably refused to engage with me further even though their findings were full of obvious inconsistencies e.g both the commanding officer (CO) and reservist doctor blamed each other and denied responsibility for revoking the medical certificate,” he wrote.
Dr Soh went on to say that he was unable to take court action against any of the SAF officers due to the provisions laid out in Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act (GPA) which states:
Nothing done or omitted to be done 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 if
(a) at the time when the thing is suffered by that other person, he is —
(i) on duty as a member of the forces; or
(ii) though not on duty as a member of the forces —
(A) on any land, premises, ship, aircraft or vehicle for the time being used for the purposes of the forces; or
(B) on any journey necessary to enable him to report for duty as such or to return home after such duty
In 2017, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament that Section 14 of the GPA is important to allow soldiers and commanders to train without worrying if they or the SAF could be sued by other servicemen when injuries and fatalities occur.
He said: “This is a reality we face; there are inherent risks and I think we struck a good balance between maintaining very high safety standards, and I think that Section 14 provides us that confidence for our commanders to train realistically.”
As such, Dr Soh said he opted for an “indirect approach” by appealing to the Ministry of Health (MOH) to investigate the reservist doctor.
He noted, “After more than four years, the Minister for Health (Singapore) found the reservist doctor negligent as he did not ‘adequately discharge his professional and ethical obligations’ and ‘ensure that Mr Soh would not come to any harm’.”
The Minister directed that a letter of warning be issued to the reservist doctor.
Dr Soh went on to note his hopes that the SAF—which will be reviewing the MOH’s decision at the time—will “self-acknowledge their faults, hold errant officers accountable, and take genuine corrective steps so that no soldier will ever have to go through the same unavoidable suffering.”
He went on to say, “The SAF should unconditionally accept the fact that my spinal surgery is unsuccessful, as evidence by medical imaging, and not illogically conclude after a medical assessment by the SAF specialist Medical Board that the spinal surgery has achieved ‘physical benefits’ but ‘his social and personal circumstances were [are] compelling enough [for the Medical Board] to accept his request for exemption from reservist obligations’.”
He stressed that the SAF cannot revoke the exemption in the future by allowing him to continue serving national service when it sees fit, either upon improvement of his social or personal circumstances.
Dr Soh pointed out that this service injury indirectly led to his decision to pursue a PhD in New Zealand, adding that his years living and studying there have been “extremely challenging” as he had to live alone “with the consequences of an unsuccessful spinal surgery” while dealing with legal matters simultaneously.
Contradicting statements in MINDEF’s investigation and its reluctance to review
Back in 2019, Dr Soh tried to raise funds for a judicial review of procedures before and after the formation of the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF)’s Compensation Board. This was after he spent several years trying to convince MINDEF to properly compensate him for his injuries and review their findings relating to the officers involved.
He noted, “Having made aware of MINDEF’s procedures of determining the compensation award from their statements for the Court Proceeding, I am convinced that their current procedures that require the Pensions Officer to assess medical evidences before determining the compensation award is bound to fail.”
“In particular, the Pensions Officer lacks the relevant medical knowledge. If this procedure is not rectified now, then future taxpayers’ money will be wasted on unqualified Pensions Officers and the prolonged wait for the compensation award only adds unnecessary suffering to future injured servicemen.”
Explaining the background of his story, Dr Soh said the issue started with a Singapore General Hospital medical certificate which stated “fit for light duty from 07-Feb-2014 to 06-Feb-2015” with a clarification to “excuse from reservist and downgrade permanently”.
On 12 January, the MO in SAF issue a handwritten medical certificate noting to “excuse ICT”. However, the CO did not accept this, said Dr Soh.
“The MO then amended his MC to ‘Light Duties x2/52’ without re-examining me or explaining the type of light duties that I’m suited for,” he continued, showing images of the MC before and after it was amended.
After one night at camp, Dr Soh said his injury was aggravated, which led to him needing spinal surgery.
“Unable to cope with my work after the surgery, I left Singapore for New Zealand in 2016. My medical condition is now considerably worse than that before the incident,” he explained.
Dr Soh then highlighted the problems with the investigation of his case, noting that MINDEF did not take a full statement from him to conduct a proper investigation. It concluded in March 2016 that both the CO and MO were not negligent.
Dr Soh disagreed with these findings and provided reasons and evidences to support his case. However, MINDEF refused to review their findings, he said.
After that, Dr Soh contacted various parties including the MINDEF feedback unit, Chief Medical Corps/Chief Army Medical Officer, Defence Minister, the MOH, Singapore Medical Council and his local MP to get MINDEF to review their findings.
However, none of it worked and the outcome of the investigation affected his compensation award.
A couple of years later in 2018, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen responded to a parliamentary question in which he said that SAF MOs do not revoke medical certificates issued by external medical practitioners.
Dr Soh noted, “It is very clear that due procedures were not followed during and after the incident.”
He went on to point out the inconsistencies between the MOH’s findings and that of MINDEF, particularly with regard to the MO’s statement.
“The MO claimed that the CO made the decision to revoke the SGH MC, but MINDEF’s findings indicate that the MO revoked the SGH MC,” he pointed out, sharing an image of the MO’s statement to the MOH.
This is in contrast to MINDEF’s finding which reported that the CO found the MO’s annotation “excuse ICT” to be broad, which led to the CO seeking “clarification” from the MO. This then led to the MO amending the annotation to “Light duties”.
Dr Soh countered that when he presented that same SGH medical certification to another unit MO a year before this incident, that MO issued an SAF MC indicating “excuse in-camp training” which the CO then accepted.
However, this current CO found the annotation in the more recent MO’s annotation of “excuse ICT” to be “broad”.
He said, “The CO should justify how he could have seen “Excuse ICT” as a broad annotation when the term is as clear as it can get.”
Next, Dr Soh also noted the “unacceptable delays” in processing his case. The Pension Officer issued compensation a full four years after the incident. He also pointed out that the Pensions Officer took 18 months to “realise that he needed further clarification” from Dr Soh, and justified that he “should be careful with taxpayers’ money”.
After that, he was then denied compensation due to negligence, and only issued a “very pathetic award”, with MINDEF rejecting all of Dr Soh’s other claims “unreasonably.”
Dr Soh quoted then-Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean who said in 2007, “an additional lump sum compensation is provided when there may have been negligence on the part of [MINDEF].”
However, MINDEF refused Dr Soh this compensation despite the evidence he has shown to support his case that the CO and MO were negligent and that his disability arose from service alone.
He was also denied compensation for overseas treatment he received as the Pensions Officer rejected his overseas treatment claims and changed the original requirements of the applications.
He wrote, “The Pensions Officer said he will consider private and chiropractic medical expenses incurred overseas as an exception provided that I submitted certain documents that meet MINDEF’s requirements.
“I submitted the required documents with the specialist confirming that all of their requirements are met. However, the Pensions Officer, having no medical knowledge, not only rejected all my overseas treatment claims, but also changed the original requirements.”
He went on: “However, the Pension Officer did not allow me to respond to the amended requirement. In fact, the requested ‘case-specific medical evidences’ were provided in my submitted document, but the Pensions Officer did not have sufficient medical knowledge to assess these evidences.”
High Court denied Dr Soh’s application for judicial review
Following all that, a High Court judge denied Dr Soh’s application to commence a judicial review against MINDEF’s findings and compensation award on the grounds that “there is a clear statutory appeal process” to address Dr Soh’s grievances, among others.
Dr Soh responded that while the statutory appeal process is clearly stated, he feels he has demonstrate that he would not be able to address all his grievances. For example, the Compensation Board would not be able to study non-medical matters based on the powers granted to the board by the Regulation 13A of the SAF Pensions Regulations.
As to the judge’s note that he is not time barred from commencing the appeal action, Dr Soh once again pointed to the limitations of the Compensation Board to address all components of the compensation award.
In rejecting his application for judicial review, the judge also found that the Regulation does contemplate further enquiries made by Dr Soh if deemed necessary.
Dr Soh responded that the SAF Pensions Regulation stipulates that the review of award “must be necessitated by a Pensions Officer” and “no award under these regulations shall be subject to review or by appeal to any Court except as otherwise provided by any written law.”
He argued, “The phrase ‘contemplate further enquiries made by you’ is a play on words that does not fix the problem. An enquiry is not a review and MINDEF can ignore my enquiries similar to what they did regarding the investigation on CO/MO.
“It is also difficult for me to raise appropriate enquiries especially when MINDEF has chosen to conceal most of their methods and justifications for the compensation award from me and the public.
“By then, the regulations do not allow me to appeal against the award to the Court.”
Finally, the court noted that the judge is not persuaded that there was reasonable suspicion / procedural impropriety or that there was irrational consideration in Dr Soh’s case.
To this, he merely pointed to his affidavits, evidences and supporting statements, noting also that the upcoming statutory appeal process may take another few years to complete.
Dr Soh noted on the crowdfunding platform: “Having attempted all possible avenues, a judicial review is therefore necessary. However, the High Court Judge refused to commence this review.”
“I wish to appeal against the Judge’s decision, but security of costs of $20,000 is required to pay to the Court of Appeal by 11 October 2019. Furthermore, the lawyer costs for the appeal is estimated to be $30,000 (at a discounted rate) excluding disbursement.”
He added, “Most importantly, flawed procedures and wrongdoings should be reviewed so that future servicemen can benefit.”
Unfortunately, the crowdfunding campaign did not receive a single backer and was shut down on 9 October 2019.
Dr Soh had also shared his story on reddit r/Singapore in October 2019.