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Family's failed bid to sue SAF sparks debate

Some call for more transparency in case of NSF's death after smoke-grenade training

The failed bid by the family of the late Private Dominique Sarron Lee to sue the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and two of its officers has sparked a public debate on whether the Government has done right by the full-time national serviceman (NSF). Netizens have taken to social media to air their grievances over what they deem as missteps by the SAF and the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

Some labelled the SAF's handling of the case as callous, calling for more transparency and accountability for Pte Lee's death after a 2012 training exercise in which he suffered an acute allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades. Six grenades were used when only two would have sufficed.

Others questioned why those who were found negligent could not be sued.

 

There are those who will cheer Mindef's commitment to assisting Pte Lee's family. But there will also be some who wonder if the good intentions were simply to avert a public relations disaster... Questions remain.

It also did not help that last Thursday's High Court decision to strike off the lawsuit by Pte Lee's family against the SAF and the two officers ended with an order for the family to pay $22,000 in costs to the defendants, prompting a fund-raiser set up by two young men.

Six days after the ruling, at the behest of Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Mindef and the two officers decided to waive their costs.

Before that, Mindef remained reticent, saying only that it will support the 21-year-old's family, and that disciplinary action had been taken against the officers involved - without going into any detail.

Not surprisingly, this has given rise to public unease, not least since this is a society where half the population does national service. Being tight-lipped has been seen by some as a reflection of how the military looks out for its own.

OFFICERS WERE PUNISHED

The two officers - the exercise's chief safety officer Chia Thye Siong and Pte Lee's platoon commander Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal - were cleared of all criminal charges.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The coroner's inquiry found that Pte Lee died from an acute allergic reaction to the zinc chloride fumes from the smoke grenades, adding that this was "unlikely to have been predicted". Pte Lee's death is, in fact, the first such death here since the SAF started using the smoke grenades in the 1970s.

Since Pte Lee's allergic reaction was "not reasonably foreseeable", the officers were not "directly responsible" for his death.

Still, they did not get away scot-free. A Committee of Inquiry found that both men were negligent during the training exercise and both were punished in a summary trial in 2013.

Mindef still has yet to reveal the exact punishments. Even Pte Lee's family say they are in the dark.

Then earlier this week, it was revealed on social media that army regular Chia was promoted from captain to major a year after being punished. When asked to explain, the SAF would say only that both Major Chia and Captain Najib are no longer in supervisory positions.

Inevitably, questions remain. Why was the captain promoted so soon after the unfortunate incident?

On the flip side, it also needs to be asked just how much punishment might be sufficient, given that the officers were not found to have directly caused the soldier's death. How much pain, and for how long, should the system impose on a first-time offender?

The Straits Times understands that Maj Chia's promotion was already held back by more than a year. If that is not enough, what is?

IMMUNITY AGAINST SUITS

The defendants relied on a provision in the Government Proceedings Act which holds that a member of the armed forces, and also the police, who while on duty causes death or injury to another cannot be held liable for a civil wrongdoing.

The law was inherited from the United Kingdom's Crown Proceedings Act, which was enacted in 1947 to remove the government's total immunity from being sued. But it kept the immunity for the police and armed forces as an exception. The British government amended its Act in 1987 to erode this immunity. But Singapore has kept the law intact. And this ensures that the ability to train a conscript into a credible defence force is not undermined.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who in 1986 was minister of state for defence, said during a Budget debate: "You have to have the absolute confidence that you can make the judgment correctly. You cannot afford always to have at the back of your mind the thought that, 'If I do it wrong, will I be sued? Will the Government not back me? Should I have to appear in court?'"

But does it mean that the likes of Pte Lee's family cannot get justice or fair compensation?

Not true, said defence lawyer Amolat Singh. The veteran, who has represented many military men, said out-of-court settlements are based on "set principles and rules", adding that he has not yet encountered a situation in which his clients ended up with a raw deal.

And offenders can also be subject to criminal action.

As Brigadier-General Chan Wing Kai, commander of the army's Training and Doctrine Command, reiterated on Monday: "Those responsible through their rash and negligent acts will be held accountable under our Military Court and Criminal Law Courts."

There have been previous cases in which servicemen were charged and convicted in court for causing deaths because of recklessness.

Four commando officers were jailed in 2004 for causing the death of another serviceman who was put through unauthorised dunking sessions during combat survival training. More recently, a senior instructor was jailed for instigating an NSF to commit a rash act and trying to pervert the course of justice after an overturned jeep resulted in the death of another NSF.

JUSTICE NEEDS TO BE SEEN

Mindef's response to the current uproar has left some observers asking if it could not have been more transparent.

Initially, it issued only a pithy statement last Thursday about supporting Pte Lee's family through their ordeal, but stopped short of addressing any of the swirling speculations about its investigations. Go through the forums and you will find pictures of Maj Chia's new rank and the stoking of anti-SAF and -NS sentiments.

The Singapore Army finally broke its silence four days later when it put up a lengthy post on Monday, detailing what it did in the aftermath of the incident and clarifying issues about the legal process. The same evening, Dr Ng addressed the issue, urging his ministry to waive the legal costs owed to it.

Mindef and the officers have announced that they will waive the legal bill owed to them.

There are those who will cheer Mindef's commitment to assisting Pte Lee's family. But there will also be some who wonder if the good intentions were simply to avert a public relations disaster which resulted from the very public pleas made by an anguished mother who lost her son. Questions remain.

How much compensation was offered to the family for Pte Lee's death? What were the punishments handed to the officers found guilty? What requests from the family did Mindef reject and why?

Parents today are far more supportive of national service than in the past. They entrust their sons to the armed forces to defend the country. While everyone knows that this cannot be done without risks to life and limb, parents expect that the utmost will be done to keep their sons safe. And when things go wrong, as they sometimes will, parents will demand answers.

Defence analyst Ho Shu Huang, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "By allowing the conversation to be a free-for-all, handled without nuance outside of the context, generalised conclusions can be quite easily arrived at, with detrimental consequences."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'Family's failed bid to sue SAF sparks debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe