NSF's death

2 officers lost sum worth 'half their annual salary'

Pte Lee died after being exposed to zinc chloride in smoke grenades on April 17, 2012.
Pte Lee died after being exposed to zinc chloride in smoke grenades on April 17, 2012.PHOTO: MINDEF

The two army officers involved in the incident in which a 21-year-old full-time national serviceman (NSF) died from a reaction to a chemical in smoke grenades lost an amount worth half their annual salary when their promotions were delayed.

And these punishments, which included fines, were commensurate with their level of culpability and the severity of the offence, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament yesterday as he stressed the judicial processes involved were fair and transparent.

Responding to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan who wanted to know how Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal and Major Chia Thye Siong were punished, Dr Ng said both men suffered a setback in their careers. "The monetary cost of the promotion delays is significant, amounting to about half of their total annual salaries," he disclosed, and added it would be wrong and unfair to punish servicemen beyond the level of their offence.

In the incident on April 17, 2012, Cpt Najib, the platoon commander, allowed the use of six grenades even though he knew the safety regulations put the cap at two. Maj Chia, then a captain, was the safety officer for the training.

Private Dominique Sarron Lee died after being exposed to zinc chloride in the smoke grenades.

His case came under the public spotlight again after the High Court struck out a lawsuit brought against the two officers and Singapore Armed Forces by Pte Lee's family.

Yesterday, Dr Ng stressed that SAF servicemen can be, and have been, charged and punished in the criminal courts for acts committed during their duties. The decision to pursue a criminal case lies with the Attorney-General's Chambers, which will take into account the findings of a Coroner's Inquiry - both of which are "judicial processes outside the SAF".

"All these processes were applied in the tragic death of the late Pte Lee. The Attorney-General decided not to prosecute the two officers as the Coroner had found they were not reckless or negligent," he said.

This was because the allergic reaction suffered by Pte Lee was unlikely to have been predicted.

Dr Ng also explained that an allergy to zinc chloride from smoke grenades is known but rare, which is why militaries in many countries, including the US and South Korea, still use them. Pte Lee's death from the allergy was the first recorded case here after more than 30 years of regular use of the smoke grenades.

Nevertheless, the SAF switched to alternatives in March 2014 following a safety review of Pte Lee's case. "Our safety standards are among the highest for militaries globally," said Dr Ng.

He added: "This is a tragic loss of life, unexpected and unintended. The two SAF officers involved will carry with them the pain of this incident for the rest of their lives. But I do not believe that they started that fateful day intending at all to harm the soldiers under their charge."

Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline '2 officers lost sum worth 'half their annual salary''. Print Edition | Subscribe