National servicemen do not need to obey manifestly illegal or unlawful orders, says judge

A former full-time national serviceman (NSF) who was driving a military jeep without a licence when it crashed and killed his close friend was sentenced to a 10-day short detention order (SDO) yesterday.

Cavin Tan, 22, had no Class 3 driving licence when he caused the death of NSF Tan Mou Sheng and caused hurt to NSFs Ow Yong Wei Long and Dickson Hong, who were all 20 then, at the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Marsiling training area in Mandai 21/2 years ago. He pleaded guilty to both charges.

It also emerged that he had been ordered to drive the jeep.

District Judge Low Wee Ping said: "Perhaps one positive outcome of this case is that national servicemen now know that they do not need to obey a manifestly illegal or unlawful order."

He asked Tan's lawyer Laurence Goh, a senior officer in the SAF, to get the message out that national servicemen need not obey any such order.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Tang Shangjun said the four men - all instructors - were involved in a training exercise led by Master Sergeant Lee Kong Kean. The 33-year-old has been charged and his case is pending.

The Defence Ministry said that it does "not condone our commanders giving unlawful orders, and those who do so will be seriously disciplined".

Tan was told by Lee to drive one of the jeeps in the exercise even though he had no Class 3 military licence and had not been trained to drive one.

On the morning of the accident, Tan lost control of his jeep while negotiating a downward slope with a left bend.

DPP Tang said Tan misjudged the bend and made a sudden, sharp turn. The jeep tilted, rotated around and overturned several times before landing on its side.

NSF Hong and NSF Ow Yong, who had not been wearing seat belts or helmets, were thrown out and injured. Tan unbuckled himself and found NSF Tan Mou Sheng pinned under the jeep at his left hip. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth and soon lapsed into unconsciousness. The soldiers managed to lift the jeep and pull him out. He died later from severe pelvic crush injuries.

Mr Goh said in mitigation that Tan, now an undergraduate, obeyed the order to drive even when Lee had been told that he did not have a Class 3 licence. Tan, he said, was truly sorry for having caused the death of his college mate.

He urged the court to give his client a second chance by imposing the SDO, a community-based sentence which came into place in 2011. These can last up to 14 days and are less disruptive and stigmatising than a jail sentence.

Said Mr Goh: "The accused's decision to drive the jeep not only went against good sense, but also constituted serious breaches of SAF military training safety protocols."

Judge Low urged Tan to put this behind him and look forward.

NSF Tan Mou Sheng's father told Tan and his parents that Tan was not at fault because he was just obeying orders. Both fathers shook hands outside the court.

elena@sph.com.sg