Security forces need protection from civil suits: Ng Eng Hen

Police officers patrolling Changi Airport in 2015.
Police officers patrolling Changi Airport in 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE

Minister defends law, saying they won't be able to respond to threats effectively if they always have to second-guess

While there are countries which no longer give their police and soldiers protection from civil suits, many have come to regret the decision.

And a similar move here could leave Singapore with a security force constantly second-guessing itself, reducing its effectiveness.

This was the response from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen to Parliament yesterday after Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan suggested weakening Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act (GPA).

The provision was inherited from the British and holds that a member of the armed forces, and the police, who causes death or injury to another member of the security forces while on duty, cannot be sued for negligence.

It was this provision which two army officers and the Singapore Armed Forces relied on when sued by the family of a full-time national serviceman who died in 2012 after an allergic reaction to smoke grenades during a military exercise.

The High Court dismissed the suit, and many members of the public questioned the fairness of Section 14 of the GPA.

But Dr Ng explained the need for the provision which lets officers respond to threats effectively instead of wondering whether their actions could lead to them being sued.

Citing a hypothetical example of servicemen being tasked to patrol Jurong Island and spotting a significant threat, Dr Ng said: "Do they stop the person, or will they hold back, thinking, 'If I make the wrong decision, then I'm on my own?'

"A civil suit is not a trivial matter."

Mr Tan said the provision might lead to a moral hazard in which officers might be less inclined to take precautions, thinking they are protected by the GPA.

But Dr Ng replied that the Act actually reduces moral hazard, since it gives immunity only in less serious cases. If servicemen commit rash acts, they are not protected.

They can be prosecuted in the criminal courts and end up in jail, said Dr Ng.

Mr Tan also suggested that the GPA apply only during actual operations and be waived during training.

But Dr Ng said that training must be realistic for it to be effective. Singapore's armed forces cannot be expected to train at one pace and be expected to ramp up their capabilities in real operations.

"There is a saying, 'When you don't train and sweat, you will spill blood in real operations'," he said.

He added: "Can you get a level of proficiency if servicemen think they are not protected during training?"

Dr Ng did invite Mr Tan to table a motion for the House to debate an amendment to the GPA if he felt strongly about it. "Do you want to give our security forces the confidence that when they do their job, and when they do it without recklessness or negligence, that the Government Proceedings Act protects them?" he asked.

Referring to the case of Private Dominique Sarron Lee, who died after being exposed to zinc chloride in the smoke grenades, Dr Ng said: "I looked at the facts very carefully. I think we have done right by everyone. We're of course sad, but I think we still need to do what is right for the entire system."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'Security forces need protection from civil suits: Eng Hen'. Print Edition | Subscribe