ROCKHAMPTON (AUSTRALIA) - Safety is still paramount, even as soldiers are put through tough and realistic training, said Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung who was visiting Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) troops at Exercise Wallaby on Monday (Oct 9).
Adding that commanders and their units have been grappling with this "constant trade-off" for years, Mr Ong said risks are always present in difficult exercises.
"But with the right mitigation measures and the right training, we can reduce these risks and even eliminate them," said Mr Ong, who was at the Australian unilateral exercise for the first time.
Mr Ong's comments came nearly a month after full-time national serviceman, Third Sergeant (3SG) Gavin Chan, was killed when his Bionix infantry fighting vehicle turned on its side in an earlier phase of Exercise Wallaby.
On Monday, Mr Ong experienced a ride in a Bionix through similar terrain, standing in the same vehicle-commander position as 3SG Chan would have.
Compared with his days in national service, when safety drills and measures were emphasised, Mr Ong said what makes a difference today is the mindset by commanders for safety.
"The biggest difference between then and now, is (while) you could have all the drills and measures, the most important factor is the commanders' mindset. Their mindset decides the safety culture of the organisation," said Mr Ong.
Held yearly at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, around 140km north of Rockhampton, Queensland, 2017's Exercise Wallaby involved around 4,000 SAF personnel.
While 3SG Chan's death still weighed heavily on the exercise troops, who are due to end their exercise on Nov 4, Mr Ong said he saw "a very strong determination, commitment and professionalism to carry out these exercises effectively and successfully".
3SG Chan's unit, the 41st Battalion Singapore Armoured Regiment, has already returned to Singapore after concluding their phase of Exercise Wallaby.
Asked to gauge if the incident affected how the public views overseas exercises, Mr Ong said public confidence remains high.
Mr Ong was appointed chairman of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (Accord) on Oct 1, taking over from Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman. Accord is a channel for the public to provide feedback on issues concerning Singapore's defence.
Said Mr Ong: "Regardless of the public reaction to the incident, this is something we put a very serious emphasis on internally and that is what the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), the SAF and all the commanders have done.
"That gives me a very strong impression that nothing is taken for granted."
Exercise Wallaby is the largest overseas deployment of the SAF. The two countries had signed an agreement in 2016 to expand the capacity of Australian training areas from 6,600 to 14,000 by 2021.
Talks to expand and develop the training areas, which includes the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, are still in the "planning stage", said Mr Ong.
"Because of the wide span of space you see here, which is four times the size of Singapore, we get to conduct training at a scale, scope and complexity that we can't do at home or elsewhere.
"We very much look forward to continuing and increasing our presence here," said Mr Ong.