Safety is still paramount even as soldiers are put through tough and realistic training, Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung said during his first visit to Exercise Wallaby, which recently saw the death of a full-time national serviceman (NSF).
Adding that commanders and their units have been grappling with this "constant trade-off" for years, Mr Ong said yesterday that 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. That has to be our objective all the time," he added.
Third Sergeant Gavin Chan, 21, died on Sept 15 in an incident during an earlier phase of Exercise Wallaby, which is Singapore's biggest overseas deployment of military personnel.
The oldest of four siblings had been guiding a Bionix Infantry Fighting Vehicle out of difficult terrain that day when it landed on its side. 3SG Chan, who was the vehicle commander, was found unconscious next to the vehicle, while the driver and two passengers were unhurt.
The death was the first fatal incident involving a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) serviceman during training and operations in the past four years.
In 2012, there was a spate of incidents, including the deaths of a 21-year-old NSF from an allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades, and a 20-year-old NSF who was killed when his jeep overturned. Both incidents took place in Singapore.
Mr Ong yesterday experienced a ride in a Bionix on 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 of commanders to prioritise 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... Here, what I saw are commanders very committed to the safety of our soldiers," said Mr Ong.
Held yearly since 1990 at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, around 140km north of Rockhampton, Queensland, Exercise Wallaby involved around 4,000 SAF personnel this year.
While 3SG Chan's death still weighed heavily on the minds of 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".
Mr Ong, who is also Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), was appointed chairman of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (Accord) on Oct 1. Accord is a channel to gather public feedback on issues concerning Singapore's defence.
Mr Ong said public confidence in SAF's overseas exercises remains high, despite the incident.
"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, the SAF and all the commanders have done.
"That gives me a very strong impression that nothing is taken for granted," he added.