Reprisals can take form of unprovable targeting

Soldiers in action at Pasir Laba Camp's shooting range, on Feb 28, 2019.
Soldiers in action at Pasir Laba Camp's shooting range, on Feb 28, 2019. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

I thank the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) for its reply (No reprisals against whistle-blowers, March 8) and the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) for getting in touch with me regarding my letter (Who protects SAF safety whistle-blowers?, March 7).

It is helpful that the SAF confirmed that providing feedback via the various hotlines does not constitute an offence.

But contrary to the SAF's reply that it will investigate each case thoroughly, the officer from Mindef told me that investigations will be carried out if the feedback is serious.

This would mean that not all cases are followed up on, perhaps especially so in two scenarios:

First, the whistle-blower chooses to remain anonymous instead of providing his name, NRIC number and contact information as has been requested from servicemen who e-mail the Mindef Feedback Unit.

Second, the feedback pertains to reprisal, probably deemed not "serious" unlike the safety issue itself that was reported.

The Mindef officer was also unable to address my concerns about, or recognise, the fact that reprisals are not always provable as being wrongful punishment that superiors can be found guilty of and disciplined for.

It is the prerogative of superiors in any organisation to grant or withdraw privileges since these are not entitlements: A superior can, on the pretext of extended training required due to a reported safety issue, retract his promise to allow an earlier book-out of camp, thereby causing the entire unit to resent the whistle-blower.

But military personnel are further empowered to be strict or lenient with penalties at their discretion: They can apply this on other transgressions or use ostensible reasons to get back at subordinates for going against their interests.

Last year, the Singapore Civil Defence Force filed a police report against five servicemen for "unauthorised actions" (SCDF files police report against 5 NSFs for taking and leaking photos of Bionix accident, Nov 9, 2018).

Many people believed that the servicemen were punished because the photo showed how official reports downplayed the accident and what the Committee of Inquiry would need to reveal later.

The Bionix vehicle had not merely "reversed into" the Land Rover, whereby Corporal First Class Liu Kai "lost consciousness and was attended to immediately by the on-site medic". Rather, the Bionix mounted and crushed the Land Rover, trapping CFC Liu inside.

I urge Mindef and the SAF to try and understand why a "marked" serviceman has much to fear.

Terence Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2019, with the headline 'Reprisals can take form of unprovable targeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe