Safer communication channels for NSFs key to deterring abuse

It is encouraging that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adopting a zero-tolerance approach to the abuse of soldiers (Zero-tolerance approach to abuse of soldiers in SAF: Eng Hen; July 11).

In addition to the development of a comprehensive safety management system over the years, the availability of safe communication channels to report transgressions for full-time national servicemen in non-commanding positions, in particular, is important.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament that new recruits are briefed on how they can make reports through unit supervisors or feedback units.

Yet, two questions follow. First, how many reports are actually made, and how have the figures changed with time? Second, what is the extent to which such reports have translated into disciplinary action or policy changes?

Understanding how and how frequently these soldiers actually make reports through their supervisors or feedback units is important.

This is especially so in the context of the military, with its hierarchical chain of command and the powerlessness of lowly ranked soldiers or NSFs, and also where the ramifications of a bad commander can be extensive.

For fear of reprisals - because commanders often have a disproportionate control over their men's day-to-day activities and could potentially make life difficult for them - it is not unlikely that NSFs would try to avoid making reports.

What is perhaps needed, in this vein, is a better understanding of how individuals within the SAF perceive or have experienced abuse, as well as how the idea of abuse may gel with antiquated notions of "tekan", or punishment.

To argue that bad or abusive commanders are in the minority is not entirely convincing, unless the aforementioned information has been provided.

Commanders are rightly concerned that, in turn, their men could abuse such communication channels out of spite or vindictiveness, although three counter-arguments ought to be mooted.

First, the overall aim is a better and safer work environment, which demands cooperation from both commanders and men.

Second, as established, it is the NSFs who are more likely to be disadvantaged.

Third, only the most egregious individuals, commanders or NSFs, will be affected.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2018, with the headline 'Safer communication channels for NSFs key to deterring abuse'. Print Edition | Subscribe