Full investigations on but no need for witch-hunt, says Ng Eng Hen

Facts will be established after investigations into training deaths are completed, and there is no need for a witch-hunt in the meantime, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.

Speaking on measures taken by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after two training deaths over the past year, Dr Ng said in his ministerial statement in Parliament that offenders will be punished when they are found to have breached safety rules or when they have placed others in danger.

"We want to assure the parents of any unfortunate national serviceman who has died that facts will be established," he said, emphasising that a full investigation will be conducted, with no cover-ups.

"Neither should we go on a witch-hunt if there are honest mistakes because the commanders are someone else's son too. Most of our SAF commanders are national servicemen...

"You want to strike a balance, you want to make sure that we in this House send the appropriate signal: Safety first, do your job. If you abuse your position, you will be punished. But if you do your job dutifully, all the facts will come out and you need not fear but continue to do your job."

Dr Ng was responding to Mr Murali Pillai's (Bukit Batok) question on investigation processes into the training deaths.

On April 30, Corporal First Class Dave Lee, 19, died in hospital after he displayed heat injuries during training. In September last year, Third Sergeant Gavin Chan, 21, died in an overseas military exercise when the vehicle he was guiding landed on its side.

Dr Ng addressed both deaths in his statement yesterday, and he said he was aware of accusations being made against CFC Lee's commanders. A Committee of Inquiry (COI) has been convened to look into CFC Lee's death. "We should let the independent COI and police fully investigate the circumstances to arrive at fact-based conclusions," he said.

A total of 13 MPs responded to Dr Ng's statement. They asked about investigation processes, suggested improvements to training safety and wanted to know about the suitability of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) to be commanders in a question-and-answer session that lasted for about 25 minutes.

Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh asked if the Ministry of Defence would consider releasing COI reports as a form of closure to the public, with sensitive and operational details redacted. Dr Ng said that the ministry is prepared to do so, barring sensitive or security reasons.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) asked about the existence of a "tekan" culture during national service, referring to a phenomenon where NSFs might be given an extra hard time by their commanders or peers, such as more physical training and weekend duties. She asked if such a culture was allowed, whether there were channels for reporting and the range of punishments that would be meted out.

Dr Ng said that while the SAF wants its soldiers to be well-trained, it is not an excuse for commanders to abuse their positions.

"If it is not safe for whatever reason, it is wrong," said Dr Ng, noting that intentions are irrelevant when it comes to safety.

Commanders do not deserve to be leaders if they do not know how to protect their men, which the regulations are supposed to do, he added.

"You don't deserve to be a commander and you will be punished accordingly," Dr Ng said.

WP Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan asked if more training would be given to junior commanders. Dr Ng said that commanders have to go through safety training in cadet schools. He said Mindef can consider Mr Tan's suggestion, but there is limited time to train every commander again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2018, with the headline 'Full investigations on but no need for witch-hunt, says Ng Eng Hen'. Print Edition | Subscribe