Mindef thanks 331 volunteers for contributions to defence

Adjunct Associate Professor Lee Cheng (left), chairman of the SAF Psychiatry Specialist Advisory Board, receiving a certificate of appointment from SLTC (Dr) Adrian Loh, head of SAF's Psychological Care Centre, on Dec 14, 2020. PHOTO: MINDEF

SINGAPORE - Besides leading Singapore's Covid-19 effort at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), Professor Leo Yee Sin also keeps herself updated on measures put in place at army camps to curb the spread of such diseases.

Since January this year, she has been volunteering as the chairman of the Singapore Armed Forces Infectious Diseases Specialist Advisory Board.

The board is one of the 42 Ministry of Defence (Mindef) boards and committees meant to engage external experts to allow the ministry to stay updated on the best practices in different industries, from medicine and law to engineering.

While Mindef has over the years strengthened its capabilities in areas such as surveillance, detection and response, and there has been no Covid-19 outbreak in camps so far, Prof Leo, 61, said there is no room for complacency.

"I think all of us are very glad that the years of strengthening the ability to do prevention and response bear out in terms of the challenge by Covid-19… But we still need to strengthen this," she said, adding that there will be new bugs in the future that will challenge humankind.

Asked why she decided to volunteer despite her busy schedule, she told reporters last week she saw it as more of a continuation of work with Mindef, which she has provided advice to since 2011, as well as being a useful exchange of experiences and information.

Prof Leo is among the 331 volunteers serving on the 42 Mindef boards and committees whom Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote letters of appreciation to recently.

Mindef in a statement on Monday (Dec 14) said an annual dinner to recognise their contributions, however, will not take place this year because of Covid-19 restrictions.

This year, 212 appointment and reappointment certificates and letters will be delivered to the Mindef volunteers.

These volunteers, who are industry experts in both the private and public sectors, also link Mindef and the public by promoting public awareness on defence and inspiring support for national service, said Mindef.

Mindef said that in the letters, Dr Ng wrote that volunteers play crucial roles in strengthening national defence. "Through your expertise and experience in diverse areas including law, medicine, science, finance and public communications, you fill gaps in our capabilities.

"The peace and security that Singaporeans enjoy are a result of your efforts to strengthen the SAF," he added.

Another volunteer is Dr Lee Cheng, chairman of the SAF Psychiatry Specialist Advisory Board and a psychiatrist at the Institute of Mental Health, who believes that the emotional and mental health of servicemen is no less important than the physical aspect.

Among the board's work is to ensure that national servicemen who have psychiatric conditions and still able to serve are given suitable Physical Employment Standards, which determine the roles that servicemen can take on during national service.

"We have servicemen who may have emotional distress but are still very keen to serve, because they feel that this is also a test of their resilience and ability to cope," he said.

Professor Leo Yee Sin (left) and Mr Selvam Varathappan are among the 331 Mindef volunteers who will receive a letter of appreciation from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen this week. PHOTOS: MINDEF

Some servicemen might be unable to adjust to military life, or are in financial distress due to suffering a drop in income after enlistment. Servicemen in temporary distress can be excused from staying in camp, from handling firearms, or from certain duties for a period of time, he said.

The board also looks into improving the mental health literacy of ground commanders so that early signs of distress can be picked up and the affected servicemen can be given extra attention by their buddies, or referred for more help, added Dr Lee, 54.

Mr Selvam Varathappan, 62, who is a member on the Board of Visitors to the SAF Detention Barracks, said that his experience has given him a different perspective on the difficulties that some servicemen face.

The board visits the detention barracks once a month to listen to feedback from detainees and check on their living conditions, although Mr Selvam - who has volunteered for about six years - is rostered once a year.

He said that for certain offences, such as being absent without leave, some did so not because they wanted to run away, but because they had to work two or three jobs to provide for their family.

Common feedback that Mr Selvam, an accountant who serves on the Hindu Endowment Board, has received include detainees asking for a change of sleeping mat, storybooks, and being allowed to write an extra letter to their loved ones.

"When they tell us all these problems they face, such as anger management or not being able to see their wife and children, I realise that this is a side of Singapore that we may not have come across. I actually look forward to helping out every year."

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