SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Feb 15) stressed that he and leaders of the Singapore Armed Forces take safety with the utmost seriousness, in his first public comment on the recent SAF training deaths.
"The recent SAF incidents have been very painful, because they cost precious lives. I know how heartbreaking this is to all of us, and especially the families," he said in a Facebook post on Friday (Feb 15), which was also Total Defence Day.
The emotional impact is greater and the loss is even harder when it happens to a well known figure like actor Aloysius Pang, he noted.
Corporal (First Class) Pang's death last month, which triggered an outpouring of grief and outrage from members of the public, was the fourth training-related death since September 2017. The spate of deaths came after a period of zero deaths related to training and operations in the SAF between the period of 2013 to 2016.
Following Mr Pang's death, the SAF rolled out measures to improve safety, including an unprecedented move to lower training tempo across all services in the next few months and forming a new Inspector-General's Office that will report directly to the Chief of Defence Force and have full authority to scrutinise and enforce safety processes and practices at all levels.
PM Lee said the SAF has put "enormous emphasis on training safety", and aims to achieve zero fatalities. It also ensures the injured get the best medical care after every incident.
And the SAF grieves deeply when a soldier dies, he said.
"His comrades understand how his family feels, because they feel the loss keenly too. But they try to put aside their emotions to take care of the bereaved family, and continue carrying out their SAF duties," he added.
He emphasised that the SAF will simultaneously investigate the incident and identify its causes, as well as improve its processes and training.
"We know zero fatalities is extremely hard to achieve. But we will strive for it, because every life is precious to us."
PM Lee, a former brigadier-general, said he spoke from personal experience.
As a unit commander, he was responsible for his men's training, safety and welfare. "In a way, I was standing in for their parents," he said.
While serving on the General Staff later, he had to deal with training incidents, deciding what needed to be fixed and if anyone should be punished.
"I had to account to the bereaved families, and think hard how to keep servicemen safe while still fulfilling the SAF's mission," he said.
As Prime Minister, he said he has made sure the Ministry of Defence has capable leaders, and that "when a training accident happens, the Government answers, not only to the family, but also to all our NSmen and the public too."
"That is essential for the SAF and national service to retain public confidence and support,"he said.
"I can therefore assure you that I and the SAF leadership take safety with utmost seriousness. It was so when I was there, and I am confident it is even more so today."
He added: "In war, we will have to put servicemen in harm's way to defend the country; but in peacetime training, we owe it to our servicemen never to compromise their safety and endanger their lives."
PM Lee also said SAF has to carry on training and fulfilling its operational duties, as Singapore cannot outsource its security and defence to anyone else.
Thanking Singaporeans for supporting the SAF and national service, he said their support has helped build a strong and professional SAF, with well-equipped, well-trained and well-motivated soldiers.
A strong and well-trained SAF is the reason Singapore enjoys peace and security, and can maintain friendly relations with other countries, he added.
"So when something goes wrong, I hope you will see things in perspective," he said. "We must never gloss over shortcomings and failures. But neither should we forget the SAF's progress and achievements, and its contributions to Singapore's peace and security."