Death of NSF Dave Lee: SAF can improve heat injury prevention and response, review panel finds

Soldiers from the 4th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment, undergoing fitness training at Bukit Panjang Camp.
Soldiers from the 4th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment, undergoing fitness training at Bukit Panjang Camp.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) can improve its prevention against heat injuries and its response to them, a review panel has found.

Chief of Defence Force Melvyn Ong revealed on Tuesday (June 19) that an external review panel flagged two areas for improvement – though he declined to elaborate further.

The panel was formed to look into the heat injury management practices of the SAF, following the death of 19-year-old full-time national serviceman Dave Lee.

However, he added that the panel found the SAF's heat injury policies sound and aligned with industry and foreign military practices.

Corporal First Class Lee died of a heat injury on April 30 following a training incident and the panel, comprising doctors from the public healthcare sector, was formed to review the existing strategy for heat injury prevention and management in the SAF.

Major-General Ong said the panel's recommendations will be made public when they are ready in a few months.

He addressed last month's call by CFC Lee's mother to put a stop to outdated punishment, or "tekan", after her son died while in service.

Speaking to reporters at Bukit Panjang Camp ahead of SAF Day on July 1, he also promised that all those found guilty of wrongdoing in the incident will be held accountable.

"We have been, and will continue to hold our commanders accountable to the highest standards," he said. "You have our assurance on this."

Asked about the "tekan" culture in the Guards formation, the former chief guards officer said: "There has to be purpose, there has to be training directives, there has to be safety coverage, and if these are absent, and especially absent of purpose and reason, we will not tolerate this."

Major-Gen Ong said the panel visited Bedok Camp, where the incident took place, to review how heat injury protocols were implemented on the ground.

The visit included a brief by Guards Headquarters and a demonstration of how heatstroke cases are treated at the medical centre.

 
 
 
 
 

The five-member panel is chaired by Associate Professor Mark Leong, who is a senior consultant at the Department of Emergency Medicine at Singapore General Hospital.

The other members include senior consultants at Changi General Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

Maj-Gen Ong, who took over as chief in March, also shared his vision of the SAF in a 45-minute interview. "The SAF of the future has to be ready, it has got to be dynamic, and it has got to be strong," he said.

"In the third-generation SAF (since 2004), it was about being better connected and exploiting information, and getting power to the edge. The next-generation SAF is about being smarter."

He cited the use of video analytics and unmanned aerial vehicles as areas of opportunity.

He also revealed that the SAF met the secret services from the United States and North Korea only one week before the Trump-Kim summit on June 12.

"The fact that we were able to work with the police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct the operation, I think it's a testament to the fact that the SAF is ready and is able to ensure the safety and security of Singapore when called to, even at short notice," he said.

Maj-Gen Ong said his aims as defence chief are ensuring that the SAF is ready today and in the future, while maintaining strong support for defence.

"The SAF resides within an ecosystem which relies very strongly on national service, and therefore support for defence and national service is extremely important. And if there is an erosion, we would be very concerned."

On some of his personal motivations, he recalled how, as a child, his grandmother used to complain about her bad memories of the Japanese Occupation.

He said: "From that time, it seared in me the fact that we must never go the way of how it was back then.

"It showed the importance of defence... of being in charge of your own fate. It highlighted the importance that you must be able to defend what you have, and if you don't, it's not yours."