SAF can improve heat injury prevention: Panel

Review flags two areas for improvement after NSF's death, but finds policies sound

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He addressed last month's call by CFC Lee's mother to put a stop to outdated punishment, or "tekan", after her son died while in service.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

Maj-Gen Ong said that 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.

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.

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, when he was a child, his grandmother used to talk about her bad memories of the Japanese Occupation.

He said: "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 is not yours."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2018, with the headline 'SAF can improve heat injury prevention: Panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe