Why SAF's civil suit immunity must stay

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan has called for a law protecting armed forces personnel and the Government from civil suits to be amended.

In an adjournment motion filed yesterday, he said Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act should be changed so that those who conspicuously flout safety protocols during training and cause death or injury can be sued.

But Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen rejected his call, saying the law served a vital purpose by allowing commanders and soldiers to train realistically without second-guessing themselves.

Dr Ng said the law does not protect Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel against criminal proceedings. He added that SAF staff can also be sued for compensation in civil courts for damages to civil property, or injuries caused to civilians.

During his 20-minute speech, Mr Tan noted, however, that the Attorney-General's Chambers and Mindef have complete discretion in bringing criminal charges or court-martial proceedings against errant servicemen.

A serviceman or his family should have a right to action, he argued, adding that the independence of the judicial process through the civil courts "helps to prevent any undesired impression or accusation of cover-up and underscore that Mindef and the SAF are above board".

The Workers' Party MP said a clear distinction should be drawn between training and operations when determining liability, because the controlled circumstances during training allow for the careful management of risk through regulations and directions.

"When commanders violate established safety protocols, they are sending a signal that they do not care enough about measures put in place for protecting those under their charge," Mr Tan said.

In response, Dr Ng said the current law gives SAF commanders the confidence to train realistically.

He added that in Britain, retired senior commanders reported that the removal of a similar law undermined the willingness of armed forces personnel to accept responsibility and take necessary risks, affecting operational effectiveness.

Citing a High Court decision made last March, Dr Ng said the law is intended to ensure "the efficiency, discipline, effectiveness and decisiveness of the armed forces in both training and operations, without being burdened by the prospect of legal action".

The High Court had dismissed a lawsuit brought against the SAF and two of its officers by the family of full-time national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee, who died during training in 2012.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Why SAF's civil suit immunity must stay'. Print Edition | Subscribe