(Delivered in Parliament on 11 February 2019)
National Service: Training Safety, Operational Readiness and the Will to Fight
1. Mr Speaker, it has been a difficult few weeks for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The death of Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Aloysius Pang and other servicemen before him has provoked one of the most wide-ranging public debates about National Service in recent memory. As suggested in the title to this adjournment motion, I will speak on three distinct but interlinked themes – training safety, operational readiness and the will to fight, before concluding on some areas that MINDEF should consider to improve the safety architecture in the SAF.
2. First, training safety. Members would know that the women and men in uniform in the SAF perform tasks that are inherently risky. They operate heavy machinery and weapons in difficult conditions. The work demands that they can function at the physical, psychological, and emotional limits of human endurance during both training and operations. The ability to perform under pressure during training can help bolster effectiveness during operations. Hence the time honoured military saying for soldiers in training, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. However, the risky nature of such work demands, particularly for a predominantly conscript army, that extra care and attention be devoted to safety and the management of risks during training.
3. Human lives are at stake when unnecessarily risky and unauthorised training is carried out in the SAF. Injury and death of personnel during training decrease the operational effectiveness of our military. To the extent that women and men in uniform and the public do not believe that the SAF manages such risk to acceptable levels, there will be negative consequences for morale, performance and the institution of National Service. Therefore, training safety must always be of the utmost importance for MINDEF.
4. However, MINDEF’s recent message to make and I quote, “zero-training deaths the norm” is not only unrealistic but also wishful, considering the inherent risks in training a military force that must be ready to defend the country at a moment’s notice or whenever called upon to do so. As a result of the expectations created, every time a training fatality occurs, the public pressure on MINDEF and SAF commanders down the leadership chain takes on a very corrosive edge. This damages not just the SAF, but the institution of National Service too.
5. In the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s passing, MINDEF’s narrative appears has shifted somewhat to I quote, a “zero-accident mind set” unquote. NSmen and those who are familiar with the SAF understand what MINDEF wants to achieve when it speaks of striving for zero fatalities – that MINDEF takes safety seriously.
6. But the word the public the focuses on is zero, and the end-state of zero accidents or fatalities is a goal that cannot be achieved even in industries with notoriously strict safety standards and compliance requirements like aviation. For example, in October 2015, maintenance engineers did not follow established procedures to insert landing gear pins before troubleshooting a landing gear fault causing a Singapore Airlines A330’s nose-wheel to collapse at the boarding gate resulting in multi-million dollars’ worth of damage. It was not a minor miracle no fatalities ensued as passengers waited to board the aircraft and a technician stood just a few meters in the front of the plane.
7. Mr Speaker, no organisation let alone one that is in the business of war and defending Singapore’s sovereignty can realistically promise zero fatalities or training incidents even as the public must insist on the strictest training safety parameters for the SAF, and MINDEF strives for the same.
8. Second, operational readiness. Like other organisations with a requirement to be operationally ready at a moment’s notice, military personnel must be able to complete their assigned tasks safely and effectively. But, more so than other type of organisation, militaries like the SAF must also stress discipline and hierarchy. This enables the organisation and its members to become a lethal fighting force that can call upon a whole suite of weapons to kill the enemy and those that seek to do Singapore harm.
9. To reach such a level of proficiency, training has to be tough and realistic. But tough and realistic training must strike a balance between discipline, hierarchy, risk management and safety, so as to prepare the SAF to be operationally ready for different and difficult circumstances. As much as I support the safety review currently being undertaken by the SAF, it must not lead to a public perception that the SAF has gone soft. While requirements, expectations and the training methodology must adjust to each generation of NSmen and the equipment they operate, the SAF should be mindful not to swing to an extreme where realistic training is compromised.
10. In this regard, the public response to the death of Corporal Pang has been far from one-way, dominated by doubts cast over MINDEF and the necessity of National Service. It has also prompted a significant counter-perspective – one that is shared by many NSmen, including amongst those who are currently fulfilling or have completed their NS commitments. They asked – in spite of the training incidents that occur from time to time, can Singaporeans envision a safe and secure Singapore without operationally ready NSmen and an operationally ready SAF?
11. On the latter point, the recent bilateral spat between Singapore and Malaysia was raised as an example of the possibilities that could be imposed upon Singapore if not for the strong SAF that any potential adversary has to contend with. Many online commentators focused on the Mahathir factor as a reason why the sharp deterrent edge of the SAF represents a central pillar for our existence as a sovereign nation. However, the need for a strong SAF is not personality-specific or for a particular moment in time. It is in fact, far more fundamental.
12. The key determinant that necessitates a strong SAF is founded in our geopolitical realities. We are a small country of under 6 million surrounded by much larger neighbours in ASEAN where our two closest neighbours in particular are represented by about 300 million people combined. Putting race, religion and other fault lines aside, we live in a world where larger countries are wont to lord over the small and powerless, throwing laws and legal norms out the window particularly when there is no real price to pay for doing so. Combine this with Singapore’s peculiar circumstances – chief of which is that we are geographically very small – the need for a capable and resolute SAF becomes abundantly clear regardless who our neighbours are.
13. In such a context, Singapore’s need for a strong operationally ready deterrent force that means business and can promise and deliver a bloody nose on any adversary becomes not just acute, but critical. The public must never forget that the institution of National Service which underpins a strong SAF stands at the delivery end of that promise.
The Will to Fight
14. Finally, the will to fight. Mr Speaker the will to fight is an important concept that unites SAF personnel and NSmen, regardless of rank. It embodies our sense of national identity, why we regard Singapore as home, and why we will be steadfast and resolute in defending the country. Building up the will to fight in a country which is not ethnically homogenous, generally affluent and where immigration is an important Government policy, is no mean feat and always challenging. It requires constant attention and reflection. As a result of the recent incidents, some of the discussions in the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s passing have the potential of damaging the institution of National Service unless MINDEF steps in to decisively address broader misgivings that are simmering in the minds of some Singaporeans.
15. Other well-meaning Singaporeans have also asked fundamental questions about National Service. One of the more well-reasoned ones has sought to question why MINDEF cannot evolve to employ an all-regular force. These questions and other similar ones do come up from time to time and it would be important for the MINDEF to establish why such an outcome is or is not realistic. Some years ago, on the back of a Committee of Supply cut, I proposed that MINDEF publish a detailed defence white paper outlining the strategic imperatives of the SAF. Amongst many useful purposes, such a document could serve as an important reference for all segments of the public, including our neighbouring countries, to appreciate and understand why Singapore needs a strong and world-class military that is able to defend the sovereignty of the country.
16. Mr Speaker doubts about the necessity of National Service weakens not just the very institution but our collective will to fight. More insidiously, the ubiquity and ever-present nature of the online media is such that an adversary can weaken our will to fight without even firing a single shot in anger by identifying the pressure points in our society’s psyche. Undermining public confidence in our citizen army is a ripe and ready strategy an adversary will employ to fulfil its national aims. Should the public lose its confidence in the SAF and support for National Service is undermined, the force over-match that our military currently enjoys will be rendered irrelevant in the face of a divided public. While Singaporeans should never shy away from sharing their views and opinions on matters of public interest even if they are not mainstream, we should not lose our sense of perspective and proportion. In spite of earlier surveys highlighted in this House about the public’s support for National Service, the recent spate of training deaths remind us how the status quo can be shaken very quickly.
17. To that end, Minister’s earlier reply to my parliamentary question on how the current safety review in the aftermath of Corporal Pang’s unfortunate passing is different from earlier ones is to be welcomed.
18. Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule out the likelihood that there could be a number of shortcomings in the SAF training system that disrupt the balance between safety and operational readiness. Specific areas should be looked into from a fresh perspective.
Relooking the System
19. One approach MINDEF should consider is stretching the retirement ages of the officer and WOSE corps. Compared to many militaries around the world, there is an argument to be made that our officers are made to retire a little too prematurely with many valuable years of experience potentially lost to make more long-lasting and valuable contributions to the organisation. The importance of deep experience for our regular commanders in foreseeing the risks of high-intensity training, mitigating for them and being better prepared to deal with unprecedented mishaps was perhaps put best by Chesley Sullenberger, the captain of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 after a catastrophic bird strike that destroyed both of plane’s engines putting 155 lives at risk. Instead of returning his stricken plane the airport, Sullenberger made a decision to ditch the aircraft in the river, a decision that was later extensively scrutinised but proven to be ultimately sound. He said and I quote, “…for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
20. Mr Speaker, extending the time our senior commanders remain in their command appointments so that they are able to acquire deeper operational knowledge would have positive spin-offs in anticipating and preventing training incidents. In this regard, the SAF should also pay particular emphasis on retaining officers and WOSEs after they retire. It should consider individuals who have previously left active service to take up competitive and well-paying appointments as members of the safety inspectorate or other safety related outfits in the SAF.
21. A second area of consideration for MINDEF deals with the point that in the run-up to 2030, the cohort of 18-year olds enlisted for National Service is going to get smaller. With less manpower to execute MINDEF’s mission, machines are likely to become more important with soldiers and troops transiting to more lethal motorized and mechanized platforms with even unmanned platforms becoming a weapon of choice. Such a shift would require a soldier to be familiar with not just soldiering fundamentals but require a mastery of the new weapons and machines under his or her charge. The type of accidents that can occur may also change with risks of electrocution becoming more real than collisions and similar mishaps. This development inevitably points towards more time required for training, live-firing and maintenance-related duties. NSmen may also need more time to re-familiarize themselves with their equipment during ICT and before exercises with more oversight from safety coordinators and training facilitators – something the NS training system would have to accommodate. To this end, the SAF may have to throttle back on non-core, non-training related duties, and even national ones to focus more squarely on its core mission.
22. A final area of review must include a change in tone and culture towards safety and this must begin at the very top. From a legislative perspective, a qualitative way to facilitate this must include a review of the Government’s position on Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. The argument that removing the right of a soldier to sue MINDEF would weaken the SAF or cause commanders to hesitate to push their troops must be broadly reconsidered against armies which have removed similar laws.
23. The UK for example has done so, and their military is not just involved in peacetime training, but significant combat operations. To drive home the centrality of safety for the SAF’s peacetime mission, there is room for the Government to inject greater accountability into its protocols and processes by creating a specific carve out for wilful disregard of safety factors under Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. Such an exception would cease to extend immunity to MINDEF or to a negligent commander in the event of an egregious breach of safety.
24. My colleague Dennis Tan had raised this proposal in 2016 following the tragic death of PTE Dominique Sarron Lee. Minister responded by suggesting that the removal of immunity may compromise training and prejudice commanders who, for example push their soldiers to complete IPPT or strive for higher performance. To address such legitimate concerns, a possible exception to Section 14 on the grounds of training safety would only apply if a commander behaves recklessly, maliciously or displays a wilful disregard for safety considerations. For example, if a commander had deliberately chosen to cancel a safety briefing, disregarded training safety regulations, had not catered for sufficient rest before or between training and missions without adequate reason or risk mitigation approved beforehand by a more senior commander, then the blanket immunity provided under Section 14 should not apply. It would follow that a court of law should be left to determine whether MINDEF or the commander in question must be held liable.
25. In many ways Mr Speaker, such a legislative change would represent an important bellwether for the evolution of training safety management in the SAF more than fifty years after the introduction of National Service. But the significance of this proposal to tweak Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act does not lie in the fact that MINDEF or and any irresponsible commander can be sued. Paradoxically in fact, such a change – legislatively determined – would serve to protect the institution of National Service by making it more accountable instead of undermining it. It would buttress public confidence in the importance of National Service, why safety is critical, and the lengths MINDEF and any Government of the day would go to protect the institution, even if it means putting MINDEF’s own reputation and that of its commanders on the line. In doing so, MINDEF would send a clear and unambiguous message – which the buck stops at the top.
25. To conclude Mr Speaker – whenever any soldier falls, we all feel a collective pain, for a life that holds so much hope and promise. We also share in the loss of their family members who live with the grief and regret of losing a son or daughter in peacetime and in service of the nation. But the question in the wake of the training deaths experienced by the SAF over the last 17 months and the years before that, is whether this House can assure mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and loved ones that SAF personnel will be safe when they enlist for National Service, when they are called up for In-Camp-Training or when they serve the SAF. The answer must be an unequivocal yes. As a core value of the SAF, there should be no doubt that the SAF takes this safety seriously precisely because we are a largely conscripted force. There are potential safety gaps that need to be considered and improvements which need to be made. I hope that these can be swiftly and thoughtfully instituted with the professionalism the SAF is known for, so that Singaporeans can rest easy knowing our military women and men are operationally ready to keep Singapore safe and secure at all times.