Last evening (April 17, 2012), the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) reported the death of a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) full-time National Serviceman (NSF), Private (PTE) Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron (here). This is the third death of a Serviceman this year: a NSF, PTE Amirul Syahmi Bin Kamal had passed away in March (here); while an Operationally-Ready National Serviceman, Corporal (CPL) (NS) Li Hongyang, passed away in January (here). A cursory check of MINDEF’s news releases reveals that there were two further training deaths in June (here) and August (here) respectively.
Many past online commentaries about training deaths often digressed into expositions about the perceived burden of National Service (NS), and how it has been disadvantaging young Singaporean males. I don’t wish to go into that in this brief piece, primarily because I have already – in the past weeks – discussed these pertinent issues ad nauseum (here). I just wanted to pen a few quick thoughts.
Where Do We Go From Here?
1. My heart goes out to the fine young men, and condolences to the family and friends of these soldiers. With their contributions throughout the years, they will be dearly missed by those who have known them personally.
2. On a personal note (beyond the cases at-hand), my advice to soldiers is this: know your limits. It is meaningless to speculate the causes of the aforementioned episodes (MINDEF and the SAF have the capacities to conduct their investigations proficiently), but I feel that soldiers must be constantly cognisant of their well-being and ability to perform. It is important to be gung-ho if you are up to the task; however, if your body tells you that it has had enough, listen to it. If you want to push physical boundaries, do so progressively.
For their peers and commanders: know their limits. In retrospect, I realised that it was very convenient to make snarky comments about a person’s ability to perform and conform (“why his fast march so cui“, “what a pathetic timing”, “this is damn easy what”, “why can’t he be like everyone else” et cetera). In some instances, a culture of bullying and intimidation may be ubiquitous; and worse, accepted and condoned. Nevertheless, we overlook the propositions that: i. different individuals are moulded with dissimilar physical abilities, and ii. not everyone is made to be adept to the regimentation and discipline enforced within the military framework. If these judgements are not made responsibly, they can be potentially detrimental if they compel a person to dramatically do what is clearly beyond his capacities. As a friend, I was guilty of this too.
Positive encouragement and guidance are not signs of weakness (frequently – and sometimes disturbingly – euphemised as allowing a generation of soldiers to be “softies” and “weaklings”), but shows adaptability, understanding and empathy.
3. I may be nitpicking here, but I don’t like the way how deaths are treated so coldly by the administration. With the reporting of the cases, I just feel that there are missing elements of affection (not having the soldier’s direct counterparts share fondly about their personalities and influence) and sincerity (most of the news reports are engineered in an almost mechanical fashion, with templates, I presume). I comprehend the functionality and convenience of press releases, but a display of heart can’t hurt, can it?
4. All eyes will definitely be on MINDEF and SAF in the upcoming weeks, to see how they would respond to these incidents. A couple of weeks ago, David Boey from Senang Diri (here) commented on the significance of sharing BOI / COI (Boards and Commissions of Inquiry, I am assuming) results:
“Singaporeans would benefit from learning results of investigations into training deaths because such knowledge can reinforce the safety first mindset … Our obsession with secrecy is self-defeating when our citizens’ army has to relearn painful lessons in accident awareness, risk mitigation, workplace safety and personal healthcare.” (here)
Parents, in particular, would want to know and to be constantly reassured. With this pedantic obsession with confidentiality, the absence of details could lead to undesirable chatter and speculation, which might then reflect badly on the organisations (well, you have almost half a population who have experienced NS, and are keenly aware of the nuances of a system they have been through). The dissemination of relevant information – at the discretion of the MINDEF and the SAF – would not only prevent conflicting narratives, but also build up a certain level of trust and rapport with the public. Secrecy – on the other hand – can breed contempt, or give rise to the erosion of faith.
Update (April 18, 2012): The Straits Times and TODAY have reported the cases in a little more detail; in addition, the latter featured this quote from the soldier’s parents: “This has all come as a sudden shock to us. He was healthy … and we only know that he got into trouble after inhaling smoke during training and we are still trying to come to terms that he is no longer with us.“