“The issue of ragging in the uniformed forces came under the spotlight after the deaths of two full-time national servicemen (NSFs) in the last few months” (Zero-Tolerance Approach to Abuse of Soldiers in SAF: Eng Hen, Sue-Ann Tan).
That the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adopting a zero-tolerance approach to the abuse of soldiers is encouraging. In addition to the development of a comprehensive safety management system over the years (ST, Jul, 11), however, the availability of safe communication channels to report transgressions – for full-time national servicemen (NSFs) in non-commanding positions, in particular – is important. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen mentioned in parliament that new recruits are briefed on how they can make reports through unit supervisors or feedback units, yet two questions follow: First, how many reports are actually made, and how have the figures changed with time; second, the extent to which such reports have translated into disciplinary action or policy changes.
Placed in the context of the military with its hierarchal chain of command and the powerlessness of lowly-ranked soldiers or NSFs, and also where the ramifications of a bad commander can be extensive, understanding how and how frequently these soldiers actually make reports through their supervisors or through the feedback units is important. For fear of reprisals – because commanders often have disproportionate control over their men’s day-to-day activities, and could potentially make life difficult for their men – it is not unlikely that men would try to avoid making reports. What is perhaps needed, in this vein, is a better understanding of how individuals within the SAF perceive or have experienced “abuse” as well as how “abuse” may gel with punishment or antiquated notions of “tekan”.
To argue that bad or abusive commanders are the minority is not entirely convincing, unless there is the aforementioned information not only on the number of reports made but also on the willingness of men to make reports in the first place, and how reports have translated into disciplinary action or changes within units or the organisation. Commanders are rightly concerned that in turn, their men could abuse such communication channels out of spite or vindictiveness, though three counter-arguments ought to be mooted: First, that the overall aim is a better and safer work environment, which demands cooperation from both commanders and men; second, that – and as established – it is the men who are more likely to be disadvantaged; and third, that in the aggregate, only the most egregious individuals, commanders or men, will be affected. Especially with the emphasis on zero tolerance, empowering non-commanding NSFs is an important first step.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.