Mr Speaker, before I begin my Statement, allow me on behalf of all Members in this House, to offer our deepest condolences to the family of the late CFC(NS) Aloysius Pang. There was an outpouring of sympathy from Singaporeans all across the island on CFC(NS) Pang's passing as we shared the grief of the family's tragic loss and I pray that the passage of time will bring some comfort to the Pang family as well as for the other families affected by the recent deaths of national servicemen. Your questions today as Members of Parliament (MPs) are an important part of holding the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) accountable for the safety of our servicemen, and will strengthen our collective resolve to make SAF training as safe as possible, and prevent such tragic deaths from occurring again.
My Statement today will cover three areas. First, the death of CFC(NS) Aloysius Pang. Second, the Committee of Inquiry's (COI) findings of CFC Liu Kai. And third, safety enhancements by the SAF following recent National Service (NS) training deaths.
Death of CFC(NS) Aloysius Pang
Let me first address questions from MPs on CFC(NS) Pang who died on 23 January this year. A COI has been convened by the Armed Forces Council (AFC) on 25 January. All five members of the COI are from outside MINDEF and the SAF. They comprise the chairperson who is a judge nominated by the State Courts; a consultant medical specialist; a member nominated by the External Review Panel on SAF Safety (ERPSS); a member of the Workplace Safety and Health Council; and a senior-ranked (Operationally Ready) National Serviceman (NSman).
The COI has started its investigation to determine the circumstances and contributory factors which led to the demise of CFC(NS) Pang. When completed, the COI will submit its findings to the AFC and the ERPSS. The ERPSS will in turn provide its comments on the findings, and both their comments and the findings will be made public.
However, as CFC(NS) Pang's death occurred in New Zealand, neither the Police Force nor the State Coroner have jurisdiction for deaths outside Singapore. Investigations to determine any culpability in this case will be left to the SAF's Special Investigation Branch (SIB) which has jurisdiction under military law.
Based on SIB's investigations, the Chief Military Prosecutor will decide if any serviceman are to be prosecuted for criminal or military offences in a military court. The military court is presided over by the State Court judges appointed as Presidents of the General Court Martial.
In this statement, I will give as much information as possible without prejudicing the COI and SIB's investigations, whose findings in due course will be authoritative and conclusive. To preserve the integrity of the process, I will only state facts in reply to Parliamentary Questions and consciously not draw any inferences or conclusions on the incident involving CFC(NS) Pang. I ask MPs here to observe the same. We should also be mindful of the need to be sensitive to the family's feelings as we honour the memory of CFC(NS) Pang. With these caveats, let me begin.
CFC(NS) Aloysius Pang, aged 28, an Armament Technician, was participating in Exercise Thunder Warrior at Waiouru Training Area in New Zealand, this year.
On 19 January this year, three SAF personnel were in the cabin of the Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH) to carry out repair works on the gun's calibration system for accurate firing. The three SAF personnel were CFC(NS) Pang; a Regular Armament Technician holding the rank of Military Expert (ME)2 with more than 16 years in service, and third, the Gun Detachment Commander, who is a Third Sergeant (3SG) NSman.
Mr Speaker, I have asked for your permission to display some slides. Can I ask for the first slide to be displayed?
Let me orientate Members to first of all, the cabin of the SSPH. The cabin is 2.3m in height, 2.44m from front to rear, and 2.64m from side to side. That gives you the rough dimensions of the cabin within. The gun barrel – on the left hand side of the screen, is now in the inclined position and therefore it is lowered in the rear – divides the cabin into two. There is space for the three persons within the cabin to occupy positions on either side of the gun as shown in the diagram – 1, 2 and 3. Looking towards the SSPH from the back, about 1.55m in width on the left side, Safe Position 1 and 2; and, 0.9m in width on the right side, Safe Position 3. These so-called Safe Positions are designed to be occupied by the gun commander, the ammo loader and charge loader, but for the purposes of this Statement I will refer to as "safe positions".
The gun barrel is usually tilted upwards for firing – that is the smaller picture shown on the top left with the gun barrel at the inclined position – but needs to be lowered for some types of maintenance work. When the gun is lowered, the flick rammer at the rear end of the barrel goes up and ends about 10 cm below the top rim of the cabin. I have some more pictures to make this clearer later. Because of this, no one should be behind the barrel when gun is being lowered. Unfortunately, CFC(NS) Pang was caught between the gun barrel and the interior of the SSPH as the gun barrel was lowered and sustained compression injuries to his chest and abdomen.
After he sustained these injuries, CFC(NS) Pang was treated on-site by the SAF Medical Officer and evacuated to Waiouru Camp Medical Centre. He was heli-evacuated to Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, New Zealand, which is a regional trauma centre where surgeons decided that he needed an operation to treat his injuries. Prior to his first surgery, CFC(NS) Pang was conscious and speaking. At the first operation, the surgical team found that a number of organs were damaged and treated them accordingly. After the first surgery, CFC(NS) Pang did not require any ventilation and his vital signs were stable. In fact, after the first surgery, he spoke with his mother who had been flown over to New Zealand.
A "second-look" surgery had been planned for CFC(NS) Pang on 21 January 2019, two days after the first surgery. According to the surgeons there, this was to detect further injuries, as damage from compression injuries may only show up later. No further damage was discovered at the second-look surgery, but despite this, CFC(NS) Pang's condition subsequently deteriorated. Despite being placed on artificial life support and further treatment, CFC(NS) Pang passed away on 23 January 2019, four days after the primary incident in the SSPH.
I propose now to deal with MPs' questions which fall in 3 broad categories:
First, what was the experience and state of the maintenance crew? I have a second slide.
CFC(NS) Aloysius Pang
CFC(NS) Pang had arrived in New Zealand on 6 January 2019 and had begun maintenance work from 10 January 2019. This was CFC(NS) Pang's seventh In-Camp Training (ICT). He had been trained to perform maintenance and repair for the SSPH since he was a full-time national serviceman (NSF). In addition, during his previous ICT in February 2018, he had attended a two-day refresher Maintenance Vocation Training on the basic functional checks and troubleshooting for the SSPH. That course also included safety procedures during gun movements. Before participating in Exercise Thunder Warrior this year, CFC(NS) Pang had undergone refresher training on maintenance tasks in New Zealand. For this exercise, CFC(NS) Pang was involved in the preparation of more than 10 SSPHs, which included servicing and maintaining of the guns. The other two servicemen were also similarly qualified. The Gun Commander was in his eighth ICT and had undergone refresher training prior to his deployment in the exercise. The Regular technician has eight years of working experience on the SSPH and it was his sixth time participating as a technician in Exercise Thunder Warrior.
Let me explain how maintenance work on the SSPH is conducted when the unit is deployed in the field. There are two levels of maintenance support – basic and higher. Basic support is provided by the SSPH battalion's organic Forward Maintenance Platoon, made up of national servicemen. CFC(NS) Aloysius Pang was part of this Forward Maintenance Platoon. If the repair works exceed the scope of the Forward Maintenance Platoon, more complex maintenance is requested from and performed by technicians in the higher maintenance echelon, and this is called the Forward Support Group, who are made up of Regulars. So basic support is made up of national servicemen, more complex maintenance made up of Regulars in the Forward Support Group.
In this particular incident, CFC(NS) Pang was first activated, but as he was unable to resolve the fault, CFC(NS) Pang requested and received the help of Regular technicians from the Forward Support Group. CFC(NS) Pang and one Regular technician of ME2 rank were inside the cabin of the SSPH with the Gun Commander, a 3SG NSman, when the incident happened. These are the three persons I referenced in the beginning of my Statement.
Second, the adequacy of safety protocols and whether the maintenance crew was familiar with them during this ICT. A number of MPs have asked for this, MPs Cheryl Chan, Fatimah Lateef, Darryl David, Cheng Li Hui, Dennis Tan and Joan Pereira. Let me show a third slide.
SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS FOR SSPH MAINTENANCE WORK
Technician refers to SSPH-1 Operator Manual and Maintenance Manual
I will focus on the relevant safety instructions during maintenance work because this is the reason for the presence of these three people in the SSPH, and in particular when the gun is lowered. There are safety procedures taught to all maintenance and SSPH operating crew. The ME2 Regular technician is overall in charge because he comes from the Forward Support Group and he is in charge of more complex repair work. For the repair work in this case, the maintenance manual indicates that it is the responsibility of the technician in charge to ensure that the gun has been lowered and fixed in place before any maintenance work can begin.
Further, the safety instructions specify safe positions within the SSPH cabin for soldiers to occupy during the gun lowering, as well as safety precautions to be taken. In operations or during maintenance, it is the gun commander who lowers the gun. From his Safe Position 1, indicated in the middle of this slide on the diagram of the SSPH,
the gun commander must first check to ensure that the gun barrel area is free from obstacles and that no persons are in the travel path of the barrel. Other persons in the cabin are to occupy Safe Positions 2 or 3, on the left side and the right side respectively. The gun commander then gives the signal "clear away" to warn the technicians about the barrel movement. He should visually check to ensure no persons are in the travel path of the barrel and all crew are in the safe positions. After which, the gun commander should shout "standby" before moving the barrel. In the event of any danger, there are also three emergency stop buttons in each of the safe positions inside the SSPH and they are indicated as the red buttons in each of the three Safe Positions. In the operators' manual, there is a standard warning, boxed and printed in bold, "Failure to observe the above warnings, may result in serious injury or death to crew". The warning is repeated for a variety of drills that the SSPH crew must undertake.
Next, I will show a video of this safety drill prescribed during the gun lowering – and they will be shown in actual speed, with your permission, Mr Speaker. It takes about 9 seconds for the gun to be lowered to the horizontal position for maintenance. All three persons who were in the cabin in this incident had been trained specifically on the SSPH and had conducted similar maintenance on it in the past. During this exercise, both CFC(NS) Pang and the Regular technician had conducted maintenance work on the guns daily.
Following the incident, the SAF's immediate task was to ensure that there was no systemic machine malfunction of the SSPH, which would otherwise have put other maintenance crews at risk. Inspections of the SSPH have not detected any machine malfunction of the gun lowering mechanism.
Third, was there a design flaw of the SSPH? Mr Daniel Goh asked this. The SSPH was designed and developed to international military standards for System Safety and Human Factor Engineering. Many other militaries operate tracked 155mm guns with similar gun lowering mechanisms; this includes the United States, South Korea and Germany. The SSPH prototype platform underwent extensive trials and evaluations from year 2000 to 2002 before its introduction in 2003.
Over the last 15 years that the SSPH has been in operation, more than 1,000 national servicemen and Regulars have been trained to operate the SSPH, and about 12,500 rounds fired. There has not been any reported injury of servicemen due to the gun lowering for maintenance, or operating in or firing the SSPH.
I have stated the facts that MINDEF and the SAF are aware of, in reply to MPs' questions. They include Mr Christopher de Souza, Mr Pritam Singh and Er Dr Lee Bee Wah. We must now leave it to the independent five-member COI led by the State Court judge to determine the factors which led to the death of CFC(NS) Pang. The COI has full access to material and witnesses to determine the facts for themselves. For avoidance of doubt, let me re-iterate that the COI need not take into account anything in my Statement in Parliament today.
Everything asked for by the COI will be released to them – I do not foresee needing to withhold any information for security reasons. The COI will also make specific recommendations to rectify any systemic or human lapses found. In the meantime, the two other servicemen have been re-deployed from their operational roles. We owe it to CFC(NS) Pang and his family, indeed to all Singaporeans, to get to the bottom of what happened, and to make things right, to ensure the safety of the NS training system as a whole. I ask that all of us respect these objective and impartial processes that are underway, to reserve our judgement and wait for the conclusions of the COI, which will be presented in Parliament subsequently.
Death of CFC Liu Kai
Let me now share the COI's findings on CFC Liu who died on 3 November 2018 after a Bionix reversed into a Land Rover of which he was the driver. As explained earlier in the House, the COI is enabled and governed by the SAF Act. Its mandate is fact finding, and not to determine culpability of individuals.
To determine culpability, separate and independent from the COI, Police investigations are ongoing. Thereafter, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) will decide if any persons should be prosecuted. Internally, MINDEF will conduct its own investigations and may charge persons who breach military law in the Military Court, if AGC does not file criminal charges.
The COI of CFC Liu Kai will take into account findings from these various judicial processes before finalising its report.
Pre-Incident – Participants Qualified; Vehicles and Equipment Serviceable
On 3 November 2018, the 42nd Battalion, Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) was conducting a two-sided company mission exercise at the Jalan Murai training area. As with all such exercises, a Regular trainer of Captain rank from the Active Unit Training Centre was assigned to evaluate the exercise troops. The trainer used a Land Rover whose driver was CFC Liu, a Transport Operator.
Let me orientate Members to the Bionix crew.
This is the Bionix and the crew comprises four persons. For this particular incident, an NSF who was in the position of the vehicle commander, a Second Lieutenant (2LT); a rear guide when the vehicle reverses, he was a 3SG NSF; the driver and a gunner were both Corporals (NSFs).
The COI determined that the servicemen involved were qualified to participate in the exercise having undergone the requisite training for their roles. On 2 November 2018, the trainer met the Bionix vehicle commander to understand their manoeuvre plan for the next day's exercise. The COI was of the view that the servicemen involved had had their rest in accordance to the Training Safety Regulations (TSR), and that their mental and physical states were fit for participation in the activity and did not appear to have an effect on their attention to safety protocols.
The COI also found that the Land Rover that CFC Liu was driving was serviceable.
The Land Rover has two cameras – one that records events in front of the vehicle and the second that records events inside the cabin of the Land Rover. The COI was able to piece together a detailed chronology from these camera recordings and statements from multiple witnesses. I will bring Members through the events in detail by showing a series of graphics.
The exercise started on the morning of 3 November 2018 at 0700hrs. CFC Liu and the trainer were in the Land Rover following their assigned Bionix.
At around 0958hrs, the Bionix crew spotted several exercise vehicles passing by at the junction ahead of it and stopped the Bionix, as ordered by the vehicle commander. Responding to this, the Land Rover driven by CFC Liu also stopped.
The COI found that the trainer had instructed CFC Liu to move the Land Rover forward to overtake the Bionix.
Just as CFC Liu started to move forward slowly, shots were fired as part of the exercise.
Upon hearing the gunshots, CFC Liu stopped the Land Rover behind the Bionix. And based on the COI's calculations, this final position of the Land Rover would have been at a distance of "at most 19.8m from the Bionix, but short of the safety distance of 30m stated in the TSR."
Four seconds after the Land Rover had stopped, the Bionix started to reverse as part of the extrication drill ordered by the Bionix vehicle commander, in responding to the shots. Let me explain a little bit about extrication drills. How well and quickly armour combat crews can extricate themselves when fired upon, can make a big difference as to whether they survive an enemy onslaught or are captured or destroyed. The COI acknowledged the need for this type of training, even though it is high risk.
The Bionix as part of the prescribed drill had to reverse so that its guns could continue to fire forward at the enemy. As the driver of the Bionix is unable to see behind the vehicle, the rear guide directs the driver in reversing the vehicle. You remember the picture I showed of the Bionix with the driver in front, he can only see forward; it is the rear guide who must guide him in reversing. As the Bionix reversed, the Land Rover was initially not in its path. The COI found that the Bionix had "drifted" in reversing and the driver made a slight steer to correct this drift. The steer brought the Land Rover into the path of the Bionix. The COI did not find any mechanical problems with the Bionix's steering equipment.
Almost immediately after the Bionix started reversing, the video recordings from the Land Rover's front-facing camera show the 3SG rear guide of the Bionix "gesturing at the Land Rover to move away and then pushing the mic of his helmet closer to his mouth". The COI found that the rear guide issued stop commands into the intercom of his helmet set when the Bionix started reversing and did so repeatedly. The intercom of the helmet is the rear guide's only means of communication with the other crew members in the Bionix. However, the Bionix continued to reverse.
The video recording of the interior of the Land Rover cabin showed the Captain trainer tapping CFC Liu and signalling him to reverse the Land Rover. From the beeping sounds, it also indicated that CFC Liu did engage the reverse gear. Both the trainer and CFC Liu also shouted and gestured with their hands for the Bionix to stop and the trainer also attempted to reach for the handset of the radio set to communicate with the Bionix crew.
Approximately eight seconds after it started reversing, the Bionix collided into the Land Rover and mounted the driver's side before coming to a stop. The trainer could extricate himself but CFC Liu remained trapped. The trainer notified the Conducting Officer of the exercise who immediately ordered the exercise to cease.
A medic on board a nearby Bionix immediately tended to CFC Liu. The SAF Emergency Ambulance Service, the unit medical officer and the Singapore Civil Defence Force were activated and arrived on-site. Unfortunately, CFC Liu succumbed to his injuries. He was pronounced dead by the unit medical officer on-site at around 1035hrs. The cause of his death as determined by the post-mortem was traumatic asphyxia.
The COI noted that the rear guide had repeatedly given an order for the driver to stop reversing through the intercom via his helmet. The COI noted that the intercom system was working earlier in the exercise. The COI has asked for an independent technical assessment and a report on whether the intercom system was working properly all the time. In parallel, Police investigations too are also focused on the communications between the Bionix crew, and whether this was affected by the equipment. This is of course an important point that needs to be resolved but we will have to await the outcome of the Police investigations.
Post-Incident – Severe Injuries; Medical Response Would Not Change Outcome
The COI made several findings in their report: first, the COI noted that ensuring the safety distance is the responsibility of the vehicle commander of the Land Rover. In this case, the Land Rover ended up in a position that was less than the required safety distance from the Bionix; second, the reversing of the Bionix from the simulated enemy encounter brought the Land Rover into the path of the Bionix.
The COI found that a safety management plan was included as part of the exercise, and in line with standard practice. The COI also found there was adequate deployment of medics and medical equipment as part of this plan for medical response.
External Review Panel on SAF Safety (ERPSS) Comments
I now share the ERPSS' written report on the COI findings, and it will be distributed to Members with the Speaker's permission, and be made public subsequently.
To summarise the report: they agreed with the COI's findings on the incident and proposed improvements that could be made to the safety management, emergency response system and combat vehicle safety. And the details are in the report. Much of what the ERPSS commented, I have already outlined in my Ministerial Statement.
It will be now up to the AGC to decide if there are grounds to prosecute any person in the criminal courts for the death of CFC Liu Kai. If no criminal charges are filed, MINDEF will take disciplinary measures for lapses identified in this incident in our military court and we will update Members and the public on these disciplinary measures. In the meantime, the servicemen involved in this incident have been redeployed to non-operational roles.
Mr Speaker, CFC Liu Kai was a well-liked and respected soldier. He served with pride and was remembered by his peers for his dedication and commitment. We mourn the loss of this precious son. And we hope that the measures that the SAF has put in place will prevent a similar incident in the future.
And these are questions that Members have asked, including Mr Desmond Choo. In response to the COI's findings and its own internal review, the following measures have or will be put in place by the SAF :
a. First, in addition to the existing emergency horn activation button in front for the vehicle commander of the Bionix, two more emergency horn buttons have been installed in the rear of all Bionix vehicles used for training. So before this incident there was one in front, now two more have been put in the rear of the Bionix for training vehicles. This is to sound the alarm in the event of an intercom failure.
b. Second, from March this year, rear-view cameras will be progressively installed into our training fleet of Bionix vehicles, so that the driver can see during reversing. The Army will study if these new features, the emergency horns and the rear-view camera ought to be incorporated for operational vehicles as well. All heavy-wheeled vehicles, such as five-tonners, will also be progressively installed with rear-view cameras and mirrors to reduce blind spots.
c. Third, as with live-firing exercises, the Army will now conduct safety Table-Top Exercises for all high risk non-live-firing exercises before the actual execution. I think some Members asked about this. This includes familiarisation with emergency measures and evacuation plans.
d. Fourth, more experienced Regulars have been added as trainers.
e. Fifth, starting from March this year, medics will upgrade their skills in resuscitation and handling of emergencies through attachments to hospital emergency departments or ambulances.
f. Sixth, vehicle and equipment serviceability will be improved based on the recommendations of the external panel.
g. Finally, with regard to the safety distance between vehicles. In an exercise area, vehicles are used for a variety of administrative, safety and training purposes. The current distance of 30m was prescribed after evaluation and tests and in general, assessed to be adequate for safety and still allow supporting elements to be responsive to events on the ground. But where vehicles have to reverse such as in extrication drills, the Army has put in new measures to enhance safety. First, trainers will no longer travel in Land Rovers but will join exercise troops in the combat vehicles during high risk training. Second, for all reversing manoeuvres including extrication drills, the driver can only move the vehicle backwards with the explicit clearance of the rear guide. These two measures together with the extra emergency horn buttons will enhance safety and still allow our armour units to practise extrication drills. Further, Army will ensure that only essential vehicles are allowed into the exercise area to minimise the risk of accidents.
Apart from these specific measures, in response to the recent NS deaths, the SAF has decided that for the safety system as a whole, a dedicated unit will be set up at the highest level to drive and supervise a safety culture and enforcement against slack practices. This move also responds to ERPSS' finding that while the safety policies and management systems of the SAF are largely in place, there was a need for more compliance checks and ground level audits.
In line with this objective, the SAF will undertake the following systemic measures:
a. The current Safety and Systems Review Directorate will be expanded and elevated to an Inspector-General Office under the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) to oversee all Services. The Office will be headed by the SAF Inspector-General. The Chief of Staff-Joint Staff (COS-JS), which is an existing appointment of a Service Chief equivalent, will concurrently be the Inspector-General. This dual function is synergistic as the COS-JS has an overview of all operations and as Inspector-General, will have the authority to ensure that Safety First habits and processes are incorporated at all levels of training. More safety officers will be deployed to assist individual units and supervise training activities. There will be more safety audits of units by the inspection teams in the Services and supervised by the IGO.
b. Commanders of units which do not meet standards and have committed lapses in safety procedures and processes will have this marked against them in their performance reviews. Let me emphasise that such commanders will be deemed to have performed unsatisfactorily even if accidents have not occurred. This is the right emphasis to prevent accidents.
c. In the past few weeks, the CDF reduced the tempo for every unit to review its processes, and to emphasise to the troops a safety consciousness to protect themselves and their buddies. Units that are on live operations such as those protecting key installations are not affected by this measure and will continue to be vigilant. Basic types of training have resumed since 7 February. Individual units will continue to be audited and will resume realistic training when safety processes are assessed to be in place.
Some MPs, Mr Darryl David, Mr Chong Kee Hiong, Ms Joan Pereira, have asked if external agencies review our system, to detect root issues. The ERPSS, which consists of prominent safety experts and professionals outside the SAF, is tasked primarily with this mission. The SAF's safety system is aligned to international frameworks and regulations, such as the Occupational Health and Safety System framework (OHSAS 18001). It comprises: rules that mitigate safety risks in the conduct of all training; processes and training to build up competency of our servicemen and to make sure that rules are properly applied; inspections and reporting mechanisms to ensure that the rules are followed; and consequences if they are not followed.
Quite a few MPs, A/P Fatimah Lateef, Ms Cheng Li Hui, Ms Joan Pereira, Ms Cheryl Chan have asked, even if the safety instructions are adequate and in place, how do we ensure that national servicemen are familiar and safety conscious? It is an important question. And also, if the SAF has taken into account the abrupt switch from civilian environment to military training with much larger and potentially dangerous equipment? Another good question.
These are important issues that need to be factored into our safety systems. One suggestion has been to outsource all maintenance work with heavy vehicles or machinery. This is not possible. Complex maintenance tasks that require specialised tools and equipment are already outsourced. But we still need national servicemen technicians to be with their units to perform basic maintenance so that the equipment can function during operations.
We do cater time for NSmen soldiers to adjust from their civilian settings. Before any activity commences, a safety brief is held and inspections conducted to check that soldiers are in good physical state, and that vehicles and equipment are serviceable. Soldiers must also complete an individual risk assessment checklist and raise any safety concerns to their superiors for mitigation before any activity begins.
NS training is conducted progressively starting with refresher training for individual skills and proficiencies before any operations are conducted. And prior to their deployment, further training, such as with a simulator, is conducted. I think one of our MPs asked about this.
The IGO will review if further mitigating measures are needed to help NSmen adjust from civilian life to ICT training.
MPs have asked, this includes a question from Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, if we punish safety lapses, even when they do not lead to injury. Over the past three years, an average of 2% of servicemen a year was punished under the SAF Act for safety lapses. Their punishments ranged from a fine to detention and administrative penalties such as delays in promotion and reduction in benefits.
At the same time, we reward servicemen who demonstrate safe behaviour. Units and individuals are recognised during the Service's respective annual Safety Day. Mr Mohamed Irshad inquired about this.
If we are to achieve zero fatalities during NS training, we must have a strong safety culture in all our units, and safety consciousness down to the last soldier. Commanders and supervisors must lead by example to emphasise safety and all commanders undergo safety training and must know that safety lapses will affect their performance review. Safety Officers, who are former senior commanders, help ensure the safe conduct of training. Experienced Regular trainers partner the national servicemen commanders to design training and safety plans. Soldiers must have a strong respect for safety rules, take care of one another, and speak out on safety concerns. Incentives and disincentives must be aligned to achieve the right safety outcomes. Our safety system must weed out unsafe practices, even when they do not lead to accidents. And this was a question from Ms Irene Quay.
Individual soldiers are encouraged to report unsafe practices and risky behaviour to their superiors without fear of reprisal, or regardless of rank, to call for an immediate stop to training. We do not reward or should signal that we reward adventurous behaviour. And this is in the TSR (in full) – Chapter 1 Section 2 paragraph 11 - "anyone who spots a safety breach or unsafe practice can call for an immediate stop to it, rectify when possible and report to the Conducting Officer. Once notified, the Conducting Officer should verify the report and when necessary rectify the safety breach or unsafe practice. The Conducting Officer must update the Supervising Officer on the measures taken to rectify the safety breach or unsafe practice." Anyone who spots a safety breach, not only commanders, anyone.
Servicemen can also report safety incidents and near-misses through a 24-hour safety hotline. And, this safety hotline receives about 140 calls a year.
Ultimately, safety is both a command and individual responsibility and everyone needs to play their part because precious lives depend on it. It is not true that we cannot train safely if we want to train realistically.
If we have a strong safety culture and safety systems, it will give soldiers greater confidence to train hard and realistically. SAF commanders are convinced that it can be done, and these measures I have outlined today, will lead us to that goal of zero training fatalities.
Support for Family Members of Affected Servicemen and Fellow Soldiers
Mr Speaker, the loss of any soldier is devastating. It leaves a void that cannot be filled in the lives of family members and friends, and its impact is deep and far-reaching. It will take much time for their grief to run its course.
Ms Anthea Ong and Mr Chong Kee Hiong have asked about assistance when a death occurs. Within the SAF dedicated grief counsellors are assigned to provide support to the serviceman's family members in the aftermath of their loss. For our soldiers, a team of psychologists, counsellors, and psychiatrists are deployed to assist unit commanders and servicemen in their recovery from the stress in such incidents. MINDEF takes the family's requests into consideration when deploying a deceased serviceman's immediate family members during their NS.
Over the past 17 months, four national servicemen have passed away during training. In 2012, the SAF also experienced four training fatalities, that year. But from 2013 to 2016, we had none. How did this turnaround occur? This was probably due to multiple factors, but I think the new safety measures we put into place after the devastating incidents of 2012 had an effect. If we put our minds and effort to achieve zero training fatalities, it can be achieved.
Four families have experienced much sorrow after their irreplaceable loss these past months. Singapore has lost precious sons. As deep as the hurt, as great the loss, we must not forget why we suffer them. When the founding generation pledged themselves to build a strong SAF, they were fully conscious that a strong military is only possible with fully committed national servicemen drawn from every family in Singapore. They knew the costs, they knew sacrifice would be required. Not only in resources that we invest in at every Budget, but much more precious would be the time, the sweat, the tears, even the lives of precious sons.
Inherently, military training poses risk. On any given day within the SAF, thousands of national servicemen train hard, amid moving tons of steel, bullets, munitions and other explosives. Why do our national servicemen do it? They do it to protect Singapore. Without national servicemen, we cannot have an SAF or the Home Team that can deter terrorists from attacking Changi Airport or Jurong or harming innocent civilians in shopping malls and crowded places. Without national servicemen and the SAF, potential aggressors would not shy away from simply marching into and occupying today's affluent Singapore, as Iraq did to Kuwait. Without a strong defence, our air and shipping routes in and out of Singapore could easily be blocked – as Qatar now faces. These are not imaginary security threats that our national servicemen train for but real – they have happened elsewhere and can occur to Singapore too.
We must never give up on NS that forms the backbone of our SAF for national defence. This imperative of NS and our national defence does not absolve or reduce the accountability of MINDEF and the SAF in any way, to ensure safe training. On the contrary, it compels MINDEF and the SAF to do all that is humanly possible to prevent training deaths for national servicemen because precious sons have been entrusted to us by their families. MINDEF and the SAF will hold ourselves accountable for every single national serviceman entrusted to us. I am deeply sorry for the loss of four precious national servicemen in the last 17 months. The SAF will strengthen its safety systems. Even as we honour those who died in service of our country, we must soldier on, to build a strong defence, to protect Singapore and to protect every national serviceman during training.