Response by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, to Adjournment Motion by Mr Pritam Singh on Balancing Operational Readiness, Safety and the Will to Fight for Parliamentary Sitting

Response by Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, to Adjournment Motion by Mr Pritam Singh on Balancing Operational Readiness, Safety and the Will to Fight for Parliamentary Sitting

Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): National Service – Balancing Operational Readiness, Safety and the Will to Fight

Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me thank Mr Pritam Singh for his comments and the Adjournment Motion. And as Adjournment Motions go, you reflect on them and you can't answer every point in the ten minutes you are allocated and I am sure that if the House wants us to debate the various points that he's brought up, I think we can find another forum to do so.

But let me start from where we agree and it is very gratifying. We agree that National Service (NS) is crucial. We agree that without NS and without the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), we cannot defend ourselves. That after 52 years, we are in a much better position of being able to defend our sovereignty and that we have come a long way. We also agree that we want to make training for national servicemen as safe as possible, and as Mr Singh himself says, assure every mother, assure every parent that their son will go back to them safe when the two years of full-time NS and in-camp training (during operationally ready NS) are done. 

How to achieve this? There may be some disagreement or differences. Mr Singh says do not aim for zero fatalities. That is a goal too high, you set too high expectations. And he is right, in a way. But which mother shall we say, can lose her son? I came to that view that we should aim for zero fatalities from the experiences of our own commanders. And I share with you a very good speech by the previous Chief of Defence Force (CDF), Lieutenant-General (Retired) [LG(RET)] Bey Soo Khiang. Because when it comes to running an operation, you have to listen to your commanders, you have to see what they can do. So this was a speech that LG(RET) Bey, who was the Chief of Air Force and then CDF, gave at a safety symposium last year. 

I quote from him, "So if you take a look at our RSAF mishap data in our earlier years, the picture is a somber one. For the first 20 years from 1970 to 1990, we lost, in terms of fighter numbers, almost the same number as our entire F-16 fleet today. For comparison, the RSAF has operated the F-16 C/Ds for more than 20 years now – from about 96/97 – and we have lost two, and the last loss occurred more than 10 years ago." That stark difference. "Just pause to think about this – for the first twenty years, we lost, in terms of fighter numbers, almost the same number as our entire F-16 fleet today."   

He went on to say "Most significantly to me as a commander, such accidents also sapped the morale of the people unnecessarily. Each time we attended the funerals of fellow pilots and servicemen, seeing the grief of their loved ones was an emotional trauma. As a commander, trying to explain to the family of the lost pilot why it happened, why they are going to continue with life without a husband, grow up without a father, was most difficult.  

As the CAF then, I felt that I had failed to take care of my men. To me, they reported to work every day to train for war, and I had failed in my duty to ensure that they trained safely, so that they could return to their loved ones every day.  So this" – he says  "was how Zero Accidents started. I started asking myself questions," – he continues – "(going) back to basics. I asked myself – Have we lost sight of overall mission to deter? Each accident erodes deterrence. If we cannot be safe, how does it reflect on our capability? If our own Singaporeans have low confidence in the RSAF" – and in this case, the Republic of Singapore Navy or even the Singapore Army – "how can we even be a deterrent. If the RSAF is critical in the defence of Singapore which lacks strategic depth, the situation is surely unacceptable. Even before we started fighting the war, we had already lost 50 fighters, so our peacetime exchange ratio with respect to our potential threats must look quite bad. 
At the individual level, the whole idea of training in peacetime is to deter and when deterrence fails, be there on the first wave. But you will not be there if you kill yourself during training. Then the training is in vain."

Zero fatalities is a very difficult target, and as Mr Pritam Singh said, it may be impossible. But we have to aim for it and as our own experience shows, in some years, we will be able to achieve it. Can anyone guarantee that it will be zero fatalities for the rest of our future? Surely not. But that zero fatality (goal) sears into the consciousness of every commander and every soldier that to get there, you better be careful about what you are doing. That safety lapses will not be tolerated, that it will be safety first because at the end of the day, I want to train you, and I want you to be alive, to be able to fight when Singapore needs you. 

Mr Singh says, well you can get the same outcome, just allow people to sue the Government, including the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). That is a very tangential argument and misses the point. 

There is accountability for commanders who make a mistake. I do not need for those who want to sue the government to do so before the commanders are held accountable. I have told you many times and we have taken commanders or national servicemen who have been derelict, who have not done their duty, to criminal prosecution. Not just civilian payouts in the courts; they go to jail! Their lives, in that sense, and careers are ruined. And justly so, they deserve it. So let us get back to basics – Mr Singh says, do not be afraid of MINDEF's reputation. I am not afraid of MINDEF's reputation. I am more concerned about individual lives, about how our commanders, at any given moment of time, watch for the safety of their national servicemen, of the people under their charge and yet at the same time, conduct realistic training. 

I think this is the right way to go. I think there will no easy shortcuts. I think we need everyone to pitch in and I am grateful at least that all Members of this House believe that NS is an imperative, is a critical need and that we must improve our safety standards so that we can uphold NS and National Defence.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

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