SAF aims for zero training fatalities with new safety rules
Ng Eng Hen stresses safety lapses will not be tolerated as he says sorry for four NS deaths in last 17 months
Safety lapses in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will not be tolerated, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament yesterday as he reiterated the SAF's goal of achieving zero training fatalities.
While it is a difficult target to reach, past experience has shown that it is possible, he said in response to Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who had filed an adjournment motion on the matter.
The death of Corporal First Class (NS) Aloysius Pang last month was the fourth training fatality in the last 17 months. The other three were CFC Liu Kai, CFC Dave Lee and Third Sergeant Gavin Chan.
This comes after four years without any death from 2013 to 2016, which Mr Ng had highlighted in his ministerial statement earlier.
He said: "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 efforts to achieve zero training fatalities, it can be achieved."
There were four training deaths in 2012.
Mr Singh had said the SAF's promise of zero training incidents was wishful and invited unrealistic public pressure on the SAF, the Defence Ministry (Mindef) and its commanders, creating a damaging effect on the armed forces and on national service.
In response, Mr Ng said: "Can anyone guarantee there will be zero fatalities for the rest of our future? Surely not. But that zero fatality sears into the consciousness of every commander and every soldier, that to get there, you better be careful about what you are doing."
Acknowledging that military training poses inherent risks, he said that training safely and realistically were not antithetical to each other.
"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," Mr Ng added.
Addressing questions raised by more than 15 MPs during yesterday's sitting, Mr Ng again urged soldiers to speak up on safety concerns.
He said individual soldiers are encouraged to report unsafe practices and risky behaviour to their superiors without fear of reprisal, or regardless of rank, citing the fact that, on average, 2 per cent of servicemen are punished for safety lapses every year.
These punishments range from fines to detention, and administrative penalties such as delays in promotion and reduction in benefits.
Some 140 calls are made annually to the SAF's anonymous safety hotline, he said.
Mr Ng told Parliament that the SAF will implement systemic measures to drive and supervise a safety culture, and to enforce against slack practices.
The formation of the Inspector-General Office, announced on Jan 31, is one. It expands on the current Safety and Systems Review Directorate established in 2013 after the 2012 deaths.
Commanders of units who do not meet standards or have safety lapses will also be marked down in performance reviews, and will be deemed to have performed unsatisfactorily even if no accidents have occurred.
Mr Ng said: "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."
Visibly emotional at times during his statement, Mr Ng said the founding generation knew the importance of NS in ensuring a strong military and the costs and sacrifice that would be required.
Citing the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the current air and maritime blockade on Qatar, Mr Ng said: "We must never give up on NS that forms the backbone of our SAF for national defence."
He added: "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."