Any death is one too many when it comes to our national servicemen.
With five deaths occurring this year, two of which were training-related, one can imagine the concerns surrounding national service (NS) right now.
Of the training-related ones, Corporal First Class (CFC) Dave Lee, 19, had suffered a heat stroke after completing an 8km fast march leading to his death on Apr 3, while more recently, 22-year-old CFC Liu Kai died on Nov 3 after an accident involving a Bionix, an armoured vehicle, and the Land Rover he was in. It is always unfortunate to see any soldiers dying, especially in a time of peace.
The deaths may have led to comments online suggesting that national service be abolished, with some even calling national service “a waste of time”.
But should we abolish national service? And are the efforts of our national servicemen a waste of time?
Of course not.
President Halimah Yacob said at the start of the year that the efforts of national servicemen are what we depend on for Singapore’s survival, success and security.
In fact, Singapore’s ability to progress since independence against all odds has plenty to do with its defence. In a Business Insider article that discussed Singapore military, Collin Koh Swee Lan, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Maritime Security Programme, said: “Historically, Singapore had rather tumultuous relations with its immediate neighbours…back in the early decades of Singapore’s independence.”
Brian Harding, the deputy director the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Southeast Asia Program, added: “Singaporeans are the ultimate realists and understand that things can change quickly … They know that they need to be prepared for the future and not just hope for the best.”
So, while we are enjoying peacetime now, we cannot be certain that things may not change. Which is where our soldiers in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) play a huge role.
They go through hours and hours of not just physical training, but also drills and lectures with the aim of becoming soldiers who are better-prepared to defend Singapore. Unfortunately, while safety measures are in place during training, there is no way to prevent accidents from happening.
And the risks are not limited to the rigours of physical training. The dangers are everywhere during outfield training exercises, as seen in CFC Liu’s unfortunate mishap, as well as the accident in September 2017 that led to the death of 3rd Sergeant Gavin Chan, who was then 21, in Queensland, Australia.
3SG Chan’s death was a complete accident – he was trying to guide a Bionix vehicle he was in out of difficult terrain when it landed on its side. He was found unconscious next to the vehicle and succumbed to his injuries.
These incidents show just how much risks our soldiers go through on a daily basis, despite the precautions put in place by their commanders.
The commanders and the SAF haven’t been spared from the criticisms either, especially since CFC Liu’s mishap. But have the commanders been nonchalant about the enforcement of safety rules, as some netizens have suggested?
Safety time-outs that were taken almost immediately following the incidents are an indication that the military is not taking anything for granted. A Committee of Inquiry (COI) set up after these instances also shows just how seriously the army treats such incidents.
Reviewing their processes and finding out what went wrong and could be improved is the only way for the army and its commanders to prevent the same mistakes or mishaps from happening again. And these are done pretty quickly too – reviews were completed and changes made just four months after the incident involving CFC Dave Lee.
The army also holds its commanders responsible for safety. Chief of Army, Brigadier-General (BG) Goh Si Hou, told Channel NewsAsia earlier this week: “Ultimately, safety is a command responsibility in our army. Safety of our soldiers is my top-most priority as the chief of army. We want to ensure that all our soldiers can train effectively and safely and this is a commitment of all my commanders.”
Indeed, the army holds its commanders accountable, with those who fail to adhere to safety regulations liable to be charged in both civil and military court.
Having such a responsibility cannot be an easy job, especially knowing that the lives of their men are in their hands. But ultimately, these commanders are soldiers too, and they certainly don’t need the added pressure of being singled out.
Perhaps it’s time that we start learning to appreciate our soldiers – be it commanders or men, regulars or NSFs.
Not just for what they do to keep us safe and sound, allowing us to sleep soundly at night, but also for the risks they have to go through in order to achieve that.