Training incidents and accountability – Who should hang?

Yesterday in Parliament, Defense Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen said that MINDEF, and the SAF, will align their “incentives and disincentives (on safety), so we get the whole system moving”.

About two weeks ago, I wrote “Aloysius Pang – Is National Service the problem?“, and took a stab at explaining some of SAF’s safety precautions.

Yesterday in Parliament, Defense Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen said that MINDEF, and the SAF, will align their “incentives and disincentives (on safety), so we get the whole system moving”.


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This was in response to Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Dennis Tan, who had asked “At what point, and at what stage, would the Government think it would be necessary to send a signal to the entire force when they recognise there might be a problem at the systemic or greater level, requiring a senior officer, whether at formation, army, SAF, or beyond, to take responsibility for all this?”

We also have a lot of vocal members of the public who want Ministers, and senior leadership to take responsibility for the accidents that occur. Of course, in this case, I assume “take responsibility” would mean to be court martialed, step down from current position etc. After all, COA, CDF, and Dr Ng has already accepted responsibility for the incident.

Let’s take a look at what this means. First, take a look at the chain of command in a typical infantry unit. (Things get fuzzy after Battalion CO, so let me know if you spot any glaring mistakes)

Typical chain-of-command in an infantry unit

Accidents usually happen at the lowest levels, i.e. the men (recruits, privates, corporals) and section commanders. We form the largest group of our army. We are the kah-kias, the sai-gang warriors, so to speak.


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In an Operationally Ready (OR) Battalion like Aloysius’, everyone below the Battalion CO (in a more mature Battalion, this includes the Bn CO himself) are NS men. Yes, they’re just there to serve their time and FO (eff-off) back to their families after the week or two each year.

Yes, out of the 10 layers of command, half of these are NS men, just like Aloysius. If we are to, for example, hold the Minister responsible for a training fatality, we should go after everybody in between, no?

If there is evidence of a systemic failure to ensure safety standards were adhered to, yes, everyone who was involved in the lapse should be taken to task. In most cases, this is simply not the case.

My other gripe with this issue is that when people transit into civilian life, and come back for NS, they find ways to siam (dodge) stuff they find meaningless.

Here are some examples:

Cmd: Guys let’s do a water parade. Drink half a bottle.

Guy: Don’t need la sergeant, you think we still recruit meh?

Cmd: Guys, we’re going to do a FBO march to condition ourselves for the outfield training

Guy: (Puts pillow in fieldpack)

Cmd: Guys, tighten your bootlaces

Guy: Don’t want. Later got blister lah.

(Later twists an ankle)

Cmd: Guys, wake up for breakfast as 0630 hrs

Next morning –

Guy: F**k it, I’m gonna sleep in
(Faints from low blood sugar during training)

Ladies, you know how we men can act like children sometimes? Some guys actually behave that way in camp all the time.

NOTE: I’m not claiming any one training incident arose from such incidents, just stating that this is commonplace in reservist units.

The problem with the reservist model of training is the mentality that “I’m a civilian, what can you do to me?”, and “You tekan (punish) me, I chao-geng lor”. Chao-geng means to feign injury or illness in hokkien.

When faced with these types of situations, the commander in charge of performing these specific activities can only shrug his shoulders and hope nothing bad happens. You know that “At least I’ve covered my backside,” attitude? There’s really nothing more he can do.

What, you want to court martial someone for not drinking water ah?

In my own response to NCMP Dennis Tan’s question on when it would be necessary for a senior officer to take responsibility for a training incident, it is in my opinion that it should only be when said officer has either been found directly negligent, or when he has advocated for training that ignores established training standards.


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