Monday, March 21, 2016

How Times Change!

It's been a while since I've accessed my PC at home but since I'm having a bout of insomnia, I thought I would try and bash out a few thoughts.

March, is something of a special month. The 9th of March for the guys from 23 SA 7th Mono Intake is a particularly sensitive month in that this is the day that we commemorate we lost two of our own in Waiaru, New Zealand those 19-years ago. Both Ronnie and Yin Tit were young men who had their whole lives ahead of them and they had so much potential to offer the world until that very day when they were blown away by a faulty fuze in live firing accident that was supposed to the crowning glory of our national service (we were the first batch of artillery gunners to go down under to fire our home made FH2000 155mm caliber howitzer, which as the official press would never stop reminding us - the only one of its kind in the world).

This year, the anniversary was a particularly interesting one in the sense that it coincided with the news of the death of Private Dominique Lee. Private Lee had died from an allergic reaction to a smoke grenade. As things would have it, the officers in charge had screwed up - for some reason they decided to go over the top and instead of releasing the maximum of two smoke grenades, they decided to release six. The parents have sued, the courts have taken the side of the Ministry of Defense and cyberspace is filled with things to say.

As someone who lived through two unnecessary deaths in the SAF, my initial reactions are thus:

1 - What a waste of a young life!

2 - How times change..............

Private Lee like, Ronnie and Yin Tit was a young man who had his life ahead of him. I think of the various experiences that I have gone through since the incident and I look at the usual Facebook updates from friends from my batch. In those days we were boys in our 20s. Today, we're men in our 40s with wives and kids. Most of us have had good careers and done an amazing number of things.

The experiences that we've enjoyed are experiences that Ronnie and Yin Tit never got, through no fault of their own. They were cut down at a time of their lives when they should been ready to launch their lives. While time has healed the pain of their demise, I don't think anybody will not think that the loss of young lives was anything but a tragedy. Now, the SAF and the rest of us have to add another name to the list.

My second reaction is that times have changed. When the accident in New Zealand took place, I remember very clearly that the reaction of the SAF as an organisation was one of damage control. Things just happened and they happened quickly. The chaps in Bravo Battery (the battery that saw the incident there and then), were sent back to camp and the exercise was continued without live ammo.

We in Alpha battery, the battery that was due to go out, had to decide if we were ready to "support the mission" and then accept and say farewell to our lost friends. We had our senior officers trying to urge us to find the enthusiasm to go and there were endless briefings about what happened.

Our Routine Orders ("RO") that very night proceeded to advise (for want of a better word) that the standard line with the media would be "NO COMMENT" (something which I would learn in my later stint in PR was something you NEVER tell the press in a crisis - I wonder why Mindef would not hire me to do their PR ;) )

There was no online dissent in those days. We were just upset and angry that our friend had to die for no good reason.

The worst that happened was that that the then Chief of Army, Major-General Han Eng Juan got scolded on behalf of his superiors by Ronnie's mother at the funeral.

Despite the fact that the Committee of Inquiry chaired by Tan Gee Paw (who interestingly enough was PUB chairman when I was at BANG PR working on their account) found that there was obvious faults in the procurement of ammunition, nobody was charged, nobody said anything about the faults in the system and nobody sued anybody. In my later years in reservist, the Committee's findings were reduced to - "Oh, the fuze was made in China, now we don't buy fuzes from China anymore."

By comparison, the case of Private Lee has been well documented. The parents have had the chance to take the Ministry to court and while lots of things in cyberspace are merely noise, in this case its more than justified. The premise is simple, we the parents entrust our sons to the officers of the armed forces - short of war we expect our sons to come home safely. We do not expect military officers to cause the death of their men through their own arrogance and stupidity.

As a former member of the SAF (like every Singaporean man), I'm disappointed with the organisation for having such a short memory. While most of the officers in the SAF are good and responsible people (or at least the ones I was lucky to work for), I still can't believe you get regular officers who can be irresponsible.

A friend of mine got it right - the said officers need to be thrown into the smoke chamber without the gas mask. They need to feel the pain so to speak.

It's good to see an active citizenry making government organisations account. While, many may not be satisfied with the outcome of the court case, it's good to see people like Dr. Ng Eng Hean, Minister of Defense feeling the need to come out and say something.

The SAF, for all its faults, is not a bad organisation. It serves a useful enough purpose and we need to support the organisation for what it does. We also need to ensure that the organisation is held to account. Military officers are responsible for their men. In their organisation, they are superior and so are their responsibilities - it's not wrong to insist of this.

We also need to ask ourselves how far we bring this new sense of wanting to make the government more accountable. There have been several incidences since Swift Lion. In every case, the fault has ended with the officers in charge.

Swift Lion was unique in that it wasn't the military who was at fault. It was the fault of the defense procurement, both on the larger scale within the Ministry and the defense contractor. These are big organisations with big budgets and in the case of Singapore Technologies, big profits.

Can we hold these organisations to account? I really hope this something we don't find out the hard way.