Recruits goes through arms drills at Pulau Tekong, a military training island in Singapore. All able-bodied young men in Singapore, including citizens and permanent residents, are conscripted for two years of full-time military training once they reach 18 under the National Service program founded in 1967 to promote national cohesion.  Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman
Singaporean conscripts carry out arms drills at Pulau Tekong, a military training island in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

When actor Aloysius Pang died last month after sustaining serious injuries during a military training exercise, Singaporeans responded with an outpouring of grief. Family, friends and fans mourned the loss of the 28-year-old Chinese-language film and television star, whose passing is the latest in a recent spate of military training fatalities for the island-nation.

Tragedy struck when Pang, an armament technician with the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), was crushed while carrying out repair works inside the cabin of a self-propelled howitzer, a self-propelled artillery gun. Despite a number of surgeries to treat his injuries, the young conscript died four days later in hospital on January 23.

The incident dominated local headlines and struck a chord with the Mandarin-speaking community, an important voting bloc for the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Chief of Defense Force Melvyn Ong addressed the tragedy at a press conference and promised things would not be “business as usual” after Pang’s death.

Aiming to reassure the public, he announced a halt to all high-risk training activities as well as measures to reduce the pace and duration of training across the SAF for safety reviews. Singapore’s Ministry of Defense (Mindef) also said it would convene an independent Committee of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the incident.

Pang wrote that he was “off to serve our country” in his final Instagram post after earlier sharing news that he would be traveling to New Zealand for compulsory reservist training with the SAF. (The island nation holds military exercises in other countries.) Male Singapore citizens are required to undergo two years of National Service – known as NS – upon turning 18 and are also called upon for reservist duties in subsequent years.

Instagram page managed by Aloysius Pang’s family. Photo: Instagram

Safety lapses and accountability for NS training-related deaths were a key focus of discussion when Singapore’s Parliament convened earlier this month. Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen delivered a ministerial statement apologizing for the loss of servicemen and vowed to “make things right” by probing the circumstances that lead to Pang’s death.

The late actor was the fourth national servicemen to be killed during training-related incidents in the last 18 months, a figure that has unnerved fellow conscripts and parents with children who serve in the armed forces. Five other servicemen have died during the same period either in accidents or as a result of suicide or unnatural causes.

Ng vowed to strengthen the SAF’s safety systems to strive for “zero training deaths” and pointed out that there no training deaths occurred between 2013 to 2016. He also laid out new measures to conduct audits on safety practices and promised that commanders and servicemen would be held accountable if wrongdoing occurs.

When Pritam Singh, chief of the opposition Workers’ Party (WP), addressed Parliament, he renewed his party’s calls for a review of the Government Proceedings Act, which protects Mindef and members of the armed forces from being subject to civil negligence suits for deaths and injuries that occur during military duty, though not against criminal proceedings.

Singh argued that greater accountability could be achieved by creating a “specific carve-out” where civil suits could be brought against commanders who willfully disregard safety. Under Singapore law, the Attorney General’s Chambers and Mindef have complete discretion in bringing criminal charges or court-martial proceedings against errant servicemen.

Ng has defended the current law on the grounds that it gives SAF commanders the confidence to train realistically and retain operational effectiveness. He has described the law as ensuring “the efficiency, discipline, effectiveness and decisiveness of the armed forces in both training and operations, without being burdened by the prospect of legal action.”

Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen in a file photo. Photo: Singapore Government

There is strong public support for the SAF among Singapore’s citizenry, the majority of whom accept a conscription-based military system as a guarantor of national sovereignty and a necessary deterrent against terrorism and foreign aggression, especially as a hedge against the strategic vulnerability of Singapore’s small size.

Beyond defense, conscription is touted as a rite of passage for Singaporean males and a means of strengthening the cohesiveness of national identity. Analysts believe these factors help to explain why Singapore has not experienced the same degree of pushback against the conscript system as seen elsewhere in Asia, such as in South Korea and Taiwan.

In the wake of Pang’s death, however, news blogs and netizens questioned Singapore’s culture of accountability with reference to the resignations of South Korea’s Army Chief of Staff General Kwon Oh-Seong in 2014 and Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense Kao Hua-chu in 2013 following public outrage over conscript deaths in those countries.

Ng, when asked by Dennis Tan, a non-constituency parliamentarian, whether the government would require a senior officer to “take responsibility” for the recent training deaths, he replied: “If senior leadership has to go because they have been involved, or have been derelict, then I don’t think our population will stand for that.”

“If (an independent review) decides that a change of the most senior leadership makes a difference… it is up to them to recommend,” said the defense minister, who added that Mindef and the SAF were concerned with getting “the whole system moving, and making sure that the effect is felt on the ground, rather than posturing or politicking.”

The Singapore government “will most likely absolve these commanders of all responsibilities for these accidents, although there might probably be some significant measures taken to ensure that future lapses do not occur,” said Felix Tan, an associate lecturer with SIM Global Education in Singapore.

“I do think that Singaporeans are frustrated by such incidents, but they also do realize that there is a strong need for good leadership within Mindef,” he said. “What Singaporeans are expecting is for these leaders to take responsibility for their oversight and failure of their own leadership in ensuring safety protocols during training.”

Armed police and soldiers patrol Changi Airport's Terminal 2 in Singapore on October 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Edgar Su
Armed soldiers patrol Changi Airport’s Terminal 2 in Singapore on October 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Edgar Su

An NS serviceman with knowledge of the SAF’s artillery training exercises in New Zealand told Asia Times that rigorous performance expectations placed on serviceman by their commanders often results in “improvised procedures” being taken to adhere to “result-oriented constraints” in which safety protocols are sometimes loosely followed.

According to the serviceman, failure to achieve certain result-oriented standards sees conscripts subjected to “informal, derogatory punishments” which pressure them to cursorily complete tasks often without following safety protocols to the letter, in order to meet the expectations and directives of their commanders.

Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU) told Asia Times that while the spate of conscript training deaths has dented public confidence in military training safety, it has not undermined public confidence in National Service as an institution.

“What has happened in the last 18 months is, of course, a grave concern which will have to be tackled resolutely. There is a sufficient reservoir of trust and confidence, but it cannot be taken granted that this situation will prevail,” he said. “If things don’t improve, we can be sure that some will express their concern and unhappiness through the ballot box.”

“I believe there are already stringent measures in place holding individual commanders responsible for safety breaches. That said, these policies are a black box and are not publicized in detail,” said Ho Shu Huang, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“This invariably results in speculation of whether a system is actually applied in practice,” he said. “A more helpful discussion on safety shouldn’t just focus on preventing any accidents, but also on risk appetite and an accepted awareness that even the best safety systems can be short-circuited by a negligent individual.”

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