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Can the SAF achieve zero training fatalities again?

Is the Singapore Armed Forces' unprecedented move to lower its training tempo the panacea that will restore our citizen army forces’ record of zero training-related fatalities, which the SAF achieved from 2013 to 2016. Are expectations of zero fatalities realistic and sustainable?

In announcing the reduction in training tempo and providing more details of CFC Pang’s death, SAF’s top brass kept repeating the phrase “we can do better”. Do better it must, says the author.

In announcing the reduction in training tempo and providing more details of CFC Pang’s death, SAF’s top brass kept repeating the phrase “we can do better”. Do better it must, says the author.

The lowering of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training tempo after the death of 28-year-old Corporal First Class (National Service) Aloysius Pang Wei Chong in a training accident in New Zealand on Wednesday (Jan 23) takes post-incident measures in the SAF to a new level.

Previously, the SAF “safety time-outs” that put military training on hold for units to relook and reinforce safety measures have been limited in duration and scope.

From January 2008 till now, 27 SAF personnel have died during training, with time-outs triggered at least six times, the most recently in November following the death of CFC Liu Kai in a training incident in Lim Chu Kang.

Singaporeans are understandably anxious as CFC Pang, a promising actor with a strong fan base, died after the army called a time-out just two months ago. Back then, the army pledged to tighten safety measures.

So is the SAF’s unprecedented move to lower its training tempo the panacea that will restore our citizen army forces’ record of zero training-related fatalities, which the SAF achieved from 2013 to 2016. Are expectations of zero fatalities realistic and sustainable?

Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong explained the unprecedented move to reduce training tempo as follows.

“This will take the form of lowering the duration, the intensity, the frequency of existing training, take some things out, to do training better at a more sustainable pace, to focus on safety,” he said, adding that this will be enforced for “as long as it takes for us to get it right”.

The assurance by Chief of Army, Major-General Goh Si Hou, that it is “not business as usual” signals the army leadership’s determination to drive home the safety-first message, lest another tragedy rattles public confidence.

When men and women in the SAF set their minds to put things right, the effect is immediate and measurable.

In 2010, for the first time since 1967, the SAF achieved a perfect safety record with zero training deaths.

2010 saw SAF units operate at a high tempo with high-profile domestic events like the Singapore Airshow, Shangri-La Dialogue security talks and Singapore Grand Prix.

The SAF carried out missions in the Gulf of Aden, in addition to training detachments in Australia, France, the United States and other countries.

The perfect record in 2010 marked a dramatic turnaround from the annus horribilis in 2009 which saw the Ministry of Defence report 10 deaths – the highest annual death toll since the SAF was formed.

So within a year, the SAF transformed from its worst year for safety to its best-ever performance, a commendable turnaround.

SAF did not publicly outline the measures it took to achieve this.

There were also no reports of SAF training halts that year though behind the scenes, SAF leaders would likely have redoubled efforts to remind soldiers about the importance of safety and kept everyone on their toes.

Mindef and the SAF may wish to revisit the turnaround year to pick out success factors that kept soldiers safe.    

The years 2011 and 2012 saw training deaths creep up, with three and five deaths respectively, before recording zero fatalities from 2013 to 2016.

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Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen has credited the formation of Mindef’s external safety review panel in 2013, which draws on the expertise and experience of safety professionals from industry and academia, for helping to save lives.

With five SAF training-related deaths in the past 16 months, the SAF must make full use of the move to reduce its training tempo to reset systems, processes and culture back on track to the goal of zero fatalities.

Some might argue that it is statistically impossible, given the vast number of moving parts in the SAF and the vast geographical reach of its training activities.

This is why it is important to ingrain the safety-first message down to the last soldier. And should individuals fail, the system must be rigorous enough and have fail-safe checks and circuit breakers for emergencies.

This is especially so as unlike armed forces staffed by professionals who deal with complex war machines every day, our citizen soldiers are called up several weeks a year to refresh their military skills.

The just-in-time refresher classes may be adequate but cannot substitute for the experience gained and instincts honed when one is working on the weapon day in, day out.

In CFC Pang’s case, it is heartbreaking to hear how a gun barrel that takes about 10 seconds to be lowered mechanically can claim a life.

And in November 2009, a Republic of Singapore Navy sailor lost his life after he was caught between a hydraulic sliding door and its door frame.

Hindsight is always 20:20.

But electronics have become so miniaturised and affordable that mechanical parts with a powerful crush force should come with safety sensors and stop plungers to halt their movements before people get hurt.

Finally, a word about information management.

The last four days of CFC Pang’s life touched the hearts of many Singaporeans because his road to recovery seemed promising before it took a turn for the worst.

Not since the death of four Republic of Singapore Navy women sailors in January 2003 have Singaporeans endured the pain of seeing the consequence of a training incident unfold over several days.

Bearing in mind that facts may be uncovered by the ongoing accident investigation, public confidence is perhaps better served by words that help Singaporeans better understand what happened, especially if the prognosis is poor.

If surgical complications might compromise a patient’s recovery, then public statements should advise the public appropriately and weigh the need for adjectives like “stable” and “successful operation” very carefully.

There was also an information vacuum for four days that kept Singaporeans wondering how CFC Pang was hurt.

The broad description that he suffered the injuries from a lowered gun barrel could have been issued earlier to help quell public anxiety without compromising investigations.

This is particularly so as memories of a leaked photo that showed what happened after a Bionix armoured vehicle “reversed into the Land Rover” that CFC Liu was in are still fresh in Singaporeans’ minds.

On Thursday, in announcing the reduction in training tempo and providing more details of CFC Pang’s death, SAF’s top brass kept repeating the phrase “we can do better”.

Do better it must, given the importance of national service and the need to restore public confidence that training will be as safe as it can possibly be without compromising operational needs.

SAF’s commitment to tighten safety and its success in 2010 and from 2013 to 2016 should provide some confidence that it can nurture a stronger safety-first culture and fail-safe work environment.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Boey, a member of Mindef’s Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, blogs on defence issues at kementah.blogspot.sg.  

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