The tragic death of NSF Dave Lee has brought attention to the SAF’s training program and sparked a nationwide debate on the safety of our full time national servicemen. An anonymous post made by a soldier from the 1st Battalion Singapore Guards has gone viral, alleging misconduct by a handful of NSF commanders and the lack of safety measures in place during an 8km “fast march”. The family of PTE (now CFC) Dave Lee have called for a full independent investigation to uncover the circumstances behind his death. While calls for compulsory national service to be abolished are unlikely to gain any traction, calls for greater accountability and transparency in the SAF have grown louder. Given the thousands of young Singaporean lives that are in the hands of the SAF, it’s the least the public can expect.
In 2013, Taiwan’s Armed Forces was subject to intense public scrutiny following the death of a conscript soldier, 24-year-old Specialist Hung Chung-Chiu. Days before his scheduled discharge, Hung was sent to military detention after being caught for bringing a smartphone onto base without permission. Hung was ordered to perform strenuous exercise drills as part of his punishment.
Like PTE Dave, Hung was hospitalised after suffering a heatstroke and falling into a coma. Hung was initially sent to Ten-Chen Medical Hospital, but was subsequently transferred to Tri-Service General Hospital when his body temperature rose to 44 °C. Hung died from organ failure on July 4, 2013, just 72 hours before his scheduled discharge. Local media reported that his superiors had allegedly refused to give him water during a drill even though he had repeatedly asked for it.
Hung’s death sparked a massive public backlash. On July 20, 2013, 30,000 protestors gathered outside the defence ministry building, where the Deputy Minister of National Defence accepted a petition letter from protestors. A subsequent protest, held on August 3 by the same group, attracted a record turnout, reaching over 100,000. Many young people were among the protesters clad in white mourning garb who marched on the Presidential Office on Saturday. Protesters sung a variation of a revolutionary song from the musical “Les Miserables” while holding aloft an image of an eye inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”
In response to these protests Taiwan’s Parliament quickly approved major reforms to the military justice system, which included the abolition of court martial during peacetime and transfer of military prisoners to civilian prisons.
Military prosecutors said some of Hung’s superiors bypassed standard disciplinary procedure. The military investigation led to the arrest and investigation of several officials, with the case eventually transferred to civilian prosecutors. The court subsequently found 13 military officials guilty of various charges and meted out prison sentences of up to eight months.
Despite the independent investigation and sentencing of those involved, many Taiwanese were unsatisfied with the vague initial answers given by officials. From a macro perspective, Hung’s death stirred up wider grievances against Taiwan’s system of military conscription and President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration. Public outrage would eventually lead to the replacement of the defence minister, and President Ma’s apology to the nation.
While the circumstances behind PTE Dave Lee’s death are still a mystery, Taiwan’s experience with its military-related deaths provides valuable lessons for Singapore. Taiwan’s maturing democracy and strength of its democratic institutions made it possible for the public to have their grievances redressed. The press, which operated with considerable freedom and autonomy, served as a check against the government’s narrative, while continuously demanding accountability from the government. Taiwan’s civil society mobilised public support through petitions and peaceful demonstrations and this ultimately led to several reforms being passed.
While no military is without flaw and no safety protocol is infallible, PTE Dave Lee’s death can and must lead to meaningful reforms in the SAF. If the hundreds of online confessions of current and former national servicemen alleging abuse in the SAF are any indication, there is a pressing need for a comprehensive, independent investigation. One death is one too many. Such tragic episodes, especially in peacetime, should never be accepted as the norm or even a “necessary sacrifice”.