The recent high profile deaths of 3 full time national servicemen , 3SG Gavin Chan, CFC Dave Lee and CPL Kok Yuen Chin have reignited a debate on the safety of our NSFs and the issue of personnel abuse in the services. Speaking to Parliament, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen vowed to introduce new measures to strengthen the SAF’s investigation process and improve safety measures. Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam promised that criminal proceedings will be brought against those involved in CPL Kok’s death. He also assured the House that the SCDF would crack down on “ragging”. Despite such assurances, it remains to be seen how much things will change on the ground. A flurry of confessions by current and former servicemen have flooded the internet in recent weeks, all alleging abuse and blatant disregard for safety protocols. If true, there are indeed deep-seated cultural issues in both Mindef and MHA.
If reforms are to be implemented, one that is long overdue is the repeal of Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act. Under Section 14 of the Government Proceeding Act (Chapter 121),
“Nothing done or omitted to be done by a member of the forces while on duty as such shall subject either him or the Government to liability in tort for causing the death of another person, or for causing personal injury to another person…
… No proceedings in tort shall lie against the Government for death or personal injury due to anything suffered by a member of the forces…”
This little known law effectively shields the Government (SAF and SCDF included) from civil liability for the deaths of full time national servicemen, even when the SAF and SCDF are found to be negligent. Put it simply, families of deceased NSFs cannot sue the Government for the loss of their sons because of this law. This law however, doesn’t fully protect SAF or SCDF personnel from being charged as evident in the imminent criminal charges that are being brought in CPL Kok’s case.
In 2017, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen rejected calls for Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act to be repealed. He said that the statute in question “continues to serve a “vital” purpose — to allow soldiers to train realistically.”
Critics have argued that the law unfairly protects the Government from being held accountable for NSF deaths. This law was brought to light in the wake of PTE Dominique Sarron Lee’s death in 2012.
In 2012, 21-year-old PTE Dominique Lee collapsed after his commander decided to throw more smoke grenades (six) than he was allowed to (two) during an urban obstacle training exercise. PTE Dominique suffered an allergic reaction from the excessive zinc chloride in the smoke and died in the hospital shortly after. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen agreed that safety breaches led to the deaths of Private Lee. The Committees Of Inquiry affirmed that “if the Training Safety Regulations had been complied with, Lee and his platoon mates would not have been subjected to smoke that was as dense as that during the incident”.
Despite compelling evidence of negligence, lawsuits filed by PTE Dominique’s family against the SAF, the platoon commander, and the chief safety officer were subsequently thrown out of the court. To add insult to injury, the court ordered PTE Dominique’s family to pay the legal fees of all three parties involved, amounting to around $22,000. The legal fees were subsequently slashed after a massive public outcry.
Since then, 3 more NSFs have died – all in the span of less than 9 months. Surely now, we need to have a conversation on the moral, legal, and practical merits of this law. No organization is above reproach. If Mindef and MHA want to regain the public’s trust and confidence, it has to be open to accountability.