Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Command presence after SAF training incidents

It has been noted that some Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) training incidents result in a high-level presence either at the hospital bedside, the wake or the funeral.

SAF Service chiefs have done so in the past. So have various political office holders.

The protocols followed by the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF that spell out when and at what level the command presence should be calibrated are indeed a puzzle to me.

The then Defence Minister, Dr Tony Tan, was at the hospital bedside of infantrymen from the 1st Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment after the incident involving the Armbrust blind.

The then Chief of Air Force, Major-General Lim Kim Choon, attended the wake for RSAF F-16 pilot Lieutenant Brandon Loo.

The then Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral Lui Tuck Yew, attended the funeral for RSN Second Lieutenant Daryl Loh.

There must be many other instances involving army, navy and air force personnel where the presence of MINDEF/SAF big shots helped Singaporean families cope at a time of grief.

To have big shots appear during some situations and not at others makes SAF servicemen wonder what more they have to do to earn recognition for their service to this country. Families and loved ones of servicemen who paid the ultimate price should never be made to have that question cross their mind.

If it is a matter of choice where families prefer to have some space and privacy, then MINDEF/SAF should give some indication that the presence was offered but declined by the NOK.

In my opinion, command presence is needed most when parents have to send off their child for their final journey. It should be an SOP whenever our country has to send off one of its sons or daughters who died in the line of duty. It underlines that senior leadership shares the family's pain and sorrow and that senior leadership never takes a training death for granted.

As a citizens' armed forces, it is vitally important that Singaporeans know their leaders - civilian and military - will be there for them unconditionally. This social support will earn MINDEF/SAF immense goodwill from citizen soldiers and SAF regulars who, knowing their leaders will stand by their families in times of crisis, will do the same for our army when duty calls.

Many parents would never have seen or met, let alone talked to, the SAF's senior leadership. Ditto political office holders in MINDEF like the DM, MOS and SPS. One should therefore never underestimate the impression it makes on citizens, especially during a low point in their lives.

Where was that command presence yesterday?


Anonymous said...

no time to attend bcos the president ,defence minister and army officer busy attending the historic olympic medal winners.pity the minority son and future family bread winner.

Anonymous said...

It is heart breaking to see the father of the deceased receiving the state flag, clueless of the complicity of the SAF, and ignorant of the failure of his late son's commanders to protect him.

Anonymous said...

David, could you explain on the Armbrust blind for my sake? I am not familiar with it.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Is defense minister a command position? I think you are not clear about what is command.

David Boey said...

Dear Anonymous 11:02 PM,
The incident involving an Armbrust blind claimed the life of one NSF from 1 SIR on 3 April 1997. Five others were injured, including a LTA who lost an arm. Their platoon had been ordered to comb a sector of the live-firing area for unexploded ordnance to be marked out for clearance. The Armbrust blind was picked up and brought 200m to a firing bay where it exploded. Have mentioned this before in previous posts. Google armbrust, blind, senang diri.

Dear Anonymous 9:24 AM,
Snarky remark. :)

The terms high-level presence, senior leadership, big shots, command have been used in this post. Readers know what I am driving at.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter what the writer defines "command". Leadership is not about protocol or pushing the buck around. If you feel you are the 'commander' and you feel you have to take ownership and bear the brunt and look the soldier's father in the eye on behalf of the organization, you just step up whether it be the minister, the CDF or the COA or the div comd. There was a BG present; not sure whether he was the formation commander or just another BG arrowed by higher command to attend on behalf of SAF. Times like this you see who is the real leader. The one that feels responsible and step up regardless of what protocol says. I have to give credit to COA for flying to Brunei whatever the arrangement for the funeral. As an NSman commander, I think I know how I wld feel if, God forbid, something unfortunate should happen to my men. I do not need protocol to tell me what I should do. This little episode shows me a bit more of some people in MINDEF.

Anonymous said...

how many white horses have died in MINDEF exercises and

Anonymous said...

The white horse what wearing a white coat in a research lab.

Anonymous said...

"MINDEF/SAF should give some indication that the presence was offered but declined by the NOK."

"As a citizens' armed forces, it is vitally important that Singaporeans know their leaders - civilian and military - will be there for them unconditionally."

I am not comfortable with the implications of the above statements - that dealing with NOK is somehow an info management operation.

Intellectually, I understand and accept the arguments in this article. However, I am instinctively repulsed by the idea that any "command presence" at a military funeral should serve mainly to make a point about C2D.

Individual officers might have different feelings about performing such "missions", but i honestly think they will have a hard time convincing any cynics of their sincerity, regardless of how they truly feel.

Possible scenario:

Commander: "My condolences, I share your pain."
Cynic: "You screw up, CEP go down, of course pain lah. My son die leh, sure our pain the same or not?"

Furthermore, this can only be exacerbated by the perception that the children of said senior leadership are safely tucked behind computer desks during NS.

I just hope that no grieving NOK will ever be subjected to hamfisted attempts at using their loved one's sacrifice for public messaging.

Anonymous said...

Nice, u are expected to train hard to defend your country and when u died in uniform a minister or even higher ranked than a 1 star wont even attend your funeral!

Is it because he is Malay? Or too low at the totem pole to even be bothered to be given respect?

I piss on the SAF and its political masters. I am an NSman commander. I rather be proud to see my men MR with me even though he might not put in 100% or even 60% effort in training.

God knows i rather not attend their funerals with crying parents, spouses and children.

I will give the benefit of the doubt and much more, besides u can tagged us all as 3G Army. but looking how our counterparts train and fight, our conscript army cannot match, heart and soul. our high tech wiz bang can never replace the human spirit of loyalty to country, honor. U dont see that in our soldiers thats for sure.

Anonymous said...

You serve NS well, scholar benefits. You get accident, you pay yourself.

Temasek do well, Govt keeps the profits. Temasek don't do well, you still pay CPF.

SMRT do well, SMRT keeps the profits. SMRT don't do well, fare raise and Govt buys buses for SMRT.

You have kids, you pay yourself and Govt benefits. You don't have kids, LKY scold, Govt imports FT and govt benefits.

Same logic across all.

David Boey said...

Dear Anonymous 16 Aug 3:28 PM,
A high-level MINDEF/SAF presence need not turn into a media circus for the following reasons:

Firstly, not all funerals for SAF training deaths are covered by the media. The media does not always know where the wake (and subsequent funeral) is held because PAFF controls this info tightly. Some locations are provided by tipoffs, some from the obits. But the majority of training deaths do not receive the amount of coverage seen this week.

Secondly, media access to high-level MINDEF/SAF personnel is tightly controlled. If the newsmaker has nothing to say, then he/she has nothing to say.

These two points mean MINDEF/SAF can choose to keep such appearances low-key as the presence is meant for the NOK and loved ones of the deceased. Elected representatives should have better sense than to use such occasions to grandstand the media.

Even without overt mention in the media, people WILL eventually find out. For example, I do not live in Hougang but am aware that an MP there made it a point to pay his respects at wakes in his constituency. Word will get around if and when this practice becomes an SOP as it did in the Hougang MP's example (who had almost no media coverage for such visits).

I believe I have attended more wakes & funerals of SAF training deaths than all existing SAF COs. From experience, NOKs are generally in a confused state and appreciate any emotional support they can receive. And if there is hostility, isn't is best for top-level leadership to deal with it rather than someone down the line?

In any discussion on NS training deaths, please bear in mind NS applies to police and SCDF too.

I thank everyone for sharing their thoughts on this delicate subject.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

David, WP MPs attend all the wakes in their constituencies known to them. This has since been extended from Hougang to Aljunied. Just imagine how many wakes an MP has to attend in a year compared to the relatively low number of deaths (thankfully for the SAF). Heart versus protocol I will say. And we expect our men to charge when we tell them to do so?!

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous (above),
Thank you for updating all readers.

Warm regards,


Anonymous said...

The armuburst incident happen in 1990s whereby it prematurely explode. As a result, armburst live firing was stopped.

charlie said...

does "command presence" start and stop at the top?

i am dismayed to see that the NS commanders above still harbour a "them" and "us" attitude. do they not see themselves as part of the command chain?

Anonymous said...

Charlie, i believe the issue is not about whether ns commanders see or don't see themselves as part of the chain but that the chain doesn't stop with the OC, the CO or even the Div Comd. It is about how every commander would take ownership and responsibility from platoon sergeant all the way to the mos and the minister. It is about how commanders at every level regard their men, whether it is one of genuine concern or treating his men as a means to an end like part of a job or way to promotion or as a digit within some big policy.

chalie said...

I agree that having COA or indeed, DM, at the funeral would have been a nice gesture. But my suggestion is that 'command presence' does not simply equate to physical presence of top leadership on the grnd. As grnd commanders, we must certainly see ourselves as being able to carry the mantle of 'command presence'.

Regarding the other point about whether mindef's leadership regards such training deaths seriously, unfortunately, i have attended a few during my time, and can say that the leadership does go out of its way to firstly prevent such incidents, and secondly make sure that the family is taken care of. The problem is that the leadership prefers not to put such efforts in the limelight for fear of reprisals from cynics.