The Grossly Negligent and Callous Death of Our NS Men Must Not Go Unpunished
I have been disgusted to read about the death of NS Cpl Aloysius Pang while on a training exercise in New Zealand. The SAF were very cagey about the details of his injuries when first reported and tried to give the impression that he would recover. However on Thursday they revealed that he was crushed when he got in the way of the barrel of the self-propelled howitzer he was repairing when it was lowered to a neutral position so it could be serviced. I cannot imagine the pain his family must be going through and any words of condolence are totally inadequate and cliched.
There are several issues involved here. Firstly what has been the safety record of the Primus 155mm Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer (SSPH)? According to Wikipedia, this was developed in the 1990s by ST Kinetics, the defence arm of Singapore Technologies (headed at the time by the PM’s wife, Ho Ching before she moved on to Temasek at around the same time that the SSPH entered service and her husband became PM), the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) and the SAF. While based on the American M109 Paladin howitzer it was made narrower and lighter so it could move easily on local roads (presumably Malaysian ones) and utilize the SAF’s mobile bridges.
We need to know whether in making the Primus narrower and lighter the size of the cabin around the gun was radically reduced, thus introducing a lethal design flaw that resulted inevitably in Cpl Pang’s death. Have any accidents happened before? If they did, and the SAF’s senior officers and the Defence Minister knew about it and did nothing, then they should be prosecuted for manslaughter by gross negligence. Surely the designers and executives at Singapore Technologies, including its CEO at the time, should have known that reducing the cabin would make it less safe for the personnel inside given the possibility of being trapped between the gun and the roof or floor of the cabin. If this was the case, why was consideration not given to installing sensors or other systems that would prevent the gun being lowered if someone was in the way?
Secondly why was an NS reservist maintaining a complicated and, we now know, lethal piece of machinery. He had been deployed to NZ to take part in a training exercise to simulate battlefield conditions. Did this mean that normal safety procedures were suspended? Presumably in Singapore defective SSPHs would be sent back to OMB (or whatever it is called nowadays) for maintenance where there would be the right equipment. It appears from the limited descriptions of how the accident occurred that Cpl Pang was on top of the gun barrel when it was lowered. Was he put under pressure by his OC to abandon normal safety precautions because of the perceived need to get the SSPH back in the field ASAP.
Cpl Pang only served in the reservists for one month a year and thus even if he was gifted with extraordinary powers of recall he would still be at a disadvantage compared to regular technicians who worked on tanks and SSPHs full-time. As a talented young actor it is doubtful that he had much exposure to heavy machinery repair in civilian life. Clearly he did not know or had forgotten that he was supposed to move to a safe place when the gun barrel was lowered.
Why were the SAF using a reservist when they should have been employing a regular and using him in a foreign military exercise with only professional soldiers from other countries who have volunteered and been trained to accept higher levels of risk? Obviously the reason for this is cost. The Government has always considered NS men as a source of cheap slave labour since it pays them well below what they would be able to earn outside (I was about to say that it pays them peanuts but “peanuts” are how Mrs Goh Chok Tong described earnings of $600,000 p.a. in 2004. I guess not many NS men earn even $20,000 p.a.)
As long as they remain effectively slave labour, doing many jobs that would cost the Government far more if it was forced to pay regular workers, there will be a cavalier attitude to safety and a disregard for the risks. Even if they are killed on duty the Government is only required to compensate their family one year’s basic pay of a regular soldier of equivalent rank. As NS men are conscripted and not serving by choice their compensation should be much greater. (By contrast the US Government pays US$100,000 to the partner or dependents of anyone killed on military service while the UK pays £37,500 and provides other benefits) Only then will the Government start valuing their lives properly and ensuring that safety is paramount.
What is particularly shocking is that our NS men appear to be suffering a substantially higher casualty rate as a proportion of the male citizen population than the US as a proportion of its total population, despite the fact that US soldiers are involved in fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan among others.
The Government has announced that it will be setting up a Committee of Inquiry. This will be meaningless unless it is chaired by an independent figure, perhaps a high court judge (though judges are appointed by the PM and thus not independent) or a foreigner with no ties or business in Singapore. It will also be a pointless exercise if the terms of reference are too narrowly drawn and do not consider whether there is a fundamental design flaw with the SSPH and with the other armoured vehicles produced by ST Engineering including the Bionix which has already killed 2 NS men.
If there has been a blatant disregard by military officers of safety procedures then there should be prosecutions for manslaughter by gross negligence. If the Minister, Ng Eng Hen, has ignored safety recommendations, presumably to save money, then he should not be fired but also prosecuted. If there is evidence of fundamental flaws in the design of the SSPH, the Bionix and other armoured vehicles and it can be shown that the management of Singapore Technologies at the time these vehicles were developed were aware of them then they should also be prosecuted.
It is offensive that our highly paid leaders expose our poorly paid and already disadvantaged NS men to risks that regular soldiers in other developed countries would be protected from. It is even more offensive that while our men give up over two years of their lives (and earning capacity) the PAP Government welcomes highly paid foreign expatriates who are able to work in Singapore for decades paying little or no tax while they and their children do not have to do NS. Until we raise the costs to our leaders of callous disregard of the safety of NS personnel, and until we reform the whole grossly unfair and discriminatory NS system, things are not going to change.