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Why Protect My Country When My Country Doesn’t Protect Me?

So two pieces of army-related news broke out in Singapore over the past couple of days. A YouTuber-turned-movie-actor was sentenced to 9 months in detention barracks (the army’s version of prison) for smoking weed, while a platoon commander escaped jail time for killing a private.

Hmm, strange huh?

For my international readers and those who aren’t quite up to speed with the matter, here’s a bite-sized summary of the whole incident thus far:

21-year-old private Dominique Sarron Lee collapsed after his commander, Captain Najib Hanik Muhammad Jalal, decided to throw more smoke grenades (six) than he was allowed to (two) during an urban obstacle training exercise in April 2012. The former went on to suffer an allergic reaction from the excessive zinc chloride in the smoke (as certified by the Health Sciences Authority) and died in the hospital shortly after.

Then-Defence Minister Mr Ng Eng Hen agreed in Parliament that safety breaches led to the deaths of Private Lee. The Committees Of Inquiry also believed 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 the evidence, lawsuits filed against the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the platoon commander, and the chief safety officer of the exercise for negligence on their part were subsequently thrown out of the court.

And as if losing a son to his superiors’ utter incompetence isn’t enough, the courts decided to stick its finger to the Singapore Kindness Movement and ordered the victim’s family to pay the legal fees of all three parties involved, which amounted to around $22,000!

Talk about rubbing salt on the wounds.

A lot of talk since has centered around the presiding judge, Judicial Commissioner Kannan Remesh, and his seemingly ridiculous verdict. I admit, I too was initially pissed at him and his questionable decision, but I realised he didn’t really had a choice. 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…”

As much as the court of public opinion find Captain Najib guilty beyond doubt, the Judge didn’t have much to fault him with. Yes, while it’s unfortunate that Najib caused the death of someone and never got round to receiving punishment beyond a court marshall, our focus should be on changing the relevant laws our lawmakers have legislated, and realise how they can potentially allow high-ranking officials to, metaphorically speaking, stay above the law and escape punishment for their carelessness and/or incompetency.

Equally alarming was the fact that the personnel present weren’t capable of dealing with an asthma attack, much less an “acute allergic reaction”:

Taking the stand back in 2012 during the inquest, Corporal Goh Khen Hui was asked if he was well-equipped and had enough training to deal with asthma emergencies. He said no, and so did three other servicemen, who told the coroner they were not trained to spot signs and deal with asthma attacks. The chief safety officer during the training, Captain Chia Thye Siong even said that having access to such information”would have been helpful” to him at the time of the incident. I’m sure the combat medic who first attended to him would agree, having said that he did not have “enough medical training or adequate equipment to deal with asthma attacks”.

The cause-of-death ultimately wasn’t due to asthma as originally speculated, but doesn’t their unpreparedness implicate the higher-ups further?

The government wants every able-bodied male citizen in the country to sacrifice two years of their prime to serve the country, yet when someone fails to do their job properly and commits a fatal error, they are allowed to cover their asses and get off the hook?

And they still had the cajones to label the lawsuits as “frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of the court process”?

Yea, you have a thesaurus, big f***ing deal.

Are the lives of ‘Singaporean Sons’ worth nothing much to our government?

Are we just there to make up the numbers and protect a bunch of people who probably don’t value our lives?

Are our contributions so meaningless that we can’t warrant some basic form of respectful closure should anything happen to us (touch wood)?

Tell me then, why should I serve a country who treats me like an expendable and easily-replaceable object?

How can parents allow their sons to serve the country in peace when any attempts to seek recourse should something fatal happen to them ultimately end up fruitless?

How can we be willing to put our lives on the line when any wrongful mistakes committed by those looking after us can be unfairly twisted to deny justice from taking its course?

How can I answer the call of duty without an ounce of reluctance knowing that should my life be ruined by my superiors’ negligence, they are immune from being tried in court?

More importantly, to the people in power, how do you even sleep at night, knowing that you were responsible for the blood, tears, and anguish behind an incident that eventually ended with a distraught mother compensating his son’s killers?

Just… how?

By telling them that “shit happens”? By telling them to “suck it up”? Or by rolling in your bed with wads of five-figure cash?

And while all this is happening, you have a guy going to jail for taking a substance that killed absolutely no one in 2015.*

Now that’s not very Majulah now, is it?

*Sidenote: While I’m a staunch anti-drug advocate, I am more than willing to accept the findings of medical papers and studies on the benefits of drugs. There’s a big, big difference between telling the public the adverse effects of marijuana, and telling the public that marijuana provides no conclusive medical benefits. The former is understandable; the latter is plain ignorant, backwards, and myopic.

Some people might argue that this is a civil suit – the victim’s mother did reject compensation from SAF – and that the loser in a civil suit has to pay the legal fees of the other party. Well, you’re perfectly right, those are indeed the facts. The purpose of this article isn’t to find fault with the Judicial Commissioner, or to shit on Capt. Najib for not getting his just desserts. It is all about highlighting the flawed system that presents negligent officers a “Get Out of Jail Free” card just because their mistakes were committed in the military. Do you see people convicted of manslaughter or culpable homicide paying off their victims and escaping jail time in the process?

As depicted on Channel 5’s lawyer drama “The Pupil”, if it’s possible for a girl to receive a six-year jail sentence for unintentionally killing her would-be rapist under Singapore laws, how can a platoon commander get essentially nothing for killing someone due to his questionable judgement which went against the army’s SOPs?

Just because the location and context of which the accident occurred (come on, using three times the amount of smoke grenades permitted is just indefensible) are different, should the consequences differ for the same bracket of crime? It’s totally understandable why she would reject the compensation offered, for no amount of money will ever bring Private Lee back. It’s about seeking justice for her son and finding closure to this tragic incident; expecting her to accept the payout while those responsible for her son’s death walk away free is just plain wrong.

We must take a moment to review the section of the Statutes and make the necessary changes to prevent similar outcomes from happening again. Instead of throwing money at a problem and expecting it to fix itself, we have to ensure people are accounted for their actions and treated accordingly in court before the case even has a chance to escalate into a civil suit. Our laws and justice system are meant to protect the weak and vulnerable, not the rich and powerful. We need to stop affording a cloak of immunity to those in power and start making them aware of the consequences brought about by their actions.

For now, there will be a bunch of wankers thinking they are almighty and above the law (or at least on-par, for now), and that any accusations made against them are just inconveniences that should be glossed over asap. A total lack of compassion coupled with the ultimate insult of being forced to pay the people responsible for your son’s death remains truly astounding and unbelievable. The classless manner in which this case was handled displayed ignorance and arrogance of the highest level, ‘qualities’ simply unacceptable for an ‘organisation’ that essentially represents the strength and security of our country. National Service was meant to teach boys to be responsible, respectful, and to take ownership of their actions.

How cruelly ironic that turned out to be.

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  1. Pingback: What Mothers Will Learn From Dominique Sarron Lee's Death - Jules of Singapore

  2. Lawrence Ng says

    I have tried not to comment on this case as it seems like a no win social media situation but I am compelled to share. I am glad a 18 year old cares about this issue and is thinking about it. However I am not sure how to respond to this.

    I think the intent of your post is good and understandable. But this is a complex issue that cannot be appreciated unless there is careful review of the facts of the matter. Just to name a few: (1) Fact: the serviceman was not killed by the commander per se. He was killed by an allergic reaction to a chemical component in the smoke grenade used. The same smoke grenade that was used for the last 30 years with no adverse effects to any of the 900,000+ servicemen that went before him and would have experienced this smoke. And yes I am sure there were cases where there may have been more than the established guidelines were used. I am even sure in the early years no such guidelines even existed. While it could be argued that the number used was a deviation from the training protocols. It could not be determined by the court and the medical experts that this deviation would have caused the death nor could the death been foreseen by the commanders on the ground. A smallest amount of the chemical to a larger dose could have caused the reaction. (2) Fact: the commanders were indeed punished for this deviation and in the past for other cases various higher degrees of punishments have been meted out based on the specific circumstances of each case. (3) Fact: MINDEF had already waived some other earlier costs from earlier actions. All parties must be responsible and be aware of the reality of moving new actions.

    I could go on and one but I would on this case.

    It would not be logical to say upfront before any court action or decision to say that it will cover any legal action of the complainant. This would be an open invitation for any frivolous action for all sorts of cases. They can empathise on a case by case basis based on outcome which they have.

    The general comments about the country not caring for the welfare of our soldiers rubs me the wrong way. Simply because I know how wrong such a comment is. There are numerous stories by servicemen who have come into harms way and have seen the organisation go the extra mile to care for them and their loved ones. Its just that these stories are just not sexy and do not get wide circulation. Not that I am saying a sad story is sexy but I think you know what I mean. Each correctable gap in training and operational activities is met with extreme critical analysis and follow up action that I believe the SAF is one of the safest armed forces in the world. Almost any medically downgraded recruits parents can tell you a dozen stories of how trainers err on the side of caution when training their sons and daughters in their BMT. In my 30 years of service as an NSman I have seen such a robust system of safety I catch myself wondering if we are too soft in the preparation for what the SAF is trained to do. Be so capable and effective that no one would dare threaten the Singaporean way of life or if push came to shove be able to out down an aggressor so effectively that you and I can live the lives we live today.

    I have had command responsibility in NS and I have rushed my men on a couple of occasions in my 30 years to hospital because they were short of breath, or had chest pains while in the field. In most cases it was a false alarm and there was one real heart attack but almost our safety system always delivered.

    If you tell me its not my child I can tell you how very wrong you are. The men I train with I know for more than 10 years, I watch them leave NSF, graduate from university, get married, have children, have heart attacks in their civilian lives, break a leg, dislocate limbs in training etc. They ARE FAMILY !!. I also have a son that enlisted last year another will do so next. Don’t tell me its not my son. Yes I do not know the loss. I have been lucky. But I know the fears of every parent, father, son, brother, commander and fellow solider because I am HE.

    To build a military that can prevent war is to be able to go to war effectively. It can be argued that the SAF is one of the most successful because we have prevented war. And business of preparing for war is a dangerous one, in its most base form; its to kill without being killed. But we have probably one of the best safety records anywhere. And you know what WE CARE. And I get it you care as well, so help the country and your fellow Singaporean ask the right questions in the right tone. Read the reports factually and in full so we can make the system an even better one.

    Hope an alternate viewpoint was welcome.

    a Singaporean Son
    Pure NSman, NSmans’ brother, NSF’s father
    Have never served as a regular uniformed serviceman

  3. I’m disappointed in the way this incident was handled and how it turned out. I expected Singapore to be better than that. The utter lack of compassion and humanity displayed by our justice system is appalling. This is a sad day not just for Dominic’s family, but also for us as a nation.

    RIP Dom

    • Johann says

      What is a JC who has never ever served NS nor even understand what NS is, doing with this case? His judgment is absolutely, horrendously and simply morally wrong.. Period.

  4. I’m gonna go one step further and say that the phrase “frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of the court’s process” is explicitly found in the Rules of Court. It’s a legal standard that applicants in a striking out application have to prove. Nobody referred to a thesaurus, please get that right.

    While the decision is harsh, I’m nonetheless convinced that the family’s lawyer had some part to play in it. In a striking out application, all that a defendant has to prove is a reasonable cause of action and that, in laymen terms, is saying that he has, at this point, a valid case that can be proved at trial. It is generally not that difficult to resist a striking out application. As Nigel commented above, it was strange that the family’s lawyer argued, in order to circumvent the Government Proceedings Act, that there was contractual relationship between the family and the lawyer “to ensure the highest standards of training safety” To all the lawyers reading this now, doesn’t that not sound like uh, a tortious relationship to you?! (i.e. kind of a silly argument that should be struck out)

    While we may never know the arguments canvassed in the hearing, the reason why the suit got struck out might be because the family’s lawyer did not argue the case convincingly enough. As our legal system is adversarial (e.g. it is about who has the better case), it might very well be the case that the AGC argued the case more competently as compared to the family’s lawyer.

    Also, the common law is quite trite on the fact that it has been very difficult throughout legal history to bring tort claims against the government, armed forces, policemen, paramedics etc. The rationale for this is quite clear: you don’t want these people to always be afraid of being sued for negligence while carrying out their duties (e.g. can you imagine a paramedic always being afraid of doing anything to a dying person for fear of being sued?) I’m surprised the family’s lawyer didn’t advise them on the merits of the case – I honestly think that he had a duty to manage their expectations before starting the suit. From the way the family reacted, I think I can say that that wasn’t really done.

    Just my two cents’ worth. Not trying to be harsh on any particular individual or anything, but I think it’s important that we don’t go rushing to blame the government for anything and everything under the sun.

  5. Nigel says

    It is useful to note also that the lawyer of the family had tried to established the notion that the relationship between the soldier and SAF is a contractual one. This is a little strange because it would be very hard to prove this relationship. Knowing very well that the provisions in the Government Proceeding is what they are up against, the family had to prove that the provisions do not apply in this case and also that the relationship between SAF and the soldier is a contractual one. That is a tall order. It is not difficult to see how they can even win the case.

  6. You can’t trust the SAF. That is why its important to keng and find every damn reason to get out…

  7. Pingback: Useless things that I pile onto the top of my to-do list | cherchantlagom

  8. Michael says

    Hi, be clear also that costs may not refer to ‘legal fees’ as a whole and the amount varies.

    I also think that to make your article more meaningful and have more impact, you could be less sarcastic, that way people can see it as knowledgeable and helpful, rather than a article full of spite.

    • Hi Michael! Thanks for your input. The news outlets I’ve researched on for this story referred to the money payable as “legal fees” so I went with it. Regarding the way I write, I guess it’s more of personal style? I wasn’t making a deliberate attempt to be sarcastic or full of spite like you said.

  9. Jian yang says

    As to the case of Noah yap, would you want to be next to someone who has live rounds and is high on drugs?

    • Dennis says

      Live rounds for music and drama company? Which army did you serve in?

    • He’s at MDC bro, and they’re not even combat trained. I’m not sure if they are even required to go through the annual shooting exercises.

  10. Jian yang says

    We don’t serve national service because of our whims and fancies. We serve because Singapore’s sovereignty and the safety of our loved ones holds far more weight than our lives. No doubt this is a tragic incident but to use it as an excuse shrug off one’s duty and obligation to our own country is plain irresponsible.
    The SAF isn’t perfect, the government isn’t perfect but that doesn’t mean Singapore isn’t worth defending and that our homes aren’t worth defending. And that is the very reason for national service.
    Your intention isn’t to tear down the institution of national service but your title is.

    • Ton says

      Meaning to say you actually agree with the way Pte Dom is treated lah?

    • Hello says

      You are able to say this because your not the one that is suffering

      • just because you’re not the one suffering does not mean you do not have better insight into sensitive matters. youre angry, you went into madness because he insulted your mum, you murdered him. so people say youre wrong, will you still fucking think you know better because youre the one raging? no, you fucking human. emotions cloud our judgement. the reason why people dont try to reason with that woman is because they know she is suffering, it is not ‘right’ to hurt her further just to prove she’s wrong. and thats kindness of a human. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN SHES RIGHT FUCKER. THIS STORY KEPT APPEARING ITS FUCKING MAKING ME SICK

    • Hello says

      You are able to say this because your not the one that is suffering and btw how can we trust them when they treat us like this?

    • Rey says

      Jian Yang, to use the excuse of serving Singapore’s sovereignty and the protection of society to absolve one of the responsibility to conduct himself responsibly is, odiously, more irresponsible. Let’s hope your child will not suffer a similar tragedy. You are right, nothing is perfect. But the correct response would be to acknowledge imperfection and improve upon it. The government has a perfect opportunity to demonstrate its moral authority but it squandered it spectacularly, choosing instead the path of shame. Ultimately, the loser is Singaporeans, who the government has failed to serve and protect.

      • Rey, or whoever here are all fucking irrational. I am glad the government is not managed by idiots like you. people would be put in jail just to appease the public. you would say its not about ‘appeasing’, but it is the truth. theres a reason why Court exists, its all about fair judgement. if everyone is so damn pro about giving pro judgement, there is no for court. and i tell you this, people will be punished wrongly-solely based on emotions. let me ask you the following questions: what is the determining factor in his death? allergy or the (6) smoke grenades. it is the allergy. but since im smart, i would ask myself this: sure, its true that allergy played a huge part in this, but would he have lived if there were less grenades(SOP number)?** this is key to everything. the key to tackling this is to calculate the required dose to cause death to a person with that allergy. if the outcome doesn’t change, its clear its not the government fault, the commanders simply have to be punished for not following SOP(simple as that). HOWEVER, more than assigned dose was indeed the cause, they should be charged for unintentional murder.

    • Don't be too naive says

      We sure as hell ain’t gonna serve these scumbags. If every single (countless) catastrophe (deaths) can be so easily dismissed and ignored by simply being ‘imperfect’, with no improvements being made or any justice meted out, we sure as hell ain’t gonna serve these scumbags. You think we do not understand? I’m sure most of us Singaporean sons enlisting into the army are more than willing to serve the country, to protect the country’s sovereignty and safety of our people. You have actually STRUCK the main point here. We are serving to protect the country’s sovereignty and safety of our people, not serving these scumbags and fulfilling their sick political agendas. Do ask around; the recruits currently serving the army will have you know how fucked up the management and the army system is. You think the higher management in the army actually cares about the ‘safety of your loved ones’? That’d be the biggest joke of your life if you actually believe in that.

  11. Alexander says

    Yes. I fucking agree. 2 years only. Want to be so on for what. Chiong and be so on what you get? Chiong also get 400. Keng also get 400. If keng correctly still can book out everyday sleep at home.

  12. Sven Poom says

    Well said. It seems our laws are meant to protect the govt, not the people. By the way, it’s court martial, not marshall, thanks.

    • Hi Sven! Thanks for letting me know. How ironic, I initially thought Martial was a typo, that’s why I changed it to Marshall haha.

  13. Mark Olivero says

    platoon commander* not, as the title has put it: sergeant.

    • Hi Mark! During my research I saw that some news outlets ran their stories using the title “sergeant”, which I found strange as well. Will have to clarify yet again. Thanks for the heads up!

  14. As difficult as it is, I understand the presence of such a law. If SAF does not have a law that void it of any death, any war/skirmish will bankrupt SAF as each life will cost tens of thousands of dollars. However, I do also believe that the law should be expanded so it cannot be used as an escape for peacetime accidents. I do hope the court void the 22 thousand payment and SAF provide appropriate compensations, even if it is just as a symbolic gesture. We already have enough parents warning their kids to play-dead in army. We don’t need incidents to prove them right. At the same time, I will definitely warm my future kid to lie down whenever he feels even the slightest discomfort. A scolding from SAF is not worth your life.

  15. just a heads up: “frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of the court process” is actually very common legal terminology, the lawyers weren’t trying to be douchey by using excessive vocab LOL it’s something they actually have to prove to try to throw the case out of court

    and the government proceedings act isn’t the constitution, and reviewing the constitution in this case would be useless to the deceased’s family.

    thought your article was not bad but maybe you can consider improving it

    • Changed “constitution” to the proper term, thanks for the heads up! Too engrossed in writing so probably lost track of the vocab.

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