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?
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.
Why we should stop telling people they’re beautiful when they’re not. Read my latest article, No, You’re Not Beautiful, by clicking here.
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