Singapore party renews call to lift legal immunity for Mindef, negligent officers in serious safety breaches

Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh called for a review of the Government Proceedings Act, which indemnifies members of the armed forces from negligence suits for deaths and injuries that occur during military duty. — Parliament screengrab via TODAY
Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh called for a review of the Government Proceedings Act, which indemnifies members of the armed forces from negligence suits for deaths and injuries that occur during military duty. — Parliament screengrab via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Feb 12 — After a spate of military training deaths, Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh has renewed his party’s call for the government to lift the immunity that protects the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and commanders from being sued when egregious safety breaches take place.

While stressing that training safety must be of the utmost importance, Singh also argued that Mindef’s goal of zero training deaths was unrealistic and “wishful”, given the inherent risks associated with training a military force that must be ready to defend Singapore at a moment’s notice.

Singh, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency, made these comments in an adjournment motion tabled in Parliament yesterday, hours after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen spoke in the House about recent high-profile training mishaps.

Singh called for a review of the Government Proceedings Act, which indemnifies members of the armed forces from negligence suits for deaths and injuries that occur during military duty.

He argued that there was room for the government to inject greater accountability by creating a “specific carve-out” in cases where there is wilful disregard for safety.

WP Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan had earlier made the proposal in 2016.

To deal with concerns that this may compromise training and prejudice commanders who push their soldiers to perform better, Singh suggested that a possible exception to the law could apply only if commanders behave recklessly, maliciously or display a wilful disregard for safety considerations.

For example, the immunity should not apply if a commander chooses deliberately to cancel a safety briefing or had not catered for sufficient rest before or between training activities, said Singh.

Calling such a legislative change an “important bellwether” for the evolution of training-safety management, Singh said it would buttress public confidence in, among other things, the importance of National Service (NS) and the lengths to which the authorities would go to protect the institution, even if it means putting Mindef’s and its commanders’ reputation on the line.

In response, Dr Ng said Singh’s call for the removal of immunity “misses the point”.

He added: “I don’t need... those who want to sue the government to do so before the commanders are held accountable.”

Commanders and servicemen who fall short are held accountable for their actions, and this entails not just civilian payouts in the courts, but they “go to jail”, he said.

“Their lives, in that sense, and careers are ruined, and justly so, if they deserved it.”

Dr Ng also said that he was “not afraid of Mindef’s reputation”.

“I am more concerned about individual lives, about how our commanders at any given moment (in) time watch for the safety of their national servicemen, of the people under their charge, and yet at the same time, conduct realistic training,” he added.

Zero-death messaging ‘unrealistic’

On Mindef’s target of “zero” training deaths, Singh said it has created expectations such that every time a death happens, the public pressure on military commanders takes on a “very corrosive edge”.

This damages not only the SAF but also NS as an institution, he noted.

Keeping deaths to “zero” is a goal that even those in industries with notoriously strict safety standards and compliance requirements — such as aviation — cannot achieve, Singh said.

While Dr Ng acknowledged that this was a very difficult target to meet, he asked: “But which mother, shall we say, can lose (her) son?”

 “We have to aim for it, and as our experience shows, in some years, we will be able to achieve it,” he added.

There were no NS training deaths between 2013 and 2016.

While a zero-fatality record cannot be guaranteed going ahead, Dr Ng said the target “sears into the consciousness of every commander and every soldier that to get there, you had better be careful about what you are doing (and) that safety lapses will not be tolerated”.

The will to fight

Singh devoted a part of his speech to the will to fight, which he said was an important concept that unites servicemen.

Some discussions following actor Aloysius Pang’s death last month, however, have the potential of damaging NS as an institution, he said.

Apart from addressing the broader misgivings of some Singaporeans, it is important for Mindef to deal with questions raised by well-meaning citizens, such as why it cannot evolve to hire an all-regular force, he added.

In 2016, Singh proposed that Mindef publish a detailed defence white paper outlining the SAF’s strategic imperatives.

Delving into the suggestion again, Singh said yesterday that this document could be an important reference for many, including Singapore’s neighbours, to appreciate why the city-state needs a strong, world-class military able to defend its sovereignty.

Dr Ng did not respond to this point.

Despite their divergent views, Dr Ng and Singh agreed on the importance of the SAF in defending Singapore’s sovereignty, and the need for soldiers to train safely.

Singh said Singapore’s geopolitical realities — being surrounded by much larger neighbours — and its small size make the need for a capable and resolute SAF “abundantly clear”.

“In such a context, Singapore’s need for a strong, operationally ready deterrent force that means business, and can promise and deliver a bloody nose on any adversary becomes not just acute, but critical,” he added.

Other proposals in brief

  • Consider raising the retirement age for regular servicemen, including officers, warrant officers and specialists. Singh argued that compared with many militaries around the world, officers here are made to retire “a little too prematurely” and extending the tenure of senior commanders so they pick up deeper operational knowledge would have “positive spin-offs” in preventing accidents. The SAF could also consider having those who have left active service take up roles that oversee safety.
  • Ease up on non-core duties and those unrelated to training — even national ones — so that soldiers can spend more time on training, live-firing and maintenance duties. Operationally ready soldiers may also need more time to get up to speed with their equipment during in-camp training and before exercises. This comes amid an expected drop in the cohort of enlistees and, with that, the prospect of machines playing a bigger role and troops moving to more lethal motorised and mechanised platforms, Singh added. — TODAY