SINGAPORE: Findings from the Committees of Inquiry (COI) convened after the deaths of two full—time National Servicemen in two separate incidents this year have uncovered clear breaches of training safety regulations.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed this in a ministerial statement in Parliament on Wednesday.
In the first incident, Private Dominique Lee died after a training exercise involving smoke grenades at Lim Chu Kang on 17 April.
Private Lee experienced breathing difficulties after exposure to the smoke. He lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead at the National University Hospital.
"The cause of death was certified by the forensic pathologist of the Health Sciences Authority to be due to an ’acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes’," said Dr Ng.
Zinc chloride is a primary component of smoke grenades currently used in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
The COI discovered that the number of smoke grenades used in the exercise had exceeded the limit specified in training safety regulations.
Based on the exercise layout, not more than two smoke grenades should have been used.
The Platoon Commander threw six grenades, despite being aware of the specific safety regulations.
Dr Ng said that such smoke grenades, which have been used by the SAF since the 1970s, are still safe to use if training safety regulations are observed.
The COI was also "unable to establish with certainty" whether Private’s Lee’s asthma condition had contributed to his death, saying that the effects of zinc chloride on asthmatics were not well documented in medical literature.
However to address public concerns, the SAF has since suspended the use of such smoke grenades for training but it continues to use them in missions, said the minister.
Dr Ng also said that the SAF’s medical classification guidelines on asthma are "relevant, up to date and in line with national and international standards" and stated that it is still safe for servicemen with a history of asthma to undergo training with smoke grenades if training safety regulations are followed.
One in five national servicemen is affected by asthma.
MINDEF has relieved both the exercise Chief Safety Officer Captain Chia Thye Siong and the Platoon Commander who threw the smoke grenades, Captain Najib Hanuk Bin Muhamad Jalal, of their duties, the minister said.
They have been re—deployed to assignments which do not oversee soldiers in training or operations.
In the second incident, Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng was killed after a jeep that he was in overturned on May 11.
Third Sergeant Tan was travelling with other instructors in a scout jeep and was seated at the rear of the jeep. When the jeep overturned, Third Sergeant Tan was thrown out and pinned under the vehicle.
He underwent emergency surgery at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital but succumbed to his injuries.
Dr Ng said the inquiry discovered that the jeep driver was not licensed to drive the vehicle and that the two rear passengers, one of whom was Third Sergeant Tan, were not wearing their helmets or lap belts.
The COI also found that the Combat Intelligence School had a "weak safety structure" and in the course of its investigations, found other instances of unlicensed driving.
Shortly after the incident, MINDEF removed the Commanding Officer of the Combat Intelligence School Lieutenant—Colonel Vincent Lam Fei Liong from his command.
Other personnel in the Combat Intelligence School who were relieved of their duties include the Head of the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition Wing Major Poon Chen Song, the School Sergeant Major 1st Warrant Officer Lim Ser Wei, the exercise Supervising Officer Lieutenant Marcus Koh Men, and the exercise Conducting Officer Master Sergeant Lee Kong Kean.
Vehicular management systems at all SAF units have since been tightened to ensure no unauthorised driving occurs during field training.
COIs are chaired by senior civil servants from outside MINDEF and members include one or two medical specialists.
Dr Ng told the House that personnel found negligent in both incidents could be subject to a General Court Martial.
Police investigations are also on—going to determine whether to prosecute the personnel involved in Civil Court.
"Any commander who ignores safety regulations, whether wilfully or negligently, puts his soldiers at risk and is not fit for command," said Dr Ng.
"Our soldiers can train realistically and safely — there need not be a compromise...These two deaths could have been avoided if safety instructions had been followed."
Dr Ng also told Parliament that after these two incidents, the SAF will make three key systemic changes to strengthen training safety.
Under the changes, the SAF will deploy more safety officers on the ground.
A Safety Review Board has also been set up to review the Army’s overall safety structure, processes and culture.
In addition, the SAF will set up an Inspectorate, reporting directly to the Chief of Defence Force.
ministerial statement by Dr Ng Eng Hen
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