RONALD LEE: The Defence Minister has publicly weight in on the need for a more humane approach towards the family of late national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee. All parties from the army have agreed to scrap the combined S$22,000 in legal fees the family is supposed to compensate them after losing its lawsuit. The army has also helped with the funeral expenses of Pte Lee, with further compensation refused by the family. Answers as to the circumstances of the young man’s death have been provided by means of two inquiries.
Now, all that’s left is a proper apology.
Much as it tries to defend itself, the SAF has acknowledged that negligence on the part of its officers resulted in the death of Pte Lee. That’s why they were punished by a military court. The organisation has to man up and say the dreaded words, and not just something along the lines of “we’re sorry he died.” All the face-saving monetary and punitive measures won’t be enough to placate a family that entrusted their son and brother to its care, only to have him taken away for good.
Besides that the army also has to answer for why the safety officer in charge, Captain Chia Thye Siong, was punished for negligence in 2013, and promoted barely a year later to the rank of Major. It’s incomprehensible. A slap on the wrist and a “let’s move on” after safety lapses under his watch contributed to the death of a young man in his prime?
That is possibly the biggest slap on the face a grieving family can receive, and it makes all compensation reek of insincerity.
From the outset, the lawsuit against the SAF looked doomed to fail. I believe the family knew that but went ahead to press for justice and raise awareness regarding the way servicemen’s deaths are handled. Singapore aside, it’s hard to even bring a lawsuit against the army in most parts of the world, without having the case quashed and relegated to a military court. In the UK, you even have to go to the international courts if you’re looking to sue the armed forces there.
If their aim was to make sure Pte Lee’s death wasn’t swept under the rug, they’ve succeeded.
They’ve got those smoke bombs replaced, for the safety of future generations of soldiers.
They’ve pressured the army to pay more attention to Training Safety Regulations.
They’ve put in the spotlight that dreaded Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act, which says that “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, in so far as the death or personal injury is due to anything suffered by that other person while he is a member of the forces…”
It’s debatable whether the law should go. One one hand, it avoids double punishment for military officers from both the military and civil courts. On the other, it does sound terribly unfair and irresponsible for victims. And if you had a third hand, well, if governments of other developed nations have such provisions in place, then there is a lack of impetus for the Singapore government to buck the trend.
For now, it’s really accountability and an apology the SAF must offer.
The accountability part, we can expect more tight-lips.
And seeing how Pte Lee’s family roped in opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan to help speak for them, we can expect even tighter-lips on an apology from an organisation that concerns itself so much with saving face.
We might just see more army medals being put up for sale online.