Tuesday, 4 November 2008

OPQ 21 October 2008: Recent Deaths of National Servicemen

I filed this OPQ in light of the recent death of a NSF PTE Foo Wei Rong, the third serviceman (and I stand corrected by the Minister, PTE Foo is the second NSF, 2LT Lam having been a regular) to die in training this year. There were no surprises in the answer given by the Minister (and in fact I quite expected it), but what I really wanted to do was to ask about the outcome of the 2 earlier deaths.

It will be cold comfort to the families, but I suspect that it would have been reassuring to parents to find out the causes of those two deaths, that they ultimately resulted from circumstances and factors that were not systemic or attributable to any inadequacy in the medical examinations undertaken by the SAF (and in particular, the SAF's continued decision not to conduct stress ECGs as a standard test). This is a clear instance where greater transparency and forthrightness by MINDEF would have been beneficial for all, and it should not have required a PQ to extract this information.

(Additional preventive measures)

14. Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Minister for Defence in view of the three deaths of National Servicemen during training this year, whether the Ministry intends to implement any additional measures to prevent such deaths.

The Minister for Defence (Mr Teo Chee Hean): Mr Speaker, Sir, Mr Siew Kum Hong asked, in view of the death of three servicemen during training this year, whether the Ministry intends to implement any additional measures to prevent such deaths. At the outset, perhaps I should clarify that Mr Siew asked about three national servicemen. In fact, out of three servicemen, two of them were national servicemen and one was a regular serviceman.

Let me recap the steps that have been taken. Immediately after the deaths of REC Andrew Cheah (a full-time national serviceman) and 2LT Clifton Lam (a regular serviceman) on 10th and 11th June this year, the SAF took a 3-day time-out to review its training safety systems. The review established that the systems are good and sound. As for the recent death of PTE Foo (a full-time national serviceman) on 30th September this year, a Committee of Inquiry has been convened and investigations are ongoing.

I want to assure Mr Siew and Members of this House that the safety and well-being of our servicemen is taken very seriously. At the last parliamentary session, I explained to the House in some detail our medical screening processes. These medical screening processes are in line with good international clinical practice and are continually reviewed by independent panels of medical consultants and specialists, and where there are improvements that can be made, we will do so.

Safety of our servicemen doing training is also taken very seriously. Training is progressive and graduated. Over and beyond having sound training systems, there is command emphasis to ensure that our soldiers are well prepared for training and strenuous exercises. For example, the training schedule is designed so that before any strenuous activity, servicemen do get sufficient rest and follow a proper hydration regime. An attending medic will be on-site during the conduct of the strenuous activity to deliver prompt medical care. In the event of a medical emergency, there are proper and established procedures to deliver prompt and appropriate medical attention to the serviceman.

Apart from this, commanders look out for servicemen who show signs that they are not feeling well. Such servicemen would be excused from training to seek medical attention. Servicemen are also reminded to tell their commanders should they feel unwell during or after any training activity. This is important as it is sometimes not easy or possible to know if someone is not feeling well unless the soldier himself tells his commander.

Mr Speaker, Sir, let me reiterate that the well-being of our soldiers is always a priority in the SAF. We have to train our soldiers hard so that they have the ability to fight, and to defend Singapore should the need arise, and it will help to ensure success on the battle-field and that they return home safely after that. So the SAF provides tough and realistic training to our soldiers but the SAF also maintains high safety standards to ensure that safety is not compromised.

I think both Mr Siew and I know that, despite our best efforts to reduce risk in training, it is not possible to guarantee that there will never be injury or death arising from it. Nevertheless, I can assure this House that the SAF will continue to do its best to look after our servicemen and servicewomen in terms of medical screening, proper training systems, training safety procedures and medical coverage during training activities. They are, after all, our sons and our daughters and every life is precious to us.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Mr Speaker, Sir, I would like to thank the Minister for his response and assurances to this House.

I only have one supplementary question, which is to ask the Minister what is the status of the inquiries by MINDEF into the deaths of the late 2LT Clifton Lam and the late REC Andrew Cheah, and, given the public interest, will the results be made public.

Mr Teo Chee Hean: Mr Speaker, Sir, in the case of 2LT Clifton Lam, the Higher Board of Inquiry convened by MNIDEF has been completed and the cause of 2LT Lam's death is heat stroke.

For all training activities, trainees are constantly reminded to hydrate themselves. There are water breaks and water parades when trainees drink water. In the event when there is an exercise where the trainee is required to take responsibility for himself, such as the training that 2LT Lam was undergoing, which was a three-day jungle confidence course, they were given safety briefings and, in this case, he was provided with four litres of water and purification tablets to purify stream or river water for drinking.

The HBOI, unfortunately, established that 2LT Lam may not have hydrated himself adequately during this period of training. The HOBI looked into the SAF's safety systems and was satisfied that these were in place and that there was no safety breach, neither was there foul play or negligence on the part of any personnel.

In the case of REC Andrew Cheah, the Committee of Inquiry investigation has been completed. Based on the autopsy report, the cause of REC Cheah's death is acute pneumonitis. I should point out that in neither case was the cause of death linked to medical screening as such. So the case of REC Cheah's death was determined by the autopsy report as acute pneumonitis. This is an acute infection causing extensive inflammation of the lungs. The typical symptoms are cough, phlegm, fever, pain in the chest, body aches and difficulty in breathing.

However, it is possible, the doctors tell us, for a person to suffer from lung infection and yet not develop cough or fever, and this was indeed the case of REC Cheah. The infection must have been abrupt and caused his condition to deteriorate rapidly.

REC Cheah told his section mates before the two-kilometre walk that he felt a little breathless; and during the walk, his instructor who was walking with REC Cheah, observed that he looked tired and was breathing hard. However, he had no other observable symptoms such as cough or fever. In these circumstances, it was difficult for his instructors or platoon mates, or indeed for REC Cheah himself, to have known that the breathlessness was caused by acute pneumonitis and not simply fatigue.

The instructor had asked REC Cheah whether he was not feeling well, REC Cheah replied that he was just tired. Hence, the instructor allowed REC Cheah to continue with the walk around the stadium in Pulau Tekong camp and did not pull him out as REC Cheah was able to converse with him, answer his questions with clarity in speech and in thought.

The COI concluded that the instructor's decision to let REC Cheah continue with the walk was not unreasonable. The COI concluded that there was no safety breach and neither was there foul play or negligence on the part of any personnel.

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