Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Court verdict on the death of 2LT Nicholas Chan in the Land Rover incident

The court case has ended on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) death that started this this blog.

On Tuesday, Singapore Army Private Muhammad Abdul Qaiyuum Muhammed Iskander was fined $5,000 and barred from driving any vehicle for four years. The sentence was passed after PTE Qaiyuum, 19, pleaded guilty to causing the death of 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Nicholas Chan Wei Kit on 3 July last year after the Land Rover he was driving backed into the young officer. The tragedy took place just two days after SAF Day.

In owning up, PTE Qaiyuum showed a sense of responsibility way beyond his years.

The SAF’s death record has been clean thus far and this fact both worries and reassures me.

I fret over the clean record because training death statistics indicate that we’re just about due to chalk up a training fatality - if past year trends are indicators of things to come.

The last time a death-free period lasted till June was in 2006. In that year, the SAF had a clean spell until 20 June when 2LT Lionel Lin Shi Guan, 24, drowned while undergoing training at the Hendon Camp swimming pool.

Before the close of 2006, two more SAF servicemen would die on duty. These were NSF Private Ambrose Yeo Chang Wen, 20, who died on 18 Sept 2006 and Second Warrant Officer Tan Boon Toon, 45, who died on 17 November 2006.

We’re now into mid-June 2010 and the SAF has not reported any training deaths.

Past is not prologue. We should still strive for the ideal of zero fatal accidents. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) have enjoyed fatality-free years in the past while running at a high operational tempo.

Even as we aim for the ideal, we must be realistic that fate sometimes intervenes and throws us out of step. SAF personnel must harden themselves to life's harsh realities.

I am reassured that the SAF and Army leadership have reinforced the training safety message with much vigour.

Time and again, SAF regulars and full-time National Servicemen are reminded to think and act safely.

The SAF comes down hard on non-compliance with training safety regulations. These are lessons paid in blood in tragedies of past years when a moment’s neglect resulted in training deaths and casualties.

The move to raise training standards must be complemented by continued transparency when it comes to reporting SAF training incidents.

In the past year, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has learned the hard way that commitment to defence is hurt whenever Singaporeans are unhappy over perceived foot-dragging, or misconceptions that MINDEF is aloof or has shown dilatoriness over training incident reporting.

Public anger over the shotgun incident in Thailand is a timely reminder that Singaporeans expect to be informed when sons or daughters are injured while serving the SAF.

It is not their privilege to know. It is their right to be informed.

The tens of thousands of SAF Regulars, NSFs and Operationally-Ready NSmen who report for duty every day to defend Singapore against terrorist threats and deter aggression make a strong statement of their personal commitment to defence. We must not take such commitment for granted.

To those who know 2LT Chan personally – his family, loved ones and friends – it may be cold comfort knowing that his loss was not due to system failure where weak processes or procedures contributed to the tragedy.

I have covered several training deaths as a journalist and remember every wake I attended. I have seen the pain that SAF training deaths cause. In many cases, the distress is exacerbated by the loved ones' search for answers.

Many of you do not know this but after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, a Land Rover relief convoy that I helped organise to Krabi, Thailand, ended up as the only Singaporean-led mission to record a death. I was away covering the tsunami relief mission in Indonesia and only met the dead volunteer's family weeks later. The pain of having to explain to his 13-year-old son that his father died while doing good is not something I could do with dry eyes.

That painful episode showed me the value of a strong family support network, which the Land Rover group thankfully enjoyed as the drivers closed ranks with the family, as well as timely updates.

I hate the term “freak accident” beloved of newspapermen because it conjures the idea that there’s such a thing as a planned accident.

I can well understand how PTE Qaiyuum reversed into 2LT Chan. The reverse gear and first gear on a Land Rover are located very close to one another and it is very easy to allow the vehicle to slip into the wrong gear when shifting the gear stick forward.

In my case, I have seen vehicle inspectors put my Land Rover into the wrong gear on numerous occasions while on the vehicle inspection lane. No mishaps occurred as experienced inspectors usually tap the accelerator gently to nudge the vehicle onto the brake inspection rollers – the first station during the vehicle inspection test. Land Rover drivers usually move off in second gear. This involves pulling back the gear stick, so there's no chance of putting the vehicle into reverse by accident.

The Land Rover death case may have ended but the drive to ensure Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) stays true to its mission statement continues.

To that end, I am encouraged by the fact that the system is taking steps to introduce a new Director Public Affairs.

My friends and I are quietly confident that a better tomorrow awaits MINDEF PAFF, because now that they’re in the cellar, the only way is up.

RIP 2LT Nicholas Chan.


Freddy K. said...

Oh. I thought SAF people always get moved every 2-3 years? Has it changed with the new career schemes and all? How long has this guy been in the job?

Anonymous said...

I served as an MTO too during my NSF (ROD 93)days.
Unbelivably, I was not required to know how to drive, its like putting a non-swimmer in charge of a swimming pool and lifeguard duties, all theory only.
I tot the papers mentioned before that the 2Lt did not have a driving license too.
If the army had trained him to drive, perhaps he would be more aware of vehicular safety, would he have stayed out of harms way?? Dunno... and we never will.

Anonymous said...

waaaaaah u hounded him from office!!!

Anonymous said...

One question about shifting into reverse gear on a LR, is the reverse gear on it and a MB jeep where we would find first gear on a GP car?
MTOs and Workshop Officers don't need to have driving licenses or even know the procedures for inspection or jacking the vehicle AFAIK, in my time as a tech, we had to remind the boss to move out of the way when we were working on SM1s or M113s...

David Boey said...

Reverse gear on a LR is front and push left. 1st gear is front and push centre.

Is is VERY easy to get both gears mixed up.

Most civilian LR drivers I know move off in 2nd gear (pull back and centre). The workshop mechanic who taught me how to drive the LR advised me to drive off in 2nd. He said 1st gear is only used when towing.

When in doubt, move off in 2nd gear.