Monday, 19 November 2012

Safety comes first, but at a price

Strict safety standards may not be practical and may fail to make army training realistic
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 18 Nov 2012

It was a familiar refrain, one that Singapore hears every time a soldier dies in the service of his nation: "One life lost is one too many."

Tragically, it was not just one this time, but two.

It was especially tragic because these two men had not joined the army voluntarily.

Unlike professionals who would be fully aware of the inevitable risk of choosing a career in the military, Private Dominique Sarron Lee and Third Sergeant Tan Mou Sheng were like thousands of Singaporean males conscripted because the country needs them. Therefore it has the responsibility to take care of them.

So it seemed only right that the men's commanders and units were highlighted for their safety lapses and weak safety culture, and that the Singapore Armed Forces received yet another reminder to adhere strictly to the highest safety standards.

But listening to the debate on this matter in Parliament last week, I also couldn't help wondering if there was a touch of idealism in that.

In principle, it is right, of course.

In practice, I'm not so sure it's realistic, or practical.

Many of my memories of my time in the army seem to revolve around breaking the rules, and yes, they involved safety too.

Some of us (whom I shall not name) rode motorbikes without licences. We ignored rules about "safety distances" when firing blanks. Slept in places we shouldn't have, like underneath lorries and behind armoured personnel carriers that might have crushed us in an instant.

The only rule we kept to was the SAF's most famous one: Just don't get caught.

We broke the rules because, honestly, we were young and foolish and believed we were indestructible. What would you expect from 18-year-olds with few responsibilities and a lot of testosterone?

Besides, wouldn't it be ironical to keep talking about "safety" when we were learning how to shoot, maim and injure others with rifles, bayonets and explosives?

Our commanders did their best to conduct the standard safety briefings - all of which practically everyone tuned out, of course.

Was it foolhardy? Yes. Unforgivable? Perhaps not.

When was the last time you strapped on the seat belt at the back of a taxi? Or listened carefully to the pre-flight announcement telling you where your life vest can be found and to exit here, here and here in an emergency? Or stopped yourself from using your mobile phone while driving? Or walked to the nearest pedestrian crossing, even though the road was clear?

Few of us can honestly say we heed every single safety rule in everyday life, even though the consequences can be no less deadly than breaking a training safety regulation in the army.

That doesn't mean SAF men have any excuse for ignoring the rules. But if many of us break the rules in normal life without a second thought, how realistic is it to expect thousands of young men to do the opposite, just because they're in the army?

The only times I remember following the rules to the letter were when there was a real risk of injury or death that was clear to us all.

Like the day we had to throw live hand grenades that actually exploded, instead of "thunderflashes" that merely popped. And the times we went for live firing, when we dealt with rapid-fire machine guns or large-calibre weapons that could really kill. A lot of people.

On those occasions, no one fooled around. No one needed to be told not to point a loaded rifle at someone else. (Okay, there were the usual clumsy or forgetful ones. But they were never wilful.)

Being exposed to real risk made us more careful about safety.

And that's where, I think, lies the other twist about safety in the SAF.

I can see what he means. Knowing that your buddy won't shoot you in the back accidentally will give you the confidence to run ahead of him where needed.

But an over-emphasis on safety also has some trade-offs.

Having too many regulations can make it harder to simulate real-life warfare as closely as possible, which means soldiers may be less prepared for the real thing.

I remember a live firing session in which a section of seven men had to advance while shooting at an enemy. Because we were using live bullets, the process took on a dose of extra caution. We were told not to rush, and each of us ran down virtually pre-set lanes that ensured we couldn't cross paths.

Yes, it was absolutely safe. But it also meant that we did not learn what it would be like to operate in a real-life situation, when we might have to keep closer distances. Would we freeze on hearing bullets whizzing past? Would we panic and stumble? We would never know.

That is why the most elite forces in the world train only with live ammunition, never with blanks. This gets them used to operating in conditions as close to

real life as possible, and likely also ensures that they observe the safety rules more rigidly.

Too much simulation may ensure safety, but can also make a soldier complacent.

Of course, the SAF is a conscript army, not a professional one. And it is not at war.

That makes any death all the more unnecessary. One life lost is indeed one too many.

But if we are not training merely for show, we might have to think about what measure of risk we are prepared to accept, if we want to build an army that is truly effective.

That is a decision Singapore has to mull over, even as it seeks to bring every single one of its sons safely home.

Leslie Koh served national service as a corporal in an armoured infantry company in the SAF.

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