On Thursday, January 24, former Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), Donald Low uploaded a lengthy yet insightful post in his Facebook account that talked about the importance of safety culture in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) based on his personal experiences.
He started out the post hoping that the Committee of Inquiry (COI), in relation to the recent death of Aloysius Pang, will not just review the safety procedures in SAF but deem it necessary to conduct a complete “overhaul of the safety culture of the organization.” He also hoped that the COI will not be short-sighted and focus only on the cause and effects of the recent tragedy but look at the bigger picture in trying to understand why a “safety culture doesn’t seem to have taken root in the SAF after all these years.”
He continued the post by reminiscing on his past as a National Serviceman Full-time (NSF) and how he observed the lack of a safety culture present. He was required to ride a motorcycle in his exercises and although it was not a highly dangerous task, it was still prone to accidents and injuries. He recalls that almost every NSF biker was expected to ride in rough, off-road conditions right after the completion of their bike courses and with only a few months of on-road riding experience.
It wasn’t the exercises that led to accidents that were appalling to Mr Low, it was the “casual and lackadaisical attitude the commanders took to the risks faced by the bikers. If one fell, the presumption was that the guy was an incompetent biker and that it was his own fault. And nobody, not even the bikers themselves, questioned this.”
The irony was that most of those who wanted to be bikers were denied the post while those who had no previous experience were given the job.
He experienced the same thing when he was a reservist soldier in the late 2000s and was asked to ride a motorbike even though he had not ridden one in almost 10 years. After trying to inform his unit of his lack of practice, they just brushed this aside and told him that he will have some orientation rides to review. Knowing that this was a common response from a SAF officer, Mr. Low arranged to be downgraded instead since he already had worn-out knees.
According to him, “it seems like the SAF would rather lose a combat fit soldier for good than excuse that person from riding a bike. But such dysfunctions are hardly uncommon in large organisations.” Hierarchy based organizations like the SAF cannot make micro-decision most of the time, but it is every soldier that make up the unit, therefore, a safety culture must still be embedded.
Mr. Low knew that creating a safety culture will not be effective if senior commanders only talk about its importance or posters are placed as reminders; no, “a strong safety culture emerges from rules that are consistently enforced, safety routines that are practised all the time (and not just when they are convenient or when the unit has spare time), priorities that are re-ordered and then reflected in the daily practices of units, and precedents of safety violations by officers being punished (even if there are no casualties).”
But, based from experience, Mr. Low suspected that “they are far more focussed on issues such as soldier/team performance and motivation.”
His full post can be read below:
I hope the COI on the tragic death of Aloysius Pang doesn’t just prompt a review of safety procedures and protocols in…
A Reddit thread has been started “About ‘safety’ protocols in SAF and why they might not be followed all of the time” for more information and insights on the safety culture. According to many of the posts, “SAF senior commanders have a tendency of putting NSFs between a rock and a hard place, forcing them to make poor decisions ‘by their own free will’”. This is a very difficult dilemma to be in and maybe, changes could occur if the hierarchy were broken at times and those on the top see those on the bottom to be fellow people too.