Hard to integrate mentally ill soldiers into active SAF units

Hard to integrate mentally ill soldiers into active SAF units

While pundits debate the merits of integrating persons with mental conditions into the Singapore Armed Forces ("Support, not exclude, mentally ill in NS", last Friday; and "Exempt these young men from NS", April 13), the SAF must remember that it also has a responsibility towards the majority of its personnel, who do not have such problems.

As a reservist sergeant major in charge of camp procedures and discipline during the 1980s, I witnessed at first hand how mentally ill staff endangered safety and lowered morale.

Each year, as I took over equipment and personnel from the camp's permanent staff, I was usually advised by the person doing the handing over that one or two of his clerical and store personnel, who would be reporting to me for the duration of the in-camp training, had been medically downgraded because of "issues". They were to be assigned only light duties.

Like the captain in charge of Private Ganesh Pillay Magindren, I was not privy to the "issues".

I learnt very early that those personnel could not be trusted to do even simple, non-strenuous jobs such as directing traffic, which was necessary when the men exercised on public roads.

Soldiers running to beat the clock to pass their physical fitness tests do not look out for oncoming cars; they expect staff to stop traffic for them.

After some near-accidents, I ceased assigning medically downgraded personnel to any role where safety was important. But even routine work proved difficult for them.

The majority of my men were reservists who served, if not willingly, at least out of a sense of duty to the nation. They carried out assigned work, if not happily, at least responsibly.

How would they have felt if I had not taken action against the medically downgraded personnel for sloppy clerical errors and careless stock-keeping? Outwardly, they looked no different from the hundreds of other men in the camp, who expected the same rules to apply to all.

The fastest way to destroy morale is to create the impression that there is favouritism.

While I fully sympathise with those who have medically recognised mental ailments, their attempted integration into active SAF units creates more problems than it solves.

Letter by Lee Chiu San

This article was published on April 22 in The Straits Times.

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