Mindef explains stance on NSF's death

Mindef explains stance on NSF's death
PHOTO: MINDEF

The military would have overstepped its powers and be legally challenged if it had punished two of its officers beyond the level of their offence in a 2012 training exercise in which full-time national serviceman Dominique Sarron Lee died from an allergic reaction to fumes from smoke grenades.

The Ministry of Defence said it would also be unfair to the two Singapore Armed Forces regulars - the exercise's chief safety officer Chia Thye Siong and Private Lee's platoon commander Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal. The latter threw six grenades, instead of two, flouting training safety rules.

Pte Lee's family tried to sue the military over his death but failed as the High Court threw out the lawsuit on March 3. This sparked a public outcry on social media.

In a forum letter published in The Straits Times today, Ms Lim Chuen Ni, Mindef's director of public communications, said that key findings were released during a 2013 coroner's inquiry, a transparent process that was open to the public.

During the hearing, Pte Lee's relatives and their lawyer were also allowed to ask questions relating to Pte Lee's death and question the two officers .

She noted that some members of the public, including Pte Lee's family members, have disagreed with the coroner's findings. "They feel instead that the two SAF regulars should bear greater liability for the cause of death and receive greater punishment," said Ms Lim.

"It would be wrong to punish SAF servicemen beyond the level of offence which has been determined by independent and impartial judicial processes. Mindef/SAF would be overstepping its powers and would be legally challenged."

Related story: SAF responds to online debate on death of Private Dominique Sarron Lee

The level of punishment, Ms Lim noted, has to take into account the coroner's findings that "the cause of death was an unforeseen allergic reaction that was unlikely to have been predicted". Arising from those findings, she said, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) decided not to prosecute anyone.

But the AGC informed Mindef to consider taking disciplinary action against the servicemen who had breached training safety Regulations.

"Mindef has done so, with penalties consistent with other servicemen who have committed similar offences, including fines and delay in promotions," said Ms Lim.

While each death of a servicemen is "greatly regretted", Ms Lim said it is even more important when such incidents arise that "we maintain societal trust and integrity in respecting the due independent judicial processes to determine the facts and mete out the appropriate punishment where required".

"The AGC has in the past prosecuted SAF servicemen who have been responsible for causing death due to rash acts or negligence."

And when found culpable, these servicemen were jailed.

She reiterated that a compensation package based on "the maximum extent of the compensation framework" was offered to Pte Lee's family.

Such compensation is generally two to four times that of the amount provided by the Work Injury Compensation Act for incidents arising from training and operations and is "no less than what would have been awarded by the court in cases where compensation was ruled to be payable", she said.

"We recognise that it is difficult for the family to find closure in this case and will continue to support them wherever possible."

NSF's death and family's bid to sue: Mindef replies

We refer to the recent reports and letters relating to the late Private Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron ("Family's failed bid to sue SAF sparks debate"; March 10 and "Family of NSF who died will get legal bill slashed"; March 9).

The key findings leading to the death of Pte Lee had been released during the coroner's inquiry in August 2013.

This was a transparent process, taking the form of an open hearing fully accessible to the public and media. The family of the late Pte Lee and their legal counsel were also present, and given opportunities to address any questions that they may have relating to his death to the court.

As part of the process, they were also allowed to pose questions to the two Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regulars concerned.

The coroner's full findings and conclusion are open for public viewing upon application and approval by the court.

The coroner found that Pte Lee had died from "acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes" and that the allergic reaction was "unlikely to have been predicted". All these were extensively reported by the local media.

Arising from the coroner's findings of fact, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) decided not to prosecute anyone as the cause of death was an unforeseen allergic reaction that was unlikely to have been predicted.

Related story: High Court strikes out lawsuit against SAF brought by family of dead NSF

As such, the AGC informed the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) to consider taking disciplinary action against the servicemen who had breached training safety regulations. Mindef has done so, with penalties consistent with other servicemen who have committed similar offences, including fines and delay in promotions.

In the recent High Court hearing, the court struck out the legal suit by Pte Lee's family against Mindef.

While Mindef recognises that no amount of compensation will make up for the loss of a loved one, a package of financial compensation based on the maximum extent of the compensation framework was offered to the family.

Such compensation is generally two to four times that of the amount provided under the Work Injury Compensation Act for incidents arising from training and operations and is no less than what would have been awarded by the court in cases where compensation was ruled to be payable.

Some members of the public, including the late Pte Lee's family members, have disagreed with the coroner's findings.

They feel instead that the two SAF regulars should bear greater liability for the cause of death and receive greater punishment.

It would be wrong to punish SAF servicemen beyond the level of offence which has been determined by independent and impartial judicial processes. Mindef/SAF would be overstepping its powers and would be legally challenged.

Most importantly, it would be unfair to the two SAF regulars. In particular, the level of punishment has to take into account the coroner's findings that Pte Lee's fatal allergic reaction was unlikely to have been predicted.

Related story: No compensation from SAF accepted, says family of Pte Dominique Sarron Lee

Each death of our servicemen is greatly regretted but when these incidents arise, it is even more important that we maintain societal trust and integrity in respecting the due independent judicial processes to determine the facts and mete out the appropriate punishment where required.

The AGC has in the past prosecuted SAF servicemen who have been responsible for causing death due to rash acts or negligence. When they were found culpable, the courts have sentenced them to jail.

In this particular case, the AGC decided not to prosecute anyone.

As we expressed in Parliament in 2012, we extend again our deepest condolences to the family of Pte Lee and are deeply sorry for the untimely and tragic loss of Pte Lee.

We recognise that it is difficult for the family to find closure in this case and will continue to support them wherever possible.

Lim Chuen Ni (Ms)

Director, Public Communications

Mindef Communications Organisation

Ministry of Defence


This article was first published on March 18, 2016.
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