Go with a smile!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Training safety in the SAF

Why we don't have a good safety culture.

lousy attitude towards manual labour
After leaving the SAF, I went to work at the factory. I've found that operational efficiency takes a back seat to workplace safety. It was a recipe for disaster. Workplace injuries were sometimes covered up. Deaths were sometimes met with a shrug. I saw people sometimes have to hobble around in a cast. It was probably bad in the old days, and it's not really improved at all since colonial days. The bad old days were the bad old days, before we had modern technologies. But since then, the work force started to become almost exclusively foreign workers, and there was less incentive to do good by them than for citizens.

lousy attitude towards national service
To be sure, I'm now grateful towards the SAF because it was my induction to the working class. It introduced me to working class people, working class attitudes. Before that, we were a bunch of bratty privileged students from prominent schools. I always had this attitude that I was biding my time, that national service had nothing to do with who I was as an adult, that I would leave that place and find myself in a situation that more closely resembled what JC and secondary school was like.

The worst part about the timing of national service is this: it's when you make the first of two transitions from JC into adulthood. There's one transition from JC to uni, it is a big one, and a second one from uni to the work force. National service, depending on how you look at it, either smoothens the transition for the first one, or it disrupts it. I felt that it disrupted it, but looking back, unit life should have prepared me to think seriously about what it meant to be a young adult.

Now, many of the guys are probably more than a little resentful that they're supposed to be in there while the ladies just go into university right after JC.

strict chain of command structure
The military is a hierarchical structure, and as it turns out, it's not democratic at all. Every layer is the judge, jury and executioner of the layer directly underneath them. You are not encouraged to bring your issues to a higher level, and there have known to be retribution towards people who have reported. When I was in the basic military training, I made two mistakes. One of them was that I asked an uncle, an old sergeant major, what he could help me with. He paid me a visit to the company line. I didn't understand what that accomplished, and did it make things worse? Another mistake was that I had left a training manual at home. Then my mother drove up to the camp and asked that it would be delivered to me. OK, I know you're cringing. That was really stupid. My PC tore a strip off me for that.

But there is a code that's pretty hostile towards whistle-blowers. A lot of the time, commanders just don't want to hear your problems. And a lot of the time, there is a good cop bad cop routine going on, whereby your sergeants tekan you, and the officers are more civil to you, but it was the officers who directed the sergeants to tekan.

No legal ramifications
The ability for conscripts to seek redress for training injuries is pretty limited. I don't think that people will sue the SAF and get what they want. I think it might be a problem if the army is sued left right and center, and the loss of a suit might just be a drain on govt money. But there is a lack of accountability and people just think that they can tekan their own soldiers as hard as they want.

viewing the SAF more as an operational organisation rather than a training organisation.
The SAF was an organisation that pretends to play a role in the defence in Singapore. One could quibble at this comment, but for me, if you're not fighting a war, if you're not regularly participating in real military campaigns, you're just pretending to be an army. There is a case to be made for Singapore's army to be extremely kiasee and never ever engaging in foreign adventures. (Although sometimes I wonder why this has to be). We don't have battle hardened troops. If we were to go up against the more experienced soldiers of our neighbours, we might not be able to defeat them.

But when we have “operational” troops in peacetime, this means that we don't have them engaging in missions where the outcome can be accurately judged. This aspect of the SAF is widely known and we often make fun of SAF personnel for this.

However, if we were to make training the main focus of the SAF, or at least we don't treat it as a second class task of the SAF, we put the emphasis more on doing activities where we can assess the outcomes. That means that training safety is put as an objective which is as important as “operational readiness”. (Operational readiness is in quotations because there's no way of knowing what it really is until somebody comes in to invade us).

To be sure, the incident in the Tuas View fire station is the civil defence, and they are most certainly an operational unit. And in a way that just makes this disregard for the well being of a fellow soldier (they are firemen but firemen are sorda soldiers) all the more unforgivable.

Sadistic 20 year olds training 19 year olds
Let's face it, a bunch of kids right out of JC or right out of Poly aren't necessarily going to be paragons of virtue. And they're barely aware of training safety, not experienced, and possibly not interested in very much other than finding out the limits of their newfound power.

Lousy communication skills
A lot of the sergeants or the training staff are not great teachers. They're speaking in English, and therefore not speaking in their most natural language. A lot of them have signed up as NCOs because for somebody of their socio-economic status, that is the best livelihood they could aspire to. And they were literally selected for their lack of faculty in English.

Of course, we all have memories of a few of those NCOs who are gifted teachers and storytellers, the ones who always get their message across so well we remember them years later. But we're not exactly ensuring that every single time, the message that needs to get through gets through .

Short term tenure of commanders.
The problem with a lot of the civil service is that those earmarked for great career progression are rotated through the ranks.

Attitudes towards injuries
There are a lot of false positives when it comes to training injuries. We are a conscript army, so we know that all the medical excuses that all the baby boomer presidents of the United States have come up with are all bullshit. Bill Clinton dodging the draft, George W Bush miraculously serving in the national guard, Donald Trump with bone spurs after attending a military academy. We call this chow keng.

And the proliferation of these malingerers make it very difficult for the trainers to figure out which injuries are genuine. Unfortunately, a lot of the injuries are genuine, and if the commanders think that you're faking it, and they push you back into training, that's too bad for you I guess. The fact that they'll never be held responsible for your sustaining permanent damage just makes it a little harder to take it.