20 October 2003

Organisational Culture

Last Friday, a ridiculous scene played out in Parliament, when it was revealed by the Minister for Defense, that a commando died in a routine exercise in camp. The farcial elements seem to outshine the tragedy of the situation; I do not use the word "ridiculous" lightly here.

To humanise the situation, let us call this commando a mere boy, since he was 19 years when he died. That was, of course, two months ago. The wheels of justice must turn exceedingly slow in Singapore, since he died almost two months ago. That's Ridiculous Fact no. 1.

How did he die? Well, the commandoes are a very different sub-species in the army. They apparently have very interesting exercises, such as: "simulating a POW experience" as part of the training needed for this elite branch of the Singapore Army to properly defend the country. To put strip that phrase of its clinical and self-serving rhetoric, we'll call it "simulating conditions of torture", because that's what it boils down to. This includes dunking the victim (or "Trainee", in the military parlance of this "simluation exercise"), head-first, into cold water. It is not known how long the head is submerged in water, or whether this constitutes only a part of a much larger regime of similar simulations. Hence, Ridiculous Fact no. 2: the kid died in peacetime, in an exercise that served no positive purpose. It was, of course, a realistic simulation: people do die from torture, or die from exhaustion and minor injuries from the torture. The Minister has denounced the practice and ordered a halt to all simulation exercises of this sort.

Of course, just about everyone who's been to National Service in this country would know, or have heard of such practices, mostly through second-hand knowledge: someone's bound to have a classmate or a friend who served time with the Commandoes. Even if one didn't step into an army camp, one would already know from second-hand knowledge of what goes on in military training in Elite army schools. I'll try not to mention Demi Moore's G.I. Jane here, but it's such a taken-for-granted 'fact' that everyone 'knows' even without needing to see the truth for themselves. Ridiculous Fact no. 3: Our Minister of Defense, a Brigadier-General, was unaware of this practice, which had been going on and on for years. Ever since Singapore's army was started in the 50s. And of course, so was Mini-Lee, another Brigadier-General, and Teo Chee Hean, a Rear-Admiral of the navy (and some say, the NEXT PM, after Mini-Lee!). All 3 figures are, of course, Ministers in the cabinet.

I would give them the benefit of the doubt, and insist that the 2 BGs and the RAdm should be taken at their word (I mean to say this without cracking up in laughter of course). They really are unaware of what's going on in the army. Which brings us to Ridiculous Fact no. 4: Our army is administered by scholar-generals who are not involved in daily operations and training, who have worked in the confines of an office for 90% of their period of service to the armed forces. The elite managers and stewards of the army... are glorified bean counters and office bugs. This isn't peculiar to Singapore, and I'm disappointed at not being able to gloat at our claims to be the weirdest nation on Earth. Most of the elite generals at the Pentagon are office bugs too.

Ridiculous Fact no. 5: the people who really run the army on a daily basis, who make the real decisions that affect the people they command, are the middle managers - the Commanding Officers of the camps. These are the most corrupt elements of the army. They're "on ground zero" of all military operations. Every infringement of rules that take place, occur with their approval. It is the commanding officers who insist on subverting 'rules' guaranteeing the safety of their charges. It's common knowledge that there are certain managers who prevent their soldiers from reporting sick before any exercise or test, as it would jeapordise the RANKING of the camp or unit or formation. That's how the Commandoes managed to clinch the "Best Formation" award almost every year, until a few years ago, when its luck ran out.

Ridiculous Fact no. 6: The army is required to brief all soldiers of safety procedures before every exercise. According to a fellow writer who had just came back from reservist training just before the announcement of the death of the boy, "During my recent stint, officers were smirking about how safety videos had to be shown and re-shown just for everyone to cover their own backsides, and had no relation to training whatsoever; and all those with various back/leg/arm problems were still made to go to field camp, dig trenches, lift heavy loads, etc." You can read the rest of his testimony at http://www.qlrs.com/issues/oct2003/editorial/ev3n1.html.

I suppose, in any other country, the Minister of Defense would've been forced by popular pressure, to step down, and the Commanding Officer to be saked. Ridiculous Fact no. 7: The minister, as well as Mini-Lee and the Rear Admiral... stress that the army, as an institution, is not diseased. It's just an unfortunate and unpardonable mistake. Which does not warrant the sacking of the CO of the Commando camp, who was merely transferred to another post.

Ridiculous Fact no. 8: Some Singaporeans defend the idea that casualties in the army should be tolerated. What, if people stopped dying, if the flagrant abuses in the system stop... does it mean we're becoming a soft people?

Ridiculous Fact no. 9: just as it happened with an earlier case of a psycho teacher abusing her student... the ex-students and graduates of the camp commander came to his rescue and insisted to the press that he's an upright guy.

Ridiculous Fact no. 10: The camp commander makes some lame announcement that he's sorry. And that, as a good soldier, "I'll go down with my men." Right. The kid is dead, you just got transferred to a different post in the army.

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