Singaporeans may have read about two interesting cases highlighted in the news recently: The attempted suing of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and two of its officers by the family of the late Pte Dominique Sarron Lee, who died from an allergic reaction to smoke grenades during a military exercise, and the case of 14 year-old Benjamin Lim, who committed suicide shortly after being released by the Singapore Police, who were investigating him for allegedly molesting an 11 year-old girl.
In both cases, the Singapore Government has come under fire for the way their public servants handled the situation at hand. In the Dominique case, there was great public outrage over the throwing out of the family’s civil lawsuit case against the SAF and its officers, on the grounds that the defendants were indemnified against suits for negligence under Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act if the deaths or injuries occurred during service. In the Benjamin case, there arose much criticism over the perceived mishandling of Benjamin by the Police, with many other news sites (of which we are not one) publishing unverified information and speculation on the Police’s involvement in causing the suicide. This has forced the government’s hand to make subsequent statements and actions in an effort to correct public perception on these two cases: The SAF and the two officers sued by the family decided to waive the family’s legal costs, despite the court initially ruling that the family should bear the legal costs for the defendants. Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam decided to lay out a detailed sequence of events in Parliament on how Benjamin had been picked up by the Police as a result of their investigation, in a bid to clear the air over the issue.
Two people have died, and both were either in or recently released from the care of the Government when their lives were lost. Should we blame the Government and their public servant representatives for their deaths?
Let’s deal with the Dominique case first, if only so that we can maintain chronological order. First, some facts:
Fact #1: Dominique died due to an allergic reaction to the smoke emitted from the smoke grenades thrown during the military exercise.
Fact #2: The officer who threw the smoke grenades, Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal, threw three times the allowed number of smoke grenades based on the size of the training area – 6 instead of 2.
Fact #3: The Coroner’s Inquiry and an independent Committee of Inquiry into Dominique’s death did not find either Najib nor the safety officer for that exercise, Captain Chia Thye Siong, directly responsible for the death. The basis for the findings of the Coroner’s Inquiry was that Dominique’s acute allergic reaction was not reasonably foreseeable.
Fact #4: SAF has clarified that both officers were tried and found guilty for negligent performance of lawful order or duty in 2013, but did not elaborate on the punishment meted out. Dominique’s family, in an open letter made on Facebook, is demanding that the punishment be publicly revealed, for the sake of transparency. They have also requested that the SAF publicise the compensation sum they intended to offer the family, “so that all Singaporeans will know how much the life of a promising young man is worth to MINDEF”.
The family’s open letter states that they are not out to persecute nor crucify the two officers, but I opine that actions clearly show otherwise: their demand for SAF to publicize the punishment of the two officers, and the bringing of the civil lawsuit against them despite their early punishment by the SAF for the incident. That said, it is only human nature to desire retribution. It is also understandable that the family would become embittered by losing their son through such an act of negligence. This bitterness can be clearly seen in their equating the intended compensation sum to be offered with how much they perceive MINDEF values the life of a person. However, we are not the family, and by virtue of us being external parties to the issue, we should strive to obtain an objective view and not give in to blind emotion. It is an undisputed fact that the two officers were guilty of negligence, and the outcome of their trial in 2013 attests to this. Isn’t that all that matters? Nothing, including the public shaming of the two officers, will bring Dominique back.
Let’s turn to the Benjamin Lim case now. I will not delve into the facts, for they have already been clearly outlined by the Home Affairs Minister in Parliament. One thing we can be sure of is that we will never know exactly how Benjamin was interviewed by the Police. That is why some are now requesting that witnesses be present in future interviews with minors, or that such interviews be videotaped. However, I opine that the general public should not get its hopes up that the testimony of such witnesses, or the video footage of the interview will be released publicly in future cases. At most, such information will only be reviewed privately by the Court or a Committee of Inquiry specially formed to look into the matter.
It is also important to examine in this case if there is any basis for the idea that the Police caused Benjamin’s suicide. It is highly likely that the trauma suffered through being picked up and interviewed by the Police was a contributing factor, but it is more important to determine Benjamin’s psychological state prior to the investigation. This may sound crude, but many people commit suicide without the involvement of the Police on an everyday basis. Therefore, if we are to be fully objective, shouldn’t we then also raise up a ruckus against any party that had contact with the suicide victims prior to the suicide and indict them with the same level of suspicion accorded to the Police? I can only conclude that we employ such double standards simply because the parties involved are public servants.
There have been many calls by the public to introduce new measures to ensure that such instances do not happen again. They include asking teachers or parents to accompany minors before the Police can take them back for questioning, and for such adults to be present in the police interviews themselves. This is but a push-button response to the Benjamin Lim case, without fully considering how this would affect the ability of the Police to carry out its function in investigating cases. Would the public be so quick to introduce such measures if it meant that certain offenders might get off scot-free and re-offend? I believe Shanmugam put it best when he said this in his Ministerial statement in Parliament regarding the case:
If the Police wait, and he molests someone else in the meantime, then the question would be – why did the Police not move faster. When an incident happens, as a general rule, I am sure we want the Police to move in quickly. Every year we pick up more than 1300 young people – students, and also others. What do you think the public’s attitudes will be if it was a victim who commits suicide, a victim of the molest? Police would be expected to have moved quickly.
At the heart of both these cases is an old issue: the idea that the Government, and public servants as their representatives, are held to an extremely high standard of conduct. When things go wrong, as in these two cases, it is easy to point our fingers squarely at them, with the assumption that public servants tend to abuse the powers vested in them to carry out their jobs. However, we must also consider the flip side – that we all have friends and family who were, or are a part of the Public Service, who keep our society running in ways we are not even consciously aware of. Would we be so quick to put them on trial by media if we knew them personally? The two officers that were found negligent in Dominique’s death will have to bear the burden of their negligence having caused someone’s death for the rest of their lives. Is that not enough? Must we publicly parade them through the streets in shame before we, the public are satisfied? I for one certainly hope that this is not the case, for the sake of our society.
Meanwhile, the Police have borne the brunt of many attacks due to much misinformation being spread as a result of the Benjamin Lim case. In our haste to blame, let us not forget that public servants endure much scrutiny and misplaced anger by the public that they serve. It is my hope that we treat our public servants fairly, for if we do not – we should not be surprised if the next generation of Singaporeans shy away from making their careers in public service, for fear of being similarly treated when such cases occur.
Who will drive our ambulances and investigate crimes then? Who will man our country’s defenses and fight our fires? No one.