An open letter to the 24th Battalion, Singapore Artillery (24 SA)

Many of you are too young to remember Staff Sergeant Lee Guek Sin.

He was a gunner with your battalion who died in New Zealand more than 10 years ago when his Land Rover overturned during the work up period for Exercise Thunder Warrior.

Upon his death, his wife became the head of household who had to bring up two daughters and one son.

She did not have to do it alone. Gunners from 24 SA rallied behind the Lee family and started a donation drive. This wasn’t a one-off effort triggered by a burst of transient sympathy.

The gunners were determined to help SSG Lee’s children complete their education and they accomplished this mission commendably more than a decade later. I am told the children’s education expenses were paid by their father’s former comrades. Gunners dug into their pockets and contributed to the Lee family’s education fund every year since that fateful day robbed the family of their 36-year-old father but won them many doting godfathers.

I understand that earlier this year, Madam Lee informed the gunners who had been supporting the family that their task was done. The family had saved enough from all those years of donations.

To the best of my research, this act of goodwill was never publicised in any Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) publication or made known to the Singapore media. I understand the news blackout wasn’t due to national security reasons. Put simply, it was an act of goodwill performed by a group of soldiers to help a family in need.

The gunners did what needed to be done. Publicity was neither courted nor needed nor was any publicity plan required to sustain donor stamina all these years. That the fund raiser went on for years is, in my opinion, remarkable and heart warming.

I believe more should know about this deed because the fund raiser shows that your battalion and the Singapore Artillery has a long-standing tradition of caring for its soldiers.

That spirit and tradition is precisely what’s needed as 24 SA undergoes a period of soul searching after the Best Unit incident.

Just a day before the Singapore Artillery held a change of command parade to welcome its new Chief of Artillery, your former Commanding Officer, S3 and artillery specialist stood before the SAF military justice system. They paid a price for lapses in judgment.

Gunners, it is now time for your battalion to move on.

The incident will stay with your battalion for years to come just as the 1st Commando Battalion has to live with the stain of the 2003 Best Unit incident.

But even as the Commandos weather jibes and unkind remarks, those in the know will probably concede that the Commandos are the best warfighters the Singapore Army has in terms of fighting spirit, aggression and combat capability. The Commandos don’t need a Best Unit trophy to underline that fact.

Every year, more than a handful of SAF Commanding Officers sit through the Best Unit award presentation with absolutely no vested interest in the annual competition’s results. Their units have not been barred from the contest. Combat capabilities in their respective battalions and squadrons add to Singapore’s deterrent edge by sharpening the island republic’s secret edge capabilities, which, alas, cannot be talked about.

Like the Commandos, officers and men from these units do not need any Best Unit trophy to verify their combat prowess.

In my view, 24 SA is unique. Your battalion is the only one in the Singapore Artillery that will go into action without big guns to pound the enemy. Swift and precise battlefield information is your weapon.

Long before the SAF made a big deal about using information as a weapon, the battlefield radars fielded by your battalion were doing just that. Be proud of this legacy.

Some of 24 SA’s artillery hunting radars are now deployed on the frontline overseas. Combat experience your gunners will bring home will serve as a rich and invaluable source of combat intelligence on mortar and rocket barrages. The operation is not without risk and the dangers your gunners face daily in the combat zone of operations is not something a Best Unit assessment can quantify.

I have learnt that many defence observers view your unit’s capabilities with pride – even with full knowledge of the recent Best Unit fiasco. They are confident 24 SA will deliver and respect the decision taken by your former CO.

As you move on, resist the urge to sweep things under the carpet by erasing all institutional memory of the recent Best Unit incident.

Future gunners – not just those who serve 24SA – must learn from it and the Singapore Artillery will come out better off.

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