The SAF offers our deepest condolences to the family of the late PTE Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron. We are deeply sorry for the untimely and tragic loss, and the anguish and distress brought to his family. We respect the wishes of the family to determine the reasons behind PTE Lee’s death. When any of our soldiers are injured or killed, the SAF will do its utmost to determine the cause and improve our safety standards to prevent any recurrence. Those responsible through their rash and negligent acts will be held accountable under our Military Court and Criminal Law Courts.
On 3 March, the High Court struck out the lawsuit filed by the family of the late PTE Lee against the SAF and the two officers involved in the incident. To clarify issues that have risen in response to this judgement, we set out the key findings as determined by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) in 2012 and the Coroner’s Inquiry (CI) in 2013.
The CI was an open hearing that had provided for all interested parties to make their representation, including the family of the late PTE Lee. At the conclusion of hearings, the coroner found that PTE Lee had “died from acute allergic reaction to zinc chloride due to inhalation of zinc chloride fumes”. The coroner also found that this acute allergic reaction was “unlikely to have been predicted”.
The coroner noted that more smoke grenades than necessary were used during the exercise, but could not ascertain whether the acute allergic reaction was due to concentration and/or the mere exposure of zinc chloride fumes.
The coroner also noted that PTE Lee “had under played and under declared his asthmatic condition”. None of the other asthmatics in the same platoon reported any adverse outcome from the exercise or exposure to the smoke.
Smoke grenades which produce zinc chloride fumes have been in use by many militaries, including the SAF since the 1970s. PTE Lee’s death directly attributable to zinc chloride inhalation is the first on the SAF’s records in over thirty years of use.
COMMITTEE OF INQUIRY’S FINDINGS
The independent COI, convened by the Armed Forces Council, found that the number of smoke grenades discharged and the distance between the smoke grenades were not in accordance with the limits and minimum distance specified in the Training Safety Regulations. The COI also noted that PTE Lee’s medical classification and vocational assignment were in line with guidelines, and that medical aid rendered was timely, proper and adequate. These full findings of the COI were presented in Parliament through a Ministerial statement in 2012, including the actions taken to address safety lapses.
LIABILITY FOR ACTIONS
We would also like to address the misperception that SAF servicemen injured or killed cannot seek legal recourse under military rules. This is incorrect. SAF personnel can be charged and punished in the criminal courts for Penal Code offences of committing rash and negligent acts, even during the course of their military duties. The Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), not the SAF, decides if the evidence warrants this course of action. For example, in 2004, four servicemen were charged in court for causing the death of another serviceman during combat survival training. More recently, a senior instructor was charged and convicted of instigating a full-time National Serviceman to commit a rash act, and attempting to pervert the course of justice. The jeep overturn incident resulted in the death of a full-time National Serviceman. In both cases, the servicemen responsible were found guilty, and sentenced to imprisonment.
In PTE Lee’s case, the Coroner found that PTE Lee had died of an unforeseen acute allergic reaction to the smoke grenade fumes. As PTE Lee’s acute allergic reaction to the smoke grenades thrown by the Platoon Commander was not reasonably foreseeable, no criminal charges were brought against the two officers.
The SAF has however taken administrative and disciplinary action against the two officers. While the CI and COI did not find that the two officers were directly responsible for PTE Lee’s death, the two officers were summarily tried in 2013 for negligent performance of lawful order or duty, found guilty, and punished according to military law.
IMPROVEMENTS TO SAFETY
The SAF had since 2012 taken several measures to strengthen training safety across the whole SAF. This included the setting up of a Safety and Systems Review Directorate, the convening of a Respiratory Medicine Specialist Advisory Board to review medical classification on Asthma, and the deploying of more safety officers on the ground as full-time Unit Safety Officers. New N452 smoke grenades were also introduced to replace the smoke grenades used in that training exercise.
SUPPORT FOR THE FAMILY OF PTE LEE
Before the most recent suit, the family of PTE Lee had previously taken out a pre-action discovery application, which they subsequently withdrew. The court had awarded costs to MINDEF, but MINDEF had waived the legal costs.
MINDEF and the SAF have been extending help to PTE Lee’s family throughout this period, and remain committed to assisting and providing support to the family. Since the incident, welfare grants have been disbursed, and an offer of compensation has been made to the family, based on the full extent allowed by the compensation legislation. To respect privacy and maintain confidentiality, compensation amounts are not disclosed, but are generally two to four times that of amounts provided under the Work Injury Compensation Act for incidents arising from training and operations.
Once again, the SAF offers our sincere condolences to the family of PTE Lee. The SAF values the life of every soldier and recognises that we are responsible for the sons of Singapore placed under our charge. We will uphold safety standards while ensuring that we build a strong National Service force able to defend Singapore.
Brigadier General Chan Wing Kai
Commander Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)