Stay safe, SAF

In News Reports on February 11, 2019 at 10:58 am

AFTER four training deaths in 17 months, I had expected the Defence Minister to talk more about the inherent risks of military training.  Instead Dr Ng Eng Hen said: “It is not true that we cannot train safely if we want to train realistically.” I guess he couldn’t have said otherwise. Not if he wanted to re-assure wives and mothers who wondered if their sons and husbands were stepping into a minefield when they stepped into their army boots.

Then again, the Singapore Armed Forces had a perfect zero score for a few years after a disastrous 2012, when four of its own died. Dr Ng thought the safety measures put in place then worked. But why not now?

The C word – culture – was invoked often. He didn’t call it bo chup although he did refer to “slack” practices. But he was clear about where the responsibility for instilling a safety culture laid – the commander level. Commanders will be “marked” down if safety lapses were detected even if nothing untoward happened. And the rank-and-file will be empowered to point out and even stop unsafe practices as and when they see them.

Beyond that, Dr Ng was hard put to explain what he meant by a “safety culture”. At one point, he told an anecdote about two Nordic countries which built a bridge, each from its own end. When the bridge was constructed, one country had half the fatalities of the other.

I suppose it’s about everyone possessing an antenna that can detect danger and which will sound an alarm before harm is done. I presume from what he said about culture was that SAF doesn’t have a strong antenna or good enough sound equipment.

Enter the new office of Inspector-General.

Much was made about the person being at a high enough level to report to the Chief of Defence Force. “If the Chief of Joint Staff calls you, you will listen,” Dr Ng replied when asked how the office could be compared to the current Safety Systems and Review Directorate, set up in 2013.  I wish he had said more, to dispel cynicism about yet another bureaucratic structure set up to save the day. I wish he would confirm if he is talking about BG Kelvin Khong.

Will the office prevent another casualty the likes of Singapore sons Gavin Chan, Dave Lee, Liu Kai or Aloysius Pang?

In September 2017, Third Sergeant Gavin Chan was flung out of his Bionix vehicle when it overturned on a steep embarkment during a night-time exercise in Queensland, Australia. He had been half-out of the turret giving directions on reversing and he didn’t want the head-lights on lest they gave their position away to the “enemy”. Safety lapses occurred but there was no negligence.

In April 2018, Corporal First Class Dave Lee collapsed after a fast march and wasn’t treated adequately or evacuated quickly enough. He succumbed to heat stroke. One SAF officer has been charged in court and six others will face military probes.

On Nov 3 last year, Corporal First Class Liu Kai, 22, was crushed when a Bionix vehicle reversed and ran over the Land Rover he was driving during a training exercise in the Lim Chu Kang area. The Committee of Inquiry has completed its report. Police are investigating.

On Jan 19 this year, Corporal First Class (NS) Aloysius Pang, 28, was crushed between a lowered gun barrel and the cabin of the howitzer he was called in to repair. He was taking part in an artillery live-firing exercise in New Zealand while on reservist duty. A committee of inquiry of independent (but unnamed) members, has been set ip.

IT WAS painful to hear how corporals Liu and Pang died. Dr Ng had pictures and graphics put up on the TV screens in Parliament. Because they were still “open” cases, he would stick to the facts, so as not to point the finger at anyone and anything, he said. But even as he took the House sombrely through the last moments of two men, what he did not say seemed more important than what he said.

To keep a long story short, Corporal Liu was driving the Land Rover, with a trainer, a regular Captain in the passenger seat. They were trailing a Bonix when the Bionix received “enemy fire”. The captain wanted Cpl Liu to speed up and overtake the Bionix but the big vehicle started reversing. In fact, it started veering into the Land Rover’s path. The Land Rover, at this time, was just 19.8 m away from it, not even close to the 30m safety limit. Cpl Liu started reversing but it took just 8 seconds for the Bionix to run over his side of the Land Rover.

So what happened? The Bionix had a rear guide who was signalling frantically to the two men in the Land Rover. He was seen mouthing into the helmet intercom which was the only means of communicating with the Bionix driver. But the driver continued reversing. Dr Ng said the intercom was working well earlier and the matter was now with the police. You go figure.

Some outcomes: Horns and rear view mirrors and cameras will now be fitted at the back of heavy vehicles. The trainer will join the crew, and not tag along in another vehicle. Reversals can only take place with the explicit consent of the rear guide.

In the case of Corporal Pang, whose death is now being investigated by a COI, there were even more blanks. He shouldn’t have been at the place where the barrel was being lowered if safety processes were followed. The gun commander should have shouted Clear Away and Standby and checked that there was no one in the way before lowering the gun. Dr Ng gave the process and even showed a training video. But he didn’t say if this had happened. There were also three red emergency buttons in the howitzer, but he didn’t say if any was pushed.

The self-propelled howitzer, in use for the past 15 years with no mishaps, takes just nine seconds to lower itself to the horizontal level.  Dr Ng also made it clear that the Corporal Pang wasn’t new at repairing howitzers, had a refresher course last February and had already worked on 10 howitzers  so far. Also, he was to do only basic repair work. Higher level repairs were assigned to a regular mechanic. In this case, there was such an expert mechanic, of 16 years experience. The gun commander is a Third Sergeant on his eighth in-camp training.

Dr Ng didn’t try to paper over the tragedies. Instead, he said with a choke in his voice: “We must not forget why we suffer them”. Those were pretty strong words which make a change from the usual “wake up call” speeches. So suffer them we must if we do not want to be invaded, like Kuwait was by Iraq in 1990, or have shipping and air routes blocked, as is the case now with Qatar.

“This imperative of NS and our national defence does not absolve or reduce the accountability of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and the SAF in any way to ensure safe training.

“On the contrary, it compels Mindef and the SAF to do all that is humanly possible to prevent training deaths for NS men because we are fully aware that precious sons have been entrusted to us by their families,” he added.

For a while, I thought Dr Ng was a mass of contradictions. Training is inherently NOT safe then, correct? I can, however, reconcile this by looking at zero fatality target as an aspiration, even f it can’t be a rule. What’s also useful is to separate incidents based on systemic flaws from those based on human error. You simply can’t account for human frailties. Third Sergeant Gavin Chan, for example, was operating his Bionix in a black-out to avoid being sighted by “enemies”.

What happens now?

That safety time-out has been lifted for some units but there’s still no word on what has or would be changed. Dr Ng repeatedly said that this was a “command” issue, which means that he would leave it to the SAF to make any announcements. One interesting bit emerged about the necessity of the SAF’s other non-operational duties, such as organising the National Day parade. He said he would leave it to them to say what will or won’t be done.

And of course, there is this question of where “command” starts and stops. It was asked by Workers’ Party NCMP Dennis Tan, who referred to the resignation of  the Taiwanese Defence minister over the death of a soldier and the sacking of the Admiral in charge of the US seventh fleet. It was almost an invitation for Dr Ng to resign. The minister gave him pretty short shrift about “posturing and politicking”.

It’s not the time, I suppose, for recriminations. Let’s see what the SAF, especially the Inspector-General, says and does.


















HIV data leak: MOH has plenty of explaining to do

In News Reports on January 29, 2019 at 4:05 am

So, when the personal particulars of 1.5 million people were hacked, we’re told immediately and the spectre of a state-sponsored cyber attack was raised. They even dared to dig into the Prime Minister’s medication records! But, hey, never mind your personal data, they’re not of any commercial value anyway.

The key takeaway was that Singapore is in the gunsights of mischievous, mysterious beings and we should batten down the hatches, like have a more complicated password to our computer.

What about the personal particulars of 14,200 HIV patients being in the possession of someone unauthorized, and worse, leaked online? What weight or public attention should be given to this?

I was reading all the media reports today, including the Health ministry’s statement, and I would describe it as the unveiling of a horror story. Someone has a list of HIV-positive people here, and can blast the details online for family, friends, employers and total strangers to see. The list includes particulars of some 2,400 “contacts’’ as well, who are, presumably, people they slept with. This includes their phone numbers.

In a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, MOH made much of “working with relevant parties to disable access to the information’’.  I guess this is about working with social media companies and tech giants to stamp out signs of publication.

It added: “While access to the confidential information has been disabled, it is still in the possession of the unauthorised person, and could still be publicly disclosed in the future. We are working with relevant parties to scan the Internet for signs of further disclosure of the information.’’

In other words, whatever information that has appeared in the public domain has been scrubbed out, but there’s no guessing when more will pop up later.

Which all looks well and good until you start reading about the circumstances of the “leak’’. We’re told that the authorities had been led on a merry dance by American Mikhy K Farrera Brochez, 33, who obtained an employment pass to work here in January 2008 – despite being HIV-positive. His HIV test came back positive at a SATA clinic at first, but his partner Ler Teck Siang, a doctor, connived with him to dupe the authorities.

It’s not clear what happened to the SATA clinic results, but Brochez took a second test at a Commonwealth clinic where Ler was practicing as a locum. That’s when they swopped blood samples and Brochez got his employment pass. In 2011, he obtained a “personalised’’ employment pass.

In the next few years, he taught at Temasek polytechnic using forged credentials, and even set up a child psychology practice. He enjoyed fame when The New Paper featured him in 2010, as a child prodigy who enrolled in Princeton University in the United States at 13, who could converse in eight languages and had numerous awards to his name. The article was headlined “He didn’t know he was gifted’’.

You can start counting the number of agencies he duped during his stay here.

Then in October 2013, someone seemed to have tipped off the Manpower ministry about Brochez’ HIV status. It had to do with the original SATA data re-surfacing. MOM wanted to cancel his permit but the fraudster said he could provide proof that he did not have HIV. So the couple, who were living together, repeated the blood swopping exercise. MOM was duped again.

Note that from March 2012 to May 2013, Ler was head of the MOH’s National Public Health Unit. MOH thinks it was during this period that Ler accessed the records. Maybe to check if his partner cleared the test? Maybe he downloaded the data into a thumb drive?

In May 2016, however, things started unraveling for the couple. Brochez was found guilty of possession of a ketamine and cannabis mixture, and investigations revealed that his educational certificates were forged and he had lied to the authortities about his HIV status. He served 28 months in jail and was deported upon release in April last year.

As for Ler, he was in even deeper trouble.

To cite the MOH statement:

He was charged in Court in June 2016 for offences under the Penal Code and the Official Secrets Act (OSA). In September 2018, Ler was convicted of abetting Brochez to commit cheating, and also of providing false information to the Police and MOH. He was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment. Ler has appealed, and his appeal is scheduled to be heard in March 2019. In addition, Ler has been charged under the OSA for failing to take reasonable care of confidential information regarding HIV-positive patients. Ler’s charge under the OSA is pending before the Courts.

It isn’t clear if additional OSA charges were levelled against him or whether this was the 2016 charge.

But what the MOH said later was even more intriguing.

In May 2016, MOH had lodged a Police report after receiving information that Brochez was in possession of confidential information that appeared to be from the HIV Registry. Their properties were searched, and all relevant material found were seized and secured by the Police.

Nothing has been made public about the confidential information in his possession – nor about the “relevant material’’ seized.

All was quiet until two years later.

In May 2018, MOH received information that Brochez still had part of the records he had in 2016. The information did not appear to have been disclosed in any public manner. MOH lodged a police report, and contacted the affected individuals to notify them.

What an exercise in ambiguity! What did the authorities do at this stage to plug the leak? What does “any public manner’’ mean? Apparently, it is not through online channels. Did he attempt blackmail? And how many affected individuals were there? At this point in time, did the authorities still believe there was no need to make public the news that some information had been stolen?

In any case, in this same year, coincidentally, MOH instituted additional safeguards, including a two-person approval process to download and decrypt information, against mishandling of information by authorised staff. It also disabled the use of unauthorised portable storage devices on official computers in 2017, “as part of a government-wide policy’’.

I don’t how else to describe the above except to use the term “cover-up’’.

According to ST, Mr Chan Heng Kee, permanent secretary at the MOH, said the ministry looks at “several factors’’ before deciding if it should go public. Besides patients’ interest and well being, there was whether the information was secured or publicly disclosed.

“Whether there is a continuing risk of the information being exposed even if we were able to secure. And also the concerns that individuals might have, should the incident be made public.”

He also said: “Certainly in the case where the information has been contained, we would take a more conservative approach.” (And would that have been what exactly?)

The other reason, he said, is that more than half those affected – about 8,000 – are foreigners who will be difficult for the ministry to contact.

I find the above answer astonishing. The excuse is, it’s too difficult to do, so we didn’t see the need to contact everyone. Or is MOH worried about litigation by litigious foreigners? I also cannot understand how it is NOT in the patient’s interest to warn them that someone might have stolen their data and might use it against them.

Is that why the OSA charges against Ler haven’t been heard in court yet? It’s been pending for at least two years. MOH didn’t want the news out before it secured everything?

Parliament is sitting on Feb 11. Again, I hold the forlorn hope that some hard questions will be raised by Members of Parliament.

I have had enough of officials telling us when they should give information that affects people or what sort of information should be made public. I have also had my fill of people who say we don’t have to know everything, and that we should let the G handle everything.

I think our brain should work more than once in every four or five years.


No lawyers please, we’re academics

In News Reports on January 20, 2019 at 1:31 pm

So my employer is in the news. It’s going to be tough for me to say anything. If I write something that sounds like praise or support, I risk flak for toadying to the paymaster. But say anything critical and I risk getting gagged – or worse. Just to clarify, my employer is the National University of Singapore, where I am a part-time lecturer with the Communications and New Media Department.

So, of course, I have been following the news reports about the university closely. I wasn’t surprised that TODAY got wind of the departures of academics from the department I work in. After all, it IS the communications department and can be expected to be “leaky”. (I am NOT the leak). It had a high-profile head in Professor Mohan Dutta who made the news when he had to postpone a university talk by Dr Cherian George, a former Nanyang Technological University lecturer now teaching in Hong Kong.

When Prof Mohan left the university last June, some people put two and two together and came up with five; that he was somehow told to go because he was “politically incorrect” in inviting a “politically incorrect” academic. This, despite how word of his resignation had been floating around for at least a year and academics were asked about their choice of head should one be selected from among faculty.

So, much was made of “eight departures in eight months”, with the reason given as “differences” with the new head, Prof Audrey Yue. You can read the report here.  I couldn’t figure out the “differences” because five left before she became the head, and she hadn’t even been around the whole semester; she was on sabbatical. Perhaps, the “differences” stemmed from not wishing to report to a professor who had only recently returned to Singapore? Prof Yue, a Singaporean, joined the university just the year before. But that can’t be, since it is normal for academics of calibre, whether local or foreign, to parachute into leadership positions.

I also found it odd that the report only featured academics who had left, and not anyone who stayed who could give another view of the departures. Still, eight resignations (for whatever reason) out of a faculty of 32 members is quite a lot. Some re-shuffling of duties and classes had to happen. And it didn’t help that Prof Yue had decided to embark on a curriculum review that was to take effect in the following academic year.

Personally, I had always thought there were too many overlapping or  “inactive’’ subjects (what we call modules) in the department and some don’t seem structured to allow a student to advance academically during their four-year degree course. In other words, the store of knowledge or skill isn’t being widened or deepened, it just gets battered again and again (my words). You look at the titles of what is on offer in the curriculum and you wonder if there can be a lot of difference learning about both Governance and New Media and Media and Communications Regulation, for example.

I was glad that the review was being done, although I too have been a victim of some breakdown in communications (ironic I know since we are in the communications business!) I thought that one of my subjects was being scrapped when it was only being deferred. I suppose if this was just another company, internal screw-ups in communications wouldn’t be newsworthy. But there was the impression that undergraduates were being left “stranded”, bereft of lecturers and subjects to take up.

Of course, there was some confusion over the number of modules offered, dropped and so forth, simply because nothing had been decided nor approved yet by the higher-ups. Perhaps, Prof Yue should have made the review process public for both faculty and students, but then again, that would risk unnecessary panic among staffers who think they wouldn’t have a job and among students who have an eye on certain modules for their later classes.

I guess I sound far too sympathetic now, correct?

So let’s change the topic.

I was surprised to read the longer article in TODAY on Jan 6 about why academics teaching arts and humanities subjects quit or don’t stay for long. It seemed quite a stretch to go from a department in a faculty to maligning two universities for being focused on chasing rankings. Was there really an exodus of academics? There aren’t any hard numbers and the universities themselves were stingy with info. So we have to take the universities’ word that turnover rates were “not high”.

Academics who left the university, and Singapore, sounded so angry in the interviews. Very unfavourable mention was made of the Provost. So it is no surprise that the university authorities were upset. But what was a surprise was that it mounted a “legal challenge” which resulted in the article being “taken down”.

I re-read the article (I had it printed earlier) for signs of defamatory content, but concluded that the academics were expressing their opinion based on their experience in the university. Is this a quarrel over facts? Or merely academics holding a different opinion from the university authorities about the sort of weight that was being put on research or teaching? Was the problem a systemic one or were they just unhappy that the university didn’t think their work was up to scratch? Was the net cast wide enough to come to the conclusion that both universities were focused on rankings?

One thing that I thought might have crossed the line was what an unnamed academic said about the Provost’s “haphazard approach of gaming various ranking systems”.

Of course, on the whole, the universities didn’t come off well based on those interviews with five named academics, and I am not sure how many un-named ones. NUS is a well-regarded university, and to have its reputation attacked would have repercussions on staff, students and others thinking of joining the university in some capacity or other. I, for one, would expect the university to respond vigorously.

There are many ways a newsmaker can respond to accusations made by people which are published in the media. He can point out factual inaccuracies.  He can ask for the right of reply. He can engage in a good old fashioned debate on why the article was unfair. He can trot out people who agree with him. A university has so many channels to disseminate its point of view, even if the original media outlet denied it of its use.

But a legal challenge?

The latest is that we now have the five academics making a public statement standing by what they said.

They added: “As academics with collective experience in many countries besides Singapore, we believe that freedom of expression and active public debate are foundational to scholarly excellence and the advancement of human knowledge. We are unaware of other situations where media reporting responsibly on the opinions of faculty have been subject to “legal challenge” from a university.

“As individuals who care about Singapore academia, we are saddened by this apparent intolerance. We hope that the situation will be quickly resolved in a manner that will not be discouraging to our fellow academics in Singapore, or those who may contemplate working there in future.”

I am sad too. I would have thought a university would have a thicker skin and would have tried to parry every thrust and put in a few jabs, rather than using the law as a shield. According to ST, NUS responded by saying that while it welcomed diverse views, constructive feedback and robust discourse, it wished that the article was impartial and factually accurate. The spokesman also lamented that the article did not adequately represent the university’s position, even though its clarification was sought.

All this is simply too puzzling. What were the factual inaccuracies? And what replies did it give to the media that went un- or under-reported? Can we have a look so that we can come to our “own conclusions in a fair and objective manner?” which is what the university said it wants?

I think NUS should drop (or at least specify) the legal challenge it is pursuing against TODAY. It is a good, even great, university and it has plenty of people with the bandwidth to respond to accusations or do the defending.

What are we teaching our students if we reach for a gag order without giving reasons for it? Or if we shy away from a debate? Let’s be classy about it.

PS. The university has never, ever had a problem with my blog posts. May this happy state continue.