When a Son does not Return Home: Deaths in the SAF

A full-time national serviceman died on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, while taking part in a military exercise in Australia’s Central East Coast.

3rd Sergeant Gavin Chan was guiding an armoured military vehicle out of rocky terrain when it turned over on its side, striking him unconscious. He was evacuated by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead that evening at 10:36pm. He had just turned 21.

Described by his friends as someone who was friendly and cheerful, Gavin performed his tasks diligently.

His photo was splashed across news websites and on Facebook shares; a young man wearing a well-ironed parade attire, donning a black beret with a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) emblem shining on it. He was smiling at the camera, a state flag behind him to his left.

Almost every Singaporean who was registered as male took such a photo, the kind where you wore your military best and stood in front of the camera and smiled, or at least pretended to. And then they’d give you a certificate that came with the picture, the symbol of the country’s pride in your service.

This was a photo that I had to take as well. When I smiled, I didn’t expect to die in the next few months, and I’m guessing the same for Gavin. Like the rest of us who served, our smiles were the smiles of optimism, of better days to come.

I am not intimately familiar with this particular case. I have left the SAF for more than three years at the time of writing this, and it’s a part of my life that is largely behind me. Some of my training was dangerous. I had to trudge through dense jungle traversing ridges where two steps to the left or right would result in a headlong tumble into the unknown depths. I had to endure thirst and hunger because our food had to be rationed properly when we were on weeklong missions in the tropics. I had to throw a grenade with my trembling master hand. However, not once did I feel like my life was in any real danger.

The assumption that our sons come back home safe is part and parcel of national service. In peacetime Singapore, anything less would be a tragedy.

Gavin’s parents told the media at the wake of their son, that they had no more tears left to cry. They were both wearing white, and both looked like they hadn’t managed to catch any sleep in days. “He wanted to do social work,” said Mdm. Lim, Gavin’s mother. Gavin had planned on applying to study overseas, as he could not get into a local course. On weekends when he booked out from camp, he would come home to wash and iron his own clothes. “He was a responsible man,” said his father, Mr. Chan. “He knew what he was supposed to do.”

Gavin’s parents eventually thanked the SAF for its assistance rendered to them in such a difficult time. They also thanked the organization for flying their daughter from Wellington where she was studying, to Queensland to retrieve Gavin’s body.

Not every parent who loses their son in the time of duty is grateful to the state.

Private Dominique Sarron Lee died on April 17th 2012, after succumbing to an allergic reaction to smoke grenades during an army exercise. The combat medic attached to the platoon did not have enough experience dealing with allergic reactions of this nature, and by the time he was transported to the National University Hospital he was pronounced dead. It was only one and a half hours after the incident.

Like Gavin, Dominique was only 21 years of age and died days after his birthday. His mother wailed uncontrollably during the funeral service, and his father spoke some quiet words over the grave. His younger brother, Daryl, played an acoustic rendition of Mr. Big’s “To Be with You” during the service. It was one of Dominique’s favourite songs. Posted on a Facebook page set up in the memory of Dominique was a picture of him and his younger brother when they were just toddlers. “It was from you that I first learned to think, to feel, to imagine, to believe,” read the caption posted by one of his friends.

It was later uncovered that the then platoon commander, Captain Najib Hanuk Muhamad Jalal, had thrown six smoke grenades instead of the stipulated two. This was due to unfavourable wind conditions which made smoke cover for the troops particularly difficult to achieve. The excess smoke, however, might have contributed to the severity of the allergic reaction. The lapses in training protocol was what prompted Dominique’s mother, Madam Felicia Seah, to find answers.

Her attempts at justice would later captivate an entire nation, as she attempted to sue one of Singapore’s most powerful organisations for negligence. She would eventually fail. The Singapore high court struck out the lawsuit filed by Madam Seah in 2014 under the Government Proceedings Act, stating that any member of the armed forces cannot be held civilly liable for causing the death of another while on duty. Both Captain Najib and Captain Chia Thye Siong, the safety officer at that time were protected under this law. They were only punished with fines and delays in promotions, and were charged under military instead of criminal law.

“How do you expect me to move on? I’ve tried, but still cannot,” said Dominique’s mother during a news interview in 2013, one year after his death. She visits him every day at his grave at Lim Chu Kang Christian Cemetery, spending an hour cleaning his grave and talking to him. His grave is black and shiny, with an electric guitar at the side of the tombstone and a large speaker on top of it. Placed on and around the grave are various memorembilia, toy cars and miniature jukeboxes, a small vase of flowers and a Hoegarden beer placed at an inconspicuous corner. On the roadside of his grave, the grass is specially mown to form the words “SUPERFLYDOM”, which was what his close friends referred to him as. Madam Seah told reporters that she still cries herself to sleep every night.

Until today, many of her questions remain unanswered.

In a Facebook post early in 2016 that was shared more than 13,000 times, she apologised to her eldest son. “My dearest Dom, my heart continues to bleed for you. It has been 3 years and 10 months since you were taken from me and still, I haven’t been able to get any closure.” In the post, Madam Seah mentions the two officers who were granted statutory immunity despite failing to follow the standard operating procedures. She also had to pay for their legal costs, or in her words, “pay[ing] them for taking away your life.” She continued, “In the past 3 years, I have been worn down, beaten and defeated by the very government I taught you to trust; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very system I counselled you to have faith in; worn-down, beaten and defeated by the very people I advised you to respect and honour. Dom, forgive me. I taught you wrong.”

The SAF eventually waived the legal costs of the lawsuit. This was after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen urged the courts to do so, stating in a Facebook post that the legal system “need not add to the pain and anguish of the family of the late [Private] Lee.”

2012, which was the year before I enlisted, saw the death of five men during their service for the army. Dominique Sarron Lee was amongst the five, and by far the most high profile case. It was five cases where a mother’s fear was realised. When sons did not return home.

When I enlisted in 2013, I hugged my mother before walking off with the other enlistees. As I walked off my mother shed a tear, and I remember thinking that she was silly for doing so. I was going to be ok. We were young men who had to serve whether we liked it or not.

I told my parents over late night phone calls that the deaths from the previous year’s incidents had resulted in safer trainings due to reactionary measures put in place. We were not allowed to walk under the rain in case of lightning. We could only wear one layer of clothing so as to prevent heat injury. Anyone with allergic reactions or a complicated medical history had to wear a yellow wristband and be closely observed by instructors.

I could tell that what my parents wanted above anything else was to have me home safe every weekend.

Love is sometimes an act of following a simple routine, to have your loved ones do the same things again and again. Gavin’s parents recalled his simple wish for a chocolate cake on his 21st Birthday. “A 21st birthday to a boy or girl – at that age – is an important day. I wanted to buy him a good dinner but he refused to accept it,” said Mr. Chan. “He just wanted to have a chocolate cake, that’s all.” “Every birthday… always the same chocolate cake,” echoed Mdm. Lim.

In a Facebook post, Dominique’s close friend Timmy Low wrote about their correspondence and friendship. They made plans to go out for drinks the night before he passed away.

“Take care bro, I’ll see you then”
“Will do bud, be safe”

The meet up never materialised.

Perhaps this was why I was determined to keep to my routines when I was enlisted, or even beyond that. I would have at least one meal with my parents upon every book out. I would sleep on my own bed no matter which friend asked if I wanted to stay out late or sleepover. I would not miss any birthdays if I could help it. I would not get into trouble in camp so I could book out on time.

My parents kept up the same end of the deal, fetching me to and from camp without fail. Once on a rainy Sunday evening my family car was knocked from the back, and my parents had to pull over and settle the damages privately. My father got back as soon as he could so he could drive me to camp on time. I could tell that the incident put him a foul mood but he didn’t let it show. They wished me well as I trudged off to camp later, umbrella in hand. Another time my expected bookout time was delayed by two hours. I had already told my dad in advance to drive over, and so he did. He waited two hours in his car outside the gates. He didn’t complain when I got in, but drove me for supper instead. Driving home without me was out of the question. Routine was routine and we stuck to is as a family.

You take whatever time you have with the people that matter because you never know what might happen in the months after, or even the next day.

When Gavin’s parents were asked how they were coping, both broke down in tears. “To lose a son, it’s very painful,” began Mr. Chan. “To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that.” There were a half dozen voice recorders pointed at the parents, forming a neat semi-circle on the white table. Cameras were snapping away.

It is easy to think of death and the nation as abstract notions, forces greater than us that we find difficult to fight. But in the fight lies all the meaning in the world. It is because of the fight that Dominique’s mother had established a new routine, a new way of loving, one that she pursued fiercely to honour her son.

In the years that followed Dominique’s death the nation watched as his mother was pushed to a corner, resigned and defeated, her quest for justice unsuccessful, culminating in an emotional plea. “What we want is justice, what we want is closure,” an exasperated Madam Seah told the media. “After [all these years,] we cannot get any closure.”

Gavin’s parents could only find the strength to thank an organisation that indirectly caused the death of their son.

Perhaps our undoing lies not in the large forces of death and society but in the disemboweled routines and emptiness of the everyday.

Defeat lies in the bed untouched, the slice of chocolate cake left in the fridge for no one to eat. Grief comes in imaginary laundry cycles and clothes never to be washed again, never to be ironed again, never to be placed in cupboards too high for a mother to reach. Bereavement is a father having two glasses of beer to himself, leaving one untouched, listening to his child’s favourite song in the background and for the rest of his life because his child cannot.

All they can do is continue loving.

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References:

  1. Maniar, J., Chander, C., & Neo, S. (n.d.). Facebook. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.facebook.com/DomSarronLee/
  2. Ong, J. (2017, September 27). Hundreds turn out at military funeral for NSF soldier Gavin Chan who died in Australia. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/hundreds-turn-out-at-military-funeral-for-nsf-soldier-gavin-chan-9243622
  3. Officers in Dominique Lee case were punished: SAF. (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/saf-responds-online-debate-death-private-dominique-sarron-lee
  4. ‘To lose a good son, I can’t swallow that’: Parents of NSF who died in training mishap in Australia. (2017, September 20). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/to-lose-a-good-son-i-can-t-swallow-that-parents-of-nsf-who-died-9233792
  5. Chow, J. (2016, January 19). NSF’s death: Mum still trying to come to terms with loss. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/nsfs-death-mum-still-trying-to-come-to-terms-with-loss
  6. “where’s the justice in that?”, asks friend of Dominique Sarron Lee. (2016, March 07). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2016/03/07/wheres-the-justice-in-that-asks-friend-of-dominique-sarron-lee/
  7. Lum, S. (2016, March 20). Court rejects suit over smoke-grenade death in training. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/court-rejects-suit-over-smoke-grenade-death-in-training
  8. Chelvan, V. P. (2017, March 13). SAF officers in NSF death have ‘statutory immunity’: Judicial Commissioner. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/saf-officers-in-nsf-death-have-statutory-immunity-judicial-commi-7994804
  9. (2016, March 17). Mindef explains stance on NSF Dominique Sarron Lee’s death. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mindef-explains-stance-on-nsf-dominique-sarron-lees-death
  10. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/22000-legal-bill-fully-waived-family-dead-nsf
  11. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/death-nsf-dominique-sarron-lee-officers-punished-fines-delays-promotions