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

25 thoughts on “When a Son does not Return Home: Deaths in the SAF

  1. Well written! Just because the law in Singapore is generally upheld, doesn’t mean it does not have limitations of its own. ‘Statutory immunity’ is one of the hardest pills to swallow, be it in the SAF or in medical practice!

    Like

  2. What is the purpose of writing this story. Is this to defamed the SAF? Your story clearly does not state facts. You are just getting in from references. If you do not have facts based on the intensive investigations on the case then dont pen it down. Your stories dont even give justice to this soldiers.

    I have my fair share where my fellow comrade passed on right next to me. We as his friends dont blame the system. In fact we trust the system even more. The system is there to protect us. To provide a safety net. Accidents do happen.

    So please dont write any stories where you just want to get views

    Let the story rest.

    Btw, im not a regular.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bob,

      There was no agenda behind what I wrote. I felt something for the dead soldiers and so ran with it. It’s always like that with the things I write. There isn’t a single line that defames the SAF, neither do I have any problems with the system. I compiled my evidence from largely state owned news sources and referenced all of them below. I could have done more research perhaps, but this would have involved reaching out to family members who would have perhaps rather not be reminded of the incident. The evidence I got from Facebook came from official memorial pages and the account of the mother of one of the deceased soldiers. The extent of my opinions came from my experiences in army which i found, like you, helped me grow as a person and appreciate my family more.

      I understand that you have the utmost faith in the system. That’s ok. I think people like you keep the country running in ways that many of us fail to appreciate. I appreciate it. This was never meant as an attack against the values you represent. The fact remains that two soldiers died and perhaps some parents are still grieving. I cannot begin to imagine how they feel but this is my way of trying to. When someone reads this I don’t necessarily encourage them to read it as a political statement. In my eyes this is an emotional statement, a reflection of how I saw these events and how heartbroken I was upon reading what I read.

      I think it’s fine to tell me that you believe the state isn’t in the wrong. I like that version of events and think we should strive for it eventually but as you say, no system is perfect. We are all trying.

      But for you to tell me to move from from the incident is frankly something I am unable to do. It would be an insult to those who died if we treated this as an accident and labeled them as one more statistic. They had families to go back to, people who loved them and expected them to be back safe. It is for them who have lost their voices that I write and it is for them that we can choose to grieve for if we want to and move on when we think it is time. How we choose to feel is not up to you to say.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Thanks Justin for this touching piece. You have a remarkable flair for writing. Words can lift people up or drag them down, and in a world where people are increasingly hostile to each other, I’m glad you have chosen to use your gift for the former.

        Thank you for allowing us to pause and empathise with the plights of people usually regarded as just another figure in the statistic. It’s through understanding each other that we can truly be a community of people that cares for each other. And you’re right, that includes understanding the viewpoints of people like Bob as well, and why they hold such views.

        I hope you’re doing well, my friend 🙂

        Like

      • Aye Kenneth, reading through your stuff I see you’re doing really well. If I could find someone is Singapore that was the opposite of you it would probably be Bob haha, nice to see a wide spectrum of comments (and readers I guess).

        Thanks for the faith in my ability, to be honest I’m still trying to explore other issues in Singapore such as depression and other forms of loss but those will be for future projects (when I’m back in Singapore). Will look forward to sharing those with you when I get down to them.

        And same to you, I hope (and i see) that you’re doing well 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • All I count as loss. I’ve learnt that some things I held in high regard doesn’t actually matter as much as I thought it did.

        But it is well with me, as well as I ever will be. 🙂 Looking forward to more of your insights.

        Like

  3. Don’t let naysayers like Bob above put you down with his comments. There are thousands of us who feel the way you do and are proud that you spoke out. We have every right to continue questioning as citizens of a free country even though our opinions differ. It’s because we care that’s why we do. We want to keep improving the country, to prevent anymore deaths, heartache and wasted lives because of “accidents” for a nationalistic cause we all feel differently about. Your short reflections no matter how small, provides some sort of justice to those who grieve and care. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very beautifully written. I was very touched by your account about how you kept the faith with Nation and Family. You obviously paid attention to your personal safety. You also made sure you returned home regularly to be with your beloved family. Your family is blessed indeed.

    History cannot be undone…lives will continue to be tragically lost inside and outside of military service. A 19-year old NUS undergraduate died in a taxi-car collision just days ago. It is not far from my condo and I felt the sorrow. Her parents and loved ones would be deeply shocked and grieving for a long time.

    A 18-year old polytechnic student hit his chest while skate-boarding in my condo, somehow made it to his apartment and collapsed. He died. These are just examples on how cruel can Fate be.

    As you move on in life, dedicate it with love to God and Society. We know not the future with full certainty but we can make each day a meaningful one. God bless you and your loved ones.

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  5. “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.” Is an extremely unfair law. Completely brushes off the feelings and rights of the citizens when clearly, it is the armed forces that caused the death in the first place. Whelp, how can I complain? Singapore will be Singapore. Going to NS next year, not looking forward.

    Like

  6. This is not to state who is wrong or right. But to reinforce that it’s one incident too many. Parents sent heir child to serve the nation and not to die within. All these so called TSR are they being adhered to? There are many things that are not done and that is why many incidents are still happening. Faulty ammos, faulty weapons, speeding on rocky terrains, etc are just a few to mention.

    It’s easy to comment because you do not have friends that died during these peace time training. We have friends that has died because of the lag of these so called TSR not being followed.

    We faced friends being killed in Australia during a peace time training in1997. Just months before we ORD. He was also 21 years old and the only son in his family. This is not the only incident that happened during our NS time. They are also the children of other parents. Do spare some thoughts for them too.

    I think this guy Bob is the one whom is biased here. If these were to happen to him. Will he still say the same things? Unless you do not have children serving NS.

    So please keep your comments to yourself.

    Like

  7. Hi Justin, thanks for writing this. As a female I don’t have any experiences with the army but I woke up today to news of the tragic accident in Yio Chu Kang (my neighbourhood) which has took away three lives. And this post just came to my mind.. I don’t think its ever easy to write about death (and the SAF) but once again you have wrote it so beautifully. and I think I just wanted to say that you’re really brave for doing so.. (bc lbr how many people dare to write about something like this publicly without ‘overstepping the boundaries’) (and i also rly appreciate the references)

    Like

    • Hi Charlene!

      Thanks for reading this and as always taking your time to think about it 🙂 I wrote it a while back and my feelings towards the incident never changed all this time. When I read the sources all the same feelings came back, not anger but just sadness, especially for the parents who had great hopes for their children. I think the title “when a son does not return home” is just one part of the story, because as we have seen from recent news there have been deaths on the road and those have been largely females. I guess whether in the army or not, death can take away anyone at anytime (many of these victims were just walking on the street and travelling in the backseats of cars). If the feelings you got from this post has helped you better relate to loss in the more general sense then I have no regrets writing what I wrote.

      Also it wasn’t brave that I wrote it, I actually was inspired by this article:

      It’s about those who lost loved ones in the march 2011 Japanese earthquake tsunami.

      I read this around the same time I heard the news of the Australian training death, and so went with my feelings on it. I didn’t really think about any boundaries.

      I don’t know if you want to call that brave!

      Like

    • Thank you Madam Seah, for living every day in the memory of Dominique. I see in you the strength and courage only a mother can possess. This took me only a few weeks to write and edit so I cannot say I understand anything at all, and deserve no thanks. But what I know is that through the thoughts and efforts of his loved ones his legacy will last forever.

      Like

  8. We sympathise with the family for the loss, which will never be retrieved again. Accidents do happen, not in military alone, as you can see the recent accident at Clementi where a upcoming and grooming girl dies in an accident and Yio Chu Kang where the lorry had it’s share where there were fatal. Bob has a point accidents do happen and taking info from websites and putting it in there is not a proper way to reflect your thoughts. I also had seen my fellow mate die in front of me, circumstances was there are family accepted it. Just like Gavin’s parents who are still mourning. I vaguely remember not sure who it was the parents went on holidays after they lost their son and getting all the money from insurance, etc reason being “to overcome the loss”. I am still puzzled ……
    My deepest condolences goes to Gavin’s family, your son died as a MAN and Soldier for the Nation and we are always proud of him.

    Like

    • I agree that accidents do happen, and that we shouldn’t always live our lives trying to find blame in anything we can find blame in. But what I have come to believe is that when some people try their best to find answers they do it first and foremost out of love rather than spite. The parents in the story don’t gain anything from spiting the state, or from getting money from the government. It’s very clear that it isn’t money that they’re after. What they are after is justice for those that they’ve lost, and this justice should not be confused with blind hatred for the state. Having a conversation like that is tricky; because most who are so eager to comment have not lost loved ones in such circumstances before. I haven’t myself, but I’m guessing that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to get out of bed after an incident like this. The word ‘hurt’ won’t even scratch the surface. The families want to move on and believe that their sons are at peace. They want to move on more than you want them to move on, because they live their lives with this pain unlike you and me, who are only trying to understand it. But they cannot believe their loved ones are at peace until they have the answers that they want. Simple as that. You can’t just pull a switch and move on from things, you need the reasons to and the time to.

      It’s very easy to think of life and death in economic and practical terms. When I visited the Facebook account commemorating the life of the NUS undergraduate that passed away in the Clementi car crash, I was shocked to see one of the comments on a post talking about how to best claim insurance. There was no condolence behind the comment, just cold, hard practicality.

      What you said about the family reportedly using the insurance from the death of a son to go on holiday reminded me of that comment I saw. It reflected the unhealthy knee jerk suspicion, the instinct to think of things in economic losses and gains instead of putting the personal first.

      I write because I am afraid of this. I write with a heart in my throat because I firmly believe that a life where emotions can be bought over with money is a life no longer worth living. It is moments like this, when a mother continues to remember and to love, that you realise just how much you have to live for.

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      • Celebrate life and worry less about what may happen. Life and Death are mysteries. But Living is something that one can control, can enhance, can appreciate. Sharing time with others, giving a bit of each day to others, giving to yourself, to God, etc. can make the day more meaningful. Life without the concept of God and the Eternal means an unknown abyss when one’s Life is over. But Life with confidence that the Eternity is a continuation before and after, can be reassuring.

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  9. Pingback: “When A Son Does Not Return Home” | erased narrative

  10. Don’t love too much, so that when it comes to part it will not be so painful. Every single one must go one day, there is no escape. Do not assume when your time will come and be prepared.

    Like

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