Singapore’s Army Culture Needs More Than Rules

The recent death of 28-year-old Mediacorp actor Aloysius Pang has struck the hearts of many.

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Responses on the internet are flooding through in predictable ways.

The government is scrambling together press conferences reassuring everyone that they will “seriously review the safety standards” and “get to the bottom of it”.

Usual suspects in the anti-government crowd are on the march for “accountability”, while the media is scrutinising everything from his young career to his girlfriend’s Instagram posts to report on.

But the tragic death of a NSman prompts a more crucial question. This is the fourth SAF training-related fatality in 18 months. Why do these training accidents happen so often? What can be done to minimise accidents moving forward?

Formal and informal rules are different

First, we need to recognise the difference between formal rules (directives) and informal rules (culture and social norms) in the army.

We know the difference. A company’s formal rules states something that was probably strongly emphasised in your first week at work in black and white. These are directives.

But as we start working, we realise that a whole different set of ‘soft’ rules also govern our work tasks. Sociologists and economists term it culture.

The SAF’s knee-jerk responses is to address training accidents through directives. But this doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.

The informal norms of military culture

Anyone who’s spent time in the army is familiar with the pervasive culture of boorish and masculine bravado.

When you fall out of your route march, somebody is likely going to be chiding you later for being ‘weak’. If you complain about your FBO and rifle being too heavy, you’re seen as a ‘guniang‘.

Genuinely want to report sick? Expect everyone to think you’re malingering (chao keng) even if they don’t say it to your face.

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Most of these informal and ‘masculine’ norms in the army go a long way in pushing young men beyond what they thought they could do. Hence, you often hear guys talking about how NS made them realise they could do things they never knew possible.

SAF tries its best to instill safety through endless drills, dry safety talks and their ‘core values’.

Safety measures are important, but many of these formal rules do not and cannot address the informal cultural rules that govern social life within the army.

Erring on the side of caution

In fact, I think that SAF tends to overly err on the side of caution when it comes to safety issues. There is a huge incentive for SAF doctors, officers and sergeants to cut the conscript some slack because no one wants to deal with the enormous repercussions of having enabled a potential injury or death.

For most of them, it is a two-year stint and they don’t want to risk going to jail.


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The problem is that at the same time, the informal culture that is enforced through our sergeants and peers prompt us to ‘put aside’ what we learn in safety talks and behave like macho men.

To give an example, it is a strict directive in the army for safety officers to ask before a training exercise if everyone has had “seven hours of uninterrupted rest”. ‘Rest’ does not mean sleep, but merely that you were free from physical duties for that duration.

But literally no one adheres firmly to this formal rule. Commanders urge you to go ahead with your training even if they know you had far less “uninterrupted rest” than that. Anyone who cites a lack of rest to get out of an exercise will be subject to ridicule from their peers.

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There is psychological pressure to disregard formal safety training standards, as one of Pang’s unit mates highlights in his Facebook post. But none of these are new revelations to most NSmen.

Conscripts aren’t paid professional soldiers

How can we change the underlying culture then? Academic Donald Low says that it’s much more than having commanders droning on about safety or plastering posters around the camp — I agree.

But we need to bear in mind that we’re talking about conscripts who by and large are fundamentally unmotivated and just want to hurry up and finish their years of service.

Conscripts are different from paid professional soldiers who are highly inspired to lead and perform their duties to excellence. Just look at the stark difference in discipline standards between private mercenaries that the US army engages like Blackwater or our Gurkha Contingent.

We need trained and well-paid professionals

There are two possible solutions. We can incentivise conscripts by paying them more. Or we can recruit the services of professional soldiers for more heavy duty work.

Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer vehicles deployed in NZ
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In the current state of affairs, it is highly unlikely that conscripts can be motivated toward anything other than quickly finishing their service, let alone instill some kind of radical cultural overhaul.

If we want to make use of underpaid and unmotivated conscripts, then we should expect some trade-off in discipline. The same is true in private businesses when employees are underpaid.

Having our cake and eating it too would be nice. But from a policymaker’s perspective, that would be terribly naive.

Featured image from The Singapore Army on Facebook.