Perspective Unlimited

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Lone Tree Hill Incident at Lim Chu Kang

This post has nothing to do with economics. It is about 2LT Lee's letter that skipped the chain of command, weaved into a story about my one major regret. This incident happened more than a decade ago, but I have carried the burden of a blemished conscience ever since.

It was a night in March 1996, my battalion was carrying out a routine exercise in Lim Chu Kang in preparation for the battalion proficiency test. My company was two months away from ORD, and that test would be our last exercise. Armed with a scholarship, I was eagerly looking to ORD and going overseas. In my battalion, there was this young scholar captain who was transferred from another unit. His aloofness also made it easy for others to gang up on him. Because of his lack of experience in our formation, he was only given a platoon commander's job rather than the OC appointment which a captain would usually be accorded with. I suspect other captains, OCs themselves, viewed this scholar with a mixture of contempt (since he transferred from a supposedly less tough unit) and career-envy (he was scholar-tracked, so to speak).

That fateful March night, my S3 asked that he became the point platoon to guide the battalion to the objective, which was the the so-called "lone-tree hill" in Lim Chu Kang. It was a very specific instruction that all officers understood. But in the middle of the battalion movement, my company commander - who was always out to impress - broke away from the battalion movement in order to find a shortcut to the target. Platoon commanders, including myself, tried to dissuade him since we would be going against S3's explicit instructions. But my OC was not to be moved. Our company broke off from the rest of the battalion, and went on a needless 3 km full combat order run just to show that we could reach the objective faster.

When the point platoon finally arrived twenty minutes later, that scholar captain was naturally surprised to see an entire company already at the RV point. He hadn't even realised that my company had broken contact from the rear. Understandably, he confronted my OC straightaway and the two, who never really liked each other, almost came to blows. The rest of the company, including the junior officers like myself, stood there not sure quite what to make of it.

Gradually, other companies arrived. What happened then was a blur - lots of shouting and shoving around to separate the two captains who by then were too steeped in the argument to back down. The rest of battalion just watched. S3 arrived and demanded to know that the commotion was about. My OC, in cahoot with other OCs there, turned around and accused the young captain of showing disrespect, and physically threatening a "senior" officer. Having not been a witness to that incident, S3 had to take the OCs words and reported the matter. Within a couple of days, the scholar captain was relieved of command and became a project officer. He did not take part in the battalion proficiency test, and his career became stunted as a result. The last I heard, he gave up on his army career.

At that time, I was very tempted to shoot an email to my formation chief and commanding officer to explain what happened - how my company commander pointedly violated commands to set up the scholar captain. The email was drafted, many versions, but all saved in my PC. I never did muster the courage to send, preferring to save myself from all the hassle. None of the other junior officers spoke up, they all probably made the same calculation like myself to ORD in peace than to end up in all kinds of trouble with the authorities. But I suspect they too carried the burden of not speaking up, for every time we met up, we would inevitably talk about the "lone-tree incident". I often wished I had the wisdom then to do the right thing. If I meet that captain on the streets again, I would apologise to him. This post, if he is reading, is just that - a belated apology from me for not speaking up all those years ago.

Whether 2LT Lee acted in cunning self-interest, in stupidity, naivety, or only because of his privileged background was largely irrelevant. Speaking up was the right thing to do. The rest were just details.

[Endnote: One of my army friends emailed me and mentioned that he met that captain recently, working in the insurance industry. My OC? I have been informed that he has since been promoted to battalion and then bridgade commmander. How would events have turned out if only one junior officer there spoke up? I often look back and wonder.]

44 Comments:

  • Thanks for the story - its a good one.

    "speaking up was the right thing to do..."

    I'll second that. Can't stand dishonesty even against the people I loathe. Its a bit lacking here in Singapore, some say its the conditioning, the mind your own business attitude....an apathy towards injustice.

    Sometimes speaking up is all it takes.

    The real world is a brutal place. Running people down and people colluding to make you look incompetent and unreliable is commonplace. I was an auditor when I did my NS, I was asked once for 'evidence' by an OC to 'finish off' his QM whom he obviously didn't like.

    I always suspect these things happen often in the SAF because there's alot of leadership doing "too few things".

    However, many scholar types are contented just to get their Lt-Col or Col collect their massive gratuity and followed by a low key next career at age 40-45 in ST, insurance or whatever. Always wondered what is there to be ALOOF about....it seems like a pretty sad and boring life for one with so much leadership, talent and intelligence. I've never grouse about them getting high pay or gratuity, I think they deserve it for their painful sacrifice.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 9:45 am  

  • Glad you like it, Lucky

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 10:17 am  

  • Wasnt aware of this horror and gory incident. It must have sent even any 'dino' into shuttling and running around. ^.^

    Well speaking up is the right thing to do, but it needs to be done aptly to the right audience.

    2LT probably didnt put it across objectively enough. It came across as brash, unmeasured. More of a goodbye autograph as I see it, with an overdose of idealism.

    Being vocal is one thing. Spiced with a tinge of over-zealousness is another.

    By Anonymous blur, at 4:42 am  

  • bart, were you a PSC scholar like Hongyi?

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 8:29 am  

  • No Jonathan, otherwise I would have disrupted. No need to wait for ORD.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 8:37 am  

  • Ah, blur is someone who knows me in the past.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 9:03 am  

  • For two captains to argue and to almost come to blows in full view of the men and in the middle of a proficiency test no less is a damning demonstration of the poor quality of leadership in the SAF.

    Both men were in the wrong and should have discussed the matter behind closed doors after the exercise. Instead they chose exercise their total lack of self restraint in front of the men whom they are supposed to lead and to behave like petty insecure teenagers.

    By Anonymous Marc, at 11:23 am  

  • Office politics in the field, right in the open. "War over already".

    What do army scholars want? Be a soldier or be a salary man?

    During my time in an operational unit, I had this battery commander who was a scholar. He had this undeniable confidence of his life in the army. He did not think much of his CO based on his postures when he was around CO. During his many army years, he got promoted progressively and he went on to become COA. He recently was retired to become a senior employee for the biggest GLC.

    By Anonymous ex-soldier, at 4:11 pm  

  • What a pity. I feel sorry for that scholar captain.

    Then again, my personal experiences make me loathe those people who are eager to impress or overly ambitious.

    So, this should not be about a scholar captain vs a non scholar captain, its about standing up on your moral grounds for what is morally right or wrong.

    Well.. what can i say, the S3 is equally dumb to believe one side of the story. Then again, the world is full of stupid people. People, who in their desire to show off, step on others. People who get stepped on and don't dare to make a single peep, and people who just follow instructions to the very dot and to cover their ASS.

    ARGH.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:24 am  

  • Didn't think my S3 was dumb actually, I thought he was an intelligent man. The trouble is it is one captain's words against many other captains, S3 was not witness to the incident and his hands were basically tied.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 6:03 am  

  • Bart,

    Thats why they say retaining integrity is not so easy as simply telling the truth especially in a political situation. The S3 has no choice, he has to retain his own credibility.

    Gandhi told a story once to illustrate the difficulty of appearing credible in politics- when he was young he was too poor (even by Indian standards) to afford a watch he relied on the position of the sun to tell time. Once he was to suppose to show up for a school activity but that day the sky was cloudy and he could tell the time and showed up 1 hr late. He was scolded by his teacher - try as he did he couldn't get the teacher to believe his explanation why he was late.

    Gandhi's point is simple, people won't believe you just because you tell the truth. They believe what is easiest to believe based on the evidence before them. In life, don't assume that you are okay just because you're honest. There are men who will gang up against you and there will be those too frighten to speak up on your behalf ...and you will experience injustice as a result.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 2:11 am  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 6:06 am  

  • Lucky,

    It is interesting that you bring up and Gandhi story. What are you trying to say?

    Last month, when we were debating over whether or not Singaporeans should be given priority, I mentioned to you that I receive "Bumiu" as the verification code when I tried to comment on your blog?

    Did you disbelieve me? Or did you think it was ok for me to be flamed by others even though you knew I was telling the truth?

    Wearing a mask and claiming to be honest . . that's new.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 6:11 am  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 7:22 am  

  • Bart,

    I believe you! No doubts about.

    The mask I would have loved to remove when the time is right. The time is right is also the day there is nothing left for me to write because everyone else would speak their minds loud and clear.

    You really have to ask why there is a disproportionate number of anonymous critical bloggers in Singapore a nation that is in its Golden Period. Very simple, take film makers for example - in America, Michael Moore is walking around invited for speeches and Martyn See is invited by the police for interview - during the interview he was interrogated on his film, his blog etc. It does take much to scare people.

    There are no anonymous anti-govt bloggers in Burma either. Somehow the number of anonymous political bloggers is inversely correlated with certain issues like human rights, freedom of speech and democracy....

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 7:33 am  

  • This is a very good blog. It clearly relates your story with the recent email's saga. Yes. One man's action can has very different outcome in one's life. The lesson we can learn from the incident is that not to make one mistake at all, especially when you are a leader.

    By Anonymous YoungJedi, at 3:11 pm  

  • i couldn't help it but my eyes welled up and i got shivers down my spine when i read your anecdote about the man who whom no one spoke up for.

    But alas, it is a fate I am bound to face some day but may I have the strength and courage not to be a rational thinker when I have a chance to put things right.

    We are too quick to judge. Therein lies the whole problem. A wise man once said a man's actions are just the tip of the iceberg. The causes and everything else is something we never see or take the time to ever consider. And that my friends is why the Titanic sank. Don't just look out for what sticks out.

    By Anonymous biking nomad, at 3:39 pm  

  • Well, you should count yourself lucky you did not write the email.
    You think you will be let off with just a reprimand?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:00 pm  

  • Thanks for the touching story. Why can't you clear your conscience now? In US, years down the road, cases can be reopened & justice brought to the fore? That is if you can find all your platoon mates willing to let go of their burden.An apology on this manner, hoping that he would chance upon reading it still smacks of a little cowardice. Sorry to be harsh.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:16 am  

  • Thanks for the touching story. Why can't you clear your conscience now? In US, years down the road, cases can be reopened & justice brought to the fore? That is if you can find all your platoon mates willing to let go of their burden.An apology on this manner, hoping that he would chance upon reading it still smacks of a little cowardice. Sorry to be harsh.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:17 am  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 3:39 am  

  • Hi Anon,

    The events of that night occurred in the field, in the dark, and in a circumstance where every one was fatigued.

    Unlike a football match, there are no TV replays to examine in slow-mo who said and did what, who shoved who first. Memory has faded, and even the protagonists have moved on with their careers and lives.

    The time to speak up has passed. I dug up this old story to make the point that on the whole, 2LT Lee did the right thing to speak up.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 3:43 am  

  • i agree with you

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:45 am  

  • Sounds so much like the scene from the movie, "Mystic River".

    It seems more than all of you got into the car...

    By Anonymous Kelvin Tan, at 11:46 am  

  • hi Bart,

    If it makes you feel better, I don't think that you speaking up would have made a difference. If that scholar captain can't even survive some politiking / backstabbing, and has to end his military career, I certainly don't want him leading any company, much less a battalion in Singapore. He's better in a position where he cannot do harm to others.

    ttg

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 pm  

  • TTG,

    Agree, that scholar captain did not have high EQ and lost his cool.

    But even then, the person who should be relieved of command that night was my OC. You might be right to say that it was better for the scholar to leave so that he could not be in a position to harm others.

    By your logic, the same would have applied to my OC since his ambitions led to wilful actions that clearly harmed the mission.

    Of course, as a young man then, I did not have enough life experience to balance all these ethical dilemmas properly. Today, I would have made a different decision.

    As you can see, there are many who supports 2LT Lee (Li)'s action and many who do not.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 1:14 am  

  • Bart,

    Looks like this thing is one major "unforgetable" event in your life. Maybe you still feel abit guilty for not speaking up.

    ::::that scholar captain did not have high EQ and lost his cool. ::

    From what you described of him, he would have been fixed somewhere along the way...anyway. So don't feel too bad.

    ::::Of course, as a young man then, I did not have enough life experience to balance all these ethical dilemmas properly:::

    You said it! We all make mistakes and some of which we can't go back and fix.

    :::there are many who supports 2LT Lee (Li)'s action and many who do not:::
    I definitely support Li speaking up. We should all speak up. Whats wrong with Singaporeans anyway?

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 2:05 am  

  • Thanks for the kind words Lucky. I will try to do better next time if faced with the same situation.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 3:06 am  

  • Bart,

    The KTM agrees with TTG and Lucky and thinks that you shouldn't be too hard on yourself. Frankly, the KTM has very little sympathy for the scholar CPT.

    Though he agrees that perhaps the "right thing" for you to have done might have been to speak up, he doubts it would have made much of a difference.

    Consider the following points:

    (1) The point of the exercise was to complete the mission. Notwithstanding that the OC had gone against the explicit instructions of the S3, did he compromise the mission?

    By your logic, the same would have applied to my OC since his ambitions led to wilful actions that clearly harmed the mission.

    Perhaps you can clarify how your OC harmed the mission? Suppose for a moment the scholar CPT didn't confront him until AFTER the objective was captured, would the mission have failed?

    There's no need to slow-mo to figure out who started the confrontation in the field.

    (2) When the scholar CPT found that your Coy had reached the RV early, why did he cause trouble then? You guys still have an objective to capture right? Instead of focussing on the mission at hand, our friend is sorting out personal differences in the field (in full view of the men). Is that becoming of an officer?

    (3) Fighting a war and commanding soldiers is not about being a hero. Unless one is a Rambo, one fights as a team and needs to learn to get along with people. If the scholar PC is so champion that all the OCs will gang up on him to remove him from command, what does it say about him as a commander? You want to serve under him as your OC or CO?

    (4) Did your "company commander pointedly violated commands to set up the scholar captain"? Seems to the KTM that your OC just tried to be smart and the scholar CPT set himself up.

    Finally, if there's one thing that the KTM learnt about fighting a war from his military service that's the reality that fighting a war isn't about being smart or scholarly. A lot of it is about ground experience, common sense and being able to get along with people. Scholar officers better have ultra-high EQ or the right surname. :-)

    By Blogger kwayteowman, at 5:45 am  

  • KTM,

    Am afraid I have to decline you. I will not be talking about specific manoeuvres of that exercise. The moral of the story is clear, I think the military details should not be discussed.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 9:52 am  

  • KTM,

    (1) The point of the exercise was to complete the mission. Notwithstanding that the OC had gone against the explicit instructions of the S3, did he compromise the mission?

    >> By going against orders of the S3, he has indeed compromised the mission. If an engagement has been encountered, would the battalion or bridge commanders be aware of their positions? Would the point platoon be stranded without cover?
    The idea of the S3's orders is to attain the mission objective, in a controlled manner. Otherwise, everyone in the company can just topo their own way to the hill, and the mission objective would still not be compromised.


    (2) When the scholar CPT found that your Coy had reached the RV early, why did he cause trouble then? You guys still have an objective to capture right? Instead of focussing on the mission at hand, our friend is sorting out personal differences in the field (in full view of the men). Is that becoming of an officer?

    >> I guess wrt this, Both captains are equally unbecoming.

    (3) Fighting a war and commanding soldiers is not about being a hero. Unless one is a Rambo, one fights as a team and needs to learn to get along with people. If the scholar PC is so champion that all the OCs will gang up on him to remove him from command, what does it say about him as a commander? You want to serve under him as your OC or CO?

    >>> Talk about teamwork, the OC has totally ignored the S3's orders. Is this teamwork? Or you mean officers ganging up to bully another officer = teamwork? I dunno what it says about the scholar captain, but it says alot about the characters of the other OCs.

    (4) Did your "company commander pointedly violated commands to set up the scholar captain"? Seems to the KTM that your OC just tried to be smart and the scholar CPT set himself up.

    >> We wouldn't know the true intentions of the said OC. All we do know, from the anecdote, is that the OC saboed the scholar CPT. Isn't that plain enough?

    Finally, if there's one thing that the KTM learnt about fighting a war from his military service that's the reality that fighting a war isn't about being smart or scholarly. A lot of it is about ground experience, common sense and being able to get along with people. Scholar officers better have ultra-high EQ or the right surname. :-)

    >> Agreed. But in this instance, the OC disregarding the S3's orders, is nothing about "ground experience, common sense and being able to get along with people". It looks more to me, like "act smart, try to impress, and sabo the people you do not like".
    Just imagine, if the scholar captain is not a scholar, but the OC equally do not like him. Who would you now sympathize with?

    Bart, while asking you or your peers to reopen this case would be a far fetch, I think a personal apology to the said person would be the right thing to do. At least then, the burden is off your shoulders, and in his to forgive.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:58 am  

  • Bart,
    everyone has made many mistakes in life; i guess you should not be too hard on urself, though admittedly its easier said than done.

    By Blogger Ned Stark, at 4:00 pm  

  • The time may have passed to speak up.. but it's never too late to contact the scholar captain.. it's not that hard to find someone if you really want. If I 'm the captain then, I sure appreciate the fact that people believe in my innocence back then. Despite the outcome of events, life is as such.. unpredicatable with twists and turns.. so maybe a career in e army was not destined for the captain.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:40 pm  

  • Thanks for the kind words, we are in the process of organising a reunion. No doubt we will be talking about Lone-Tree Hill again. I should be able to find out where that captain is now.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 1:35 am  

  • Furthermore i believe that the potential earnings of an insurance agent do exceed that of an army regular. So perhaps, in a way, the scholar cpt is better of. Or not.

    By Blogger Ned Stark, at 11:25 am  

  • When a person dies,
    good deads and bad deeds will appear before their eyes

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 pm  

  • HAKKAisBEST

    h@k.ka


    Singapore is a very lucky land indeed. Either it is blessed by the gods or it is a protectorate of the Devil’s.

    The rains must have been ‘held back’ for a long, long while today. For the NDP fireworks display rehearsal to be over.

    Because as SOON as the last of these very expensive explosives was released, the heavens opened up! AT ONCE and without a nanosecond’s delay! And what a heavy downpour it was – still is.

    SPOO~~KY

    And does anyone know if we – or the parade organizers, rather – hire the services of BOMOHS (or shamans or voodoo masters, whoever) to WARD OFF the rains (in the same way Indonesian farmers engage them to bring on the rains during droughts) on the big day itself?

    For in ALL THESE THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS of my existence, I have had witnessed rain falling on August 9th BUT ONCE AND ONCE ONLY! (Can anyone still recall which year that was?).

    With all the time, MONEY and effort – not to mention the enormous logistics expensed and manpower mobilized – poured into making each year’s parade run smoothly, one can only – safely - assume someone somewhere must be seeking ‘help’ (divine or otherwise) somehow to make sure the rains get stopped in their tracks.

    After all, it’s peanuts money compared to the millions dished out for such an event.

    All said, my money this year is on NO RAIN (AGAIN) ON AUGUST 9TH itself proper – I wonder if Ladbrokes have any odds on that.

    But anyone of you can try to bet AGAINST ME though – one pays 42, if you win (i.e. it rains on August 9th and the parade/celebrations are called off).

    Good rate, yes? I’m feeling generous, that’s why. And it’s the nation’s 42nd birthday, you see.

    But like the national gaming operator, I accept bets no less than $1 – $0.20 surcharge if you bet using NETS, $0.02 if NETS CashCard or ez-Link, none if cash.

    Oh, this bet shop is open round the clock. And no, no midnight surcharges too - flat-rated, staggered, incremental or otherwise – so fret not, bet* as much as you want and as often as you like.

    PLAY RESPONSIBLY. Thank you.


    *NO PERSONS UNDER THE AGE OF 18 PERMITTED TO PLACE BETS OR COLLECT WINNINGS. NO STUDENTS IN UNIFORM ALLOWED TO STEP INSIDE THESE PREMISES.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:46 pm  

  • yessss... i'm so glad there are people who agree in principle with what our friend 2LT lee did.

    people who bitch about his white-horse-ness and what-not are just plain forgetting all the bullshit they had to endure from useless senior officers collecting their fat paychecks but doing nothing and covering each other's asses.

    white horse or not, at least someone's speaking up.

    and great blog btw, bart. scholars have been getting too much flak in recent years .. you're showing that scholars don't have to sell out and can take part in civil society discourse too.

    i guess you have left the government already?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:58 am  

  • yessss... i'm so glad some people agree in principle with what our friend 2LT Lee did.

    people who bitch about his white-horse-ness and what-not are plain forgetting all the shit they had to deal with from senior officers who sit around and do nothing but collect their comfortable paychecks and cover each other's asses.

    white horse or not, at least someone's speaking up.

    and great blog btw, bart .. scholars have been getting too much flak in recent years. you're showing that scholars don't have to sell out and can still take part in civil society discourse.

    i guess you have left the government already?

    -aqf

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:01 am  

  • Hi aqf,

    I am an economist in the civil service (on leave to do research). Don't think being employed by the civil service is considered in "government" ;-)

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 12:40 pm  

  • Heya. I like your viewpoints. As many have mentioned, it was a mistake and a move many I'm sure have regretted not making back then.

    All that's left to do is to keep yer chin up and try not to make the same mistakes.

    I think the PM's son did the right thing in speaking up definitely, but the recipients of his letter should have been more carefully chosen. Too few speak up in our society, and yes that includes me. Hmmm.

    By Blogger paN!cker, at 4:47 pm  

  • Thanks Pic!nck

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 1:51 am  

  • My comment will come across as dated, but I think that its reality--and reality is that your OC, the one that was streetsmart and combat smart would make a better commander that the aloof scholar. I wouldn't trust myself to go into combat with a bookthumping nerd.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:46 am  

  • I think tt scholar cpt got wat he deserve...he show no respect for his senior commander at all..N I would want to follow a nerd officer like him. this no big deal in reaching there earlier den him. Y kick the fuck and and a fight..stupid enough.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:44 pm  

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