Five lives lost, no one responsible?

Posted by under Features on 10 June 2008

Who is responsible for the senseless deaths of the five young Singapore men. Did the sports authorities in Singapore closed one eye to flagrant disregard for basic water sport safety - allowing the sportmen to join dragon boat races without life jackets?

Five lives lost, no one responsible?

HOW is it possible for five of Singapore's young sportsmen to die in a rowboat accident and nobody is held accountable?

Yet that was the finding of a Panel of Inquiry that probed the tragedy of the five dragon boat sportsmen who drowned after a race in Cambodia inNovember, representing us, Singapore.

Perhaps a clue is the statement made by the chairman of the inquiry panel, Brigadier-General Bernard Tan, quoted in this paper: "The biggest tragedy from this incident would not be the incident itself, but if we learn nothing from it."

What would the bereaved families have to say to that?

The biggest tragedy here is indeed the senseless deaths of our five young men.

The emotional distance BG Tan is putting to the event, at least in public, which can be summarised as "what's happened has happened, let's move forward" is not acceptable, especially as the confused findings of the panel make the way forward not that clear.

The panel seemed lost in irrelevant minutiae, among its key findings being that the rowers were not familiar with the race conditions, left for the race only the night before, the paddles were heavier than usual and the distance of the race was 0.2m longer.

It's befuddling. What do all of that have to do with the tragedy?

Nothing untoward happened during the race itself.

The team finished the race same as anybody else, with the same equipment as the others. The tragedy occurred after the event, when unlike most of the other teams, our team chose not to wait for a tugboat to take them to the dock, rowed there themselves and got sucked under a pontoon.

That's where the focus should have been the tragedy.

You can find a similar lack of focus in the panel's recommendations, so it is no wonder that the responses from the Singapore Dragon Boat Association (SBDA) are also confusing and non-committal. The panel told the SBDA not to take part in races that don't comply with the International Dragon Boat Federation standards and then left it ample wiggle room.

Depending on which news report you read, either the panel said the SBDA should do their own risk studies before taking part in races not meeting the global body's standards, or the SBDA itself said if they do take part, they will then do proper risk studies.

So, in essence, what is the recommendation? "Don't. But if you do, then do this also. But better if you don't."

Another example: Follow the global body's water safety policies, including safety drills for when the boat capsizes, the panel said.

Okay, responded the SBDA. "In principle." But some policies "may not apply" here. One news report has the SBDA saying capsize and swamping drills were not held because the boats used here are sturdy and paddlers train in calm waters!

The head of the SBDA, Rear-Admiral (Ret) Kwek Siew Jin, was reported to have said capsize drills could even be dangerous because the boat could crash on paddlers trying to turn it over and injure them.

A novel argument, making Singapore maybe the only country in the world that could choose not to practise an international safety drill because someone could get hurt.

And so it goes on, you get the picture. It's all in the news reports.

Now even if the bereaved families, in their grief, accept the inquiry findings as the end of the story, this doesn't mean society has to accept it.

It's a question of accountability, so we know we have tried our best to make sure nothing like this happens again, which presumably was what BG Tan meant with his remark.

According to news reports, the inquiry panel took the position that there were so many contributing factors that no one could be held responsible.

But if you have, say, 10 contributing factors and two are out of our control say, bad luck and Cambodian inadequacies you can still act on the other eight. And this is where the panel has failed to move.

It is clear from the panel's own observations that the sports authorities here closed one eye to flagrant disregard for basic water safety issues, allowing weak swimmers to join dragon boat races without life jackets; not even encouraging, let alone enforcing, safety drills; not even testing until after the tragedy if our dragon boat rowers can swim 50 metres in light clothing; the list goes on ...

What did the SBDA do after we lost our five dragon boaters in November?

Barely weeks later, in January, it announced a massive first-of-its-kind relay dragon boat event for the next month, aiming to draw half-a-thousand rowers to by its own words "raise the public awareness that dragon boating is a safe sport, especially so in Singapore".

That time and effort would have been better spent reflecting on the management of the sport here.

On the inquiry, it's too late to ask for another probe as there is just too much pain involved for all the families, the team, their peers and our sports officials too, whose most senior members like RAdm Kwek hold presumably unpaid positions for the love of the sport and must have known the deceased personally.

But sentiment aside, the public has good reason to question the way forward if there is no change in the management of dragon boat racing in Singapore.

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Today Five lives lost, no one responsible? 7 June 2008

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