Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mindef clarifies SAF doctor's scholarship bond

April 8, 2009

By Jermyn Chow

THE Defence Ministry has addressed for a second time issues raised by the family of Captain (Dr) Allan Ooi, who had gone absent without official leave for five months before being found dead in Melbourne, Australia, last month.

In a letter to the media on Tuesday, the ministry said it would have preferred to keep such exchanges private out of respect for Capt (Dr) Ooi and his family. However, it said an earlier letter by the family had raised 'several issues', and it was necessary to clarify them.

Among them, said Mindef spokesman Darius Lim, was the three-year bond Capt (Dr) Ooi had to serve after he was sent for a six-month stint in aviation medicine in London in January last year.

In a letter to the press last week, the family claimed that this bond was to be served on top of the Republic of Singapore Air Force medical officer's 12-year medicine scholarship bond - in effect, making it a three-year bond for a six-month course.

However, Colonel Lim said yesterday that this was untrue. He said the bonds were to be served concurrently, and this was explained to Capt (Dr) Ooi when he signed the contract in December 2007 before flying off to London. In fact, two of his family members signed the contract as his sureties.

Added Col Lim: 'Mindef also sent Capt (Dr) Ooi an e-mail to confirm this. He acknowledged receiving the mail.'

When the SAF scholarship holder returned from his London training stint last July, he had told his superior at the Aeromedical Centre that he was unhappy at work and wanted out of the SAF.

About a month later - on Aug 12, not in July, as his family had said - Capt (Dr) Ooi wrote to the Head of Manpower at Headquarters Medical Corps, expressing his intention to quit.

On Aug 20, the Head of Manpower replied, and explained how to apply for an early release.

But Capt (Dr) Ooi did not submit an application, said Col Lim. On Oct 3, the doctor's superior offered him the option of a 'posting to an appointment of his choice'.

Col Lim said the 27-year-old 'thanked his superior, and promised to respond in two weeks'. But he did not do so. Instead, on Oct 15, when the two weeks would have been up, he went Awol.

On March 3 this year, he was found dead underneath Melbourne's Westgate Bridge.

In a note he left behind, he said, among other things, that he was unhappy at work.

In its letter yesterday, Mindef noted that Capt (Dr) Ooi's family had asked for an inquiry into its policies and processes, 'on the premise that this would avert a similar tragedy'. Col Lim said a board of inquiry was convened last month, and it concluded that matters related to Capt (Dr) Ooi's service 'were managed appropriately'. He reiterated that SAF scholarship holders know they have 'a moral obligation' to serve out their bonds. This 'goes beyond the legal obligation to pay back the liquidated damages if the bond is broken'.

All SAF scholarship holders are expected to do their duty 'unless prevented from doing so because of extenuating circumstances, like medical reasons', he said. 'While Capt (Dr) Ooi was unhappy with his job and had wished to resign, he subsequently went Awol even though he had been told of other possible job options,' Col Lim concluded.

Contacted last night, the doctor's sister, Lynette, a lawyer working in Hong Kong, said the family has yet to meet Mindef officials to clarify the issues raised. Added the 24-year-old: 'We still hope that an independent inquiry will be set up to look into the matter.'

April 2, 2009

Family of dead SAF doctor seeks answers

WE WRITE in response to the March 23 letter by the Ministry of Defence, 'SAF offered doctor alternative posting', regarding Captain (Dr) Allan Ooi Seng Teik, who ended his life on March 3.

Allan was proud of his Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) study award and pursued his studies and housemanship enthusiastically. He, and we, understood that his 12-year bond included two specialisation courses, and that it could be terminated, subject to liquidated damages.

When Allan signed on at 18, he had looked forward to serving out his bond as a true doctor, treating patients rather than being deployed to perform unrelated administrative tasks almost all the time.

Within his last e-mail to us, timed for release after his death, he spoke of his job as being 'terrible, no joy, no satisfaction'.

We seek answers to the following:

What were Allan's discussions with his superior? What are the specifics of the other posting offered as mentioned by Mindef and were these documented?

Why would a bond be breakable only in 'strong, extenuating circumstances' as stated by Mindef when this was not stated in his contract? What are these circumstances?

[Any contract, and a bond is a contract, would be legally binding and any deviation or failure to perform under the contract would be subject to penalties. If the offended party decides to release the party in breach of the contract, it is the sole discretion of the former. Singapore prides itself on its reputation as a law-abiding and responsible nation. But the citizens seem to treat contracts rather cavalierly. If you sign an agreement with a contractor to renovate your home, and after he hacks off the floor, he tells you, "this isn't working out. I don't really like hacking floors. Can you release me from my contract?" And you look at your half-hacked floors, and consider the cost of staying at some temporary lodgings, and think about finding another contractor that will complete the job, will you tell your first contractor, "sure go ahead. I release you from your contract. No damages"? You're a bigger man idiot than I thought.]

We now know Allan wrote a letter to the Manpower Branch, Headquarters Medical Corps in July last year with the intention of breaking his bond. What was the outcome?

How can a contract be subject to policy changes, including prolonging his 12-year bond by another three years for one six-month specialist course?

We feel Allan's concerns can be addressed effectively only via an inquiry by an independent panel with oversight powers. We hope to help bring possible deficiencies to light in order to avert a similar tragedy and pain to other families.

Family of the late Cpt (Dr) Allan Ooi

[A death of a young man, with talent and potential, is a loss to all who know and love him and to all those lives he has yet to touch and affect. And yes, it is understandable that those who love him will want to make sense of his life, and perhaps even find some answers to his death.

But the publicly known facts are these. Dr Ooi had gone AWOL and 5 months later was found dead in Melbourne, with evidence strongly suggesting suicide. From a commonsense perspective, if his job was so terrible that he felt so utterly without hope, he would have killed himself then, or very soon after going AWOL. The fact that he took his life 5 months after deserting suggests strongly that it was not the job anymore. He is not a stupid person. He would have had a plan, not a great one perhaps, but a plan nonetheless - unless his plan was to go AWOL, then live it up for 5 months then kill himself. In which case, everything went according to plan. Going AWOL was the escape from the job. 5 months after that, the job would cease to be germane to his immediate deliberations. What would become relevant at that time, would be the question every fugitive or runaway would consider: "should I go back?"

And it is the answer to that question he gave himself that drove him to suicide.

Maybe he told himself that he could never go back, never see his friends and loved ones again, and that depressed him such that he decided that death was the better option.

Maybe he told himself that this would be a blemish on his otherwise spotless record so far, and it would hold him back, and there would be no future for him even if he did go back and he wanted to go back, but things would not be the same again, and so he hit the universal "Reset" button.

Maybe he didn't know how to go back and still keep his dignity and pride. And the thought of the shame and embarrassment was unbearable.

The job and the bond may have driven him to run, but suicide was probably complicated by other intervening factors and considerations.

My own personal opinion is that this was a young man, with great potential and who had sailed through life relatively smoothly. Things were going his way most of the time and his job posting was the first bump on his road. And he didn't know how to deal with it. All he knew was that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life doing it. And well, he took away the rest of his life.

A tragedy, but not of MINDEF's making.]

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