Jin Tai Secondary School Total Defence Day incident (1999)

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The Jin Tai Secondary School campus in 1996. Photo from National Archives Singapore.

In 1999, fourteen Jin Tai Secondary School students were hurt in a ‘mock attack’ exercise organised to commemorate Total Defence Day. The incident sparked discussions regarding school initiatives and Total Defence commemoration activities.

Details of incident

At around 3 pm on 26 February 1999, an alarm went off in Jin Tai Secondary School. Students and teachers were told to gather in the school hall. Upon reaching, they found eight boys dressed in army uniform who were wearing ski masks or camouflage paint on their faces.[1]


The eight boys shouted at the students and staff to kneel, put their hands behind their heads, and look down. The boys allegedly pushed, punched and tied their hands and legs with raffia string. Some of them had their shirts pulled to force them to kneel. After 20 minutes, the boys left the hall.[2][3]


Following the incident, ambulances were called in to send the injured to the hospital. The students were treated for various injuries such as abrasions, ankle sprains and neck strains. Three students were warded for further observation.[4]

Responses

The Jin Tai Secondary School crest. Photo from Facebook.

Jin Tai Secondary School

According to Jin Tai Secondary School’s principal, Mr Tang Swee Chay, the boys, aged between 16 and 20, were student-officers from the National Cadet Corps (NCC). The school organised a mock attack to simulate the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. The exercise was designed to teach students the importance of psychological defence while commemorating Total Defence Day.[5] The boys had conducted two similar exercises in another school without incident.[6]


With regards to the lack of staff response during the incident, Mr Tang reasoned that the teachers in the hall could have been taken by surprise. A majority of the staff were uninformed about the exercise to keep to the realistic setting of a surprise attack. Two teachers from Jin Tai Secondary School organised the exercise, one of whom was Miss Norris Mawaty. According to Miss Norris, the boys had “assured us that no student should be harmed during the exercise”. While she did hear the shouts coming from the hall, Miss Norris, who was outside the hall, assumed that it was part of the exercise and did not investigate further.[7]


The Ministry of Education (MOE) reported that Jin Tai Secondary School had called in counsellors to attend to the students and that the school would bear the medical expenses of the affected students.[8] While the students were traumatised, most of them felt that the media reports blew the incident out of proportion. The students stood together in support for Mr Tang, who had come under scrutiny following the incident.[9]

NCC cadets

The eight NCC student-officers denied assaulting the Jin Tai students and asserted that did not mean to harm any of them. According to Vicky Oh, a former Jin Tai student and one of the boys involved, the exercise was to “let the students feel like the school was really being conquered”. Oh noted that “the purpose was to instil fear in the students so that they’ll know what it was like during the Occupation”.[10]


The boys mentioned that Miss Norris approached them for help in January and told them not to use excessive force. The boys interpreted this instruction as “no punching, kicking or strangling”.[11] They pointed out that they were no briefings held with the teachers-in-charge and that it was “quite a rushed plan”.[12]


Vicky Oh assumed that the school would screen out students with health problems. Based on his previous experiences, such students were excluded from the exercise for their safety.[13]


According to the NCC Commander Lieutenant Colonel Y. S. Yeo, the exercise conducted at Jin Tai “was not a sanctioned activity of the HQ NCC”. He noted that NCC was not aware or informed of the exercise, stating that it was done as a school activity.[14] NCC Headquarters informed that they would investigate the cadets.[15] No further information regarding the investigation was available.

Ministry of Education (MOE)

A Total Deference Day poster from the 1980s that highlights the 5 pillars of defence in Singapore - Psychological, Social, Economic, Civil, Military. Photo from Threader.

According to MOE, principals and vice-principals were regularly briefed on an existing set of guidelines. Schools had the discretion to conduct “meaningful and relevant” activities to celebrate Total Defence Day.[16] The staff and students were not briefed to protect the realistic element of the exercise.[17]


Immediately after the incident, MOE planned to remove the “surprise element”  in school mock exercises. This is to ensure that the students and staff would be fully informed and to prevent any confusion.[18]


In response to the forum letters, MOE announced that it would “continue to encourage schools to be innovative and plan school-based activities that are meaningful and relevant”.[19] MOE took the incident as a learning example for other schools. While it did not dismiss innovative approaches to Total Defence Day, MOE encouraged schools to “experiment and implement programmes which bring out their pupil’s best” while taking into consideration appropriate precautions.[20]

Singapore public

Members of the public responded to the incident in forum letters. Most agreed that the mock exercise should not have happened. Some felt that the school gave too much control to the NCC boys and did not take greater precaution in organising such an event.[21] Family members of the injured students were furious that their children were hurt, stating that the “mock exercise was a very stupid idea”.[22]


On the other hand, some supported Jin Tai’s initiative to hold a mock exercise. They acknowledged that by injecting realism Jin Tai Secondary School made defence exercises relevant to the students and strengthened their readiness.[23]

Aftermath

In 2000, MOE and the Singapore Civil Defence Force jointly organised a large-scale Total Defence Day programme for 12,000 students from various schools. The programme was meant to educate the students on life in a bomb shelter and to prepare them in the face of danger.[24]


The two-hour programme consisted of a briefing and an audio-visual presentation before students were locked in bomb shelters for about 15 minutes. The bomb shelters used were located in five secondary schools, two void decks, two community clubs and three MRT stations. However, students visiting the bomb shelters at the MRT stations would not be locked in as it would disrupt train services.[25]


Besides attending a talk on Total Defence and taking part in an essay-writing competition, Jin Tai Secondary School students took part in the bomb shelter exercise.[26]

References / Citations

  1. Tan, Wendy. “Jin Tai students hurt in ‘attack’”. The Straits Times. February 27, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  2. Tan, Wendy. “Jin Tai students hurt in ‘attack’”. The Straits Times. February 27, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  3. Sandra Davie. “Cadets deny Jin Tai assault”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  4. Tan, Wendy. “Jin Tai students hurt in ‘attack’”. The Straits Times. February 27, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  5. Sharon Vasoo. “They assured us no one would be harmed”. The Straits Times. February 28, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  6. Sandra Davie. “Cadets deny Jin Tai assault”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  7. Sharon Vasoo. “They assured us no one would be harmed”. The Straits Times. February 28, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  8. “MOE will remind schools about safety”. The Straits Times. March 5, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  9. “We’re all behind you, Mr Tang”. The New Paper. March 13, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  10. Sandra Davie. “Cadets deny Jin Tai assault”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  11. Sandra Davie. “Cadets deny Jin Tai assault”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  12. Teo, Ginnie. “We didn’t punch anyone”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  13. Sandra Davie. “Cadets deny Jin Tai assault”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  14. “What MOE and NCC say”. The Straits Times. February 28, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  15. “MOE - No more surprises”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  16. “What MOE and NCC say”. The Straits Times. February 28, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  17. “MOE - No more surprises”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  18. “MOE - No more surprises”. The Straits Times. March 2, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  19. “MOE will remind schools about safety”. The Straits Times. March 5, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  20. M. Nirmala. “Principal power”. The Straits Times. September 6, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  21. “Where to draw the line”. The New Paper. March 9, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  22. Tan, Wendy. “Jin Tai students hurt in ‘attack’”. The Straits Times. February 27, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  23. “Where to draw the line”. The New Paper. March 9, 1999. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  24. Koh Boon Pin. “Bomb-shelter experience for students”. The Straits Times. February 11, 2000. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  25. Koh Boon Pin. “Bomb-shelter experience for students”. The Straits Times. February 11, 2000. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  26. Hong Xinyi. “Jin Tai plays it cool”. The New Paper. February 14, 2000. Accessed 19 August 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.