Dragon boat tragedy in Cambodia

On 23 November 2007, a dragon boat carrying a 22-member team representing Singapore overturned in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river after strong currents caused it to collide with a tugboat moored at a pontoon. Five members of the team were sucked under the pontoon by the water currents and lost their lives.1 The Singapore team was participating in the 1.5-kilometre boat race held as part of Cambodia’s annual Water Festival.2

Dragon boating is an integral facet of Cambodia’s much-celebrated annual Water Festival, which is locally known as Bon Om Tuk. The festival is held every November to mark the end of the monsoon season, when the Tonle Sap river reverses its flow back towards its lake source.3

In 2007, Cambodia made an unprecedented bid to internationalise the event and invited its ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbours to take part in the three-day festival.4 Of the 10 ASEAN nations, only Myanmar did not send a team to compete.5 In all, there were 432 boats that took part in the race.6

The incident
The Singapore dragon boat team arrived in Cambodia on 22 November 2007, a day before the race was held. The coach, Nasiman Karim, had noticed that the waters of the Tonle Sap looked placid, but that the currents were exceptionally strong.7

On the day of the race itself, the team practised paddling in the river for 20 to 30 minutes while wearing life jackets. Later, they decided against wearing life jackets for the race. Some dragon boat paddlers do not wear life jackets so as to maximise their performance, as the life jackets can inhibit movement.8

After completing the race, the team decided to paddle their dragon boat back to the docking area themselves, instead of waiting to be towed back.9 When they were near the shore, a wave hit the boat, causing it to collide with a tugboat moored to a concrete pontoon nearby. The dragon boat subsequently overturned and sank.10 The incident occurred at 5.25 pm.11

Other boats in the vicinity picked up 12 of the 22 Singapore paddlers shortly after their boat capsized, but 10 team members were sucked into the swirling 10-metre-deep waters under the pontoon, which was bigger than a basketball court. Five of them managed to resurface at the far end of the pontoon, but the remaining five did not.12

The Cambodian authorities later revealed that they had cautioned the participating teams against approaching that pontoon, as the waters around it were susceptible to whirlpools and downward rips. However, they conceded that a language barrier might have prevented the message from being properly communicated to the Singapore team.13

Casualties and recovery of bodies
The five paddlers who lost their lives in the mishap were Chee Wei Cheng, a 20-year-old full-time national serviceman; Jeremy Goh Tze Xiong, a 24-year-old Singapore Institute of Management undergraduate; Stephen Loh Soon Ann, a 31-year-old physical-education teacher at the National Junior College; Reuben Kee En Rui, a 23-year-old music composer and former beauty pageant winner; and Poh Boon San, a 27-year-old engineer at the Defence Science and Technology Agency.14

After the incident occurred, a Cambodian search-and-rescue team of more than 200 men, comprising volunteers from the local fishing community, divers, navy sailors and the police, began the search for the five missing bodies. On the afternoon of 24 November 2007, an elite eight-man team from Singapore’s Naval Diving Unit joined the search, utilising special sonar equipment to scan the riverbed.15

After a 40-hour search, the bodies of the five casualties were found by the Cambodians on the morning of 25 November 2007.16 They were brought to Calmette Hospital, where the bodies were identified by grief-stricken family members who had arrived in Cambodia the evening before.17 The bereaved families returned to Singapore with the bodies of the deceased paddlers on the night of 26 November 2007, after conducting rituals at the site of the tragedy.18

A joint memorial service was held on 29 November 2007 at Mandai Crematorium to mourn the deceased paddlers. It was attended by the victims’ friends and families as well as members of the public. Then-Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan delivered a eulogy, followed by the victims’ families and friends.19

A memorial “row-out” was conducted on 16 December 2007 at the Bedok Reservoir to express support for the national dragon boat team and rejuvenate the flagging spirit of the sport.20

The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) dragon boat community raised S$125,000 for a bursary fund set up in 2008 to honour Poh Boon San and Stephen Loh, two of the victims who were NTU alumni. The fund dispenses two S$4,000 bursaries each year to NTU dragon boat team members who require financial assistance.21

Safety review
On 28 November 2007, the Singapore Dragon Boat Association (SDBA) declared that life jackets would be mandatory for all Singapore dragon boaters, and that the regulation would extend to their participation in overseas races.22

Some, however, questioned whether wearing a safety jacket would have helped prevent the tragedy.23 The coach of the ill-fated team, Nasiman Karim, was of the view that life jackets would have been more of a hindrance in the Tonle Sap mishap. He felt that the presence of life jackets would have made it harder for the paddlers trapped under the pontoon to descend to greater depths where they could then use the force of the stronger currents there to swim out from under the pontoon and reach the surface.24

A safety inquiry panel was set up on 4 December 2007 to investigate the deaths of the five paddlers and to conceive measures that would help prevent a recurrence of such incidents.25 The panel was chaired by Brigadier-General Bernard Tan Kok Kiang and included a senior counsel, a sports doctor and members of a sports safety committee.26

Following the investigation, the panel issued a report on 30 May 2008, which concluded that a combination of factors was responsible for the tragedy.27 These included the team’s lack of preparation before the race, thus the unfamiliarity with the Tonle Sap river currents and the layout of the dock; insufficient practice with the Cambodian traditional boat used for the race, which was different from the boat typically used by the paddlers; and the team’s lack of established safety procedures such as safety briefings and drills for contingencies in the water.28

The panel concluded that the Cambodian organisers had not adhered to the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) guidelines.29 It recommended that Singapore’s dragon boat teams only compete in events that comply with IDBF standards; if events do not follow IDBF guidelines, the SDBA would assess the risks before deciding on participation.30

The inquiry did not identify the absence of life jackets as a cause of the tragedy.31 However, the families of the five paddlers who perished sought an apology from the SBDA for not enforcing the use of life jackets and to bear responsibility for the factors that contributed to the tragedy.32 The SBDA declined to assume responsibility for the mishap, and cited the findings of the inquiry panel as exonerating them from any fault.33

Legacy of the tragedy
The SDBA did not field a team in any major dragon boating tournament in 2008. It upheld the inquiry panel’s recommendation that the team should only participate in races that abided by the guidelines of the IDBF.34

The mishap caused several members of the dragon boat team to give up the sport competitively. After a concerted effort led by the SDBA and its affiliates to recruit members of high potential in 2008, the national dragon boat team was revitalised for competition.35

Terence Foo

1. Judith Tan and Liaw Wy-Cin, “Five Missing S’pore Rowers Feared Dead,” Straits Times, 25 November 2007, 1; Lee Hui Chieh and Jessica Jaganathan, “Assess Risks Before Saying ‘Yes’,” Straits Times, 31 May 2008, 59. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Sharon Loh, Judith Tan and Carolyn Quek, “Bodies of Dragon Boat Paddlers Recovered,” Straits Times, 26 November 2007, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Bronwyn Sloan, “Cambodia’s Water Festival Regarded As Top Attraction,” Straits Times, 26 November 2007, 26; Loh, Tan and Quek, “Bodies of Dragon Boat Paddlers Recovered.”
4. Carolyn Quek and Bronwyn Sloan, “Five Others Came Close to Drowning Too,” Straits Times, 27 November 2007, 29; Sloan, “Cambodia’s Water Festival.”
5. Quek and Sloan, “Five Others Came Close to Drowning Too.”
6. Sloan, “Cambodia’s Water Festival.”
7. Arlina Arshad, “Team Had a ‘Bad Feeling’ on Currents,” Straits Times, 29 November 2007, 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Arshad, “Team Had a ‘Bad Feeling’ on Currents.”
9. Tan and Liaw, “Missing S’pore Rowers Feared Dead”; Arshad, “Team Had a ‘Bad Feeling’ on Currents.”
10. Lee and Jaganathan, “Assess Risks Before Saying ‘Yes’”; Tan and Liaw, “Five Missing S’pore Rowers Feared Dead.”
11. Carolyn Quek, Bronwyn Sloan and Liaw Wy-Cin, “Dragon Boat Teams ‘Warned’ of Strong Currents at Pontoon,” Straits Times, 27 November 2007, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Quek and Sloan, “Five Others Came Close to Drowning Too.”
13. Quek, Sloan and Liaw, “‘Warned’ of Strong Currents at Pontoon.”
14. Paul Jacob, “Five Ordinary Men, an Extraordinary Legacy,” Straits Times, 1 December 2007, 81. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “200 Search for Missing Rowers,” Straits Times, 25 November 2007, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Hasnita A. Majid. (2007, November 26). “Singapore Working With Cambodia To Fly Bodies of Five Singaporeans Home,” Channel NewsAsia, 26 November 2007. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Loh, Tan and Quek, “Bodies of Dragon Boat Paddlers Recovered.
17. Tan Judith and Bronwyn Sloan, “A Sunday of Sorrow and Tears for Family Members,” Straits Times, 26 November 2007, 2; “Relatives Ask: What Happened on the River?” Straits Times, 25 November 2007, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Judith Tan and Carolyn Quek, “Flowers & Tears,” Straits Times, 27 November 2007, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Ong Sor Fern, “Strangers Join Family and Friends to Say Goodbye,” Straits Times, 30 November 2007, 54. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Judith Tan, “Memorial for S’pore Dragon Boat Paddlers,” Straits Times, 17 December 2007, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Esther Tan, “NTU Dragon Boat Team Raises $125,000 for Bursary Fund,” Straits Times, 16 October 2008, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Arlina Arshad, “Life Jackets Must Be Worn at Overseas Meets Now,” Straits Times, 28 November 2007, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Arshad, “Life Jackets Must Be Worn.” 
24. Arshad, “Team Had a ‘Bad Feeling’.”
25. “Dragon Boat Inquiry Panel,” Straits Times, 3 December 2007, 16; Teh Joo Lin, Panel Named to Probe Deaths of Dragon Boaters,” Straits Times, 5 December 2007, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Teh, Panel Named to Probe Deaths.”
27. Lee and Jaganathan, “Assess Risks Before Saying ‘Yes’.”
28. Judith Tan, “Safety Issues Thrown to the Wind,” Straits Times, 31 May 2008, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Hasnita A Majid and Lynda Hong, “No Single Factor Responsible for Dragon Boat Tragedy,” Channel NewsAsia, 30 May 2008. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
29. Lee and Jaganathan, “Assess Risks Before Saying ‘Yes’”; Singapore Sports Council “Safety Inquiry Reveals Factors That Led to Dragon Boat Incident,” press release, 4 June 2008; Majid and Hong, “No Single Factor Responsible for Dragon Boat Tragedy.”
30. Lee and Jaganathan, “Assess Risks Before Saying ‘Yes’.”
31. Lee Hui Chieh and Jessica Jaganathan, “Lack of Water Safety Awareness Contributed to Accident, Straits Times, 31 May 2008, 59. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Neo Chai Chin, “Say Sorry: Families to Dragonboat Group,” Today, 15 July 2008, 3; Judith Tan and Carolyn Quek, “Dragon Boat Tragedy: Victims’ Families Seek Apology,” Straits Times, 15 July 2008, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Judith Tan, “Dragon Boat Body Rejects Apology Call,” Straits Times, 18 July 2008, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Juidth Tan and Stephanie Song, “No Dragon Boat Races Abroad Yet for National Team,” Straits Times, 4 June 2008, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Jeff Ang, “A Painstaking Journey,” Straits Times, 6 November 2010, 27. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 29 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic. 

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