Straits Times: Let’s keep things in perspective

PARLIAMENT

PM Lee responds to MPs’ questions on procedure, accountability and complacency


PRESIDENT AS GATEKEEPER
“In the interest of having a rigorous regime of inquiry, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to have a presidential inquiry where the President would be the gatekeeper of the information rather than the minister whose department is being investigated?”

NON-CONSTITUENCY MP SYLVIA LIM


WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
“In the corporate world, when something goes wrong, heads roll, including the CEO. Whereas here when something goes wrong, we’re talking about honest mistakes.”

HOUGANG MP LOW THIA KHIANG

MHA’s role

SYLVIA LIM: A few clarifications for the PM.

First, could the PM clarify what in his view is the oversight role of the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) vis-a-vis the ISD (Internal Security Department)? Is it a hands-off approach, leaving everything to the director of ISD, or should the ministry monitor some annual data from the department?

For example, we were told yesterday there were no regular audits done at the Whitley Road Detention Centre. Should MHA have a system in place to pick up such systemic problems?

Second, the inquiry was held under the Prisons Act and as we know from the legislation, the committee would report its findings to the minister and it is a closed-door affair.

Of course when the incident first happened, we do not know the cause of the lapse, whether it is a policy matter or whether it is simply an operational matter.

In the interest of having a rigorous regime of inquiry, wouldn’t it have been more prudent to have a presidential inquiry where the President would be the gatekeeper of the information rather than the minister whose department is being investigated?

Third, Minister Mentor (Lee Kuan Yew) made some remarks around March and April saying the Government is not to be blamed for this incident and that it is the people’s complacency that has led to this. Is this also the PM’s view and the Cabinet’s view, that the Government should not be blamed for this incident?

PM: What’s MHA’s oversight role over ISD?

ISD is an organisation which is subordinate to MHA, reports to MHA and is accountable to MHA for its performance. ISD’s role is not primarily to be a jailer. That’s Changi Prison’s, the Prison Department’s role.

ISD’s role is internal security. That means identifying threats, pre-empting them, neutralising them.

It also is to hold the detainees when people are detained under the Internal Security Act, as (was) done in the WRDC (Whitley Road Detention Centre) under a superintendent.

MHA monitors ISD by tracking whether Singapore stays safe. Do threats get caught in time? Do we know what’s going on? Are we able to react?

There’s no 100 per cent guarantee that we will be there all the time. As Prof Jayakumar (DPM and Coordinating Minister for National Security) mentioned about 10 days ago, we have to be lucky every time, the enemy only has to be lucky once.

Our job is to make sure we stay safe and that we don’t just depend on luck but on capability, dedication, skill and focus on dealing with the threats and that’s what ISD has to do.

Inquiry under the Prisons Act: Whatever level I put, the same question can be asked: why not raise it higher?

In this case, one person has escaped, he’s an important detainee no doubt. The Prisons Act, a Committee of Inquiry commissioned by the minister, I think is adequate.

It has to be conducted in private, in camera, not in public because of the contents of the hearings, of what is being investigated.

But finally, the substance has to be reported and the minister is here to explain what happened and to answer questions. He spent one hour explaining yesterday, he spent two hours answering questions yesterday.

The member had ample opportunity to ask questions and if she had more questions we could have continued longer.

So we’ve got it at the right level and the committee did a good job. There has not been any suggestion from any member in this House that the committee was less than thorough or less than candid.

Thirdly, I do not remember the specific quote from the Minister Mentor that the Government is not to blame, that it’s a matter of complacency. (Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, MM Lee was asked in an interview if there was complacency on the part of the government/security agencies. He said: ‘The complacency was that of his custodians who believed they had the measure of him and that he would not get the better of them.”).

Anything which happens on the Government’s watch, the Government is responsible.

What the Government does about this and what the Cabinet and the Prime Minister do about this depends on what happened and what we assess, after investigating the facts, went wrong and who was handling it, who was responsible, who was directly responsible, who was supervising but this was in his charge and he should have done something about it.

I have explained my philosophy. The buck has to stop somewhere. If you take this to the logical conclusion, it should go all the way up to the Prime Minister and every time something happens in the Government you change prime ministers.

I don’t think that is how this Government works, that’s not how other governments work.

There are some countries where when things go wrong, down the line ministers routinely fall on the sword or CEOs in the private sector. It’s part of the culture.

But then what happens is that instead of getting the problem solved, the ceremonial change of guard is seen as the solution of the problem. So the fundamentals do not get altered, after some time problem pops up again, you change ministers again or change government again.

I don’t think that is the way we want to do things.

We want to get to the root of the matter to solve it properly. The person who should, who did what he shouldn’t have done or didn’t do what he should have done, well, if he was negligent, complacent, didn’t measure up, he has to move, but the people who run the system and who have done a good job, I think we need to depend on them and we need to back them.

I said just now that the Europeans and the Americans have a high opinion of our intelligence services. It’s not just hearsay or reporting or what the experts say.

I’ve met them. I’ve talked to them, they’ve briefed me. They’ve explained to me their problems, I’ve explained to them how we have dealt with our situation. And they said to me, ‘We envy you.’

Because of what we have been able to do dealing with the threat, because of what we have been able to do reaching out to the community and keeping the community on our side while excising the cancer cells.

Because we have been able to get the religious leaders also on our side and to step forward and volunteer their services in the RRG, the Religious Rehabilitation Group, to try and set the detainees right who have wrong ideas, and also to manage their families so that their families get looked after and their families don’t get wrong ideas, and yet stand tall in the community and be seen to be standing up for the community and not just doing the bidding of the Government.

That doesn’t happen by chance. That’s the quiet work of ISD, of MHA, of the Government and we should give them a lot of credit for that.

So when we say this is a mishap, there’s a context and you have to take disciplinary action. But you have to be fair and just and do it in perspective.

Prompt apology

LOW THIA KHIANG: Was this the result of what MM has said that Singaporeans are being complacent and expecting too much from the Government?

Secondly, I would like to ask the PM whether he sees fit for his Government to apologise to Singaporeans over the lapses (that resulted) in the escape of Mas Selamat?

PM: I think this is not an exercise in spreading adjectives around. The complacency was in the Whitley Road Detention Centre.

I think it is true that Singaporeans have very high expectations of the Government and, therefore, whenever there’s a lapse they take it very seriously.

In other countries, things go wrong, well, things regularly go wrong. In Singapore things do not go wrong and we make sure things work. When something messes up we take it seriously, the public takes it seriously.

That is a fact. It’s not a bad thing, but we must also understand that when we look at the problems which come up.

Apologising? That was the first thing which Mr Wong Kan Seng did as Deputy Prime Minister the day after this occurred, in Parliament, and I think that is adequate.

I would say that when the Deputy Prime Minister speaks he speaks on behalf of the Government.

Corporate norms

LOW THIA KHIANG: Does the PM agree that this is not a question of a witch-hunt as to who should be directly responsible? It’s a question of accountability of the Government and at what level and what responsibility a minister should take.

And I think we will remember that when we debate the ministers’ salaries in this House, we’re talking about pitching the ministers’ pay to corporate world.

But in corporate world, when something goes wrong, heads roll, including the CEO. Whereas here when something goes wrong, we’re talking about honest mistakes.

So I think a lot of people, including myself, cannot reconcile the principle the Government applied (when) looking at salary of the minister (and) pegging (it) to corporate world, (with) accountability and responsibility. Would the PM clarify?

PM: I thought the member would eventually come (to) this question. I’ve explained where lines have to be drawn. Even the member has not suggested that I should resign because I appointed Wong Kan Seng and Wong Kan Seng was the minister and the soldier under him let this happen.

A line has to be drawn somewhere. We have to see this in perspective.

Even in the private sector you have to see things in perspective. Company turns turtle, CEOs leave. Problems happen in the company, CEOs have to stay to sort them out. Companies which change CEOs every two months or every two years do not prosper.

So I have to make a judgment who is responsible at what level, and I’ve discussed this with the DPM and I agree with his judgment and I have confidence in him. The DPM was here, the member yesterday had full opportunity to question him. If there are any questions which he finds unsatisfactory in the answer, he could have pursued the matter.

If any questions showed the DPM was not up to this, that he was to blame, he gave the wrong instructions, he told people not to grille up the window, he suggested that we didn’t need so much fencing, therefore this happened, he (Low) should have raised it.

Nothing happened.

Today, the member comes and throws a general cloud and say, you’re well paid, you should resign.

Let me ask the member whether he thinks the DPM ought to resign because of this. No answer. So I think that settles the point.

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