TODAY: Reward and punish as private sector does

But PM Lee argues against such calls while urging MPs to see things in perspective

LEONG WEE KEAT
weekeat@mediacorp.com.sg

WITH Cabinet ministers’ salaries pegged to that of the private sector, shouldn’t they likewise be held to the same standards of accountability?

This question was raised by two parliamentarians as, for the second day, the debate continued over whether heads – including that of a minister – should roll as a result of Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention.

Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang said he could not “reconcile the principle” which the Government applies to determining ministers’ salaries, with how they are called to account.

“If you remember, when we debated the salaries of ministers in this House, we were talking about pegging it to the private, corporate world,” said the MP for Hougang. “In the corporate world, when something goes wrong, heads that roll would include the CEO’s. Here, when something goes wrong, we talk about honest mistakes.”

We have to see things in perspective, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in response – “even in the private sector”.

“Problems happen in the company, CEOs have to stay to sort them out. Companies that change CEOs every two months, or every two years, do not prosper. So, I have to make the judgment – who is responsible and at what level,” he said. “A line has to be drawn somewhere.”

Mr Lee then took Mr Low to task for attempting to cloud the issue over Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who had spent three hours on Monday explaining Mas Selamat’s escape in Parliament.

The Opposition MP, said the Prime Minister, was given “full opportunity to question him” had any of Mr Wong’s answers indicated his personal culpability – “he gave the wrong instructions, he told people not to grille up the windows” – but Mr Low did not do so.

Mr Lee then asked point-blank: Did Mr Low think the minister should resign? After five seconds of silence, Mr Lee noted: “No answer. So, I think that settles the point.”

Earlier, Government backbencher Inderjit Singh had drawn the same private-public sector comparison.

The MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC said: “We have adopted a reward system that matches that of the private sector, that we pay everyone as high as possible. And therefore, people expect that when you make a mistake, you will be appropriately punished.”

Citing two other incidents – the Nicoll Highway collapse in 2004 and the collision of a Republic of Singapore Navy patrol boat with a cargo ship in 2003 – Mr Singh argued that revealing what happened to those in charge would signal to the civil service the need to maintain high standards.

In reply, Mr Lee said he did not think there was any doubt civil servants know they will “have to face the music” when they make a mistake. The right disciplinary action would be taken, whether it is in an open court hearing or at a discreet departmental level.

However, a witchhunt would be wrong as it would “generate a culture where nobody wants to make mistakes”, he added.

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