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.

Advertisements

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.

Straits Times: ‘If heads roll in the private sector, why not in government?’

PARLIAMENT

BY LYNN LEE

TO WHAT extent are practices in the corporate sector applicable in the public sector?

Two MPs noted yesterday that since ministers’ salaries are pegged to those of the top earners in the private sector, they should also be held accountable for lapses the same way corporate leaders are.

People’s Action Party MP Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Workers’ Party MP Low Thia Khiang (Hougang) both noted that in the corporate world, heads roll when something goes wrong.

“Here, we’re talking about honest mistakes,” sniffed Mr Low.

Both he and Mr Singh were responding to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech on government responsibility for the Mas Selamat incident.

PM Lee said the Government took responsibility for the incident, and Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng had already spoken on behalf of the Government when he apologised for it.

The Government had given a full account of its investigation, and was also plugging gaps in the system, PM Lee added.

Dissatisfied, Mr Low said many people, including himself, could not “reconcile” the different principles the Government seemed to be adopting when it came to ministerial pay on the one hand, and the issue of accountability and responsibility on the other.

Replying, PM Lee said that while a minister was ultimately accountable for his ministry’s work, it did not mean that every level in the chain of command up to him should be punished whenever a lapse occurred.

“Even in the private sector, you have to see things in perspective,” he pointed out.

While some chief executive officers (CEOs) did resign when a company turned turtle, sometimes, they also stayed on to fix the problem. And companies in which the CEOs were changed frequently do not prosper, he told Mr Low.

PM Lee then asked the opposition MP if he thought Mr Wong should resign. Mr Low did not reply.

Said PM Lee: “No answer. So I think that settles the point.”

Human resource consultants interviewed said that in the corporate world, the severity of the mistake will determine how a top honcho is dealt with.

For instance, senior figures at some global banks were held accountable for their role in their banks’ collapse in the wake of the global sub-prime mortgage crisis, and they resigned.

Executive search firm Robert Walters’ (Singapore) director, Ms Andrea Ross, said: “People tend to want someone to blame. At that level, they will be responsible for what has cost the organisation millions of dollars.”

She added that sometimes, CEOs might also be made the “scapegoat” for wrongdoing in the organisation, even if they were not aware of them.

“There is a certain level of responsibility as a leader and they need to ensure an environment in which controls are in place,” she said.

Mr Patrick Chan, assistant director of GSI Executive Search, noted that much depends on whether a mistake damages a company’s bottom line or shareholders’ interest.

Also, if he is found to have questionable ethics, by taking kickbacks for instance, he will be asked to go.

PM Lee made a similar point in his speech, saying that if a minister was found to be lacking in integrity, he “has to go, even if the actual incident is minor”.

Said Mr Chan: “I don’t think a CEO would be automatically asked to leave in a case where the slip-up stained the company’s reputation.

“But he’d have to look into the problem and show that he can remedy the situation.”

Straits Times: Does Low think Wong Kan Seng should quit?

MR LOW THIA KHIANG: A lot of people, including myself, cannot reconcile the principle which the Government applied in looking at salary of the minister pitching to corporate world vis-a-vis when it comes to accountability and responsibility. Would the PM clarify?

PM LEE: I thought the member would eventually come to this question…

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 any questions showed that 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 (Mr Low) should have raised it.

Nothing happened.

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

Let me ask the member whether he thinks the DPM ought to resign because of this?

(Pause. Mr Low remains silent and does not answer.)

No answer.

So I think that settles the point.

TODAY: Was the manhunt properly handled?

NAZRY BAHRAWI
nazry@mediacorp.com.sg

It was a question on several MPs’ lips: Could the information made public about Mas Selamat’s escape have been better managed?

For instance, Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim pointed out: Why did it take the authorities 19 days to reveal that he had a mole under his eye?

Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said the accuracy of information had to be verified before it was released.

Also, “if you look at the poster, it is not so easy to detect a mole”, he added.

People’s Action Party backbencher Baey Yam Keng asked: Why was the public told Mas Selamat was wearing his baju kurong, when the greenish-grey pants were left hanging over the toilet door?

Mr Wong admitted: “That is something beyond me … I think the officers concerned who put out such information must have a lot of confusing information at that time.”

Ms Lim also questioned the way the manhunt was conducted.

For instance, residents near the detention centre told her that army searchers had inspected only the ground floors of their double-storey homes.

Mr Wong’s reply was that as experts in such searches, the personnel would have been able to tell what was adequate.

Opposition MP Chiam See Tong felt authorities should have used tracer dogs in the hours following Mas Selamat escape. He believed that if they had been used, Mas Selamat would “still be in custody”.

To this, Mr Wong responded that professionals had advised him that the use of tracer dogs in a search involving “lots of people” would be of “no additional value”, though tracer dogs were deployed at certain locations in the vicinity of the WRDC.

Still, Mr Wong – who said he is “no expert” – promises to raise Mr Chiam’s views on the tracer dogs to the Police Department.

Was the minister confident Mas Selamat was in Singapore, asked Jalan Besar MP Lily Neo. The ISD’s “best available information” suggests so, replied Mr Wong. Its regional counterparts also have had no indication that the fugitive has escaped to their countries.

TODAY: Mistakes made, but don’t generalise

DPM Wong rebuts claims that the Home Affairs Ministry is complacent

Loh Chee Kong
cheekong@mediacorp.com.sg

THE public had been waiting for this day, when details of Mas Selamat Kastari’s unthinkable escape would be revealed. Yet, the public gallery at Parliament House was hardly packed – it held just its usual audience of students and Government officials.

Parliamentarians, nevertheless, were brimming with questions after Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng delivered the findings of the Committee of Inquiry. In all, 18 Members of Parliament (MPs) rose to pose questions, with as many as 10 MPs, at one point, vying for the Speaker of Parliament’s permission to speak.

Veteran Opposition MPs Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong each stood up more than once and both wanted to know “whether heads will roll” – in Mr Chiam’s words – and if the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) should bear responsibility for the “serious security breach” at Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC).

Directing his question at Mr Wong, who is also Home Affairs Minister, Mr Low asked: “I wonder if this episode is also the result of the complacency of his ministry, for failing to supervise the agencies under his charge?”

Mr Wong – who was “completely shocked” when he learnt of the escape via SMS on Feb 27, in the middle of a Parliament sitting – replied: “From time to time, problems do take place and this is one instance. Does it mean that therefore, the whole ministry and all its departments are complacent? I think that will be stretching the argument too far.”

The disciplinary proceeding must be allowed to “run its course”, he said. “Those found accountable and liable will have to answer for those mistakes or lapses.”

Yio Chu Kang MP Seng Han Tong asked how the Internal Security Department (ISD) could “restore public confidence” in its work, while Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee suggested the MHA examine whether it has “taken on too much”.

Mr Wong noted that while security agencies elsewhere are organised differently, those here should come under the same umbrella to complement each other’s work. “The problem lies in the breach of procedures by some individuals in the WRDC. We should not generalise this to the whole ISD.”

In his speech earlier, Mr Wong reiterated the successes of the ISD’s counter-terrorism efforts – such as unearthing the Jemaah Islamiyah and its Al Qaeda links – not to absolve it of its officers’ mistakes, he said, but “because we need to be fair and balanced in our judgment and not throw the baby out with the bath water”.

Straits Times: My role that of watchdog: WP chief

MP Low says he does not hesitate to point out shortcomings and makes no apologies if they embarrass Govt

BY KOR KIAN BENG


“Since the Government has been elected to do a job and to deliver its promises to the people, it should be given the opportunity to perform and to prove its worth. I play the role of a watchdog to check whether the Government has delivered its promises or has short-changed the people.”
WP CHIEF LOW THIA KHIANG

OPPOSITION MP Low Thia Khiang sees his role as that of a watchdog, checking on whether the Government has delivered on its promises to Singaporeans or if it has short-changed them.

He said the majority of Singaporeans decided at the 2006 General Election that they wanted the People’s Action Party (PAP) to dominate Parliament and rule the country.

And having been elected to do the job, it should have the opportunity “to perform and to prove its worth”, the Workers’ Party (WP) chief said in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

“I play the role of a watchdog,” Mr Low said, adding that this means checking on whether the Government has done due diligence in its policy formulation and responded to the people’s needs when economic circumstances change.

The Straits Times had asked the WP secretary-general for his comments on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent interview with Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao.

In it, Mr Lee spoke about the standard of debate in Parliament, among other things, and commented on the performance of the PAP, the opposition and Nominated MPs.

He said opposition MPs seldom debate in direct opposition to the Government.

Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong does not speak as much now and Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim, who is WP chairman, speaks carefully and seems restrained, Mr Lee said in the interview.

Of Mr Low, he said the Hougang MP seldom debates on the core substance of policies and seems more keen on catching the Government on its shortcomings, “so as to embarrass it”.

Mr Low’s attitude is that his responsibility is just to criticise government policies and not to propose alternatives, the Prime Minister added.

Mr Low countered that the WP did offer alternatives, such as in its manifesto during the 2006 General Election, but added that the party lacks resources.

And unlike the Government, it does not have the “luxury” of “full-time highly paid administrative officers” to draw up alternative policies.

“Please note that the PM said that even PAP MPs and journalists will fail in a test on policy details,” said Mr Low.

In his role as watchdog, Mr Low said he remains “objective and fair”.

However, he does not hesitate to point out shortcomings and faults and makes no apologies if they embarrass the Government, he said.

“Please do better the next time so that I do not have such opportunity to do so. This is a way to keep the Government on its toes and make it more careful in policy consideration and implementation,” he said, adding that this is his contribution to good governance.

Ms Lim also responded and agreed she has been careful with her words: “As for being restrained, I agree if he means that I do not make extravagant statements. I believe in responsible engagement.”

But she said she has confronted the Government on issues and has also proposed policy changes. One such suggestion, on amendments to the Penal Code last October, was adopted by the Home Affairs Ministry, she said.

Her suggestion was to expand the scope of the legal defence of “duress” to include the threat of instant death to persons other than the person himself.

Mr Chiam could not be reached for comment on PM Lee’s remarks.

But he is expected to be in Parliament when it sits on Monday as he has tabled a question on Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention.

On Nominated MPs, Mr Lee had said in the interview that some of them have “generated much buzz with their controversial views”.

While the Government may not agree with them, he said it was good that they speak their minds freely in Parliament: “By doing so, we have reached our objective of setting up the NMP system.”

kianbeng@sph.com.sg