The Mas Selamat scandal: Its impact on the government-people relationship

This article was first re-published from Ms Catherine Lim’s website on TOC in April 2008. We re-post it here as we feel Ms Lim’s article is just as relevant now as it was in 2008 – given recent events which have taken place.

We thank Ms Lim for allowing us to reproduce it here, do visit her website for more of her writings.


By Catherine Lim

The following article, like previous ones, was turned down for publication by the Straits Times. It looks like I should stop being thick-skinned and give up sending my commentaries to them!

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Something could get rotten in the state of Singapore as a result of the very unfortunate Mas Selamat scandal.

Scandal it is, in terms not only of its shocking nature—the most dangerous political prisoner and terrorist operative in Singapore makes a laughably easy escape in a super efficient, technologically advanced city state—but also of the serious doubts it is raising in the public’s perception of government accountability, and the damage that these doubts could do to the government-people relationship.

Up to this point, the relationship has been fairly stable and amicable, transcending whatever conflicts that have arisen over the years when the people expressed their unhappiness about the government’s decisions on various issues, such as those related to foreign workers, ministerial salaries, the casinos, Shin Corp, etc.

In each case, public debate has followed a predictable pattern: first, the people are allowed to speak their minds freely through the permitted channels including the forum pages of newspapers, TV debates, the feedback units, and dialogues with government representatives; next, at an appropriate point, the Prime Minister himself and his ministers enter the fray with patient, sustained explanations and persuasive arguments, and finally the matter comes to a close, usually with a gentle but firm message from the Prime Minister himself that in effect says, ‘Trust us; let’s move on.’

An expansion of this simple admonition could go something like this: ‘You have consistently re-elected us, thus acknowledging that we are a competent, responsible, trustworthy government. So even if we make unpopular decisions, it is only for the good of the society. And even if we cannot answer all your questions, it is only for reasons of national confidentiality and security. Therefore trust us, and we will continue to do our job well.’

In the Mas Selamat case, the government is precisely using this approach. But this time, it falls far short of the expectations of an increasingly articulate electorate, including, in the most surprising way, members of the PAP government itself, who seem to have suddenly become more alert, discerning and courageous, voicing reservations and asking questions in Parliament about government accountability that, in the past, could only have been expressed privately. Was the apology from the Minister of Home Affairs, followed by a detailed factual account of the escape, enough? Was the promise of corrective action to prevent such incidents in the future enough? Would not the findings of a Commission of Inquiry comprising members selected by the government itself raise more questions?

The voices raised in question and doubt, both in Parliament and the media, were expectedly measured and polite, in keeping with a tradition of deference to a powerful government that does not tolerate strident dissent. But politeness may soon give way to the persistence and boldness that come from conviction. The signs are that the voices, especially of the younger generation, will become a force to be reckoned with, because they are part of a whole new culture spawned by the Internet and globalization, with all that this implies of greater knowledgeability, awareness and sophistication.

Thus, a serious disconnect between the government and the people has arisen: while the government is still operating from the old perceptual paradigm carried over from a simpler, more innocent era, the people are developing a new one in keeping with the times. They are increasingly aware of new expectations and needs in their roles as citizens in a democratic society, and will no longer respond uncritically to the government’s usual exhortations of ‘Trust us’, ‘Also trust those we have picked to work for us,’ ‘Don’t forget what we have achieved,’ ‘Look at things in perspective’, ‘Let’s move on to more important, bread-and-butter matters,’ etc.

The Mas Selamat incident could cause the two paradigms to move so far apart as to make the disconnect permanent. Thus the incident may be seen as a watershed in the history of the government-people relationship, resulting either in a strengthening and maturing of the relationship on the one hand, or irreparable damage on the other.

Clearly, what the people expect, by way of an appropriate government response, is a large public gesture commensurate with the incident which in its magnitude has no precedent. That gesture will be no less than an offer of resignation from the Minister of Home Affairs himself. Whether the offer is accepted by the Prime Minister or the people is a separate matter. The personal integrity of the Minister is not in question. But in the conduct of the public life of a society, when something of this gravity happens, the symbolism is necessary. A symbolic act in public will have high visibility and emotive power, even in a pragmatic, down-to-earth society like Singapore, and can unite a people in times of trauma, giving a sense of something very like closure. Only then will Singaporeans regain their trust in the government and their belief in the honour, dignity and accountability of high office.

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Note: Headline picture is not from Catherine Lim’s article.

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