Competence, messy PR, and a conspiracy theory

~by: Howard Lee~

For all the blunders and perceived partisanship often attributed to it, I continue to have faith in our public service.

I don't necessarily mean the top dogs in the service, but the rank and file who continue to soldier on each day at their jobs. I trust that they will continue to do the right thing for Singaporeans, even if their actions are sometimes not the smartest.

Such would be the case for the latest incident by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which saw two of its statutory board heads under the public spotlight for alleged corruption.

Many reports, not to mention comments in online platforms, have suspected MHA's release of the news as a conspiracy theory that purposely avoided the ministerial pay debate in Parliament to prevent embarrassing the political elite.

But to think so would be to undermine the basic principle for why Singapore needed the pay review in the first place. The idea of giving high pay to prevent corruption was a Lee Kuan Yew construct that has begun to lose is appeal in recent years. The unhappiness that citizens currently have with an exorbitant pay package has less to do with ministerial corruption, important as that might be, but ministerial incompetence in the past few years.

In that sense, to accuse MHA of playing politics is to short-change ourselves. The ministerial pay review should not be just about corruption, but accountability for the success and failure of each Ministry. If we do not insist on this view, we are merely giving the political elite an excuse the use corruption as the only criteria for evaluating the worthiness of high ministerial pay.

We need to send a clear signal that paying for a clean government is not as effective as harsh penalties for a corrupt government.

And from that perspective, MHA has not failed in its duty. It is clear that the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau will not hesitate to take to task even those at the top of the public service, and credit must be given where it is due.

Whether it has deliberately withheld publicity for political convenience can only be anyone's best guess. But MHA does have a right to withhold publicity until investigations are completed. The bigger question is whether, when it so decides to go public, it is done with the best interest of citizens.

MHA's actions are revealing of a public service that is keen to do right by the people, but is so inept at handling public relations, such that the blunt end – completing the investigations – takes precedence over a much-needed sharp end – assuring the public that everything is under control and the rule of law is maintained.

My guess for what led to the current situation? The papers caught whiff of the case in December and was pressing MHA for details, but MHA did not want to compromise the investigation and played poker face. When Lianhe Wanbao finally broke the news, for whatever reasons that it did not do so earlier, MHA basically went public with the current lines, which are also quite likely not very different from the lines that it started off with when the case first came into being.

If you ask me, MHA should really have gone public with those lines in December to let citizens know that something is not right, but things are still under control.

Hence, the lame-duck excuse of MHA going public because Wanbao broke the news the day before, is little more than a glaring omission that MHA has taken the PR battle with the media more seriously than its public service commitment to put the interest of citizens first.

And it is necessary to note that even with a free press, the interest of the media and those of citizens might not necessarily align. A free press might only be interested in sensationalising the issue to boost readership (and I suspect this applied to Wanbao here), and not get to the issues that matter to citizens.

Unlike P N Balji, I would not credit traditional media for breaking the news and forcing MHA to 'come clean'. So far, the news revolving the case has been nothing more than tabloid trash – the female IT executive that was supposed to be involved in the case according to the New Paper is still elusively at large. Indeed, traditional media has thus far failed to get a firm fix on what is really important: Did the public service do right by citizens?

Such a view would only come about when we get to the bottom of the case. But until now, the truth if that MHA has yet to reveal even the basics of the case, such as whether the motive was greed (intended corruption, if you will) or a gross lapse in judgment due to a weak moment of the flesh (accidental corruption, if you will). The official word remains – investigations are ongoing for "serious personal misconduct", and it is inappropriate to comment at this point in time.

So whatever 'investigative journalism' that traditional media has done here is, at time of publishing, little more than a desire to break news, but irrelevant news. MHA has not budged much despite of the media hullabaloo, but is concerned enough about its transparency quotient to issue a series of media releases. None of which took any pains to clarify if public interests have been compromised.

The real drive to make the case meaningful to citizens is evidently not coming from traditional media. For that matter, it might never. But it can come from the innate desire of the public service to do right by the people.

It is clear that MHA still has much to learn about citizen engagement, and since Mas Selamat's escape and recapture, has yet to get its messy act together. The good news, however, is that it is still competent in one of its core functions – due process in an investigation – whether you choose to call it a convenient excuse for a conspiracy, or not.