By Dharmendra Yadav
The past three weeks have been unprecedented for Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng.
First, Wong had to apologise for alleged terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention.
Then, he had to restore the flailing record of his Home Team, who were criticised for their complacency by no less than the respected founding father of independent Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
Now, Wong finds himself at the edge of a storm having to defend the independence of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) that he appointed to investigate the escape of Mas Selamat; of particular concern is the impartiality of a member of the Committee - a subordinate at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Dr Choong May Ling.
Wong has sought to assure everyone that the COI, including Dr Choong, will act independently because it comprises “persons who are not about to put their own considerable achievements and good reputations at risk”. He has declared that there are “no grounds to doubt the impartiality or independence” of the COI.
Naturally, some questions follow.
If one were Dr Choong, what would one do in the face of such concerns raised by the public?
Obviously, one would address them. It is imperative in such situations where one has been given an indisputable overriding duty to be accountable for one’s own actions.
Yet, Dr Choong, the eye of the storm and the civil servant who, according to Wong at least, enjoys an independent voice remains pin-drop silent.
If one were Dr Choong, one would also ask: how well can the responsibilities, as outlined by the minister, be carried out?
At the outset, it appears the expectations of the role evolved.
Wong wanted the COI to “conduct a full and comprehensive inquiry” and to “do a balanced and thorough job”. No mention was made of the word “independent” in his announcement of the COI on 2 March 2008.
As he did inform Parliament earlier that “an independent investigation is underway”, many interpreted this to mean that the COI would act independently.
Thus, to the criteria, Wong had added one more – the need to be impartial or independent, which he confirmed on 16 March 2008.
Arguably, independence requires the absence of any nexus (whether professional or personal) to those being investigated.
The COI’s scope of work will be wide. In Wong’s words, the COI will be given “given full and unfettered access to all documents, personnel, whether on open or classified appointments, as well as unrestricted inspection of the Whitley Road Detention Centre”, and will be “examining many witnesses from the lowest to the highest rank”.
The documents and witnesses could possibly include Dr Choong’s colleagues at the MHA and even the Minister himself.
Assuming one successfully manages to keep the nexus separate and the COI’s report arrives at the conclusion that the highest levels of MHA are worthy of criticism, would one be able to return to work, face one’s peers and still carry on with one’s work?
Consider the other extreme – a favourable report that may end up reinforcing the reservations expressed about the COI. This would clearly not be just to the other two members of the COI, who are as independent if not more.
If one were Dr Choong, would one ask the minister to find someone else in light of these circumstances?
It is debatable that a replacement would only be necessary if the perceived conflict of interest could not be mitigated.
Wong was right in defending and justifying Dr Choong’s appointment since he appointed her in the first place.
Wong was also right in disclosing Dr Choong’s relationship to MHA: “she oversees security policy”.
In mitigating the potential conflict of interest, Wong merely had to satisfy himself that the task could be performed by Dr Choong at a reasonable standard of ethics and professional conduct. He has confirmed that she can do so.
Nevertheless, if one were Dr Choong, would one simply accept such a standard or would one uphold a higher standard personally?
The role of a member of the COI is akin to the role of a director holding a position on the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors, where one is expected to be whiter than white in upholding the interests of both the company and its stakeholders; and where one, as a compass, sets an example for others to follow.
Resultantly, unlike other directors, an Audit Committee director is expected to personally uphold the highest standard of ethics and professional conduct, even though legally the director’s duty is less onerous.
If such a director is found in a position of a conflict of interest, the director would simply not accept that the perceived conflict of interest has been mitigated or addressed by the person responsible for his appointment.
The director, in being an example to others for the avoidance of any semblance of partiality or bias, would observe the highest standard required in such situations. The director would more appropriately recuse himself, whilst giving due respect to the person who appointed him.
Yes, if one were Dr Choong, one would not be silent to public concerns; one would appreciate the evolving expectations entailing one’s role; and one would, in observance of the highest standards of ethics and professional conduct, recuse oneself.
*The writer, a corporate counsel, contributes in a personal capacity. Read his other views at thinkhappiness.blogspot.com
TOC thanks Dhamendra for taking the time to pen this article.