To whom much has been given, much is expected.
TOC has deliberately held back from calling for Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng’s resignation as the full Commission of Inquiry (COI) was pending. We agree with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that Ministers should not be automatically accountable for mistakes made down the line.
However, viewing the totality of events surrounding the Mas Selamat debacle, we believe it is unfortunate that not once in this whole saga did Wong offer his resignation, or Lee seriously consider the possibility of it.
Even more unfortunate is the manner in which the possibility of a resignation, if any, was discussed: behind closed doors, away from the glare of the public, with absolutely no attention paid to assuage concerns on the ground.
Given the advanced state of the public relations disaster the government has dug itself into, TOC believes the government’s missteps in this saga will haunt it until the next election, and rightly so.
However, the fallout from this episode has implications far beyond the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) electoral concerns. The fallout will be felt by each and every Singaporean who will have to live with a government it no longer trusts.
Citizen’s sacrifices must be met with accountability
Lee was supposed to have spoken in Parliament on governmental responsibility for Mas Selamat’s escape. This was an ironic misnomer of what his speech was in reality: the government’s disclaimer of responsibility for the Mas Selamat debacle, and the preemptive insulation of the highest levels of authority from disciplinary action.
After more than 50 days of waiting for a full accounting of the Mas Selamat debacle, many expecting an accounting to the nation were sorely disappointed. The message from Lee and Wong’s speeches to Parliament was clear: we sort our problems out behind closed doors, and when everything has been discussed internally, let the public know what our results are. The public’s involvement in the accountability process is to be limited to being a spectator.
The government has called on the country as a whole to participate in the effort to find Mas Selamat. Neighbourhood watches have been formed to find him, National Servicemen of all units and ages have been activated in the search. Our whole country, as our top leadership has pointed out, is invested in this incident. TOC gives this effort our fullest backing.
However, the corresponding level of accountability to us, the public, has been shambolic.
The government’s responsibility to account extends also to the debacle following the breakout: the slipshod way in which information was held back from the public and released in dribs and drabs, and the high handed and patronizing way it has responded to requests for more information.
To now frame the question as whether or not Wong should resign for Mas Selamat’s escape out the toilet window is a deliberately unhelpful narrowing of the issue. To frame the issue this simplistically borders on the insulting. To see the current error as merely that of a terrorist running out of a toilet would be myopic to the point of willful ignorance.
A broader measure of incompetence
The country only found out four days after he escaped that he had a limp, six days later we found out what he was wearing on the day he escaped, seven days later the country was told that he had a mole. A few days after the news of him having a limp was released, the government qualified this by saying that the limp was only visible when he was walking quickly or running.
To top off the patchy flow of information, many TOC spoke to felt condescended down to by the accusations of our complacency by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, and disappointed at the lack of leadership Lee Hsien Loong displayed, breaking his silence on the matter only after his father spoke, 11 days after the escape.
Wong singled out blogs ‘expressing anger and in some cases, abuse’. TOC does not think the anger and disappointment we feel at the government’s high handed and tardy communication is limited to the blogosphere. If he thinks the fallout of this debacle is limited to the internet, he is more firmly cosseted in his ivory tower than we thought possible.
Over the past months, journalists TOC have spoken to in private have expressed their frustration at the government releasing information in a trickle. Even PAP Members of Parliament (MPs) were galvanized to ask the government sharp and uncomfortable questions. MP Inderjit Singh came close to hinting that a resignation from the highest levels of Cabinet could be warranted, highlighting the level of accountability expected from a corporate CEO.
Magnify this sentiment several times, and that comes close to explaining the frustration people on the ground feel.
Lee Hsien Loong cited incompetence as one of the criteria for asking a Minister to resign. If the flow of information in the days after Mas Selamat’s escape was not incompetent, then our government has a very high threshold for incompetence.
Conflicts of interest, preemptive exoneration, and a gross lack of accountability
One of the hallowed maxims of justice is that ‘justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done’. An extension of this maxim is the principle that ‘no one should be a judge in his own cause’.
As a government that prides itself on the rule of law, the amount of conflicts of interests in this episode is staggering.
Clarissa Oon, a writer with the usually uncritical Straits Times was moved to note that there is going to be ‘lingering doubt’ over the ‘independence of the three-member COI’. She even went so far as to say that it ‘must seem odd and potentially dangerous to some observers…that the Home Affairs Minister personally appointed a committee to investigate a breach in his own ministry’.
TOC has previously pointed out glaring conflict of interest of having Wong Kan Seng’s subordinate, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Dr Choong May Ling on the Committee of inquiry. She is a senior Administrative Officer with the Ministry of Home Affairs and oversees security policy. Wong has essentially appointed the judge overseeing his cause, and what more, one that is subordinate to him.
Of greater concern to TOC is the prejudging of government’s much touted disciplinary processes, which they claim will commence shortly. This was their response to the question by opposition member Chiam See Tong, who asked if heads will roll. This disciplinary process has been circumvented by Wong Kan Seng’s exoneration of Director Internal Security Department (ISD), and by PM’s exoneration of Wong Kan Seng.
The reasons given for their discharge from liability are shocking. Wong Kan Seng said of the Director:
“Director ISD met me and told me that he accepted responsibility for what has happened and apologized. Having known him for many years, I told him that I have full confidence in him and he must carry on.”
There was no public accounting for the responsibility Director ISD bore in the Mas Selamat debacle. Instead, he has been exonerated through private conversation.
In light of this, how is the public supposed to retain confidence in the upcoming disciplinary proceedings? The top brass have already been let off before proceedings have begun.
Wong Kan Seng’s exoneration of Director ISD after a private talk with him makes a mockery of accountability. Compound this with PM’s exoneration of Wong Kan Seng after discussing the matter with him in private and that mockery becomes a travesty of justice.
How must it look to members of the public when you ask the accused whether he is indeed guilty, and then you adopt his word as your judgment?
The national disgrace of Mas Selamat’s escape has been compounded by the PAP’s tendency towards the original sin of politics: conducting business behind closed doors, away from the critical glare of the public they are meant to represent.
The country’s loss
“Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job” President George W Bush infamously said to Michael Brown, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after that agency’s incompetent response to hurricane Katrina. George Bush is now suffering one of the lowest approval ratings of any President in US history.
While not nearly as willfully blind as George Bush, Lee Hsien Loong’s government seems to be giving him a run for their money.
Mas Selamat’s escape did not ‘automatically’ qualify Wong for resignation. However, the subsequent incompetent, opaque, and arrogant way the government dealt with the public has made the name Mas Selamat a symbol for much more than the ludicrous initial oversight. The anger the public feels on hearing that name is now directed in part at the government’s attitude to this crisis.
Previous controversies like Temasek’s investments in Shincorp and the Suzhou Industrial Park collapse made spicy talking points in coffee shops. Criticism of the government’s accounting to Singaporeans (or lack thereof) in those cases was limited to a pool of people who were largely already negatively inclined towards the government in the first place.
However, the whole country is currently invested in the search for Mas Selamat. The government’s lack of transparency is thus going to be felt as an affront by every single Singaporean.
We believe that a fundamental overhaul of how the government accounts to its citizens is necessary. It is going to be a tall order to put these processes in place. This is a road the government cannot embark upon unless its sincerity is taken seriously by Singaporeans.
To be fair to the government, it needs to get on with the job of governing, and that is going to be hard to do with public anger at this episode at boiling point. Members of the public now indelibly associate Wong with this sorry episode in the nation’s history.
Lee has no one to blame except himself. Wong misjudged the extent of public anger by not offering his resignation early on in this episode, and Lee compounded his mistake by standing doggedly by his side. The government is now stuck with an electoral millstone around its neck with a name carved into it: Wong Kan Seng. It is going to have a hard time implementing any concrete accountability measures without them being viewed with cynicism.
At the end of the day, Wong and Lee’s recalcitrance is bad for the PAP, but worse for the country.