By Andrew Loh
Perhaps it is because the elections are near. No one really knows – except the Prime Minister himself. The word is that it could take place anytime now. Some have proffered as early a date as September. One clue could be the circus of ministers and Members of Parliament falling over themselves in passing the buck of responsibility in the recent spate of “unforeseen events”.
The latest to do so is the Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam, with regards to the recent security breach at the SMRT Changi Depot. Addressing the point made by some that the government is responsible for the security of the depot and thus the intrusion into it by two graffiti painters, Mr Shanmugam seems to lay the responsibility squarely on the SMRT instead. "You look at SMRT,” he reportedly said to Channelnewsasia. “It is an entity that makes profits. It is a listed company which makes profits for its shareholders. Is it fair for the public, through the government, to pay for that security either in manpower terms or in terms of the costs?”
He added that although the depot has been gazetted as a protected place, “the actual security of the premises is within the control of the company, as it should be, and SMRT has accepted that its responsibility is to provide for the security."
This is a curious claim by the Law Minister. While no one would say that SMRT is without fault or that part of the responsibility lies with it, the fact is that the government has been providing security support to the SMRT.
In 2004, Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng, said: "In the case of MRT stations, you see that there are cameras, there are security features in places, and of course there are areas that can be improved and these are areas that are now being looked at by both the Transport Ministry, LTA, the operators themselves. And working together with MRT, the Police and the ISD and these measures will be in place from time...at the right time when the resources are available.” (MHA)
And over at the Land Transport Authority (LTA) website, it says: “A Police MRT Unit was first set up in August 2005 to complement the security in the MRT system. It has since evolved to become a fully operational police command called Transcom. The police officers of Transcom are armed and trained to look out for suspicious activities and items, conduct security patrols and checks, as well as respond to any security threat at MRT stations, trains and bus interchanges.” (LTA)
On the Singapore Police Force website, it describes the composition and responsibilities of Transcom, which was set up in 2009. "TransCom is a SPF specialist unit established to oversee and manage all policing efforts throughout the entire public land transport network in Singapore, which comprises rail (both MRT and LRT) and bus networks. Its functions include security planning, contingency planning and deployment of foot and fast response car patrols in both day-to-day and major deployments for effective response and management of security incidents in the public land transport system."
[Is Transcom staffed by National Servicemen?]
Clearly, the government had expended resources in beefing up security for the SMRT, a “private company”, according to Mr Shanmugam.
"If they do not see SMRT as a private company,” Mr Shanmugam tells Channelnewsasia, “then that is a misconception because it is a listed company, but it is private in the broad sense that it is not a government entity. It declares dividends which goes (sic) to the shareholders.”
While this may be true, surely the SMRT is a special case and should be treated as such. This is simply because SMRT together with SBS Transit are the sole providers of public transport in Singapore, which is used by millions of Singaporeans each day. To treat transport operators as “private companies” which are responsible for (national) security is highly suspect – given that the government itself has taken pains to warn and remind Singaporeans of the terrorism threat in public transport.
Are not train depots key installations, ones which are targeted by terrorists? Did not the government itself reveal that as far back as 1997, the terrorist group, Jemaah Islamyah, had Yishun MRT station as one of its targets?
What if a bomb had been planted at the Changi Depot and resulted in casualties?
Would Mr Shanmugam say that it is the SMRT to blame? That the responsiblity for securing its premises lies with it?
Surely, Mr Shanmugam is not saying that terrorist threats to trains or train depots - key installations - are or should be the primary responsibility of the transport operators, is he? Did not the London and Madrid bombings teach us anything?
If the minister insists that SMRT is indeed solely responsible, why then is the government providing resources to them, which would contradict what Mr Shanmugam said – that it would be unfair “for the public, through the government, to pay for that security either in manpower terms or in terms of the costs”?
Is the government not already doing so - especially through Transcom?
And since it already is, why is it so adamant in passing the responsibility to the SMRT? Should not the government accept part of the responsibility as well?
The fact of the matter is that the SMRT and indeed SBS Transit are ultimately partly-owned by the government through its investment arm, Temasek Holdings, which itself falls under the charge of the Ministry of Finance.
On the SMRT website, it is clearly stated: "Temasek Holdings owns 54.5% of SMRT Corporation as at 3 June 2009."
How then can SMRT be a "private company" when the majority share is owned by the government?
So, what is the minister talking about? I am not sure. I am also not sure he knows either.
The minister’s attempt at shirking responsibility for the security breach is therefore disingenuous - and worrying.
It is, however, nothing new. We saw the same behavior from ministers when terrorist suspect Mas Selamat Kastari gave his guards the slip and escaped to Malaysia in 2007. The Prime Minister and the Home Affairs ministers then laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the lower-downs. In recent weeks we also saw Members of Parliament blaming everyone else but themselves for the low scores they had received for estate management. And the flooding at Orchard Road proved that accepting responsibility is something which no one wants to do. In that case, the blame was laid on the “unexpected volume of downfall” and "choked drains".
It is disconcerting that when something goes awry, no one in authority steps up to take full responsibility. No one, including the Prime Minister who has kept a total silence on all these events, says, “The buck stops with me.”
This is the greater worry – that when it comes to national security or when things go wrong, we have no leader who dares, in the words of a friend, to “man up”.
Indeed, what we are witnessing is the Great Singapore Farce - with our ministers in the leading roles.
PS: Mr Shanmugam's argument that responsibility lies with the private companies, in any case, is a red herring. Perhaps inspired by "political motivation" to deflect any political costs to his party. For even when the security breach took place in a government-owned entity - as it did when Mas Selamat Kastari escaped from the Whitley Road Detention Centre in 2007 - no one in the government took responsibility. Indeed, the finger was pointed squarely at the centre's guards.
*Special thanks to our Facebook fans for their input
Further Reading: The TCMR finger-pointing farce