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Apology – but still reaping the rewards

Ng E-Jay

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong apologized on Tuesday for government lapses under his watch.

While his apology may have been unexpected, reactions to it were fairly predictable. Straits Times Deputy Review Editor Chua Mui Hoong called the apology a “very good first step”. Opposition parties, while welcoming the apology, emphasized that it only showed the need for more opposition in Parliament to hold the government accountable. More cynical opposition supporters decried the apology as “too little, too late”, with some dismissing it as a mere electioneering tactic.

I welcome a show of humility from PM Lee, but whether that translates into subsequent government action to change their own attitudes and rectify errors remains to be seen.

Mr Wong Kan Seng stopped short of apologizing when Mas Selamat escaped in broad daylight. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim never came close to apologizing for the inadequate flood control system which allowed monsoon rains to ruin businesses and cause millions of dollars worth of damage. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew took back his remarks on the Malay-Muslim Community, but also stopped short of an unequivocal apology. Then, a few days before polling day, the Prime Minister apologizes to Singaporeans not once, but twice at a lunch time rally. You cannot blame people for being cynical at PM Lee’s apology. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

While PM Lee acknowledged that his administration has made some blunders, he took pains to stress that those mistakes which have lead to soaring HDB flat prices and overcrowding were made in an attempt at seizing economic opportunities as they presented themselves.

He spoke, for instance, about Integrated Resorts (let’s call them casinos, shall we?) which have changed the Marina Bay skyline but which have also lead to problem gambling. He also spoke about the vigorous economic expansion in the past couple of years which has brought prosperity but which has also lead to an influx of more foreigners, soaring home prices, and overcrowding.

PM Lee asked Singaporeans to bear with his administration as they are trying their best to fix the problems.

But Mr Lee did not mention what changes would be made to existing government policies to solve the problems of overcrowding and rising prices, and assuage voters’ concerns over the influx of foreigners. He only asked Singaporeans to accept his apology, in other words, to give him a blank cheque.

That is the heart of the problem. The PAP knows it has gone wrong, but it has made no attempt at putting things right. In his lunchtime speech, PM Lee said that he was running the show in a different style from MM Lee, but he also said that he is taking Singapore in the same strategic direction as before. Of what benefit is it to Singaporeans to witness a change in style but not a change in substance?

The PAP must show that it is willing and able to address Singaporeans’ concerns and put things right. There must be concrete action, not mere rhetoric. There must be a genuine attempt to engage and listen to alternative views, even if they come from the opposite side of the political aisle. Otherwise, PM Lees’s apology will only be seen as a rare act of humility that comes only in the heat of election campaigning, but which evaporates the moment the votes are tallied.

And despite such admissions of mistakes made, PAP ministers such as Wong Kan Seng, Mah Bow Tan, Raymond Lim and Yaacob Ibrahim all receive an 8-month bonus this year. Shortcomings, it seems, come with financial rewards, nonetheless.

As for the Prime Minister himself, he will be earning more than $25 million the next five years – while he tries and “do better” in his job.

Additional reporting by Andrew Loh.