Who do our civil servants serve?

by: Tan Meng Lee/

When the 12th Parliament opens in August this year, the ruling People’s Action Party will hold 93 per cent of the House. That’s despite the fact that they won just 60 percent of the vote at the General Elections this year. The situation isn’t new to Singapore. Our parliament has always been dominated by one political party. That’s why public institutional checks and balances against the Executive are vital.

What constitutes an optimal relationship between the political and administrative leadership of Singapore? Is our Civil Service expected to follow a certain set of rules and standards? Who audits and enforces any breach of such standards? Is this within the realm of responsibility of the Council of Presidential Advisers? Is our Civil Service already politicized?

I would like to use two examples to make my points:

Orchard River

In cyberspace last year, there was plenty of chatter about the “once-in-50 years” Orchard Road floods. The government offered up various explanations and excuses. This year, the seasonal “Orchard River” flowed once again. So what’s new?

What’s new is the Public Utilities Board’s (PUB) disclosure in the Straits Times (11 Jun 2011) that the Triple One Somerset weather monitoring device recorded higher rainfall on two other occasions (Nov 2007 and Sep 2008) and yet our seasonal Orchard River flowed for the first time in 25 years in 2010! In other words, the last flood in Orchard Road was in 1985! So what happened in 2010 and 2011?

I grew up in the Orchard Road area and until recently, the only floods I can recall happened when it rained very hard and for very long. Did our government try to outsmart Mother Nature only to be outwitted by her in a flash (pun intended)?

I believe one of the contributory causes of Orchard River 2010 and 2011 is overbuilding. Orchard Ion now stands on a plot of land that used to be the site of a rambling police station with many, many frangipani trees. New developments now line Paterson Road, following the 2006-07 enbloc frenzy. All this must surely have an impact on our drainage system.

If we ‘redevelop’ the Istana and build more malls, condos, hotels and service apartments on the empty strip of land opposite the Concorde Hotel (the former Le Meridien Hotel), would the PUB be able to forecast if the basement shops of Concorde Hotel Building will flood during a heavy downpour, the way Liat Towers, Lucky Plaza and Tanglin Mall flooded recently?

Mother Nature grew gardens at ground level. But the Urban Redevelopment Authority (under the Ministry for National Development) capitalised on the Ministry of Law’s revised en bloc law by rewarding corporate developers with bonus Gross Floor Area for sky gardens. The so-called ‘Skyrise Greenery’ concept for communal gardens is laudable but only with the right policies.

The Minister for National Development paid the price for the public’s unhappiness over property prices even though the Law Ministry’s decision to relax en bloc rules was directly and partially responsible for the state of affairs. Similarly, it is easy to blame the recent floods on PUB and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, but what about the URA, the Law Ministry or the Singapore Land Authority?

Whilst it has not identified over-building as one of the causes of the problem, it is illuminating that PUB is finally making public vital facts about higher rainfall in the Orchard area in 2007 and 2008. Such openness is a welcome move by a statutory board as it allows citizens like us to assess the situation and draw our own conclusions. The Civil Service should continue to provide similar checks-and-balances vis-à-vis the Executive.

Nightingale Nursing Home

In November 2010, the son of a 75-year-old stroke patient used a hidden camera to capture footage of his mother being abused by staff members working at Nightingale Nursing Home.

The footage was sent to Mediacorp in the middle of March, 2011.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) received the footage on 22 March 2011. On April 12, it stopped Nightingale Nursing Home from admitting new patients.

Singapore held General Elections on 7 May 2011.

On the 10th of June 2011, Mediacorp telecast the footage on Channel 8.

On the 12th of June 2011, a report on the Sunday Times quoted the new Health Minister Gan Kim Yong as saying, “After completing our investigations, we also wanted to give an opportunity to the nursing home to conduct their own investigations and explain their actions. What is important to us is the safety and well-being of the patients, which was why we immediately suspended the nursing home.”

The article raises a few questions:

1. Since MOH had already completed its investigation into the matter, and had taken the decision to “immediately” suspend the nursing home on 12 Apr 2011, why wasn’t the public informed prior to Polling Day on 7 May 2011?

2. As citizens, shouldn’t we know BEFORE Polling Day on 7 May 2011 the full track record of then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan? Especially in the face of PAP’s frequent exhortations that voters should assess their MPs and Ministers performance?

3. Why did the mainstream media withhold the video? It was only released three months after the footage was given to Mediacorp, and a month after Polling Day. Even if Channel 8 had wanted to let due process run its course and verify the circumstances before telecast, shouldn’t this incident be reported because MOH had taken steps to stop new admissions to this nursing home?

4. How has Mr Khaw Boon Wan taken responsibility for MOH’s failure to proactively monitor and assess standards at nursing homes?

5. Should MOH look into installing security cameras at nursing homes? After all, the Ministry of Home Affairs have similar cameras all over the island, in trains and buses – the rationale being that Singaporeans need to be protected from a possible terrorist attack. Shouldn’t elderly Singaporeans be protected from abuse by errant nursing home caregivers?

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