Democratic principles should be upheld in the public sector. Rajiv Chaudhry.

Why are public sector appointments shrouded in secrecy?

Rajiv Chaudhry

When democratic governments make public appointments, it is expected that the candidates will be selected on merit through processes that are fair, open and transparent.  Care must be taken not to discriminate on any grounds.

It is extraordinary then, that public sector appointments in Singapore appear to be made with very little transparency and with little or no accountability to those who ultimately pay the wages and to whom the public servants report: the people.

The Online Citizen has managed to obtain a copy of the minutes of the deliberations of the Select Committee (“the committee”) that met between 2 April and 3 July this year to select and recommend the new batch of Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) to parliament. The minutes can only be described, charitably, as “cosmetic”. They are an exercise in opacity and the antithesis of what minutes should be.

Allow me to explain.

Secret candidates?

A total of 46 names were put forward. The list of names is neither appended nor attached to the minutes, so they do not form a part of the public record. Why was there a need to keep the list secret?  Surely, the process of appointing legislators, nominated though they may be, should be an open and transparent process?

The public has an interest because the NMPs will sit in parliament for the next two years to debate issues and contribute their views, often on matters that affect their daily lives.

The committee found three of the candidates did not meet the eligibility criteria and these three names were dropped from consideration. The minutes do not state the reasons for disqualification and the names of the three are not recorded. The public is left wondering; this has inevitably given rise to speculation that the reasons for disqualification might be unconnected with the merits of the candidates.

The committee met six times over a period of three months. At its second meeting on 5 June, it considered the 46 names and decided to meet “certain persons proposed”. No reasons are recorded and no explanations given as to the considerations that went in to select the shortlisted individuals or to discard the others.

At its meetings on 17 June, 29 June and 30 June, it “interviewed persons proposed”. No details of the actual interviews, impressions of individual committee members or exchanges with the candidates are recorded.

At its final meeting on 3 July, the committee proposed, as if  by magic, nine names to be put forward to members of parliament for their approval.  The final paragraph of the report to parliament is an eye-opener:

"The Committee found many of the candidates to be well qualified to be appointed as nominated Members of Parliament. However, as stipulated under section 3(1) of the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution, not more than nine nominated Members of Parliament can be appointed. The Committee has therefore nominated the following nine persons to the President for appointment as nominated Members of Parliament."

It boggles the mind that the third sentence can follow from the first. It is as though the word “therefore” explains it all. This is the only morsel of information the government, in its wisdom, has considered necessary to furnish on the nine Nominated Members of Parliament who are to fulfill an important role for the next two years: that of providing alternative and non-partisan voices in parliament.

Best person for the job?

On 29 June this year the Minister for Transport, Mr Raymond Lim, announced the corporatisation of Changi airport. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) was bifurcated on 1 July into a new Authority, to focus on regulatory and strategic functions and the Changi Airport Group to focus on managing and running Changi Airportiv .

A new slate of members was appointed to the restructured Authority. The Minister  appointed Mr Lee Hsien Yang, currently Chairman of Fraser & Neave Ltd, as Chairman of the “new” CAAS. Mr Lee is also the younger brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The question on many people's minds is why the Minister chose Mr Lee, who is  neither a civil servant nor a politician, to head this important regulatory Authority? Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, Mr Lee does not have first-hand experience of the airline industry or aviation and air transport regulatory matters.

The imperative is to maintain Changi airport's competitive edge in the face of competition from new airports and budget airlines that are challenging its business model which has worked so well in the past.

In a speechv at the launch of the two new bodies on 1 July, the Minister Mentor (MM) Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that “Changi Airport has set the benchmark for service excellence and operational efficiency internationally. It has won over 300 awards since 1987”.

In short, it is critical from the point of view of the aviation industry in Singapore that the  most qualified, person is appointed to head this new regulatory authority.

The question is, has the best person been appointed to the job? It is a moot question, since we are not aware how many individuals were considered and how well qualified for the position they were.

These two examples serve to show the manner in which top-level appointments are made by the government.

In the case of the NMPs, despite the government's stated objective of having more non-partisan voices in parliament, consider the facts:

The committee set up to recommend the nine names consisted of eight persons, seven of whom were PAP parliamentarians. One would expect that if the NMPs are to be truly non-partisan, they would be selected by a team of non-partisan individuals and not by a group they are expected to check in parliament. The nine NMPs go into parliament already tainted in the eyes of the public by the fact that they have been selected by a group consisting mainly of PAP party members. The sole non-PAP member of the committee, Mr Low Thia Khiang, MP for Hougang, has chosen to remain silent with regard to his role in the selection process.

The select committee has chosen to be completely opaque about its deliberations, details of the interviews and its impressions of the merits and demerits of the candidates.

If so, it is the antithesis of openness and transparency that a democratic system demands.

In the case of Mr Lee, the Minister has chosen not to disclose the process that went into his selection.

Indeed, we are not even certain a formal process is in place for such appointments.

Code of practice

After more than 40 years of democracy in Singapore, it is time the government became more open and transparent about the processes that go into the selection of candidates for key appointments at public bodies and agencies, including regulatory bodies and government investment arms.

There is a clear and obvious distinction between party and government. It is therefore, incumbent upon the government to ensure that public appointments are made not only “at arm's length” but that they are seen to be made “at arm's length”.

In other democracies, such as the UK, “no appointment can take place without first being scrutinised by an independent panel or by a group including membership independent of the department filling the post.” (See the Seven Code Principles articulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments in the UK, HERE and HERE.) The idea of independence/non-partisanship and separation of vested interests is critical to public sector appointments if they are to build trust and confidence in the minds of the public.

As Singapore moves forward, it is imperative that a Code of Practice should be properly laid down and strictly upheld in public sector appointments, so that citizens can be assured that democratic principles of openness, fairness and transparency are maintained.

Singaporeans expect no less of their government.


The Select Committee's minutes can be accessed here.


This article was first published by  on July 29, 2009 and refers to the previous batch of NMPs.