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Ngerng vs Lee – where does Civil Service stand?

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In 2005, a year before the general election in May 2006, the Cabinet, through its secretary, issued a paper on a Code of Conduct for Ministers.

The paper was submitted to Parliament on the request of the president.

The Code “has been in force since 1954 detailing how Ministers should act and arrange their personal affairs.”

“The position of a Government Minister is one of trust,” the paper said. “It is vital that Ministers do not by their conduct undermine public confidence in themselves or bring discredit to the Government.”

It continued:

“Therefore, all Ministers are expected to act at all times according to the highest standards of probity, accountability, honesty, integrity and diligence in the exercise of their public duties.

“This Code of Conduct for Ministers sets out the ‘rules of obligation’ that all Ministers are to abide by in order to uphold these standards.

“Breach of any of these ‘rules of obligation’ may expose the Minister to removal from office.”

It held that “Ministers are personally responsible for complying with this Code of Conduct.”

Among the set of guidelines or codes of behaviour was the following stipulation, pertaining to ministers’ relations with civil servants [emphasis mine]:

“A Minister must not direct or request a civil servant to do anything or perform any function that may conflict with the Singapore Civil Service's core values of incorruptibility, impartiality, integrity and honesty.

“He should respect the duty of civil servants to remain neutral in all political matters and matters of public controversy.”

This is indeed in line with what the Deputy Principal Senior State Counsel from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Owi Beng Ki, said in 2009:

“Civil servants under the constitution hold their allegiance to the president. The symbolism that is attached to that is we actually serve at the pleasure of a politically neutral institution. It is one of the values of the civil service that we are politically impartial.”

It is thus clear that the Civil Service and its members are to be above politics, and, in the words of the Code of Conduct for Ministers, “remain neutral in political matters and matters of public controversy.”

This brings us to the very “public controversy” surrounding the lawsuit by Mr Lee Hsien Loong, in his personal and private capacity as a citizen of Singapore, against blogger Roy Ngerng.

Mr Lee, who is also the Prime Minister of Singapore, sued Mr Ngerng on 29 May for a blog post which Mr Ngerng had published on 15 May.

Mr Lee is claiming that Mr Ngerng had defamed him by accusing him of “criminal misappropriation” of the CPF monies of CPF members.

About two weeks later, Mr Ngerng was fired from his job as a healthcare coordinator with Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

It claimed that Mr Ngerng was guilty of “misusing working time, hospital computers and facilities for personal pursuits.”

The TTSH’s statement also said that its employees “cannot defame someone else without basis, which essentially means knowingly stating a falsehood to the public.”

The Ministry of Health promptly issued, on the same day Mr Ngerng’s sacking was made public by TTSH, a statement in support of the termination of Mr Ngerng’s services.

“MOH would like to reiterate that it supports TTSH’s decision as Mr Ngerng’s actions show a lack of integrity and are incompatible with the values and standards of behaviour expected of hospital employees,” MOH said.

Questions have now been raised about why the MOH, being a public establishment, found it necessary to support TTSH’s statement, actions or reasons in sacking Mr Ngerng, and in the process lend its support to a private dispute between Mr Lee and Mr Ngerng.

Aren’t civil servants supposed to “remain neutral in all... matters of public controversy”?

10 days later, it was the press secretary to the Prime Minister who also waded into the “public controversy”.

Responding to an article in The Economist magazine on 13 June about Mr Ngerng, Chang Li Lin wrote to the magazine to defend Mr Lee’s legal action against the blogger.

“You referred to an “alleged ‘serious libel’” by Roy Ngerng,” Ms Chang said. “This is not an allegation. Mr Ngerng has publicly admitted accusing Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, of criminal misappropriation of pension funds, falsely and completely without foundation.”

The press secretary added:

“When someone makes false and malicious personal allegations that impugn a person’s character or integrity, the victim has the right to vindicate his reputation, whether he is an ordinary citizen or the prime minister.”

As with the MOH incident, some are raising questions on whether it is appropriate for the press secretary to the Prime Minister to be issuing letters and defence on the PM’s behalf in a private dispute which is before the courts – especially when Mr Ngerng’s legal defence, filed last week, is arguing that there was in fact no defamation.

Would the press secretary be arguing against Mr Ngerng’s defence in public on behalf of the prime minister if it ever came to that?

What then would the court process be for?

Also, did the Prime Minister direct his press secretary to issue the statements on his behalf?

If so, were they supposed to be on behalf of his private citizenship, or on behalf of his public persona as prime minister?

The Code of Conduct specifically highlighted that it is important that “a Minister must not direct or request a civil servant to do anything or perform any function that may conflict with the Singapore Civil Service's core values.”

One of these core values, it clearly stated, was “impartiality”.

And to reiterate, the Code stated that a minister “should respect the duty of civil servants to remain neutral in all political matters and matters of public controversy.”

It is important to note that the Code describes a civil servant being neutral as a "duty", and not a choice.

In May 2011, following the results of the general election, Mr Lee issued a reminder to all his Members of Parliament.

He advised them that they “must separate your public political position from your private business or professional interests.”

He added that MPs “must not exploit your public position as Government MPs, your close contacts with the Ministers, or your access to government departments and civil servants.”

While Mr Lee was referring to the business or professional interests of MPs, it could be assumed that this would also apply to other private matters which MPs may be involved in.

The point is that “your conduct must always be above board”, as Mr Lee said.

And for all the above stipulations, and to avoid any doubt whatsoever, shouldn't Mr Lee have written to The Economist himself, instead of having his press secretary do so on his behalf?

Perhaps the Government should clarify the Civil Service’s position on its officers and departments issuing statements on behalf of political leaders who are acting in their private capacity in personal matters, so that Singaporeans will understand better the differences involved.

Read also: "The public service, political impartiality, and the future of the nation"

And: “Whom is a fair target for political criticism?