Lui’s resignation – a sign of weak leadership from the top

“Singapore will not encourage a culture where ministers resign whenever things go wrong on their watch, whether or not they are actually to blame,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was reported to have said in 2008 during the debate on the escape of terrorist suspect, Mas Selamat Kastari.

My Paper, 2008
My Paper, 2008

Mr Lee was disabusing calls for the then Minister of Home Affairs, Wong Kan Seng, to step down after Mas Selamat climbed through a window at the Whitley Road Detention Centre and escaped.

Mr Wong stayed on and finally stepped down from the Cabinet in 2011, but remains a Member of Parliament (MP) till this day.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s surprise announcement on Tuesday that he will not be contesting the upcoming elections is, despite the disappointment among his colleagues, the right thing for him to do.

This is in spite of the flawed principle espoused by Mr Lee – that ministers will not be asked to resign when “things go wrong on their watch, whether or not they are actually to blame.”

While Mr Lui himself did not provide a clear reason for his stepping down, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he did it out of a sense of honour – to take responsibility for the failings of the transport system these past several years – and doing so in a manner which will not be seen as setting a precedent for ministers to resign when things go wrong.

“I have put in my utmost into fulfilling my responsibilities,” Mr Lui, who first came into politics in the 2006 general election, said in his letter to Mr Lee.

The upcoming General Election, he said, “provides an opportunity for me to step back from politics without causing major disruption to Government at the end of its term.”

Without a clear reason for his decision, speculations will surface and indeed they have.

“Was subjected to daily incessant attacks but carried on doing his duty, calmly, and with equanimity,” Law Minister, K Shanmugam, said on his Facebook page. “Could not have been easy for him and his family to be subjected to such incessant and frequently unfair attacks. Many in his position will naturally ask why should they subject themselves to this.”

The Minister of Social and Family Development, Tan Chuan-Jin, also expressed the same sentiments about online criticism of Mr Lui.

Mr Shanmugam’s and Mr Tan’s remarks, however, stand in contrast to that of their fellow PAP MP and Mayor of Central Singapore CDC, Denise Phua.

Ms Phua, who is Mr Lui’s colleague in the soon-to-be-defunct Moulmein-Kallang GRC, said the latter “took the brunt of public anger” but “took criticisms and online flaming in his stride, and quietly focused on resolving problems on the ground.”

Nonetheless, to place the blame on criticisms, incessant or not, is simplistic and misguided.

While no one would argue that ministers nowadays do in fact face vocal criticisms from the public, one must also look deeper into the cause.

And as far as Mr Lui’s situation is concerned, there are many issues which have led to such vocal criticisms – and one of these is the lack of accountability from those who are in charge of the transport system, despite all the years of failures, delays, disruptions, and breakdowns.

For example, no one in the oversight regulatory body, the Land Transport Authority (LTA), has been taken to account for its failure to ensure maintenance work was carried out regularly and adequately.

The LTA website says, “LTA regulates and oversees all three main modes of public transport (taxis, buses and trains) and ensures that they meet safety and service standards.”

A committee of inquiry held after the two massive breakdowns in December 2011 concluded that “maintenance lapses [were the] main cause of [the] train breakdowns.”

“Lapses in the way SMRT maintained its rail system were key contributory factors behind last December’s MRT breakdowns, a high-level inquiry has concluded,” the Straits Times reported back then.

In the first half of this year alone, there were five major MRT service disruptions, which were close to half the total last year.

And just last month, another massive breakdown affected some 250,000 commuters.

Yet, no one has been held to account for all the years of disruptions – not even Saw Phaik Hwa, the former CEO of SMRT.

Instead, she was made the highest-paid SMRT CEO at the time, for two years running, taking home a paycheck of S$1.85 million before she resigned in 2012.

But her salary has been dwarfed by that of her successor Desmond Kuek, who has seen his pay doubled – from about S$1.2 million to $2.25 million – in the space of just 3 years, and making him the highest-paid SMRT CEO ever, even as commuters continue to experience record-breaking breakdowns on a massive scale and in increasing frequency.

And yet, transport fares continue to rise, despite the billions of dollars which have been poured in, and which will be poured into the public transport operators.

It also doesn’t help that even the former chairman of the Public Transport Council, which regulates fares, slammed commuters for expecting higher standards without wanting higher fares.

Straits Times, May 2014
Straits Times, May 2014

So, given these and many other issues, is it any wonder that the man at the helm has become the target of unhappiness?

And isn’t it simplistic for the likes of the Law Minister to point to so-called “unfair attacks” by the public to explain one possible reason for Mr Lui’s stepping down?

Mr Lui has done the honourable thing – whether he felt he had done his best or whether he felt he had failed to resolve the transport problems – by stepping down.

For this, perhaps the man ought to be applauded.

At least he does not make excuses for himself, or lays the blame on critics or “unfair attacks” or the convenient finger-pointing at “online criticisms”.

If indeed Mr Lui decided to step down because of these “unfair attacks”, then the blame really should be on the weak leadership from the top which shields those directly responsible for failures.

Ironically, it is Mr Lui who seems to have held himself to a higher standard than that of the Prime Minister, who has not shown the gumption to take his ministers (and others) to task but instead shields them with ill-conceived arguments – that “Singapore will not encourage a culture where ministers resign whenever things go wrong on their watch, whether or not they are actually to blame.”

This can only breed even more distrust and give rise to more criticisms.

Just look at the Auditor-General’s Office recent report on its audit of government ministries and statutory boards – has anyone been similarly held accountable at all after all these weeks?

Read also: “Massive breakdown – Govt’s claim of accountability put to the test“.

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