By David L K See
[ Below is original text of my recent 23 Mar 2016 letter emailed to Straits Times Forum Page editor Ms Liaw Wy-Cin — who stubbornly refused to publish the letter, despite its contents being of widespread public concern. ]
Salma Khalik’s commentary (“Name those responsible for Hep C infections at SGH“; 19 Mar) had focused on the fundamental need for transparency and accountability in handling public sector mistakes to redeem lost public trust and “uphold high standards in politics”, to quote Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
These basic issues were side-stepped in the Health Ministry’s long-winded “half-answer” reply (“Focus now to review systems to enhance infection control“; 22 Mar). Its intended message – let’s not dwell on the mistake; let’s quickly “move on”.
Pray tell our people how to move on when, in the SGH Hepatitis C major outbreak, 7 patients had died out of 25 infected, with 927 worried patients having to be screened. Among the infected was a young 24-year old patient whose future was totally devastated, as he risked getting liver failure or even liver cancer in his later years.
Beyond the SGH Hepatitis C shocking debacle, we need to ponder the bigger picture behind the never-ending long list of public sector mistakes over the past decades, the root causes being a deadly mix of complacency and incompetence.
Public Sector mistakes come under two broad categories.
The first involve wasteful spending of public funds – the people’s hard-earned monies collected through numerous taxes. This is deplorable enough.
Two quick examples: The 2002 “Honest Mistake” Fiasco in non-recovery by statutory board IDA of an erroneous over-payment to SingTel of $388 million of public funds. The 2005 URA $400,000 Spending Fiasco to “re-brand” Marina Bay but ending up with the same old name!
Even more deplorable is the second category involving the loss of precious human health and lives.
I am a 68-year old tertiary-educated Pioneer Generation citizen who had completed full-time National Service in the 1970s, during which I almost died at a live-firing range.
In my 1993 Forum letter “Can MOH explain why I can’t donate blood to my son?”, I highlighted the risk of AIDS infection from blood transfusion.
My feedback was ignored but five years later, in 1997, two innocent Singaporeans did contract AIDS through blood transfusions. Then Health Minister Yeo Cheow Tong merely indicated the government will bear their treatment cost. This was scant consolation for the victims’ families, as both subsequently died from AIDS.
Regrettably, lessons from such tragic deaths were clearly not learnt, judging from the following examples.
In 2003, we had the “dunking death” of 19-year old NSman Hu Enhuai, who was an eldest son. When questioned by an Opposition MP in Parliament, then Defence Minister Teo Chee Heanrevealed for the very first time, that over the preceding ten years, there were 37 training deaths* and 3,703 NSmen injured*.
( *Source: ST 12 Nov 2003 Parliament Report “37 training deaths in SAF in last decade” by David Boey.)
Just two years later, in 2005, there was yet another “drowning death” of a 24-year old SAF Regular, who was an only son.
To die during wartime defending Singapore is heroic bravery. But to die during peacetime training is sheer stupidity of SAF.
In 2007, five national dragon boat paddlers (age range 20 to 31) drowned in an international meet. As they were not instructed to wear life-jackets, the ensuing public anger was reflected in this news headline “Five lives lost, no one responsible?”.
Recent similar tragedies include: 2012 tragic death of 21-year old NSF Dominique Sarron Lee during peacetime training. 2016 tragic suicide death of 14-year old student Benjamin Lim following police interrogation.
In the December 2015 National University Hospital (NUH) tuberculosis outbreak in its children ward, 178 child patients (of which 131 were under 2 years old) were screened as they were cared for by a nurse found to have TB.
Besides the lung, TB bacteria can also infect the brain, heart, bones and even the womb of female victims, leading to infertility.
NUH CEO Joe Sim has yet to publicly address these outstanding questions. Why was this important incident not mentioned in the NUH website? From a Straits Times early report, one four-month old baby was found to be TB-infected. Why is there still no update from NUH on the actual total number of babies infected?
To stem out similar tragedies, Singaporeans must speak up openly and assertively to effect a transparent and accountable government. Otherwise, the next tragic victim could well be your loved one or, who knows, even that of a PAP politician or senior civil servant.