Why are our defence ministers hiding behind the ministry and its spokepersons?

So the world is well-aware that nine Terrex armoured infantry carrier vehicles (ICVs) of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) were detained by the Hong Kong customs last Wednesday.

China used the seized vehicles and equipment at Hong Kong to lodge a protest against Singapore for having military ties with Taiwan. Military ties that have been an open secret for decades.

Just today, when asked why the ICVs made a stopover in Xiamen before Hong Kong, Chief of Army Major-General (MG) Melvyn Ong said at a press conference: “We don’t specify the route. It’s a purely commercial decision taken by APL. But we don’t stop at certain ports with security implications for cargo… For the items on board this particular cargo, there was no need.”, adding that the vehicles along with the other equipment is small part of the 4000 over containers carried by the ship and therefore make sense that the goods tag along with the other commercial goods to their destination.

MG Ong shared that APL, the commercial freight company tasked to ferrying the nine vehicles and equipment, has been working with Mindef since the 1990s, although it is not the only company contracted to ship its equipment and said, “We’ve never had an incident before. But we will take a look… Let’s see how it goes.”

Yes, indeed, there had not been an incident before. So what changed?

What has been Singapore’s arrangement all these years?

Was military equipment always been shipped as commercial goods, making dangerous detours into sensitive areas?

For most of us who have served military service, we know commercial transports are chartered, meaning we do not share transport with civilian personnel or goods, due to the sensitive nature of our operations and equipment. Was the sale of NOL shipping line, a factor resulting in our defence ministry being no longer able to direct the transportation of the equipment?

Questions that citizens, especially national servicemen would want to know, in light of the intense regional attention on China’s seizure of Singapore’s military equipment and disgrace, to know why Singapore allowed itself to land in such a perilous position.

It has been a week since the armoured vehicles been seized by the Hong Kong customs and yet nothing has been said by the ministers from the Defence Ministry, namely, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, Mr Ong Ye Kung, and Dr Maliki Osman, both Senior Minister of State.

There has been no statement by the three, on why Singapore is now placed in such predicament due to the questionable logistic arrangement of sending our military equipment into China ports. Both publicly and on their public Facebook accounts.

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So far, all three ministers seem to be giving the impression that nothing is wrong and Mr Ong went even further with a nonchalant reference to Terrax in his mention of the new Belrex vehicle.

Of course, one would say that the public Facebook pages of the ministers are just meant for communicating with members of public. But bear in mind that Dr Ng as Defence Minister, from time to time, publishes breaking news of MINDEF policy changes on his Facebook where local media takes as definitive statements from the defence ministry and therefore cannot be said that his account should be seen as one that is for mere public relations.

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Perhaps the three ministers think that if they just keep quiet long enough, the matter could be resolved by then and people can forget about the incident. After all, the media has not asked anything about accountability from the defence ministers who are supposedly the talents behind how the armed forces run like a clockwork.

It is a disturbing trend in Singapore to see highly paid civil servants to hide behind ministry spokesperson to address issues of national importance. Not that one seek immediate solutions to the problems at hand, but at least come out to take responsibility for the ministry.

Ironically, this is one of the values that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has brought up in the parliamentary debate on the increase of Ministerial Pay in 2012. He said in Parliament:

“And it is vital for us to get a pay system which works for us. Because this is not just about how much money Ministers will get, but it is about Singapore’s future. It is about ensuring that Singapore always has a good government, leaders who care for our people and our country, who have strong abilities to carry out the responsibilities of Ministers and to have more than that, the character to handle pressure and the mettle to provide steady leadership in a crisis. If we can get that right, then we can protect what we have achieved and build better lives for all. If not, then the little dot will become the little black spot.” (emphasis mine)

In other countries where ministers are paid far lesser, for such an incident, a press conference would have been called and the minister in charge would apologize to the people for the national embarrassment caused and be accountable to any damages in property or in reputation. But it seems that the kind of responsibility and accountability that a politician has to bear, is inversely proportional in Singapore.