“We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament on Tuesday (2 Feb).
Still dealing with the fallout of his statement back in June 2020 when he inaccurately gave assurances that TraceTogether data would be used only for contact tracing, Dr Balakrishnan said yesterday: “We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from Trace together is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).”
“I take full responsibility for this mistake, and I deeply regret the consternation, the anxiety that was caused by my mistake,” he added.
This is one step above what he said in early January when he just acknowledged that he made a mistake.
At the time, Dr Balakrishnan told the House that he had not considered the CPC when he earlier spoke about TraceTogether’s data privacy safeguards at a press conference in June 2020.
“In Parliament earlier this week, I acknowledged making a mistake when characterising the use of TraceTogether data last year,” said the Minister in a Facebook post following his speech in Parliament in January.
Now, the common thread in these two statements is that Dr Balakrishan has still not apologised for the error despite admitting that he made a mistake. He is merely stating that a mistake was made.
Admitting a mistake and being sorry for it are two entirely different things.
Though, we can say that he has done more by admitting the mistake than other ministers who have made similar misrepresentations.
Co-Chair of the Multi Ministry Taskforce for COVID-19 Lawrence Wong, for example, was at that same press conference with Dr Balakrishanan back in June 2020. He had also given assurances that data collecting via the TraceTogether system would only be used for contract tracing purposes.
However, Mr Wong hasn’t come forward himself to admit to making this mistake nor accept responsibility for it.
There was also Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean who said in Parliament in June 2020: “The close contacts data gathered by TraceTogether will be stored only on the user’s phone in the first instance, and accessed by MOH only if the individual tests positive for COVID-19. It will only be used for contact tracing.”
Mr Chee also hasn’t stepped up to apologise for this misrepresentation.
On the note of accepting responsibility for the mistake, how do you “accept responsibility” without actually having to deal with consequences of those actions? There is no accepting responsibility if there is no accountability.
While Dr Balakrishnan has admitted to the mistake—more than six months after realising it—saying “I take full responsibility for this mistake” is not the same as saying sorry or being held accountable.
What tangible consequences does he have to face for making this egregious error? He has not stepped down from any office or taken a pay cut.
This is far from the remarkable moves by political leaders in other Asian countries who have stepped down from office after a blunder.
South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned in April of 2014 following criticism of his government’s handling of a the sinking of a passenger ferry.
He said, “The right thing for me to do is to take responsibility and resign as a person who is in charge of the cabinet.”
Also in 2014, Japan Industry Ministry Yuko Obuchi resigned over claims that she bought make-up and other non-politics related items using political donations.
More recently, Mongolian Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa resigned after protests over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his resignation statement, the former premier said that he should “assume the responsibility upon himself and accept the demand of the public”.
As Mr Wong said in Parliament on Monday that Singaporeans shouldn’t “import Western values”, these are great examples of Asian values being upheld. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Singapore.
Going back to Dr Balakrishnan, it is not even that he hasn’t apologised publicly before. Back in 2018, he apologised in a Facebook post for not being able to make house visits due to feeling ill.
So we know he is capable of saying sorry when he wants to. Yet, not once during this whole saga of a broken promise has he uttered the words “I’m sorry”—either verbally or in written form.
Back in 2015, then-Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament as a reminder to all CEOs: “In Japan, the chairman, the CEO will call a press conference and take a deep bow, and in the good old days, they may even commit hara-kiri.”