Monday, April 07, 2008

Still the Fault of the Guards

As expected, my last posting seems to have upset quite a few people. True to form, I've now been labelled an "Irresponsible" Singaporean who expects freedom with no responsibility for my words, actions etc etc. My only reaction to these accusations is – it wasn’t me! It was Mas Selamat’s guards – bastards made me do it.

OK, let me clarify things. I think the successive PAP governments that have run Singapore have done a fabulous job. I appreciate the fact that there are clean streets, efficient services and so on. I find these things so important to my daily life that I moved back from the "Freedom" of the West to live here. Singapore, whatever one may say about it is actually a pretty decent place to live in and the government deserves credit.

However, what I do take issue with the fact that Singaporeans have become what the Minister Mentor calls, “Complacent.” The government has obviously been complacent in the handling of the Mas Selmat affair. How did Singapore’s number one terrorist walk out of a highly secure prison? If our security facility is as tight as it’s supposed to be, it will take more than a few prison guards sleeping on the job. Yet, if we are to take the Minister Mentor at his word, the majority of the blame lies here. Given that the rest of us are supposed to wait for the committee’s findings, was the Minister Mentor being responsible in making his comments to the press?

Then there is the role of Wong Kang Seng, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs. From the start, Mr Wong has demonstrated an arrogance that has been unmatched in our nation’s history. He was, “Sorry this had to happen,” rather than sorry. Although he mobilised vast resources, he’s also refused to consider various possibilities. He’s allowed his Ministry to insist Mas Selmat is still in Singapore despite the growing likelihood that the man may have escaped. More seriously, he’s insisted in having his Ministry lead the committee that is meant to investigate probably wrong doings in his Ministry. Such investigations need to be seen to be above reproach and Mr Wong’s actions have shown that this committee will not be seen in this light. By comparison, when Swift Lion took place in 1997, the Ministry of Defense ensured that the Committee of Inquiry was chaired by someone outside the Ministry (If memory serves correctly, the chair came from Ministry of the Environment.)

Having pointed out the obvious faults of the government, the Minister Mentor does have a point when he complains that the public has become complacent and over reliant on the government. He’s right. Singaporeans are so used to the government getting things right; nobody seems terribly bothered to hold the government to account when the government goofs. OK, to be fair to the public, the government is heavy handed when it deals with criticism. Singapore has a range of laws to keep people in their place and the government has not been shy in using those laws. Every respectable foreign publication has been sued at least once or twice. The local media have developed “responsible” and “respectful” journalism when it comes to political affairs – so much so that one of our major newspapers believed that it was more important to talk about an “Arrogant Roti Prata Salesman,” on the very day that every decision maker in the global economy was gathering in Singapore. Then there are usual slapping down of critics. Make a legitimate content and you become labelled a stooge of Western liberals or told that only politicians are entitled to a voice.

Having said all of this, there is no excuse for not expressing your opinions whenever you feel the government has goofed. If the media won’t take the opinions of the public, there are alternative outlets like cyberspace.

One might ask me why bother? Why make such a song and dance over, what may look like small issues in the overall picture. The answer lies in the simple fact that – we, as voters chose the government and as tax payers finance the government. As with anything that we put money into, surely it’s an act of responsibility to keep a close enough tab on people who manage your money.

For example, most of us put money into investments like Unit Trust because they allow us to leave our money in the hands of professional managers. These professionals are required to send us regular updates about the performance of the funds and if we are not happy with their performance, we take our money elsewhere. If experiences at Citibank are anything to go by, Singaporeans are very demanding when it comes to their personal funds and they’re more than willing to voice their displeasure when funds don’t perform as expected.

So, why aren’t we more vocal about the government that we finance? Thanks to the increase in GST, government finances are being moved away from direct taxes and into indirect taxes – the theory being we pay for consumption rather than production, which means more of us, are tax payers. So by that theory, shouldn’t more people be interested in the workings of the government?

Instead, the public is quite oblivious to the way money gets spent. Government budgets only excite our imagination when it involves a rebate cheque. Politics, is boring and just think of the times we’ve heard this phrase – “You can never win against them.” So there you have it, you have an institution that you spend money on, and yet you conveniently insist that there’s nothing you can do about how this institution spends your money.

OK, credit has to be given to the government for sound financial management. Budget deficits are generally the exception rather than the rule. But let’s look at some incidents:

  • Mas Selamat’s Escape – Singapore’s number one terrorist walks out of a secure prison, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent a good deal of money on anti-terrorism facilities (In Budget 08, SG$102 million was allocated to anti-terrorism)
  • The crushing on a navy ship near Peda Braca. The committee found the duty officer negligent and he was subsequently charged. But did anyone ask why our investment in navy radars could not detect a huge tanker coming its way.

Perhaps these may be small incidents on the scale of things. But then when you look at the loss of life and the other hidden cost – they cost the nation quite a bit. And yet, nobody seems interested in asking important questions of the government. When you think about it, the lack of criticism, both constructive and not, of the government is a sign of the public’s irresponsibility.

1 comment:

george said...

You are quite wrong about there being no criticisms of goofs of the govt.

But you would be right if you mean there being no criticisms of goofs of the govt being published in the mass media.

Look at the cyberspace - plenty of criticisms nad unhappiness with the govt there - from blogs to international press coverage to forums of all shapes and sizes.