Govt’s handling of recent cases erodes trust in public institutions

Besides the obvious campaign against the online community which the government (and the government mouthpiece, the mainstream media) is engaged in, there are several pressing matters which seem to have been given little attention by the authorities, the media and the public these last few weeks.

In the same period, we heard ministers extolling the virtues of “good politics”, of “integrity” in governance, of upholding public confidence and trust in our public institutions. The last of these has been a matter of great concern to the government, given how articles in its mouthpiece, the Straits Times, have urged the public to well, have trust in our public institutions.

The blame for the perceived erosion of this trust has been laid squarely – again – on the online community.

Kishore Mahbubani, for example, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, wrote in the Straits Times in April:

“I am extremely worried about the cynicism that the Singaporean blogosphere is developing towards…public institutions. Over time this cynicism could act like an acid that erodes the valuable social trust accumulated.”

2 months later, Straits Times “opinion editor” Chua Mui Hoong echoed Mahbubani’s sentiments.

“I understand the instinct to protect and uphold public institutions. I also agree with diplomat Kishore Mahbubani … that Singaporeans should support the nation’s public institutions.”

In recent weeks, however, certain incidents may have eroded further this trust for our public institutions and those who head them. To point the finger at anyone else but these institutions themselves would be to miss the woods for the trees.

To go into the detailed background of each of these cases would require a more lengthy article. So, I will briefly mention why the actions (or non-actions) taken (or not taken) by the authority concerned in each case is hurting the level of trust for these institutions.

Traffic offence

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In July, the High Court reduced Seah Hock Thiam’s jail time from 6 weeks to 1 week for two charges of abetting Mr Mohamad Azmi Abdul Wahab to find two people to take the blame for traffic offences committed by Mr John Ho Ah Huat and Mr Ong Pang Aik on Aug 12, 2009.

Mr Ho is the founder of video entertainment company Scorpio East Holdings, and Mr Ong is the chairman of construction company Lian Beng Group.

While Mr Seah has been charged and sentenced, the news reported, regarding the other parties involved in the scam, “As for Seah’s two friends, his driver and the two scapegoats, the judge said they also had perverted the course of justice and it was up to the public prosecutor to decide to bring charges.”

The prosecutor’s office, however, seems to have been silent on the matter and there is no word or indication that it will commence proceeding to prosecute those who “also had perverted the course of justice.”

The other question which the prosecutor’s office might want to address and explain is the length of time it took for this case to go before the courts. The traffic offence was committed in 2009 and yet only Seah has been prosecuted thus far, 4 years later.

Dinesh Raman

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Dinesh Raman died in police custody while in Changi Prison in September 2010. On 26 July, the news reported that the Coroner’s Inquiry into his death would be “stopped”. The Attorney General explained, “In view of the conclusion of criminal proceedings, the inquiry has been discontinued.”

However, many questions remain about how Dinesh Raman died. Writer Alex Au has raised some of them here: “Death behind high walls and carefully scripted statements“.

Here is another write-up calling for the AGC to re-open the Coroner’s Inquiry into the death: “Death in prison”.

The AGC released a statement, after “some comments online and in the media which appear to have misunderstood the Coroner’s Inquiry process”, it said. But the AGC’s statement does not address the questions pertaining to the death of Dinesh Raman.

CPIB

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On 25 July 2013, assistant director of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) – 39-year-old Edwin Yeo Seow Hiong was charged with 21 offences, including misappropriation and forgery.

While it was reported that the prime minister had “appointed an independent review panel to look at how this case happened, and to strengthen the financial procedures and audit system in CPIB to prevent a recurrence”, the findings of the panel are not published.

As Mr Au wrote:

“A truly independent commission of enquiry would hold its hearings in public. Evidence would be taken from relevant persons at those hearings. Like a coroner’s inquest — see my previous article — it would find fact impartially and in the full glare of public scrutiny. It’s that open process that creates trust, not self-serving assurances slathered over opaque statements.”

Mr Yeo had indicated that he will not be seeking legal counsel and is thus expected to plead guilty. If that happens, then there will not be a court trial which will shed light on the questions regarding the case, such as how did he “misappropriate” two cars and a motorcycle, and how he got away with it for four years.

The lack of an independent inquiry is thus troubling.

Mr Au again details some of the questions which remain unanswered in this case. Read it here: “$1.7 million worth of questions the government is disinclined to answer“.

Iskandar bin Rahmat

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Iskandar bin Rahmat, the 34-year-old former police officer, was charged with the double murder of a father and son at Kovan in July. What is troubling about Mr Iskandar’s case thus far is that he has not been given access to anyone, including his lawyers, even after 10 days since his arrest.

His lawyers – Ferlin Jayatissa and Rudy Marican from Lex Compass LLC and N Sudha Nair – had applied to speak to him but were denied as “investigations were ongoing”.

The lawyers, who were engaged by Mr Iskandar’s family, introduced themselves formally in court only when Mr Iskandar was arraigned. Mr Iskandar himself was reported to have been surprised that he had lawyers representing him.

Ms Kirsten Han, in her article for Yahoo, asked, “Why do we have a system that would deny someone like Iskandar legal counsel at this crucial stage?”

She added, “While I agree that it is important that investigators be able to be thorough and focused on their work, this should not be mutually exclusive from the suspect’s right to a lawyer, or the accused’s right to the best defense he/she can get. It is in the best interest of our criminal justice system that everything be as transparent and fair as possible. This is especially important when the potential punishment involved is as irreversible as the death penalty.”

It is also disconcerting to observe that our mainstream media seem to also have jumped to conclusion about Mr Iskandar’s guilt. Their reports have made this assumption, even before Mr Iskandar was even charged.

But what is quite unexpected is how the Commissioner of Police himself seemed to have accepted that Mr Iskandar is guilty too. As the most senior member of the police force, one would have thought that he would know that a person is not guilty until found by the courts to be so.

In a somewhat disturbing statement released on 13 July, the commissioner, Mr Ng Joo Hee, wrote: “We have now captured Officer Iskandar and we will prosecute him to the maximum extent. He is a murder suspect and will eventually receive just deserts for the heinous crime that he is accused of committing.”

This prompted former Nominated Member of Parliament, Mr Calvin Cheng, to post on his Facebook page:

“What exactly does this statement mean? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? A murder SUSPECT will EVENTUALLY receive just desserts? I would expect more professionalism from our Police Commissioner than this.” https://www.facebook.com/calvinchengnmp/posts/572063282843752

Such statements by our most senior public officers do not bode well for retaining trust in our public institutions.

National Research Foundation

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The National Research Foundation (NRF) is an agency under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The NRF is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. It has seven ministers, the Head of the Civil Service and several permanent secretaries on its Board.

On 1 July, the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) released its report on its annual audit of the ministries and various government departments and agencies.

The AGO’s report on the NRF was a scathing indictment of lax practices. “NRF had breached Government procurement principles of transparency and open and fair competition,” the AGO report said. It found the NRF provided “weak grounds for waiving competition” during the tender process for the contract to construct its new building. The Ago found that “there was also no assurance that value for money was achieved.”

The NRF was found to have overpaid honorariums to the tune of S$467,000 to three losing submissions of proposal plans. (Read the report here.)

While the AGO said that the NRF has since informed it that it has taken steps to address these shortcomings, nonetheless, questions still remain.

A letter to the Straits Times forum page highlighted these as well.

“Almost all of the irregularities cited in the news report appeared to suggest potential contravention of the Prevention of Corruption Act,” Mr Cheng Shoong Tat wrote. “As the Auditor-General is not equipped for criminal investigations, should he not avail himself of the expertise of the CPIB?”

In its reply to Mr Cheng’s letter, the AGO said, “Where circumstances warrant it, the AGO would refer cases to the relevant authorities, including the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, for further investigation.”

However, there is no indication from the AGO that it would refer the irregularities found in the NRF (or in any other parts of its reports) to the AGC or the CPIB.

In light of the recent debate on the integrity of the system and our institutions, perhaps it is best for the government to order a probe into some of these irregularities uncovered by the AGO?

Lim Boon Heng – Temasek Chairman

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On 22 July, Temasek Holdings announced that Mr Lim Boon Heng, former NTUC Chief, will be taking over from its current chairman, Mr S Dhanabalan.

It was a surprise to some that Mr Lim is stepping in to helm S’pore’s second largest sovereign wealth fund. Questions were immediately raised about whether Mr Lim is a suitable candidate for such a job.

“Mr Lim’s appointment is puzzling because he does not appear to have much of a finance background,” Mr Ng Ejay wrote. “Mr Lim’s closest contact with finance and economics was as Senior Minister of State (and subsequently, Second Minister) for Trade and Industry, from 1991 to 1993. Thereafter, he was Minister Without Portfolio until 2001, and then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office until his tearful retirement from politics in 2011.”

There was also a suggestion that Mr Lim should present himself before a parliamentary committee to answer questions about how he proposes to handle the public funds and his investment plans for the funds in Temasek’s hands which is worth some S$215 billion presently.

Perhaps to answer such questions about his appointment, Mr Lim said, on 27 July:

“I have worked in a private commercial company for 10 years before I went into politics. In the NTUC, we run several co-operatives that are doing business that are doing quite well, so I have interacted with different people. And of course over time, I got a sense of what investments ought to be, so it is a good challenge but something I will do my best to discharge.”

Does running a co-op such as NTUC make one suitable to handle one of the biggest sovereign wealth fund portfolio in the world? Would it not be good for the public to know more about how Mr Lim proposes to handle and invest what is essentially their money?

Lim Swee Say

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On 22 July, NTUC Chief, Lim Swee Say, was reported to have said that he likes the toothpicks from the Din Tai Fung restaurant, so much so that he “can never resist” to “pinch” half a box each time he visits the restaurant.

“They always serve in a pack,” he told reporters at BreadTalk Group’s new headquarters in Tai Seng. “And because I go there very early – 10.30 in the morning – always full right. And guess what? By the time I left, normally right, it’s half left. The other half is in my pocket.”

His remarks and admission drew criticisms from the public who chided him for displaying the worst traits of a “kiasu” Singaporean – one who hoards things and disregard others. While some of the criticisms were overboard, the gist of them is still valid – especially when one considers that the government has spent millions of dollars throughout the decades to inculcate and promote a “kind society”.

Indeed, the Singapore Kindness Movement hope to encourage others to “[spare] a thought for the people around us” and to be considerate. Mr Lim’s behaviour, while nothing very serious, nonetheless is poor behaviour for a minister.

Ironically, Mr Lim made the revelation to emphasise his point about how paying attention to details, like Din Tai Fung did with its toothpicks, makes one successful. Unfortunately, he forgot to pay attention to the other detail of social behaviour – do not hoard what is to be shared, even (especially) if it is free.

——————-

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What am I trying to say with all these above cases and examples?

The ongoing campaign against the online community is a waste of resources which could, should and ought to be used on other more pressing matters – such as those highlighted above. To dwell on the trivial and inconsequential, such as dirty hawker centre ceilings or one single post of “misinformation” on Facebook, and make a mountain out of these, only shows how misguided our government has become.

There are many other issues – many times more serious ones – which it ought to be focusing on.

The system is being questioned, its edges are fraying, the skeletons are falling out of the closets, legitimate questions have emerged, and there is a serious need to address these.

Instead, we have a mainstream media which prefers to engage in trivial smearing games, and ignoring all these pertinent and very important issues and concerns; and a government more interested in issuing meaningless statements and engaging in PR campaigns.

Contrary to what the likes of Kishore Mahbubani would like to have us believe, the erosion of trust in our public institutions – as anyone can see – is self-inflicted.

To point the finger at others is to be blind to what is right before one’s eyes. At the end of the day, trust in our public institutions is not based on how fervently our ministers insist that they are trustworthy. It is instead based on how open, transparent and independent the system and those who run it are.

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7 thoughts on “Govt’s handling of recent cases erodes trust in public institutions

  1. Attack is the best form of defence is it not? As they say, they will be authors of their own misfortune, come 2016. LKY has been succeeded by much lesser mortals who continue down the same path sans the same stature and place in the history of the country.

  2. I am waiting for CPIB to release the outcome of the investigation into the Brompton Bicycles.PAP was so efficient in getting HA, NEA to come with a dossier to hit WPTC on the ceiling cleaning,but bicycle purchase,no sound,no picture.

  3. “White” appears to be more synonymous with “emptiness” than “honesty” these days. Can we have some clear “blue” skies for a change in 2016 before the nation gets shrouded in “white” haze?

  4. No matter how badly handled, the government will always put on the spin that our institutions are the best and fully trustworthy. It’s bloggers like Andrew who constantly put down and bash the governmnet’s handling that is eroding trust.

    If there was not the reminder from a comment here on the Brompton saga, nobody will have remembered that it happened and that they have yet to give a full accounting of the lapses. When nobody remember the incident, it’s as good as its not having taken place.

    If all blogging are to say the right things and extol the virtues and excellence of our state and government, how much easier it will be to keep the people in servitude for the comfort and grandeur of our MIWs.

  5. That the public institutions were trusted by the people is nothing but a fallacy. From our early history, the people always knew there were double standards. From the allocation of public housing, preferential treatment in National Service, how police charges are framed, the outcome of defamation suits, the granting of deferments or even outcome of traffic offences, everyone knew that all was not and never will be equal or fair. Many would remember the jokes at the coffee shop when the famous definition about being “in” and “within” the polling station was made. Many correctly predicted the bright future ahead for the person who made the definition. Was that trust in the system, acceptance or resignation? We have long accepted the double standards but we could never voice out due to fear and perceived reprisals. It only now because of the blogosphere that people are questioning the actions of the public institutions without fear. This action cannot erode the trust, which was never there in the first place, what it does it demand accountability and transparency which will eventually lean to acceptability and trust in the longer term.

  6. In high temptation environment, there will be blinded black sheep on the loose path to illegal deal/ lag service/ …, regardless whether in public/ private/ media sector.

    To rebuild trust/ quality/ …, organization need to acknowledge mistake/ review loophole/ implement strategy/ … to ensure there will be no similar occurrence in future.

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