SINGAPORE: The Singapore Government has not “gone slack” – and its leaders will do what it takes to put things right, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Saturday (Feb 9).
Mr Heng, who has been earmarked to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, was responding to an editorial published in Lianhe Zaobao on Feb 1. The editorial pointed to complacency as one reason for a spate of lapses such as the National Service training deaths, SingHealth cyberattack and the HIV data leak.
In a commentary published in the Chinese daily and in its sister newspaper the Straits Times on Saturday, Mr Heng said the Zaobao editorial raises “serious questions that my colleagues and I will not shirk”.
“Is complacency the cause of our recent spate of distressing failures - from training deaths in national service to the SingHealth cyberattack; from power failures to misplaced postal mail? Have we become so lulled by our success that we have allowed high standards to lapse?” he wrote.
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“Singaporeans do expect the best of their Government and of themselves. We will not flinch from taking a hard look at ourselves each time there is a failure, and doing whatever is necessary to put things right.”
But he rejected the suggestion that the political leadership has “allowed the whole system to go slack” or “gone soft on ourselves”, and failed to hold senior people accountable when things go wrong.
EACH GENERATION FACES OWN CHALLENGES
Singapore has experienced serious incidents in the past, and each generation has had to overcome its own set of challenges, Mr Heng wrote.
He pointed to challenges like the Hotel New World collapse, the Sentosa cable car accident and the Jurong Shipyard Spyros explosion – incidents which resulted in many deaths.
“Each time, our pioneers learnt the painful lessons, and put things right,” he said.
Today, there are larger and more complex systems that have improved lives but also brought new risks, and Singapore has had to anticipate and manage these risks, Mr Heng said.
“One example is cybersecurity. We knew that becoming a Smart Nation would expose us to serious online threats. But not adopting IT was not an option.”
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Citing the issue of MRT disruptions, Mr Heng said a new signalling system on the North-South and East-West lines was introduced, new trains purchased and more rail lines being built to increase capacity.
“We should have started renewing the MRT system earlier. But we have learnt from this experience, and will keep on improving the system. We are not yet where we want to be. But surveys confirm that commuters have noticed the less crowded trains and more reliable service.”
MINISTERS HAVE TO BE ACCOUNTABLE
On accountability, Mr Heng said that when failures occur, they are investigated thoroughly and in serious cases, independent Committees of Inquiry (COIs) convened. COI findings, “however awkward, are made public”, like the recent SingHealth cybersecurity breach, he wrote.
“The Prime Minister holds ministers accountable for running their ministries properly, and correcting any shortcomings uncovered. Ministers also have to account to Parliament and to the public. When lapses occur, we deal with them transparently and honestly. This is the way to restore confidence in our systems and maintain the trust of our people.
“Where individuals are found culpable or wanting, we do not hesitate to take action.”
In the SingHealth case, senior officers were held responsible and disciplined, he said. Officers who had failed in their duties were punished, and some dismissed.
Similarly, individuals involved in the leak of data from the HIV registry are being investigated and dealt with in court. The Singapore Armed Forces has also disciplined senior officers and relieved them of command for training accidents, Mr Heng said.
“Leaders have to take command responsibility. When something goes wrong, the leader of the organisation, be he the minister, permanent secretary or CEO, has to take responsibility and put things right. If the lapse shows that the leader has been slack, negligent or incompetent, then serious consequences must follow, including removal."
But we should not “routinely dismiss officials” whenever things go wrong, as doing so may give the appearance of solving the problem when that is not necessarily the case, he wrote.
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Mr Heng said the country is where it is today because its pioneers took risks. “If public officers had not dared to take risks for fear of being axed if things went wrong, we would never have built an exceptional country.”
Singapore can learn from others like the Japanese and the Swiss, who have a strong sense of personal responsibility and a meticulous attention to detail, he said.
“We must strengthen such personal mindsets at all levels of society, from the heads of organisations to front-line workers, in the private sector and the Government. Though this imposes high demands on every Singaporean, we will persist on this path.
“If we become complacent and slack, we are finished,” he said.