Causeway breach: Where does the buck stop?

By Augustine Low

It appears that the easiest way out is to punish frontline officers who make mistakes. Take the recent serious lapse in border security which allowed a Malaysian woman to enter Singapore illegally and only got arrested three days later.

After giving an account of how unacceptable errors and poor judgement led to the security breach, DPM and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament “they have apologised”. This apology was presumably made by the Commissioner of ICA and Commissioner of Police, to whom DPM Teo had expressed his unhappiness.

Apologise to whom? That was not made clear. We can only presume that they apologised to their boss, DPM Teo.

Meanwhile, the frontline officers responsible have been redeployed pending disciplinary proceedings.

But where exactly does the buck stop? Apparently not with DPM Teo, although he is the boss of the Home Team. Apart from expressing his “deep dissatisfaction,” he did not apologise. Apparently not with the Commissioners, because their apology have been accepted by DPM Teo.

What about the lower rank officers who made those mistakes? Can their apologies be accepted?

The same thing happened in the Mas Selamat case. Wong Kan Seng apologised but the buck certainly didn’t stop with him. It also didn’t stop with the director of ISD, who in fact went on to be promoted to Permanent Secretary. So only the low rank officers were punished for a national security breach of immense magnitude.

Singaporeans are not looking for heads to roll. But greater accountability and clearer lines of culpability must be drawn.

Otherwise, the message is that if you are a rank-and-file officer doing a frontline job, you cannot afford to make mistakes. But if you are in a senior position, you can always apologise, recommend appropriate action and then move on with life as usual.

Photo credit: A Shutterbug’s Life (