By: Ravi Philemon
When the SMRT train defects were detected, the Transport Minister said that his Ministry did not go public about the defects because they did not want to cause “undue panic”. And now, the Health Ministry has used a similar excuse – that MOH did not go public about Zika infections when they had the preliminary results, so as not to create false alarm.
Reasons like “undue panic” and “false alarm” have become convenient excuses for the Government to keep away informations of public interests from Singaporeans.
What’s truly alarming is that these are not the only instances where the Government has kept information away from Singaporeans even when it is a matter of public interest.
In Parliament on 18 Aug 2009, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was asked to reveal the reasons for Mr Charles Goodyear’s resignation from Temasek Holdings. In his reply, Mr Tharman said: “People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”
In the case of not going public about defective trains, what undue panic would the matter have caused? Would commuters have stopped taking the trains because it now had hairline cracks in it?
What they would have done is, taken the Transport Ministry and its Minister to task for the lapse. This would have caused the Minster and his Ministry to come out to better explain to commuters what went wrong and how they are fixing it.
In the case of not going public about the Zika cases, what false alarm would that have caused? Coming out in a timely manner about the transmission of such infectious diseases would have enabled the public to be better prepared for it.
In this instance, the Ministry of Health has got to learn a thing or two from Hong Kong. The first suspected Zika case in that special administrative region of China was discovered last Wednesday. The preliminary results showed that a woman was infected. The healthcare officials immediately called for a press conference to announce the case. The next day, the patient was discharged because the preliminary tests proved to be false.
Going public about such infectious diseases, even when the results are only preliminary, would have better enabled the general public to be aware of the disease in their vicinity and take better precautions to protect themselves.
By not coming out early about such infectious diseases, the Ministers and their Ministries were only protecting themselves. It certainly seems like their concerns about ‘undue panic’ and ‘false alarm’ are actually to protect themselves from having to answer to members of the public about their mistakes.
As pointed out by infectious diseases expert Dr Leong Hoe Nam, the first Zika case in Singapore was reported not last week, but in May 2016. “Every single mild case of fever, they should have investigated, it was a chance to break the cycle,” Dr Leong said.
Dr Leong is right, the Health Ministry knew more than 3 months ago that Zika had set foot in Singapore. It could have spelt-out medical protocols to be followed here to better control the infectious disease.
But will the Health Minister admit his mistake?
I hope the Health Minister will bear in mind what his colleague said not too long ago:
“Politics is a contest for power, but the key principle when you have power is, don’t take advantage of people under your charge, and always be honest and upfront with them. All of us will make mistakes. When a mistake is made, just come clean and say so, but don’t cover up.” – Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
When the Government does not trust the people to be upfront and frank with its citizens, people lose their trust in their Government. This has happened once too often here.
People losing trust in its Government is not good for Singapore.