FINANCE Minister Heng Swee Keat (above) has laid the cards straight to Singaporeans that the PAP government has not gone slack and the leaders will precisely do what it takes to set the record straight.
Taking the straight no-nonsense line, he makes it clear that he means business and promises: “If we become complacent, we are finished!”
Mr Heng, who has been earmarked to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, was responding to two recent hard-hitting public opinions – an editorial published in Lianhe Zaobao and a report in The Independent after former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Viswa Sadasivan’s passionate outburst.
Both pointed to an unprecedented complacency as one reason for a spate of lapses such as the SAF training deaths, SingHealth cyberattack and the HIV data leak, among a number of sloppiy setbacks.
Mr Sadasivan, in particular, fired a timely red-hot Lunar New Year fire-cracker to remind that if public confidence and trust in the Government goes down the drain, every Singaporean will be the loser.
Mr Heng says he accepts criticisms which raises “serious questions that my colleagues and I will not shirk”. He asks: “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 mails.
“Have we become so lulled by our success that we have allowed high standards to lapse?”
He is distinctly aware that Singaporeans, after more than half-century of PAP guardianship, have set high standards for the leaders. He says: “They 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 Mr Heng clearly 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.
Looking back at Singapore’s upbeat story, as a iconic role-model nation in Asean, he admitted that “Singapore has experienced serious incidents in the past, and each generation has had to overcome its own set of challenges”
‘PIONEERS LEARNT PAINFUL LESSONS’
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 says.
Citing the talking-point 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.
He assures: “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.”
On the sensitive issue of 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 didn’t pull punches when he added: “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.”
Mr Heng stakes the highest priority on “leaders to take command responsibility”.
He says: “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.”
Singapore continues to hold its head high because its pioneers, from leaders to Singaporeans, 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.”
There’s no end to learning to set even higher standards, he adds. Elaborating, he says: “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.
“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.”
But the bottom-line is very clear with a no-nonsense stand: “If we become complacent and slack, we are finished.”