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Viswa Sadasivan warns: Every Singaporean will be loser if trust in government goes down the drain




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HE has a fiery reputation of firing from the hips, without fear or favour, especially on matters of public interest.

Former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NMP) Viswa Sadasivan fired a timely red-hot Lunar New Year fire-cracker as he reminded that if public confidence and trust in the Government does down the drain, every Singaporean will be the loser.

In a no-punches-pulled letter, published in The Forum Page of The Straits Times, he wrote: “Just too many things have been going wrong lately – the Singapore Armed Forces, Health Ministry and Singapore Post incidents.

“We appear to be in denial that the problem – across the board – is systemic. Individual Committees of Inquiry (COIs) can only go so far. There’s an urgent need for a whole-of-government response.”

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A few days earlier, Lianhe Zaobao voiced out a similar editorial calling on the authorities to correct flaws and “restore public confidence”. The leading Chinese daily asserted that a series of lapses by “public service companies recent years have swayed some people’s confidence in the institutions and efficiencies we have always been proud of.”

The Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) publication boldly listed recent incidents involving the Ministry of Health (MOH), the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), SMRT, Singapore Post (SingPost) and Singapore Power as it asserted that the authorities “can’t be arrogant” and must “deeply reflect on this series of faults and not let them cause systemic failure”.


Mr Sadasivan, 60, who was a NMP in the Parliament of Singapore from 2009 to 2011, says that the “first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it”. He explains: “It is not unreasonable for public servants – including political leaders – to provide an explanation when things go wrong. The aim, however, should not be to protect the organisation or its leaders even when there has been wrongdoing.

“It’s disingenuous for public servants to see defending the Government when things go wrong as their primary duty. Their accountability is to the people, who expect them to do the right thing.”

Stand up please and be counted, he urges. He says: “This often translates to not fudging or sweetening the issues, defining the problem as it really is, and solving it decisively. By acting with integrity in such situations, public servants can help boost public trust in government.

“Second, we need to identify common threads running through the various critical incidents. One that stands out pertains to systems and processes. These can’t be designed on the assumption that they will be used correctly all the time.”


For the record, Mr Sadasivan in August 2009, used his maiden speech in Parliament to table an extraordinary motion calling for the House to reaffirm its commitment to the principles enshrined in the Singapore National Pledge (which refers to Singaporeans as “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”), and questioned whether the government was sending out mixed signals by emphasising racial categorisations, for example by promoting ethnic-based self-help groups.

Inevitably, his contentious speech attracted considerable media attention and drew responses from a number of Parliamentarians from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), including the-then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee, the iconic founding ‘Father of Singapore’ stated that he wanted to “bring the House back to earth” on the issue of racial equality in Singapore, and sternly rebutted Mr Sadasivan’s arguments.

Mr Sadasivan, who confesses he’s not a PAP cadre, has a fantabulous reputation as an public-spirited academic. He studied at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he completed a Master of Public Administration degree. He has been extensively involved in public service for more than two decades.

Among other distinguished appointments, he has served as the Chairman of the Political Development Feedback Group of Singapore’s Feedback Unit, and as Vice-President and Secretary of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) Executive Committee. He has also served on the Media Development Authority’s Board, the Singapore 21 Committee, Economic Review Committee, Remaking Singapore Committee, and the National Youth Achievement Award Council.

Calling a spade a spade has always been his powerful trademark and in his latest message to Singaporeans, Mr Sadasivan appeals passionately that a “good system must assume human error and frailties, and compensate for them”.

He notes that there appears to be an over-reliance on systems. He explains: “Basic human instincts to observe, spot, think, respond and react are not exercised enough. Over time, these cease to be instincts. The problems arising from this are evident in all the recent incidents.”


He urged the Lee Hsien Loong government to “address the critical role of human behaviour and attitude in these incidents”.

Significantly, he says: “We all respond to risk and reward conditions. When there appears to be a routinised response when things go wrong – media conference, COI, apology – there’s the risk of us getting used to things going wrong and accepting it. There’s an urgent need for us to get out of this vicious circle.”

Hitting the nail on the head, he reiterates that the onus of responsibility in good governance starts from the top.

He adds: “This will only happen if the leadership at the highest level sends an unequivocal signal that those in charge will be held accountable. It cannot continue to be business as usual.”

And he sums up his Forum letter with a shivery Lunar New Year admonition for Singaporeans: “If nothing concrete is done to revive public confidence and trust in the Government, we all lose.”

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