Don’t demoralise MHA by punishing the Minister

Yesterday PM Lee told Parliament:

The Minister is ultimately accountable for the policies and operations of his Ministry. But this does not mean that if a lapse occurs down the line, every level in the chain of command, up to and including the Minister should automatically be punished or removed. Based on the facts, we have to decide who fell short in performing his duties, and what is the appropriate disciplinary action for each officer involved. We also have to follow due process, giving officers the chance to defend themselves. Otherwise we will demoralise the organisation and discourage officers from taking initiatives (sic) or responsibility, for fear of being punished for making mistakes.

I said yesterday that if the logic goes that a Minister shold not be punished for a lapse that occurs down the line, then he will never get punished for anything, because everything the Minister “does” is actually done by his civil servants.

PM said that to punish the Minister would demoralise the organisation and discourage lower level staff from taking initiative or responsibility.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Instead, if everytime something goes wrong, and only the lower level staff get punished, that would do much greater damage to morale. Not only would staff not take initiative and responsibility, but they would ask themselves: “Why bother when I’m going to be made to take the whole rap if something goes wrong?”

This is very bad management style. The boss should always take responsibility, and the rap if necessary.

Then again, perhaps PM was referring to morale among the top level elite Administrative Officers and Ministers. That is probably his greatest concern. To heck with those losers with fewer than 4 As in their A levels.

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Protecting their own kind

The PM and Home Minister have given their statements in Parliament regarding Mas Selamat’s escape.

I am glad that although the Committee of Inquiry (COI) report was not released, at least the details of how Mas Selamat escaped — complete with pictures — were. I’m also glad to learn that this wasn’t an inside job. And I think it’s fitting that not just junior officials, but even the Superintendent of Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) will be punished for this lapse.

That’s the good stuff. Now for the not so good.

The Escape

I wonder what was going on in the mind of the Gurkha who accompanied Mas Selamat into the toilet. Didn’t he find it a bit odd that the water was kept running for 11 minutes? Couldn’t he have banged on the door and asked Mas Selamat what was taking him so long? Or looked under the door? Or heard him opening the window and squeezing himself out? Why did he go OUT of the washroom to look for the female ISD officer to alert her, leaving the prisoner completely unattended. Maybe it was during those few seconds that Mas Selamat was able to escape from the window undetected.


Next the leap over the fence. The COI said it was most likely that he jumped on top of the covered walkway and lept across the fences to freedom. I find that quite incredible. The photo shows a double row of fencing, each with barbed wire on top, and separated by at least 2 m. The ground on the other side is filled with shrubs. Even if Mas Selamat lept across it, he would have broken his ankle when he landed.

The alleged escape across the fence is uncannily similar to the method used by NSF Dave Teo, who went AWOL from his army camp with a SAR21 assault rifle and several 5.56mm ammunition rounds. Teo lept from a parapet situated near a fence to escape. Did our security agencies not learn a thing from this very recent incident — that you should never have any fixed platforms near a fence?


Responsibility

I am shocked to learn that the punishment for allowing Mas Selamat to escape will be limited to only officers in the WRDC. Surely there are others in the ISD and MHA who are partially responsible.

It was reported that the toilet Mas Selamat escaped from was usually used by visitors and staff of WRDC. These visitors must, at one point or another, have included senior officials from ISD and MHA like the Director ISD, the Permanent Secretary (Home Affairs) and even the Minister himself. The Deputy Secretary (Security) who sat on the COI must have seen the same window design in the women’s toilet.

Did it not occur to any of them that there was a huge, ungrilled window with a ledge below it? Why did they not sound any alert? Were they complacent too? If so, do they not share part of the responsibility?

High security installations like these usually have regular security audits by another higher unit. If these audits were carried out, why didn’t the auditors discover the ungrilled window and the fence with a covered walkway beside it? These auditors should also be punished for their negligence. If no such audits took place, why not? ISD and MHA then bear some responsibility for not instituting these external audits.

PM’s speech today in Parliament and his responses to MPs’ questions were most disappointing.

He put up a stout defence for his Home Minister and Director ISD, saying they are “ultimately accountable” but “were not to blame”. This is a contradiction in itself. If you are accountable for something and that something goes wrong, you are to blame. That is what leadership is about.

I’m not asking for any resignations. But for everyone up the chain of command beyond the Superintendent of the WRDC to get away scot free is breathtaking! No one is going to even get fined, forfeit leave, sign extra, do push ups?

The PM said: “(T)his does not mean that if a lapse occurs down the line, every level in the chain of command, up to and including the Minister should automatically be punished or removed.”

In that case, no Minister will ever be punished for anything, because Ministers never do anything with their own hands. Everything that they do in the course of their work is actually carried out by a battalion of civil servants working under them.

PM chose to trot out the “we are not like other countries” argument, when he pointed out that we should not have a culture where Ministers “fall on their swords” whenever something goes wrong, just for political expediency. This is playing back like a tired old record from his father’s era. Most Singaporeans with half a brain will know it is less about being different from other countries, but more about protecting their own kind — the tight-knit network of elites who run this country.

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Good leaders can make a difference

I just finished my reservist today. For those of wondering, my comrades and I did not get to greet that same warrant officer and give him the pleasure of yelling at us again the next morning for not wearing a beret in camp. But being an obedient soldier, I did go to the eMart the next day to buy myself a new beret and jockey cap so I won’t have to break camp rules (albeit dumb ones) again during my next ICT.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe it is possible for NSmen (reservists) to put in their best effort into training, given the right leadership and guidance. My unit is a good example. Although I am not particularly fond of scrambling around in the hot sun, staying up all night to help prepare battle plans, and doing sai kang (unpleasant tasks) after the training is over, one thing that I like about ICTs is seeing my fellow soldiers cooperating so well to get the job done well and trying so hard to complete our training to a satisfactory standard.

Conventional belief is that NSmen are always just trying to keng (malinger). In my unit, chao keng soldiers are the rare exception rather than the rule. And this is not because we have some guai lan Commander barking at us all the time.

On the contrary, our Commander (a lieutenant colonel) tries his best to get us out of the “excused from thinking” mindset that many other soldiers have, and to put into practice the innovation and work ethic we are used to in our civilian jobs. He genuinely believes that innovation and improvements can come from even the lowest levels of the organisational hierarchy. Hence, it is not unusual to see him chatting one-on-one with drivers and clerks to get their feedback on how training can be improved. And we actually tell it to him like it is. Just last night he went out for supper with one “lowly” corporal (an IT manager in civilian life), who gave him an earful of feedback which he promised he would look into.

He also affords us a great deal of trust, even to the point of giving us tips on how to get our deferments approved quicker if we have urgent personal or work commitments. In return, I think our unit’s deferment rate is quite low, as my platoon is usually almost fully staffed at every ICT.

Some time ago, I wrote this in an article on this blog:

In recent years, lots of resources have been poured into recognising reservists’ contributions to “Total Defence”, including larger Progress Packages, NS tax relief, SAFRA recreational facilities and even a new golf course. While most reservists probably appreciate these measures, no amount of “welfare” will address the more critical need for a mindset change among many of our citizen-soldiers. There is a common joke that many reservists go into “excused (from) thinking” mode the moment they don their camouflage uniforms. Perhaps this is due to the rigid military culture that they are not used to at their workplaces in the corporate world.

The SAF needs to find more engaging and innovative ways to explain to all reservists — from officers down to enlisted men ­— the geo-strategic realities that compel us to maintain a strong defence capability. Reservists (and for that matter, all soldiers) should be given more in-depth briefings on our vulnerabilities as a little red dot in a potentially hostile region. These insights should go beyond the typical National Education lessons taught to secondary school students. Soldiers should be given more privileged information and analyses regarding the latest threats facing Singapore, of course without compromising state secrets. By doing so, the SAF will help our soldiers to better appreciate how they contribute individually to national defence.

I believe that if a leader leads by example, gets his followers to see the purpose in what they are doing, and acknowledges them as equal human beings deserving of respect, there is nothing he cannot inspire them to do for the cause he is leading. And yes, this works even for our men in green.