A “learning experience” for weak leaders

Is this what we pay our Ministers millions of dollars a year to do? To deflect responsibility to their subordinates when things go wrong, but bask in the limelight and taking credit for the hard work those same civil servants put in on other occasions?

To say that the past week has not been a good one for the PAP government is a gross under statement. First, was the continuation of the saga involving the break-in to the government-owned MRT train depot in Changi. Then the release of the Town Council Management Report (TCMR) provoked a much stronger than expected reaction from opposition MPs which they could not satisfactorily respond to. Finally, the most appalling was the massive flood in Orchard Road and Bukit Timah after just a few hours of rainfall, that caused millions of dollars in damages.

Although the three incidents are not connected, there seems to be a common thread running through all of them. In all of them, Singaporeans neither saw nor heard from the Cabinet ministers in charge for days on end.

It has been over a month since the MRT break in happened, and we have only just yesterday had the “privilege” of hearing a comment from the Second Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam disclaiming the Government’s responsibility for the incident. We have still not heard a squeak from Transport Minister Raymond Lim and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng.

For the TCMR, after Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang came out swinging in defence of his track record and alleging that the PAP has been unfairly allocating less funds to opposition-run town councils, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan decided to “arrow” his junior minister, Grace Fu, to defend his policies from the opposition onslaught. After weakly defending the Government’s indefensible position on the issue, Fu has been unable (or unwilling) to respond to Low’s third and most cutting statement to the media.

Orchard Floods
(Photo: method86.wordpress.com)

Then came the floods in Singapore’s crown jewel of tourism, Orchard Road. National water agency PUB’s instinctive reaction when the news of the floods first broke was to claim that 60 per cent of June’s average monthly rainfall poured down that fateful Wednesday morning. (So? June is not exactly a monsoon month.)  The civil servants then blamed a blocked drain for the flood and later admitted that they were “caught off-guard”.

Yet throughout all the mayhem caused by the flood and its aftermath, the minister in charge of the PUB, Yaacob Ibrahim was no where to be seen. He only emerged from “hiding” at a community event on Saturday, where he was cornered by the reporters. And what did he say? That he has asked the PUB to do a “review” of all the canals. My goodness! That’s like shutting the stable door after the horses have bolted. It’s easy to ask for an after-action review. But how about apologizing and accepting just an ounce of responsibility first?

Is this what we pay our Ministers millions of dollars a year to do? To deflect responsibility to their subordinates when things go wrong, but bask in the limelight and take credit for the hard work those same civil servants put in on other occasions?

As a taxi driver pointed out to me, when our elites make mistakes, it is a “learning experience”, but not so for us commoners. Yaacob said that his focus now is on learning from the episode and preventing such floods. Why can’t he also “focus” on apologizing and taking responsibility?

The problem in Singapore is that our political leaders have it so easy that they are becoming complacent. With no adversarial press, strong opposition or active civil society to keep them on their toes, they are just coasting along and collecting their $150k++ salary each month–plus “performance” bonuses at the end of the year.

Maybe at the next elections, Singaporean voters need to give them a “learning experience” they won’t forget.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

10 thoughts on “A “learning experience” for weak leaders”

  1. The losses due to the flood at Orchard Road is last Wednesday (15th June, 2010)
    is beyond just the cost of physical damages and business losses.
    to the shops. It has major impact on Singapore reputation internationally.
    The annual CommunicAsia, IT Asia and Broadcast Asia, one of the largest
    international tradeshows in Asia was held this week at the Singapore Expo.
    At one time, this event contribute to at least 0.5% of Singapore annual GDP with
    overbookings of hotel rooms, contribtuing to busting dinning business for restaurants
    as well as the transportation industry.
    Many foreigners, who were staying at the hotels in Orchard were badly affected.
    Were told by some of the foreign visitors that it took them 2.5 hours to travel from their
    hotel to the Tampines exhibition hall.
    I even received SMS from my business
    partners from Indonesia Pak Memet asking me what happened to Orchard Road.
    I experienced the inconvenience caused as my vehicle was nearly caught
    in the flood. At that time, my discussion with my visitors from Canada and Australia
    was blaming the global warming as the reason for this flood.
    It was a total embarassment when the news reported the next few days
    that the flood was due to a “choked” bottleneck of our drainage system that eleviated
    the situation. Having spent billions of dollars on upgrading our drainage system,
    our ENV staff just said that they will continue to “monitor” the situation.
    I am of the opinion the official who spoke on the “monitoring of the situation”
    reflect our standard of competency and lack proactiveness.
    Any system, whether, a drainage system involves a total management that include
    monitoring and controlling of the situation with pre-alert alarm. Aren’t the environment
    ministry already have such capability in water drainage system. I was in a meeting in Jakarta this week. My Indonesia business joked about the flood and said it’s big news here as this is school holiday season for Indonsia many Indonesian families who were in Singapore last week were affected by the flood.
    I believe our problem here is not just one of technical issue.
    Review and even an intervention is needed in the entire
    drainage management programme of Singapore that involve
    the key elements of the management system – PPST (people -leadership,
    process, structure and technology).

  2. I hope the past 30 years’ learning experience will be heeded by the “opposition” parties in the next election and they learn how to win elections and learn how win over voters.

    Hint: it’s not about PAP ministers helping Myanmar generals stash millions in Singapore, or Singapore hospitals giving generals medical treatment. And maybe it’s not even about Ministers’ salaries!

  3. If we pay them $150K/mth, then there should be perfection, not learning experience!
    I can accept flaws, but not when we are talking silly money for silly monkeys!

  4. Wow, I feel this is probably one of your most provocative commentaries to date. Nice! To be fair, I think the Education Minister did apologise recently for his blooper on the mother tongue issue but that was getting rescued by his boss, literally ;-)

  5. You said it right there at the very end, Gerald. Without any shred of a legitimate civil society, the Party of Absolute Power can continue to stick their heads up their orifices as tax-paid “learning experiences” ad infinitum. And the lack of such a civil society has significant and rapidly growing negative effects. If Singaporeans are indoctrinated through the Ministry of “Education” to avoid critical reasoning by any means necessary and to always defer to higher authority, we will continue to fall farther and farther behind nations not so self-gloriously self-emasculating — socially, politically and economically. If you want just one more example of this, look to the government muzzling of minority religions; the standard, officially-approved talk in the mosque or the temple is solely focused on the individual, with absolutely no call for anything to improve the quality of life of the community at large, within or surrounding the congregation in question. Visit another country (“less-controlled” would be redundant) and, whatever the religion, you’ll hear regular calls to be mindful of and helpful to the community, to engage in secular society and exercise the rights granted to that particular country’s subjects, and so on. This just reinforces the indoctrination received from toddlerhood onwards to sit down, shut up, and keep paying one of the least effective “elected” governments on the planet, the highest salaries in the planet’s history.

    We deserve better. It would be ruddy hard to do worse, but I’m sure a fully-funded PAP study group is investigating precisely how to.

    (And yes, not being on their toes during one of the most economically significant international conferences of the year in Singapore should be grounds for culpable gross negligence and dereliction of duty. Fat chance.)

  6. Dear Mr G,

    It is a failure not on the system, but at leadership at the highest level.

    What we see today is just a start.

  7. Mr G,

    Do more research on current financial situation here (as compared to HK, Taiwan, even Malaysia). Then compare with data from 10 and 20 years ago.

    Discuss more with Mr TKL. From there, you will get more serious impending matters that will definitely has significant impact. Until now, all are still under indefinite KIV status. The longer it is postponed, the more difficult it become and more damage it will cause.

    We are no longer sitting on competitive advantage as always boasted. In fact, we are committing many great mistakes without proper explanation and accountability.

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