Saturday, April 26, 2008

The minister should resign

In his speech to parliament last Monday concerning the escape of suspected JI terrorist Mas Selamat, DPM Wong Kan Seng said;

“A window that should have been grilled but was not; guards who should have maintained line of sight of the detainee …….. – these all point to a slackening in internal vigilance and supervision. Complacency for whatever reason, be it fatigue given the protracted security operations by ISD since 2001 or routinisation over time, had crept in the operating culture at WRDC.”

Personally, I am rather disappointed that the Committee of Inquiry into the Mas Selamat escape only looked at the simple matters like the physical lapses (the famous ungrilled window, the low fences etc), the human lapses (the guards’ negligence etc) and did not probe deeper into the “whatever reason(s)” mentioned by the minister.

DPM Wong says that complacency crept into the operating culture of the WRDC? I don’t think organizations per se can become complacent. It is the people running these organizations that become complacent and I would like to offer some reasons for how this could have happened.

1) Young men with brilliant academic qualifications but little front line experience are put in charge of huge complex organizations. Such leaders are good in strategic planning but tend to underestimate the importance of operational details. They are easily lulled into thinking that everything is fine in the front lines.

2) Leaders have been over-praised by other leaders who over-praise themselves. Even when things go wrong, they continue to pat themselves on the back. They should learn to be humble.

3) Leaders accept accolades for achievements but refuse to take the blame when things go wrong. Only frontline managers are disciplined for disasters in the organisation. This results in low morale of the staff in the lower rungs of the organisation.

4) They earn astronomical salaries and still tell themselves they could be earning even more if they were working in the private sector.

I did a search on Googe on the topic Organisational Culture and Leadership and found that most management gurus assign a strong link between the two. As such I think the leaders, starting with the DPM Wong Kan Seng should accept the responsibility for the complacency that had ‘crept into the culture’ as he put it, and resign.

I am reminded of the movie Titanic. The main reason for the disaster was the complacency of the captain and his crew. As such when the ship sank, he refused to be rescued and chose to go down with it. Likewise, DPM Wong should resign to accept responsibility for the failure of his ministry.

And if all the above is not sufficient reason for the minister to resign, another one just surfaced on today’s front page of the Straits Times. An accident involving a school mini-bus resulted in one kid being killed and another seriously injured. How often have you seen these mini-buses and vans, carrying young children without seat belts speeding recklessly through our housing estates and wondered to yourself, “Where are our traffic police when we need them?” Likewise, how often have you seen lorries overtaking buses overtaking other lorries on our busy expressways and asked yourself the same question. At such times, I ask myself; "Aren't our leaders drivers too?" (to borrow a line from a petrol advertisement).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Public responsibility

When Parliament seats on Monday, Singaporeans will get answers to many of the questions about the Mas Selamat escape; so says a report in Today.

Members of parliament have filed several questions. But looking at the questions, we can clearly see that the opposition MPs are only interested in pointing fingers and apportioning blame. Mr Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir) for example, wants to know how the escape occurred. Low Thia Kiang (Hougang) asks for an update on the manhunt, the estimated expenditure on it and whether investor confidence and Singapore’s reputation have been affected. And non-constituency MP, Sylvia Lim’s question is downright mischievous. She wants the PM to explain the Government’s approach to taking responsibility for such major lapses.

The PAP MP, Mr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang), chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, on the other hand is much more responsible. He is not interested in pointing fingers. He is more concerned with bigger issues like how to ease traffic congestion at the land checkpoints. Above all, he wants the PM to address the vital issue of public responsibility. Dr Teo said: “Hopefully he will touch on the idea that public responsibility is important. The Government could not be responsibility for everything.”

How magnanimous. How noble. I am almost moved to tears.

The answer to Ms Lim’s irresponsible question is obvious isn’t it? In fact, simply looking at the noble PAP MP’s questions will give you the answer.

First of all, let me tell you who is NOT responsible. The government is not responsible; at least not the ministers and top civil servants. Just look at all the past disasters that happened in Singapore. Was the minister or the perm sec of the National Development ministry responsible for the Nicoll Highway collapse of April 2004? Was the minister for defence or the army chief responsible for the ‘accidental drowning’ of 2SG Hu Enhuai 2003?

Who then is responsible? Answer: the Singaporean public. Their bo-chap attitude of leaving everything to the government is responsible not only for the escape of Mas Selamat, but also for his ability to evade capture for two whole months. How is it possible for one man to escape the huge dragnet put up by our army and police on such a tiny island? Obviously he must have help from many friends. If the public had been more vigilant, these friends would have been identified and apprehended long ago.

My answer to Singaporeans is this. Ask not what your government can do for you; but ask what have you been doing for the government.

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