Monday, October 20, 2008

We need a watchdog to watch the watchdogs

What SM Goh Chok Tong refers to as ‘The Lehman fiasco’ and the Straits Times calls ‘The Lehman Debacle’ has hoarded the newspaper headlines lately. I think a more appropriate label is The Lehman Tragedy. The Great Mas Selamat Escape we can call a ‘fiasco’ (meaning an event that is completely unsuccessful, in a way that is very embarrassing or disappointing) or ‘debacle’ (meaning an event or situation that is a complete failure because plans have failed). But this one is far more serious and far-reaching in its effect on the lives of Singaporeans, nearly ten thousand of them.

This tragedy has highlighted a big problem in our country. The watchdogs in whom we have so much faith have been caught napping time and again. It appears we need another watchdog to watch over our overpaid, over-complacent watchdogs.

Just look at this headline. MAS (The Monetary Authority of Singapore) views mis-selling seriously. If so, why do you wait till now, after much damage has been done before you start to take action? Who needs watchdogs that only start barking when the burglar has long escaped with the loot?

To matters worse, their response to citizens’ cries has also been found wanting. According to a Today article of 18 October, Mr Tan Kin Lian lamented thus;

“Singapore investors had to make complaints with the financial institutions which sold the products to them, which resulted in some of them being challenged or ridiculed in some cases. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority adopted a better approach. They set up a hotline and service centre and employed 100 people to record the complaints and investigate the case where there was evidence of mis-selling.”

How disappointing. All along we thought that in this country we have the best talents that money can buy serving in the government and civil service.

And yet another watchdog has only just woken. Take a look at this other headline, also from the Straits Times:

As usual our MPs only start to raise issues in parliament long after the problem has been widely publicized in the media or the internet. Isn’t this a case of closing the barn door after the horses have bolted?

Here are a few more issues that I am watching to see if our watchdogs are going to take action before disaster strikes again.

Problem no. 1 - The scams by housing and education agents.

These crooks prey on innocent and ignorant foreign workers and students. The foreign workers thought that Singapore was an ‘honest’ country where people are all law-abiding. They hand over their hard-earned savings to unscrupulous agents who promise to find them jobs and lodging. But once they come into this country, they find themselves stranded; without jobs, without a shelter over their heads. And to make matters worse, the authorities show no sympathy to their plight. Some are arrested, imprisoned and caned and then unceremoniously kicked out of our country.

Likewise, many foreign students have been conned into paying their parents’ hard-earned savings to housing agents who make lots of promises and then disappear with their money.

If our government does not do something about these two problems soon, we are going to find ourselves being branded a country of crooks by some international newspapers or rating agencies. At that time, you can be sure that our authorities will start to make a lot of loud protest and write long letters accusing our detractors of biased-reporting or ignorance. Why don’t you act now?

Problem no. 2 - Heavy vehicles that that are driven like Formua 1 cars on our expressways.

So many complaints have been raised by ordinary citizens in the newspapers and blogs about these drivers from hell with their dangerous cargoes. Other than a few standard letters to the press claiming to take ‘a serious view’ of the problem and citing some statistics, nothing much seems to be done. Everyday, our lives and property are still being threatened by these road bullies. I guess we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we need a major accident like this one before the government will act take real action.

Again I ask. What is the use of having watchdogs that do not watch? We have one that is supposed to watch the transport operators. Yet we see these monopolies increasing their fares on a regular basis as if it is a law of nature; and totally oblivious to the cries of the public. And then they have the cheek to report record profits every year, and no doubt reward themselves with fat bonuses.

And then there is the one that is supposed to watch over the Singapore Power, another monopoly. Everyday we read of falling oil and petrol prices and what do they do? They increase electricity prices by a unbelievable 21% this month. Oh you peasants do not understand the intricacies of energy pricing. Yeah sure we don’t; just as those aunties and uncles who lost their life savings do not understand the intricacies of mini-bonds and high notes or what have you. What I do know is that the petrol companies have been reducing their prices repeatedly these past few weeks. When, I would like to know, is the Singapore Power, and the transport companies going to reduce their prices. Can the watchdogs assure us that when the time finally comes to reduce the prices, it will be done in a fair manner?

Why? What is the root cause of this problem? The answer is simple. The people are lazy and gullible. They leave everything to the government, reasoning that since we have the highest paid and most highly rated leaders at the wheel, we can safely leave them alone to do their jobs. Unfortunately, as recent events have shown, these watchdogs have become complacent. They keep praising themselves to justify their high salaries. But nobody seems to notice that many of the highly paid executives from financial institutions, against which our leaders have benchmarked their salaries, are now branded as incompetent and greedy by one and all.

Thus I say we need a watchdog to watch the watchdogs. But who can fulfill this role? We can’t depend of civic-minded individuals like Mr Tan Kin Lian. There are just too few of such heroes around.

How about the opposition parties? I say they are even worse. They are not napping. They are hibernating! But unlike their counterparts in the animal kingdom, these guys do not hibernate for just a season but for 4 years; waking up only when election time comes around.

So we have to rely on ourselves. And the only weapon we have at our disposal is the internet.


Anonymous said...

The people of Singapore have full trust in government regulatory bodies and that includes MAS. If this top financial watch-dog fails to notice the weaknesses of certain bank products and even allow the national bank DBS to sell them freely to the public, how would the depositors be able to recognise the risks in them? The public has full confidence in MAS and in the end become victims of MAS incompetence. How are the innocent depositors going to seek just redress?

Anonymous said...

Watchdogs have to sleep too. We have watchdogs that go to sleep always at the wrong time, eg when prices of basic neccessities were skyrocketing. Now that watchdog is again sleeping during this mini-bond issue. What are watchdogs for? Might as well get a poodle. They eat little, shit little, and occupy a smaller space.

Anonymous said...

3 other issues,
a) The influx of foreign talent, the issues that have been discussed, even the serangoon garden fiasco, are just the tip of the ice berg and have been swept under the carpet, i see this as a potential flash point in Singapore

b) Transport, e.g try taking a train at the interchanges in Jurong, AMK in the morning, i dare say that its dangerous. Not enough being done, they need to get the platform doors up as soon as possible. The overcrowding + the hot Singapore weather + people of all creed and nationality trying to get in and out of packed public transport + bad economic backdrop......bound to result in disputes that may go array...

c) Overpriced HDB flats, gone are the days when buying a HDB flat is a sound long term investments, its a risk nowadays considering the soaring prices for resale n new flats....despite the current economic climate....when job losses n stuff start to hit.....we will start to wonder why new flats are still being priced at "market levels"

b) and c) are related to a) of course.... too much emphasis on growth...yet too little done to address related issues..citizens are struggling to cope with the changes, becoming souless and unhappy...more social woes.....

Anonymous said...

Another watchdog that has been sleeping since time immemorial: NEA. Just look at the deteriorating state of littering in our environment! And the ever-increasing and choking pollution caused by foreign motorcycles on our roads.
And the littering of plastic cups, thrown into bushes, are also a major cause of mosquito breeding and dengue.

Anonymous said...

In Hongkong such watchdogs would probably have ended as dog stew long ago. Singaporeans are so much less demanding, not to mention that such watchdogs are usually pets of a higher power.

jupilier said...

It's called a "Shadow Government" comprising the Opposition in most democratic countries that does not sue them into oblivion and leave the less able ones to make a fool of themselves.

Sleepless in Singapore said...

Last nite I saw the documentary Get Real on CNA. That part where this lady broke down during the interview with Cheryl Fox was really sad. One of them had cancer and was worried about her parents. Another said she had sleepless nights.

I think this tragedy is going to blow up in the government's face. No amount of rationalizing is going to absolve them from blame.

Anonymous said...

We have another watchdog not doing his million dollar jobs. Just ask Nathan. Instead of guarding the reserve, the watchdog went round attending charity show and cutting ribbons.

Sleepless in Singapore said...

Dear readers. I'd appreciate if you would keep your remarks civil and refrain from abusive and defamatory outbursts against individuals.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If watch dogs need to sleep, at least they go by turn, one at a time, not all at the same go.

Anonymous said...

the people are the best watchdogs. unfortunately, the authorities are too

1) power mad and control freaks.

2) want high pay easy job - meaning don't have to answer to pesky people with millions of watchful eyes demanding accountability and transparency

3) rule of law - meaning, abuse of laws to keep angry people at bay from spouting defamatory( calling a spade a spade) remarks or damaging their fragile egos which may lead to early exposure of corruption

4) they love face. self explanatory.

they fear an educated population( among them will be people who will be wiser then them) breathing down their necks so you often hear the usual excuses such as hindering efficiency etc

if you don't remove the laws that stand in the people's way, there shall be no true reform in this country.

educate and liberate, that's the way to go

Anonymous said...

Yes, by right, the people should be the best watch-dog, but then this huge fierce looking dog has no teeth.

Anonymous said...

As for the opposition, it is nothing but a paper watch-dog and appears only during election time, making frivolous speeches, banking on luck to be elected.

Anonymous said...

Lots of grace towards others, no one is free from making mistakes and whatever it is, i believe no one does anything with ill intention. Often, we do not have full information when we act so it pays to be gracious ......... and always count our blessings...
It is always easy to look back and say what ought to be hindsight..lor.