Can Singaporeans Enforce Accountability?

Will there be resignations and bonus clawbacks at SMRT, asked Tan Jee Say in a recent blog post, citing the US$38M which the JP Morgan ex-Chief Investment Officer had to pay back for her bad trades.

Similarly, Gintai commented on how the Japanese take responsibility for their corporate actions (some to the extent of committing ‘hara-kiri’ because of shame), unlike the parties in the recently-concluded COI, all of whom had hired high-powered lawyers to defend themselves.

Mr Tan is certainly no babe in the woods. He should know the answer to his question.

It’s very simple. Do you think anyone willingly pays back US$38M? Or is it because of a fear of greater consequences, such as the threat of shareholder lawsuits, that makes them do so?

So as far as Singapore is concerned, the answer should be quite obvious.

The more fundamental question is– why don’t we have a tradition of accountability?

Why don’t CFO’s and cEO’s pay back their bonuses when mistakes are made under their watch? Why doesn’t anyone force them to choose this as the best of an unappealing set of choices when they screw up?

The answer is simple: because shareholders aren’t tough enough on companies, because the laws of tort are not tough enough here, and there is no tradition of personal liability for corporate actions.

Politically, in any other country, if such massive breakdowns had occurred one after the other, the Minister for Transport would have offered his resignation to the PM immediately.

The same question: Why don’t ministers resign to take responsibility for their mistakes?

The same answer: Because the shareholders (electorate) aren’t tough enough on the politicians.

Many parties have called for accountability and transparency. They even want the electorate to vote them into Parliament so they can ‘check’ the PAP and make the Govt accountable.

But they seemed to have missed that accountability doesn’t start in Parliament.

It starts at the ballot box.

You can be sure that when a Minister offers his resignation in other countries, it is not because it is the honourable thing to do.

It is because it is the ONLY sensible thing to do, short of hara-kiri.

It is because he knows that, if he doesn’t offer his resignation, the PM will sack him anyway.

And the reason the PM will sack him is because he knows that if the said Minister is not sacked, his party will be punished at the next polls.

Are Singaporean voters willing to do this?

Are they willing to kick the PAP out when they don’t perform?

Time and again voters have given the PAP chance after chance. They screwed up on housing– no problem, Mah Bow Tan is still re-elected. Mas Selamat escaped– no problem, we can still let the one who can’t sing sing. They screwed up on transport– no problem, Raymond Lim can stay. They screwed up on immigration– no problem, ….

The only person voters chose to kick out was George Yeo, who did not obviously screw up foreign policy.

Of course, our PM knew the ground sentiment, and he wisely reshuffled his Cabinet, convened a committee to ‘review’ Minister salaries, appointed a new Housing Minister, etc.

So we come back to the starting question: will there be more resignations in SMRT, LTA and Ministry of Communication? Will there be bonus clawbacks?

My answer: do you see any shareholder lawsuits in the offing? Do you see the people visibly upset and demanding for heads to roll at LTA or Mincom?

If not, then the answer is obvious.

Accountability is not an innate trait of politicians. It has to be enforced. And the only ones who can enforce it are voters.

Are Singaporeans ready to enforce accountability?


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6 Responses to Can Singaporeans Enforce Accountability?

  1. RichDad says:

    Lets move on, they are ALL honest mistakes?

  2. Anon says:

    I respectfully disagree.

    I think the problem is that virtually all our civil servants, and ministers, come from the civil service sector. They have no exposure to private sector, especially in an international setting such as an MNC or international bank. In the latter, there have been well-publicised cases of CEOs or business heads getting the sack or getting clawback, if they do not perform. Latest examples include JP Morgan Chase. What is less publicised is that it is fairly common, at lower ranks, for such accountability to be administered too. You’re moved to another position, you do not get a good bonus, or even that you’re dismissed.

    On the other hand, our civil service legacy is inherited from the British system. The word “civil servant” was then very appropriate – you’re paid less than if you were to work outside, you’re “serving” the country. In return, you’re not subjected to the kind of harsh realities of accountability in the private sector. You’re already sacrificing by joining the civil service.

    Our civil servants and ministers grew up in this kind of culture. Then, 20 years ago, someone came up with the bright idea that we (the civil servants & ministers) are really one of the best talent out there, so we should be appropriately compensated. Hence, “private sector” pay and benefits.

    But the culture of “public sector” stability remained entranched. Virtually none of the current ministers have that kind of international, private sector experience at the highest level. Definitely none of the senior civil servants too. How to you measure accountability, how do you enforce accountability … none of them have any experience. In fact, the easiest thing is to ignore this aspect of the issue.

    So today, we have the best of both worlds – private sector benefits, public sector stability. If you’re a top civil servant, why would you want to change such a system? Will you KNOW how to change it? Will you be able to provide concrete proposals?

    In fact, every time a major fiasco happens and the public clamors for accountability, the invariable response is – this is a one-off thing, you must not judge a person’s performance by that one incident, the public cannot assess the effectiveness of that top civil servant because his responsibilities and contributions are not well understood. In the private sector, such arguments can be irrelevant. Yes, Barclay’s chairman may have made immense contributions in many respects. But accountability is accountability. Our ministers and top civil servants have no clue about how the private sector works, and the most comfortable response, if they can get away with it, is to continue status quo. I’d too, if I were in that position.

    • I agree totally with your views, so I’m puzzled by why you start off by saying you ‘respectfully disgagree’.

      It is true that the Civil Service has never grown up with the kind of accountability the public sector demands.

      However, politics is different from the civil service– or should be. The ones to ensure and enforce accountability for politicians are voters. If they refuse to kick out politicians who fail, they send the wrong message, and politicians grow up thinking they can get away with anything.

      Nobody resigns a Minister’s post just because he feels contrite. It happens only because those who fail know it is not only expected, it will be enforced. Over time, party leaders get it, and thus they will force such people to resign to save the party from further embarrassment at the next polls.

      Indeed, sometimes even the Prime Minister may be asked to go if a Party feels that he has done a slipshod job and is in danger of causing the Party to lose the next election.

      That’s accountability for you. But can Singaporeans enforce this?

  3. Pingback: Daily SG: 23 July 2012 | The Singapore Daily

  4. george says:

    Yes, we can…eventually as the generations mature and no longer see any of the politicians as some ‘father figure’, and rightly so. That day will come and some signs are already visible in the horizon. Singaporeans must drop the ‘being beholden’ mentality that the politicians like to encourage even enforce. The are already in it for the money, this is without any more doubts or questions and we have in effect been ‘flim flam’ long enough by the PAP.

  5. RichDad says:

    Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. – Adolf Hitler

    All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach. – Adolf Hitler

    By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise. – Adolf Hitler

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