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Saturday, January 28, 2012

‘The missing piece in a smart government’

It was a memorable and bold moment in Singapore journalism. Earlier this week, a dogged reporter's patience and persistence combined with a brave editor's decision to throw caution to the wind ended in an exclusive that brought back memories of the good old days of old-fashioned reporting — and put the government in an embarrassing spot.

The Chinese evening newspaper, Lianhe Wanbao, went ahead with a report on the corruption investigations into the activities of two top public service officers — Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim Sin Pang and Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay — without a government confirmation. It named names and gave details, like the involvement of a woman in the scandal, knowing fully well that there was a chance — a very small chance, maybe — that it could get some important details wrong.

When the government statement came — on the same day but after the paper had published the report — the news had already caught fire with the on-line world hammering out posts and reports and raising pointed issues that ranged from transparency to arrogance.

The most damaging statement, unintended though it was, came from the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. In response to media queries, it said that the narcotics man was arrested on Dec 19 and the civil defence boss on Jan 4, many days before the government put out its statement on Jan 24.

It was too long a lapse and was made worse by the rapid-fire news cycle punishing even those who take a couple of hours to come out with its side of the story.

Why this long delay?

In response to a query by The Straits Times, the government said the investigations are continuing and "it is only fair that we accord the officers assisting with investigations a fair hearing in accordance with the civil service disciplinary process and the law."

It is understandable that you want to give those involved, especially when the investigations are still on-going, a good shot at fair play. That occasion passed when the two were arrested. That was the moment when officialdom should have bitten the bullet and said: The tipping point has been reached. And we have to go public with the story.

But it remained silent until the unlikeliest of sources — the traditional media, fed by a regular diet of press releases and official speeches — put the story in the public domain.

The end result: A government caught with its back against the wall and in a reactive mode.

High pay and low corruption

When the Parliamentary debate on political salaries took place from Jan 16 to 18, the one critical point that never came up was that of a clean Cabinet and civil service. The silence on this issue was understandable because corruption in high places in government is extremely rare. But this new development, where two very senior public service officials were under investigation for "serious personal misconduct", could have been brought up and could have added a new dimension to the debate.

The salary-corruption link is important. High pay was one way to discourage officials from wanting to have their palms greased. Lee Kuan Yew highlighted
that point when he pushed vigorously for top salaries. No reasonable-minded Singaporean would have expected a corrupt-free public service, even with high pay; those who want to get round the laws will always find loopholes to exploit.

But you can make sure that corruption cases are as rare as possible. And that corrupt officials, once exposed, will face the full brunt of the law.

Even ministers have not been spared. Former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan, who was praised by Lee Kuan Yew a number of times, chose to end his life when he faced the heat of an unyielding group of anti-corruption officers way back in the 1980s.

Making the CPIB report directly to the PMO gives them the latitude and freedom to investigate even the high and mighty without too many encumbrances.
All these could have made the Parliamentary debate more meaningful and relevant. But an opportunity to explain the historical backdrop and context to Singapore's war on corruption was lost.

The ruling party kept silent; so did the Opposition. I am more inclined to sympathise with the members of the Opposition because there was no way for them to have information on the latest investigations.

Lessons not learnt

Since GE 2011, the government seems to be on its backfoot with communication blunders becoming a regular occurrence. From the Mas Selamat case (official statement was issued four hours after the terrorist escaped from the Internal Security Department's detention centre) to the wrong signatures on YOG appreciation certificates (Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that it was an embarrassment but not a disaster) to the PAP's electoral defeat in Aljunied (Lee Kuan Yew warned residents that they will repent if Opposition won), it is clear that the government has yet to get a handle on how to communicate effectively in a new world.

That is really strange. This is not a stupid government, it has done a lot of good things for its people, it is respected overseas and its model of governance is highly sought after.

Yet, one of the basic attributes of a smart government -- squaring with its citizens and carrying them along -- seems to be missing.

P N Balji

[UPDATED 28 Jan, 9am, with reax from DPM Teo, PSC probe details]

No one is above the law.
PM Lee on CPIB probe: We’ll pursue and settle matter one way or another
By Jeanette Tan

That was the clear message that rang out from Davos, Switzerland, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is attending a meeting of the G20-countries.

Speaking to local media there, PM Lee said in no uncertain terms on Friday morning that his government will follow through on Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) investigations into the alleged misconduct by top public officials Peter Lim and Ng Boon Gay. Lim is ex-Singapore Civil Defence Force Commissioner while Ng used to lead the Central Narcotics Bureau.

“Whoever he is, whichever position he occupies, we will pursue the matter and settle it one way or another,” PM Lee was quoted as saying in The Straits Times.

“If he did wrong, he must be punished,” he continued. “If he did nothing wrong, he must be exonerated.”

It was the Singapore leader's first comments on the high-profile CPIB probe which has gripped the nation.

Separately, Deputy PM Teo Chee Hean also said he was "quite disappointed these two cases had arisen."

Speaking on the sidelines of a Chinese New Year event in Singapore late on Friday, DPM Teo was quoted in The Straits Times that "nevertheless, it does demonstrate the strength of our system, which is that any such allegations will be fully and thoroughly investigated."

It has since also emerged that the two former chiefs of the CPIB and CNB -- both high-flying public service officers and former government scholarship holders -- are also facing disciplinary action by the Public Service Commission (PSC), reported ST.

Earlier on Friday, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) also said there was “no delay” in releasing news of the CPIB probe to the public.

The MHA has been under scrutiny for why news of the probe was only made public after Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao broke the story earlier this week on 24 Jan.

But in a statement issued Friday afternoon, the MHA said that it is “normal procedure” for people to be arrested if the CPIB suspected they had committed an offence. The arrested individual can also be released on bail, although he or she will be required to return for further investigation, it added.

“At that point in time (when Ng and Lim were arrested, released on bail and placed on leave), it was premature to make any announcement as CPIB investigations had just started and the outcome was not known,” the statement said. “Furthermore, a public announcement at that point could compromise CPIB investigations,” it added.

The MHA explained it was only on 20 January that the CPIB informed them that they had found sufficient basis for the ministry to consider civil service disciplinary action for misconduct.

They then relieved them of their duties and started disciplinary action five days later, appointing replacements Eric Yap and Ng Ser Song to Lim’s and Ng’s respective posts.

MHA said it had planned to make news of the probe public on 25 January, but ended up advancing its media release a day earlier after the Chinese daily broke the story on Tuesday.

“Due process has to be followed to facilitate investigations, to be fair to officers accused, and to avoid prejudicing any legal or disciplinary proceedings,” the MHA said.

Meanwhile, more information has emerged about the still-unidentified female IT executive who is believed to be involved with Ng and Lim.

The two top-ranking public officials currently being investigated by the CPIB are believed to have on separate occasions had sex with the 36-year-old woman, reported The Straits Times (ST). All three, the paper stated, are married, and Ng and Lim are believed to have both admitted during questioning to having improper relationships with a woman.

The broadsheet reported that the woman was a sales director at a Japanese multinational company that provides business-scale IT storage systems, but moved to an American software firm about six months ago. The woman’s friends and contacts also told the paper that she is “tall, slim, long-haired and vivacious”.

However, Lianhe Wanbao reported that she is in her 40s, and had been divorced from her husband, a Mr Yong, since 10 years ago. According to the tabloid, she also has two children, and apparently has the nickname “pretty woman”.

The evening daily also reported that in her previous position at the Japanese company, the woman entertained clients and accompanied them on golf and overseas trips.

Ng has known the woman in question for more than three years, and is believed to have been close to her since the start of 2009, ST said. CPIB’s investigations were said to be around two IT-related procurement contracts, valued at approximately $350,000, that Ng signed, and which underwent the regular process of awarding tenders.

The broadsheet also reported that the Japanese company the woman worked for was subcontracted by the two firms which were awarded the tenders.

In the meantime, Lim and Ng are said to be seeking legal assistance, and another six senior Singapore Civil Defence Force officers, together with employees from the IT sector are assisting with the CPIB investigation, reported the paper

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