Parliament: 9 questions on HIV Registry data leak addressed by Gan Kim Yong

In a ministerial statement in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 12), Health Minister Gan Kim Yong answered questions that have been raised since the Ministry of Health (MOH) revealed last month that confidential details of more than 14,000 people on the HIV Registry had been illegally made public by American Mikhy K Farrera Brochez.

He had obtained the information that was in possession of his partner, Ler Teck Siang, a doctor who was the head of the ministry’s National Public Health Unit.

1. Why didn’t the authorities act when Brochez first told them of a leak in 2012?

Mr Gan said the issue then wasn’t about Brochez’s access to HIV Registry information, “but a different one”.

At that time, Brochez had accused Ler of disclosing information about Brochez’s HIV status to others. “He later also claimed that Ler had shared screenshots of his HIV status with others,” said Mr Gan.

The minister said that despite multiple attempts by MOH to engage him, Brochez did not provide any evidence to support his allegation. He was uncooperative and evasive, and rejected or postponed meetings with MOH on several occasions.

“At one point, he even informed MOH officers that he was leaving Singapore and did not want to continue with the investigation into his allegation. Due to his uncooperative attitude, the investigation could not make much headway.”

Mr Gan said: “At no point in 2012 or 2013 did MOH have basis to suspect that Brochez had access to, or was in possession of, the data of the HIV Registry.”

Nevertheless, Ler was reassigned to another role in May 2013 and his access to the registry terminated. The ministry also kept up the investigation which led to the discovery that Brochez may have submitted fake HIV blood tests to retain his employment pass. MOH reported this to the police.

2. When did MOH know that Brochez had confidential information from the HIV Registry?

In April 2016, said Mr Gan.

Brochez was arrested for repeatedly refusing to comply with the ministry’s order to take a blood test. He then gave the police and government authorities 75 names and particulars from the registry.

“This was the first time MOH had evidence that Brochez may have access to confidential HIV related data,” said Mr Gan.

MOH made a police report on May 16, 2016.

3. How thorough were the police in tracking down the leaked HIV registry data when this first surfaced?

Mr Gan said that following Brochez’s revelation of the 75 names in April 2016, the police raided Brochez’s and Ler’s home and seized and secured “all relevant materials” including computers and electronic storage devices.

In checking Brochez’s e-mail account, they found that he had sent a screenshot and a file of a further 46 records from the Registry to his mother.

The police contacted her and she agreed to let them access her account to delete those files.

“At this point, the Police had seized everything they found in Ler’s and Brochez’s possession, and had done their best to ensure that no further confidential information remained with Ler and Brochez, including in their known online accounts.”

Said Mr Gan: “It was always recognised that there was a risk that Brochez could have hidden away some more information. Unfortunately, as recent events showed, Brochez did manage to retain at least some data which he has recently disclosed, and we cannot rule out the possibility that he has more.”

4. Why didn’t MOH reveal the data breach when it learnt about it in 2016?

This was not a straightforward decision, said Mr Gan, as HIV “is a deeply emotional and personal matter”.

He discussed the matter with medical colleagues at the MOH and they emphasised the need to pay particular attention to the concerns and needs of HIV patients.

They pointed out how some would be highly anxious and distressed from a disclosure or announcement, or feel compelled to reveal their status to family or friends.

“Relationships can be disrupted; lives can be changed. We had to exercise care and judgment in making our decision, and the well-being of the affected persons weighed heavily in our considerations,” he said.

Also, since there was no evidence that the confidential information had been disseminated to the public, the ministry decided that making the matter public would “not serve the interests of the affected individuals, when weighed against the inevitable anxiety and distress they would experience”.

It was a judgment call, acknowledged Mr Gan. He added: “I reject any allegation that MOH sought to cover up the incident.”

5. Did Ler Teck Siang break the law when he downloaded and took home the information from the HIV Registry?

No. As the Head of National Public Health Unit, Ler had authority to access information in the HIV Registry.

At that time, staff needed to download the HIV Registry to do routine data entry, contact tracing, and analysis. They were allowed to use personal thumb drives.

Ler “is believed to have downloaded the HIV Registry into a thumb drive, and failed to retain possession of it”, said Mr Gan.

That’s why the charge against him is for mishandling the information.

He has also been convicted of abetting Brochez to cheat and of providing false information to the police. He has appealed against the sentence.

Ler’s charge under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) has currently been “stood down”.

“It remains before the Courts and will be dealt with after proceedings on his other charges have concluded,” said Mr Gan.

6. Why wasn’t Brochez charged under the OSA?

At that point – June 2016 – there had been no wide dissemination of the information. Charging Brochez under the Official Secrets Act would likely result in a fine if he had been found guilty or, at most, a jail term of a few weeks. Since this would likely be concurrent with his penalties for the more serious fraud and drug-related charges, the Attorney-General’s Chambers decided not to level such a charge against him.

Instead, he was given a stern warning.

7. Will MOH now bring Brochez to book for his crime?

Brochez, who is no longer in Singapore, is currently under police investigation for various offences. He is believed to be in the United States.

The police are engaging their American counterparts and are seeking their assistance in the investigations against Brochez, said Mr Gan, adding that the police will “spare no effort pursuing all avenues to bring Brochez to justice”.

8. What is being done to make sure the data leak does not resurface?

In January 2019, the authorities realised that Brochez probably still possessed the entire HIV registry. He had also put the information online and provided the link to a non-government party.

Besides making public the data breach and contacting affected persons, MOH has worked with the police and other relevant parties to disable access to the information as quickly as possible.

Mr Gan said that a few parties have since come forward to say that Brochez had attempted to make contact with them in 2018, and had given them links to confidential information he had uploaded online.

“We have quickly worked with authorities to similarly disable access to the online content,” he said, adding that the content that was uploaded is similar to what the authorities had found in January, “so no new individuals have been exposed”.

MOH has also been working with relevant parties to scan the Internet for indications of further sharing of the information.

“There have thus far been no signs of further disclosure, but we will continue to monitor.” Should it detect any disclosure or online publication of the information, MOH will work with the relevant authorities and parties to take down the content and disable access to the data.

9. What has been the reaction of the 2,400 Singaporeans on the Registry whom the MOH has succeeded in contacting?

The reactions were varied, with a few wishing they had not been told.

The medical social workers who called the patients were themselves distressed by the news they had to break. They did so “carefully and gently”, but still some “became the target of anger and blame”.

“These reactions are not unexpected. They were the reasons we made a judgment call in 2016 not to make a public announcement, and in 2018 to inform only the affected patients,” said Mr Gan.

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HIV data leak: Judgment call whether to disclose breach to affected persons and public, says Gan Kim Yong

SINGAPORE – A key factor in the Government’s decision whether to disclose the HIV Registry data breach when it first learnt about it in 2016 was that there was no evidence the information then had been disseminated to the public, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 12).

Another was the sensitivity surrounding HIV status, he said in a ministerial statement.

In April 2016, American Mikhy Farrera Brochez had revealed to the authorities that he had names and particulars from the registry.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) had to decide whether to inform the affected persons and make a public announcement about this, Mr Gan said. It decided not to.

“These were not straightforward decisions. On the one hand, there is the need to be transparent. On the other hand, we need to consider the impact of an announcement on the affected persons with HIV – would it serve their interest, or harm them instead?”

He said he discussed this with medical colleagues in MOH.

“They emphasised the need to pay particular attention to the concerns and needs of HIV patients. A person’s HIV status is a deeply emotional and personal matter. Some patients will experience high anxiety and distress from a disclosure or announcement,” he said.

“Some will feel compelled to reveal their HIV status to family members or friends. Relationships can be disrupted; lives can be changed. We had to exercise care and judgment in making our decision, and the well-being of the affected persons weighed heavily in our considerations.”

Brochez had sent the names and particulars of 75 individuals to the police and government authorities in April 2016.

After an “extensive” search of Brochez’s residence, computers, storage devices and e-mail account, the police seized or deleted all relevant information that had been found.

The police also found that Brochez had sent 46 of the 75 records to his mother by e-mail. She agreed to let the police access her e-mail account and delete the records.

Mr Gan said the police search was extensive and all relevant material found had been seized or deleted.

“While there could be no guarantee, MOH had good reason to believe that the information had been secured and the risk of future exposure significantly mitigated.”

Of the decision to go public, he added: “Ultimately, it was a judgment call, to be made based on the information we had, the considerations for and against an announcement, and the assessed risk of future public exposure of the information.”

He said MOH judged that, on balance, an announcement then would not serve the interests of the affected individuals when weighed against the inevitable anxiety and distress they would experience.

Brochez was deported in April 2018 after serving his sentence for offences including cheating.

In May 2018, he sent a screenshot containing 31 records from the HIV registry to several government authorities, indicating that he still possessed data from the registry.

The MOH then contacted the affected individuals to inform them of the leak.

But it decided not to inform the public as the 31 records were part of the 75 Brochez had previously disclosed.

Mr Gan said: “As on previous occasions, Brochez had only shared it with government authorities, and not to any wider audience. A public announcement would create anxiety and distress not just among the 31 persons but also other HIV patients whose names were in the Registry.”

In January 2019, Brochez put the entire HIV registry up to January 2013 online and sent the link to a non-government party. The MOH then decided to make a public announcement on Jan 28 as the likelihood of the affected people’s identities being made public had “increased significantly”, Mr Gan said.

Following the announcement, some individuals informed the MOH that Brochez had attempted to contact them in 2018 and had given them links to confidential information that Brochez had uploaded online.

The information uploaded was similar to what had been found in January 2019 and no new individuals had been affected. The MOH worked with other authorities to block access to this information, Mr Gan said.

He said that at each juncture when it came to light that Brochez had information from the registry – May 2016, May 2018 and January 2019 – MOH had a responsibility to balance the opposing considerations and exercise judgment.

“MOH made a judgment call, balancing the various considerations. It is arguable that MOH should have made a different call. But I reject any allegation that MOH sought to cover up the incident,” he said.

He stressed that on all three occasions, MOH’s primary concern was the well-being of the persons on the HIV registry.

It is a dilemma the authorities still face today.

“We now know that Brochez retained some data after the police seized all the files they could find in 2016. Quite possibly, he still has more data in his possession,” said Mr Gan.

“Should MOH now make known all that Brochez may or may not still possess? Do we contact every person whose data may or may not be at risk? And in the process inflict more harm on people even though it may ultimately turn out that Brochez in fact does not have the information?”

He said MOH has decided to continue to manage the situation in a way that reduces the possibility of further exposure.

“This is consistent with the decision taken in 2016, and again in 2018. It is based on what we believe to be the interest of the potentially affected persons.”

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U.S. lawmaker apologizes after House leaders condemn comments as anti-Semitic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic lawmaker Ilhan Omar apologized on Monday after party leaders condemned her comments about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.

“Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” Omar, who was elected for the first time to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, said in a statement.

“My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole,” she said, adding that she “unequivocally” apologized.

Omar was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats for saying on Twitter that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, was paying U.S. politicians to support Israel.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders condemned her remarks earlier, calling for an apology and saying anti-Semitism must be confronted and condemned.

“Legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies is protected by the values of free speech and democratic debate that the United States and Israel share,” they said. “But Congresswoman Omar’s use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters is deeply offensive.”

Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, said on Twitter, “Rep. Omar’s use of anti-Semitic stereotype was offensive and irresponsible.”

Even before her most recent comments, Republicans had criticized Democrats for appointing Omar to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and called for her to be removed from her seat because of past statements critical of Israel.

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U.S. presidential candidate Harris says she tried pot – and inhaled

(Reuters) – U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, said on Monday she had smoked marijuana in college and supported its legalization.

The California Democrat told the syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club at Power 105.1 in New York that she smoked pot while attending Howard University in Washington in the 1980s.

“And I did inhale,” she said, laughing, in a swipe at former President Bill Clinton, who famously said he had tried marijuana but had not inhaled.

Harris, 54, is among a diverse and growing group of Democrats seeking to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in next year’s presidential election. Fellow Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts launched their bids over the weekend.

A former San Francisco prosecutor, Harris stopped short of endorsing legalized pot during a tight but ultimately successful race to become California’s attorney general in 2014.

In 2016, during her run for the U.S. Senate, she declined to endorse a ballot initiative that legalized the drug in the most populous U.S. state for recreational use by adults. She said at the time, however, that she expected marijuana to eventually become legal.

Since her election to the Senate, Harris has called for legalizing pot and supported a measure to decriminalize it at the federal level. She has for years called for research into the impact of marijuana use on the developing brains of teenagers and young adults, and for standards to judge when drivers are impaired after using cannabis.

Asked by the program’s host whether she would use marijuana again if it became legal, Harris laughed but did not answer the question directly.

“It gives a lot of people joy,” she said. “And we need more joy.”

As of last December, 10 states and the District of Columbia had legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The drug is still illegal at the federal level.

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Jeremy Corbyn pays tribute ahead of celebration of Harry Leslie Smith’s life

Jeremy Corbyn has paid tribute to Harry Leslie Smith ahead of a memorial celebration of the veteran campaigner’s life.

The former RAF pilot, WWII veteran and NHS and refugees campaigner died in November aged 95, after a lifetime spent fighting passionately for the poor.

Mr Corbyn said Harry was “a true inspiration to our movement”.

On Tuesday night, friends and supporters will gather at London’s Conway Hall for an evening of speakers and song – entitled “Remembering a Rebel”.

Jeremy Corbyn will speak at the event, alongside the Mirror’s Ros Wynne Jones, columnist Owen Jones, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby and author Jack Monroe.

The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire will compere the evening.

Harry’s son, John, will also give a speech.

The event will be live streamed on the Mirror Politics Facebook page from 6pm.

Mr Corbyn said: “Harry Leslie Smith will be sorely missed by all those who were lucky enough to meet him – and by the many more who didn’t but whose lives he changed with his unflinching dedication to social justice.

“It is telling that even though he died at 95, because of his dedication to social justice he was an inspiration to all ages.

“Harry was not someone who chose to ‘walk by on the other side’.

“He fought racism and cared as much about fighting attacks on refugees as he did about fighting fascism. He stood up against poverty and spoke out against the intolerable greed of the 1%. He believed in peace and justice and hated the senseless waging of war, and he was passionate about the welfare state.

“He called it the proudest day of his life when he voted for Clement Attlee in 1945 and in doing so brought about the NHS.

“Harry was a true inspiration to our movement. And the best way we can pay respect to his legacy is by bringing to life the better world he never gave up fighting for.”

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Parliament: SAF's zero fatality goal must be aimed for, stresses importance of safety to soldiers, says Ng Eng Hen

SINGAPORE – The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) goal of zero training fatalities “sears into the consciousness” of every commander and soldier the importance of training safely in peacetime and signals that safety lapses will not be tolerated, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (Feb 11).

And while this target is a difficult one to attain – it was achieved in some years, and there is no guarantee that it can be done in others – the SAF still has to aim for it, he added.

“Which mother, shall we say, can lose her son?” Dr Ng noted, in reply to Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC), who said that SAF’s zero-fatality goal was “unrealistic”.

Mr Singh, who filed an adjournment motion on National Service, said: “As a result of the expectations created, every time a training fatality occurs, the public pressure on the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and SAF commanders down the leadership chain takes on a very corrosive edge.”

“This damages not just the SAF, but the institution of National Service too,” he said in an 18-minute long speech that touched on training safety and operational readiness in the SAF. This was Mr Singh’s first adjournment motion since he took over as WP’s secretary-general in April last year.

There have been four training-related deaths in the SAF since September 2017 – the most recent on Jan 23 this year, when actor Aloysius Pang died after suffering injuries in an accident during a military exercise in New Zealand. Mr Singh, 42, a combat engineer holding the rank of major, was attending an in-camp training himself when news of Mr Pang’s death broke.

In the aftermath of Mr Pang’s death, Mr Singh said Mindef’s narrative has appeared to have shifted toward a zero-accident mindset.

And while national servicemen understand what this means – that Mindef takes safety seriously – the public focuses on the word “zero”. A zero-fatality goal is one that cannot be achieved, even in industries with notoriously strict safety standards, such as aviation, Mr Singh said.

“No organisation let alone one that is in the business of war and defending Singapore’s sovereignty can realistically promise zero fatalities or training incidents even as the public must insist on the strictest training safety parameters for the SAF, and Mindef strives for the same,” Mr Singh told the House.

In response, Dr Ng said that Mr Singh was “right in a way”, but he had come to the view that the SAF should aim for zero fatalities, based on the experiences of SAF’s own commanders.

Dr Ng referred to a speech by former Chief of Defence Force Bey Soo Khiang last year during a safety symposium, when he talked about how the goal of zero accidents started.

Mr Bey, who was also air force chief from 1992 to 1995, said the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) grim accident record in its first 20 years prompted him to think hard on whether it had lost sight of its mission of deterrence.

Mr Bey had revealed in his speech, which Dr Ng quoted from, that from 1970 to 1990, the RSAF lost, “in terms of fighter numbers, almost the same number” as the air force’s entire F-16 fleet today.

Dr Ng cited Mr Bey saying: “Each accident erodes deterrence. If we cannot be safe, how does it reflect on our capability?

“Even before we started fighting the war, we had already lost 50 fighters, so our peacetime exchange ratio with respect to our potential threats must look quite bad. At the individual level, the whole idea of training in peacetime is to deter and when deterrence fails, be there on the first wave. But you will not be there if you kill yourself during training. Then the training is in vain,” Dr Ng cited Mr Bey saying.

Dr Ng also responded to Mr Singh’s suggestion to review Section 14 of the Government Proceedings Act, which protects armed forces personnel and the Government from civil suits. Mr Singh said the law could be tweaked so that immunity is waived in exceptions where a commander “behaves recklessly, maliciously, or displays a wilful disregard for safety considerations” during training.

Mr Singh noted that such a change would “serve to protect the institution of NS by making it more accountable instead of undermining it”.

However, Dr Ng said there is accountability for commanders and NSmen, and those who have been derelict or who have not done their duty are criminally prosecuted.

“Not just civilian pay-ups in the courts. They go to jail. Their lives in that sense and careers are ruined. And justly so if they deserve it,” he said.

“I don’t need for those who want to sue the Government to do so before the commanders are held accountable,” Dr Ng added.

Mr Singh also gave several suggestions, such as to increase the retirement age for officers, warrant officers and specialists, so they gain deeper operational knowledge. When they retire from active service, they can be hired as members of safety-related outfits in the SAF, he said.

Dr Ng thanked Mr Singh for his adjournment motion, and said that it was not possible to answer every point in the 10 minutes he was given to reply.

“I’m sure that if the House wants us to debate the various points that he has brought up, I think we can find other fora to do so,” Dr Ng said.

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Universal Credit HAS pushed people to food banks admits Tory Amber Rudd

Universal Credit HAS pushed people to food banks, the Tory welfare chief admitted today.

Amber Rudd accepted a link between soaring food bank use and the hated benefit shake-up in a House of Commons statement.

The number of emergency food parcels handed out by the Trussell Trust charity has soared from 61,000 in 2010/11 to 1.3million last year.

Previously, senior Tories have refused to accept welfare changes are responsible – instead claiming there are many complex reasons for the rise.

Ms Rudd’s predecessor Esther McVey previously tried to blame the explosion on Labour , who she said "refused" to let Jobcentres signpost people to food banks before 2010.

Just four months ago a junior DWP minister, Alok Sharma, prompted shouts of "pathetic" as he insisted the rise "cannot be attributed to the single reason".

But today the Work and Pensions Secretary made the clear admission in the House of Commons chamber.

She said: “It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial rollout of Universal Credit .

“And the main issue that led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.

“We have made changes to accessing Universal Credit so that people can have advances, so that there is a legacy run-on after two weeks, of housing benefit, and we believe that will help with food insecurity.”

People moving on to the six-in-one benefit were until last year forced to wait six weeks for their first payment.

Even with the huge delay, a whopping 17% were not paid their full amount on time as of July last year.

The standard delay has since been cut to five weeks – a level Ms Rudd says "at the moment I’m satisfied with", despite campaigners warning it is still pushing people into poverty.

Last August the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launched an internal study costing £217,000 to examine if welfare policies have prompted food bank use.

A source close to Ms Rudd said her comments today were not linked to that study.

She added: “I have acknowledged the fact that people had difficulty accessing the money on time as one of the causes for the growth in food banks.

“But we have tried to address that and one of the principal ways of doing that is ensuring every applicant can have advance payment on the day that they apply.”

Trussell Trust figures covering six months last year showed 31% of electronic foodbank referrals were due to a benefit delay, thanks to victims waiting for a new universal credit payment or award – a rise from 16% a year earlier.

It appears to be the clearest statement yet by a Tory DWP minister about a link between welfare reform and food banks.

Ms Rudd – who took the job in November – had previously acknowledged a link.

She told the Stoke Sentinel in January: “It was those elements, of getting the money into people’s hands earlier which were critical to stop the growth in foodbanks. I regret the growth there has been in food banks and I hope that these changes will stop that.”

SNP MP Neil Gray told the Commons: "We know… that the rise in food insecurity can at least in part be put down to not just the implementation but the value of social security benefits.

"And the Secretary of State has acknowledged that, I think, for the first time this afternoon."

But Labour MP Neil Coyle said: "Acknowledging the problem is only the first step."

How Tories avoided making the link before

Here are some of the comments senior Tories have given in the past about possible causes for the rise in food banks.

DWP minister Alok Sharma, October 2018: "The parliamentary group on hunger did publish a detailed report on this and they concluded there are complex and myriad reasons for the use of food banks. It cannot be attributed to the single reason."

PM Theresa May, April 2017: (When asked about nurses turning to food banks due to poor pay) "There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks."

DWP minister Priti Patel, June 2015: "We have looked at this issue extensively and we agree with this conclusion reached by the All-party Parliamentary Group into hunger that the reasons for food bank use are complex and overlapping."

DWP minister Esther McVey, July 2014: "[When the Trussell Trust was set up], it went to the then Labour Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, asking, “Would you signpost?”, but the Labour Secretary of State said, “We will not”… So many things come into play, as the people who run food banks say: understanding how to cook; prioritisation of bills; debt; and debt cards. So many things are tangled up with this issue."

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Singapore's Government has not gone slack

Is complacency the cause of our recent spate of distressing failures – from training deaths in national service to the SingHealth cyber attack; from power failures to misplaced postal mail? Have we become so lulled by our success that we have allowed high standards to lapse?

The Zaobao editorial of Feb 1 raises serious questions that my colleagues and I will not shirk. Singaporeans do expect the best of their Government and of themselves. We will not flinch from taking a hard look at ourselves each time there is a failure, and doing whatever is necessary to put things right.

But I reject the suggestion by some that the political leadership has allowed the whole system to go slack. And worse still, that we have gone soft on ourselves and the public service, failing to hold senior people accountable when things go wrong.

STRENGTHENING OUR SYSTEM

Each generation faces its own set of challenges. Singapore experienced serious incidents in the past too.

The Hotel New World collapse, the Sentosa cable car accident and the Jurong Shipyard Spyros explosion, to mention a few, resulted in many deaths. Each time, our pioneers learnt the painful lessons, and put things right.

Thanks to these collective efforts, Singapore has achieved a high level of development. It has not been easy, but we have always strived to maintain high standards and improve upon them.

Today, we operate larger and more complex systems. While these new systems have improved our lives, they have also brought new risks. We have had to anticipate and manage them, knowing that nothing can be absolutely risk-free.

One example is cyber security. We knew that becoming a Smart Nation would expose us to serious online threats. But not adopting IT was not an option.

After the “Anonymous” attacks on government IT systems in 2013, we established the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore. Later, we implemented Internet surfing separation in public agencies, against vocal objections. These have improved our cyber security but have not eliminated all risks.

Another example is the MRT. As the train system grew old and problems started to appear, we acted to resolve them. We introduced a new signalling system on the North-South and East-West lines. We purchased new trains and are building more rail lines to increase capacity. We benchmarked ourselves against the best in the world for reliability and service standards.

We should have started renewing the MRT system earlier. But we have learnt from this experience, and will keep on improving the system. We are not yet where we want to be. But surveys confirm that commuters have noticed the less crowded trains and more reliable service.

ENSURING ACCOUNTABILITY

Failures do and will occur. And when they do, we investigate thoroughly. In serious cases, we will convene independent Committees of Inquiry (COIs) to get to the bottom of things. COI findings, however awkward, are made public, like the recent COI on the SingHealth cyber security breach.

The Prime Minister holds ministers accountable for running their ministries properly, and correcting any shortcomings uncovered. Ministers also have to account to Parliament and to the public. When lapses occur, we deal with them transparently and honestly. This is the way to restore confidence in our systems and maintain the trust of our people.

Where individuals are found culpable or wanting, we do not hesitate to take action.

In the case of the SingHealth cyber attack, senior officers were held responsible and disciplined. Officers who had failed in their duties were punished, and some were dismissed.

Similarly, individuals involved in the leak of information on HIV-positive patients are being investigated and dealt with in court; and the SAF has disciplined senior officers and relieved them of command for training accidents.

Leaders have to take command responsibility. When something goes wrong, the leader of the organisation, be he the minister, permanent secretary or CEO, has to take responsibility and put things right. If the lapse shows that the leader has been slack, negligent or incompetent, then serious consequences must follow, including removal.

But we should not routinely dismiss officials whenever things go wrong, regardless of the facts or circumstances.

Doing so may give the appearance of solving the problem when that is not necessarily the case. It is more important to do the hard work of resolving the problem at the root, which requires the concerted effort of everyone.

Neither should our actions deter innovation, the willingness to think out of the box and try new solutions.

Mr Ting Kheng Siong, writing in Zaobao on Feb 3, is right to caution against creating a public service culture where “Doing more means making more mistakes; doing less means making fewer mistakes; and if we do nothing we will make no mistake”. That would be the most serious mistake we could make.

Singapore got here because our pioneers dared to take risks. All the ventures we are now so proud of – from Jurong Industrial Estate to Changi Airport – were once carried forward with no certainty they would succeed.

If public officers had not dared to take risks for fear of being axed if things went wrong, we would never have built an exceptional country.

CULTURE

Culture is set from the top, but it is realised daily through the actions of every individual in the organisation.

We seek to maintain the highest standards of excellence in Singapore. Each of us must strive for quality and safety, and take pride in what we do.

While some failures expose systemic weaknesses that must be fixed, others are caused simply by lax individual attitudes towards work.

As a society, we can learn from others like the Japanese and the Swiss, who have a strong sense of personal responsibility and a meticulous attention to detail. We must strengthen such personal mindsets at all levels of society, from the heads of organisations to front-line workers, in the private sector and the Government.

Though this imposes high demands on every Singaporean, we will persist on this path. If we become complacent and slack, we are finished.

That has to be in our DNA, carried forward from generation to generation – to always strive to do better for Singaporeans and for Singapore. The political leadership is committed to this ethos. 

• Heng Swee Keat is the Finance Minister of Singapore.

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Boris Johnson branded a ‘Medieval pirate’ in his new bid to ‘plunder’ aid cash

Boris Johnson has been compared to a "Medieval pirate" by a fellow Tory after backing a new bid to slash the aid budget.

The ex-Foreign Secretary has thrown his weight behind a new bid to re-focus the £13billion bill onto areas like peacekeeping and the BBC World Service.

The Global Britain report would also scrap the Department for International Development, pushing it inside the Foreign Office.

Mr Johnson insisted he was "not talking about" dropping the target to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid.

"What we’re saying is the money could be better used to further British political, economic and diplomatic interests," he said.

But former aid minister Andrew Mitchell blasted: "Boris is a bit like a sort of medieval pirate whose eye has alighted on this plump Spanish galleon loaded with bullion and he wants to board it and plunder it."

Mr Johnson has written a foreword to a Global Britain report by Tory MP Bob Seely.

It recommends the UK’s development funding is refocused to include areas such as peace keeping and the BBC World Service.

The ex-foreign secretary said that with the UK committed to spending 0.7% of national income, or £13.4 billion in 2016, on overseas development, that money needed to work more in tune with Britain’s interests.

Mr Seely told the BBC: "This for us is about getting the Department for International Development (DfID) to do its job better.

"To enable more aid to go where it’s needed, and to redefine what we think aid counts as to include peace keeping and a significantly reinforced and upgraded BBC World Service.

Mr Johnson insisted: "I don’t want to despoil DFID of their cash.

"I think it’s very important that we continue to project the UK overseas in this extraordinary way that we do."

But Green MP Caroline Lucas said it showed Brexit was giving "the radical right" their strongest platform for 50 years.

The MP, speaking through anti-Brexit group People’s Vote, said: "They are determined to use it to restructure not just British domestic policy, pushing for a low-tax, low-regulation economy,but also our international role.

“Moving our aid budget away from supporting the poorest people in the poorest countries towards defence spending, trade promotion and now, it seems, the BBC World Service is all part of this lurch to the right."

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Talks collapse on border deal as U.S. government shutdown looms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Talks on border security funding collapsed after Democratic and Republican lawmakers clashed over immigrant detention policy as they worked to avert another U.S. government shutdown, a Republican senator said on Sunday.

“The talks are stalled right now,” Republican Senator Richard Shelby told “Fox News Sunday.” He said the impasse was over Democrats’ desire to cap the number of beds in detention facilities for people who enter the country illegally.

Efforts to resolve the dispute over border security funding extended into the weekend as a special congressional negotiating panel aimed to reach a deal by Monday, lawmakers and aides said.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester played down any breakdown in talks. “It is a negotiation. Negotiations seldom go smooth all the way through,” he told the Fox program. Tester, one of 17 negotiators, said he was hopeful a deal could be reached.

But Shelby put the chances of reaching a deal by Monday at 50-50. No further talks were scheduled, a source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The lawmakers hoped to have an agreement by Monday to allow time for the legislation to pass the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and get signed by President Donald Trump by Friday, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies expires.

Trump agreed on Jan. 25 to end a 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown without getting the $5.7 billion he had demanded from Congress for a wall along the border with Mexico, handing a political victory to Democrats.

Instead, a three-week spending deal was reached with congressional leaders to give lawmakers time to resolve their disagreements about how to address security along the border.

One sticking point has been the Democrats’ demand for funding fewer detention beds for people arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Republicans want to increase the number as part of their drive to speed immigrant deportations.

Since he ran for president in 2016, Trump has pledged to stop the influx of undocumented immigrants by building a wall on the border and crack down on immigrants living in the United States illegally by aggressively conducting more deportations.

‘DESPERATELY NEEDED’

Democrats proposed lowering the cap on detention beds to 35,520 from the current 40,520 in return for giving Republicans some of the money they want for physical barriers, the source familiar with negotiations said.

But Democrats would create a limit within that cap of 16,500 beds at detention facilities for undocumented immigrants apprehended in the interior of the country. The remainder would be at border detention centers.

By having the interior cap, ICE agents would be forced to focus on arresting and deporting serious criminals, not law-abiding immigrants, a House Democratic aide said on Sunday.

Republicans balked at the Democrats’ sub-cap offer, the source said.

Trump weighed in Sunday, saying the Democratic proposal would protect felons. “They are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!” Trump said on Twitter.

“Claims that this proposal would allow violent criminals to be released are false,” the Democratic aide said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, warned against limiting beds. “Donald Trump is not going to sign any legislation that reduces the bed spaces. You can take that to the bank,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Lawmakers working on a border deal also have not yet nailed down the amount of money to go for physical barriers along the southern U.S. border, the source said.

While a growing number of Republicans in Congress have made it clear they would not embrace another shutdown, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said he could not rule it out.

“You absolutely cannot,” Mulvaney, who is also Trump’s acting chief of staff, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Is a shutdown entirely off the table? The answer is no.”

Lawmakers, however, were working to avoid it.

On Friday, some of the negotiators said that if Congress could not pass a border security bill by Friday, they would move to pass another stop-gap funding bill to avert a shutdown and allow more time to reach a border deal.

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