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.
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 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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