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TOC Feature: If one were Dr Choong…

Posted by theonlinecitizen on March 20, 2008

By Dharmendra Yadav

The past three weeks have been unprecedented for Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng.

First, Wong had to apologise for alleged terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention.

Then, he had to restore the flailing record of his Home Team, who were criticised for their complacency by no less than the respected founding father of independent Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Now, Wong finds himself at the edge of a storm having to defend the independence of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) that he appointed to investigate the escape of Mas Selamat; of particular concern is the impartiality of a member of the Committee – a subordinate at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Dr Choong May Ling.

Wong has sought to assure everyone that the COI, including Dr Choong, will act independently because it comprises “persons who are not about to put their own considerable achievements and good reputations at risk”. He has declared that there are “no grounds to doubt the impartiality or independence” of the COI.

Naturally, some questions follow.

If one were Dr Choong, what would one do in the face of such concerns raised by the public?

Obviously, one would address them. It is imperative in such situations where one has been given an indisputable overriding duty to be accountable for one’s own actions.

Yet, Dr Choong, the eye of the storm and the civil servant who, according to Wong at least, enjoys an independent voice remains pin-drop silent.

If one were Dr Choong, one would also ask: how well can the responsibilities, as outlined by the minister, be carried out?

At the outset, it appears the expectations of the role evolved.

Wong wanted the COI to “conduct a full and comprehensive inquiry” and to “do a balanced and thorough job”. No mention was made of the word “independent” in his announcement of the COI on 2 March 2008.

As he did inform Parliament earlier that “an independent investigation is underway”, many interpreted this to mean that the COI would act independently.

Thus, to the criteria, Wong had added one more – the need to be impartial or independent, which he confirmed on 16 March 2008.

Arguably, independence requires the absence of any nexus (whether professional or personal) to those being investigated.

The COI’s scope of work will be wide. In Wong’s words, the COI will be given “given full and unfettered access to all documents, personnel, whether on open or classified appointments, as well as unrestricted inspection of the Whitley Road Detention Centre”, and will be “examining many witnesses from the lowest to the highest rank”.

The documents and witnesses could possibly include Dr Choong’s colleagues at the MHA and even the Minister himself.

Assuming one successfully manages to keep the nexus separate and the COI’s report arrives at the conclusion that the highest levels of MHA are worthy of criticism, would one be able to return to work, face one’s peers and still carry on with one’s work?

Consider the other extreme – a favourable report that may end up reinforcing the reservations expressed about the COI. This would clearly not be just to the other two members of the COI, who are as independent if not more.

If one were Dr Choong, would one ask the minister to find someone else in light of these circumstances?

It is debatable that a replacement would only be necessary if the perceived conflict of interest could not be mitigated.

Wong was right in defending and justifying Dr Choong’s appointment since he appointed her in the first place.

Wong was also right in disclosing Dr Choong’s relationship to MHA: “she oversees security policy”.

In mitigating the potential conflict of interest, Wong merely had to satisfy himself that the task could be performed by Dr Choong at a reasonable standard of ethics and professional conduct. He has confirmed that she can do so.

Nevertheless, if one were Dr Choong, would one simply accept such a standard or would one uphold a higher standard personally?

The role of a member of the COI is akin to the role of a director holding a position on the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors, where one is expected to be whiter than white in upholding the interests of both the company and its stakeholders; and where one, as a compass, sets an example for others to follow.

Resultantly, unlike other directors, an Audit Committee director is expected to personally uphold the highest standard of ethics and professional conduct, even though legally the director’s duty is less onerous.

If such a director is found in a position of a conflict of interest, the director would simply not accept that the perceived conflict of interest has been mitigated or addressed by the person responsible for his appointment.

The director, in being an example to others for the avoidance of any semblance of partiality or bias, would observe the highest standard required in such situations. The director would more appropriately recuse himself, whilst giving due respect to the person who appointed him.

Yes, if one were Dr Choong, one would not be silent to public concerns; one would appreciate the evolving expectations entailing one’s role; and one would, in observance of the highest standards of ethics and professional conduct, recuse oneself.

*The writer, a corporate counsel, contributes in a personal capacity. Read his other views at thinkhappiness.blogspot.com

TOC thanks Dhamendra for taking the time to pen this article.

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15 Responses to “TOC Feature: If one were Dr Choong…”

  1. Singapore Resident said

    Huh…would we see the same from Dr Choong?

    http://www.todayonline.com/articles/243882.asp

    While they stressed they “did not want to pass judgement” on their fellow civil servants’ work, ….

  2. Singapore Resident said

    Oops..should be “Hhm” not “Huh” 🙂

  3. LifesLikeThat said

    True. But then again, we can’t expect our civil servants to defy a minister’s order, or ahem* appointing her to do a job. This whole COI thingy is such a scam. I mean, come on, you are appointed by the minister in charge of your ministry to investigate another dept within the same ministry.

    I agree fully with the Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim – let the Committee become a Commission under the President’s office. Our president has so far done NOTHING throughout his two terms of office.

    It is about time someone got him to do some decent work for the people of Singapore. And it’s also time for WKS to stop spinning.

    It’s giving me a bloody headache.

  4. Seeking Salvation said

    After the COI they would just admit to everyone that

    it is a honest mistake

    so that everyone had to accept their crap
    there is no justice in this administration
    1) they gave millions away to Singtel and admit that it was a honest mistake but prosecuted Chee Soon Juan (not vouching for his honesty) for a mere couple of dollars on postage mistake
    but nobody was prosecuted for the millions giveaway

  5. opaque said

    This is a persistent problem in Singapore.

    When the authority says it’s independent, we are supposed to accept that it’s independent. Despite the fact that in the view of an objective third party, the set up is not independent.

    Same situation when the authority claims that Temasek is independent from the government. Husband and wife ?

  6. patriot said

    Kill me and I would still think that having civil servants and ex civil servants could never provide the people(citizenry) the impartiality.

  7. antz said

    i read comments in the malaysian blogs about mas selamat escape.
    It seems now they are complaing due to his escape,m’sia workers especially lorry drivers have to bear the burden of the long wait at causeway checkpoint which they think is ridiculous.

  8. GiinaKiah said

    DY, hell would sooner freeze over before we see a Singaporean civil servant go against a minister’s wishes. If Choong recused herself, imagine what that would mean. The minister would take that as a slap on his face and Choong can kiss her career goodbye.

    Choong and the other two, in my opinion, are pawns in this spin game that the minister is engaging in. WKS is not a moron, you know. He knows exactly what he is doing.

    Except of course, he doesn’t know how to lock up a limping terrorist.

  9. […] by The Singapore Daily on 21 March 2008 Prison Break, Singapore Style – The Online Citizen: If one were Dr Choong.. – Singapore Patriot: We screwed up but we’re still the best – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: […]

  10. dan krajicek said

    The only way an independent inquiry can be carried out is for Wong Kan Seng to resign first. Whoever replaces him then appoints the COI.

  11. Puzzled said

    Apparently, the government has again defined something differently / uniquely from what most of us understand / have been taught – in this particular case, Conflict Of Interest.

    Sometimes, it makes me wonder. What will they think of next. We must really give the government a 21-gun salute for the rich creativity that they possess and the opportunities to learn from them.

    They are just too good in patting one another and they have forgotten that a lot of eyes are looking at them.

  12. Gerald said

    Puzzled – This is called Believing your own propaganda. Something one of my perm secs when i was in the civil service used to say.

  13. worried said

    I hope the commission will conclude if Mas did escape with actual video footage, or did the authorities misplaced him? I hope the authorities are able to explain to Mas family how they lost him, and pay the family adequate compensation for misplacing him while under their custody. And apologise to the family for this mistake.

  14. BlackTeeShirt said

    She is the one who will cause heads to roll. All heads to roll but Wong’s.

    Like the good Shakespeare would say, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    Not nothing, in Singapore though, the ministers would up their salary in due time

  15. antz said

    I read in M’sian blogs,It seems they are baffled due to Mas selamat escape,they especially the M’sian workers ferry in and out from JB-SIN got to bear the burden of waiting endlessly at the checkpoints.

    They wondered how a country with ‘good track’ of high security purchasing first class military weapons can simply let loose a limping man??

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