Calcifying and crumbling

“MHA had planned to make these announcements on 25 January 2012, but as news of the investigations had already appeared, MHA decided to advance the media release by one day,” said the statement issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Friday, 27 January 2012, desperately denying that its hand was forced by Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Wanbao.

The news in question was the arrests of two top civil servants by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). While details are still scant, Singapore Civil Defence Force chief Peter Lim Sin Pang and Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay had been placed under arrest several weeks before. The MHA statement said:

CPIB, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office, commenced interviewing one of the officers [Ng] on 19 December 2011 and the other [Lim] on 4 January 2012 with regard to investigations against them.

In CPIB investigations, it is normal procedure for the person to be placed under arrest if CPIB assesses that there is some basis for suspecting that the person may have committed an offence.  The person can then be released on bail and is required to return for further investigations as needed.

Both officers were placed on leave when the investigations began.  At that point in time, it was premature to make any announcement as CPIB investigations had just started and the outcome was not known.  Furthermore, a public announcement at that point could compromise CPIB investigations.

The ministry was responding to an uproar over the delay in making the arrests public. Many in social media have suggested that the government deliberately suppressed news of these investigations while the debate on ministerial salaries took place in Parliament. One of the justifications for Singapore’s extremely high political salaries, and likewise, salaries for top public servants, is that handsome pay removes the temptation to be corrupt. To have two senior officers — both handpicked to be government scholars in their youth as well — under a cloud of suspicion would have undercut this argument.

Former editor of The New Paper and Today, P N Balji, called the scoop by Wanbao “a memorable and bold moment in Singapore journalism.” Writing for Yahoo, he creditted “a dogged reporter’s patience and persistence combined with a brave editor’s decision to throw caution to the wind” for bringing back “memories of the good old days of old-fashioned reporting” that had long disappeared from Singapore’s traditional media scene.

Indeed, a cursory look at the “standard operating procedure” (SOP) laid down by the powers on high for our traditional media could well explain MHA’s “plan” to make the announcements on 25 January. The SOP would have required every reporter to check facts with the government with the understanding that the story cannot run until the government has replied. This is evidenced by the curious style of newspaper reports in Singapore: the government’s reply comes first before the substance of the story is reported in subsequent paragraphs. For decades, reporting any story without the government’s stand incorporated within it would constitute “unbalanced” reporting, a cardinal sin according to the high priests of Singapore. My guess is that Wanbao would probably have tried to check facts with MHA, and MHA must have stalled for time. In other words, MHA would have known for days, (weeks?) that the news was likely to break.

For its part, the newspaper would have feared losing the scoop with every day that MHA stalled, since others might also have heard the rumours. For example, opposition politician Goh Meng Seng, online group blog TR Emeritus and others have since said that they were aware of murmurings even before the news broke on Wanbao. At some point, Wanbao might have indicated to MHA that it was going to run the story anyway, perhaps because they had other ways of corroborating their facts, whether or not ministry officials deigned to respond.

The ministry meanwhile was perhaps still paralysed, with part of it still unable to believe that a newspaper would dare flout the sacred SOP. Junior officers would have prepared a contingency plan to release the news; the problem was that senior officers wouldn’t give the plan the go ahead.

Now that the news has broken, outside their control, the ministry is probably trying to say that they had anyway planned to release the news. Of course, they had, except that they were trying to delay it for as long as possible. So, such a statement is both true, and yet from a wider perspective, hopelessly impossible to take at face value.

* * * * *

Lately, many reporters have come to me asking for my opinion of the “new normal”. Few of them got from me the answer they might have wanted to hear. I am quite sceptical about this term; I think too many people are being carried away.

While indeed society is changing and there is a gradual re-politicisation — though I hasten to add that it is very gradual and we are still very far from “normal” if one is use the term to mean something approaching the levels of political awareness and popular empowerment in truer democracies — I cannot convince myself that the government is “new” in any significant way.

In any earlier article, Some policies change as PAP government paddles furiously, I proposed a three-tier analysis. I argued that at the technocratic level, the government is trying to be more effective and responsive in meeting housing, transport and similar bread-and-butter concerns. However at the paradigmatic level, they are still complacent. They still believe that the old ideology of craving foreign investment, throwing pieces of gold at top talent, keeping less-than-top talent as cheap as possible, going for broke over GDP growth, going as fast as they can on immigration, remain the best ideas there are. If there is voter resistance, it is the voter who is wrong, not the PAP, though small concessions and dollops of public relations may be used to bridge the gap.

The third tier (which I called Group C in the earlier article) comprises the issues the party considers of existential importance. On these, they will resist as hard as they can. They are acutely aware that they risk losing power altogether if they let go of these old habits. Control of media, and the associated control of the national agenda are among them.

Balji was surprised that this incident shows “lessons not learnt” from the recent general election and the change in the media landscape, now nearly two decades long. He wrote:

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.

I am not surprised. The PAP knows very well how the environment is changing. They just can’t bring themselves to contemplate changing their own ways. The risk that their hold on power would all unravel glues their feet to the tried and tested.

Let’s not imagine that the PAP government is going to bend flexibly with the times. The recent Chapter 11 filing of Kodak should be instructive. It is more than possible for an incumbent to remain in denial of changing circumstances even as it can see it all happening, and resist adapting. Fujifilm changed itself to ride the digital photography wave; Kodak was just paralysed till too late. Ditto, it is more than possible that what change PAP embarks on will be too little, too late. They may calcify instead.

When that happens, change comes through fracturing. Bits at the margins crack and crumble away. Junior to middle civil servants may turn heretical and walk away (or join the opposition). Old props, like once-reliable newspaper editors, may suddenly turn defiant. The great irony of trying hard to maintain control well past its use-by date, is that the end comes in a totally uncontrolled way.

11 Responses to “Calcifying and crumbling”


  1. 1 Anonymous 28 January 2012 at 14:46

    Hey Alex, you forgot to put the subject “PAP” in the article title. Please be bold enough.

  2. 2 Visakan V 28 January 2012 at 15:39

    I agree with your calcify-and-crumble hypothesis; though I do think it’s worth considering what would happen afterwards. No large organization is a single, homogenous monolith.

    If the PAP does crumble, I imagine that a phoenix will rise from the ashes- it will shed it’s dead weight and start anew, perhaps with a new name.

    That said, it’s worth emphasizing that if that does happen, the new PAP, or whatever it is called, would be unrecognizable from the PAP of the past. Either way, the PAP as we knew it is going to be an obsolete relic.

  3. 3 harishpillay 28 January 2012 at 18:27

    FWIW, I heard a lament by a SPH journalist that TR Emeritus scooped them when more details were released (http://www.tremeritus.com/2012/01/24/breaking-news-scdf-chief-under-cpib-investigation/).

    • 4 yuen 28 January 2012 at 23:32

      what about the Yaw-Oon story? was it TRemeritus scooping mainstream press including Wanbao, or was this part of a carefully arranged, step by step release of information by somebody behind the scene? with appearance in TR on 20 Jan, Newpaper on 25 Jan; Zaobao on 26 Jan, and ST on 28 Jan together with story of the SPP split same day in Zaobao.

      I believe the government would have preferred to keep the CPIB investigation confidential to the end if that had been possible; however, by mid January the evidence made it clear that the two guy had to be “interdicted” and it was necessary to announce their replacements; hence the planned announcement on 25 January, with Wanbao jumping the gun publishing a somewhat mangled version on 24th

  4. 5 Yb 28 January 2012 at 19:32

    I would also say that the entire civil service bureaucracy is also very resistant to change. It would be quite spot on to say that civil servants who are progressive and reform minded will be disillusioned if the bureaucracy refuses to change.

  5. 6 Chanel 29 January 2012 at 00:21

    It is foolish of people to believe that any of the SPH newspapers would dare to publish such an mportant piece of news without first getting the approval of PAP. This is likely staged between the editor of wanbao and MHA. This could be a strategy to divert attention from the real issue — not letting people know that MHA withheld news of the arrest until the ministerial debate was over

    • 7 MadisonC 30 January 2012 at 00:44

      I completely disagree. If MHA had wanted to break the story first, they would have gone with a more mainstream media outlet like the Straits Times or with Mediacorp TV station and not with WanBao. The “choice” seems awkward and reeks of a scoop on the part of the Chinese tabloid evening paper.

  6. 8 Rabbit 29 January 2012 at 03:31

    Apparently, the timing of the two officers being caught fall within the period the SMRT million-dollar CEO screwed up our train services and caused major unhappiness across Singapore.

    If MHA were to release news of two highly paid elite’s corruption cases within the police force while SMRT was struggling to keep up its image, than both debacles will make a laughing stock for PAP to argue that high pay produce good people. Keeping mum by MHA also allow Gerald Ee’s committee to breeze through its report on elitist salary benchmarking.

    As such, the throwing out of news could be systematically planned by MHA to avoid the two unflattering incidents (SMRT/SCDF) coincided with each other and thus giving PAP more leeway and less embarrassment to debate about “sacrifice and pay for talent” in parliament. I am not at all surprised that MHA’s choiced annoucement date has to be the later the better until someone whistle blow.

  7. 9 Old Singaporean 31 January 2012 at 09:43

    There is one reason why it is practically impossible for the PAP to change – it is that there are fundamental flaws in the basis of their thinking from which their policies arise. These flaws are like the leopard spots – they are embedded in their DNA.

  8. 10 The Pariah 31 January 2012 at 12:42

    Alex’s concluding sentence: “The great irony of trying hard to maintain control well past its use-by date, is that the end comes in a totally uncontrolled way.”

    Hmmmmm …. I’d cast the last few words as “the new beginning comes in a totally natural way.”

  9. 11 Jonno 31 January 2012 at 17:07

    “However at the paradigmatic level, they are still complacent. They still believe that the old ideology of craving foreign investment, throwing pieces of gold at top talent, keeping less-than-top talent as cheap as possible, going for broke over GDP growth, going as fast as they can on immigration, remain the best ideas there are.”

    “..at the paradigmatic level – ..still complacent” – I’d completely agree. There was a time when economic gurus coined the term “Four Asian Tigers” alluding to the highly developed economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

    Over time, South Korea and Taiwan have gone on to developed manufacturing competence in consumer electronics and in automobiles (for South Korea). The exponential growth in consumer electronics due to the internet and mobile technology have made Taiwan and South Korea critical suppliers to global brands. Singapore? Since home-grown Creative Technology’s PC sound card fell into obsolescence and subsequently lost the MP3 war against the Apple iPod – we have nothing there since!

    On the other hand, Hong Kong had folded into China sovereignty in 1997 but continue to be governed under positive non-interventionism policy which meant minimal government intervention.

    Hong Kong’s greatest competitive advantage remains as the leading financial center in Asia. The most impressive factor is that it benefits from cross-investments between China and HK. The HK stock exchange remains miles ahead of SGX in terms of trading value and volume.

    Overseas investment are made by home grown HK entrepreneurs like Li Ka-Shing, Lee Shau-Kee (Henderson Land) and the Kwok family (Sun Hang Kai) unlike Singapore which relies on sovereign wealth funds like Temasek and GIC. The critical difference between HK and Singapore is that whereas HK investments in China were without much controversy, S’pore’s had been plagued by it eg. Suzhou SIP investment. Since then, Merrill Lynch, UBS, Shin Corporation, etc. are just some of the other controversial investments made by Singapore sovereign funds since.

    “… going for broke over GDP growth.” The Integrated resorts/casino projects in Marina Bay & Sentosa help to mask over weak GDP numbers pre-GFC years. Subsequently post-GFC period, those casinos came on-stream in 2010 in time to boost GDP numbers to mask the still sluggish economy as a GFC recovery. Methinks that if not for the integrated resorts-casinos projects, S’pore GDP would be like Sxxt.

    “..remain the best ideas there are.” The biggest worry for Singaporeans is, what’s next? What the next rabbit out of the magician’s hat?


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