“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.
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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.