Fault lines begin to show


Down South by SEAH CHIANG NEE

MINISTER of National Development Mah Bow Tan once declared: “Only 10 of 100 upgrading HDB (public housing) projects have been affected by contractors going bust.” 

To Singaporeans who were used to expect efficiency, 10% bankruptcy seemed like an awful lot and the minister’s use of the word “only” was to talk down the problem. 

The issue turned into a full-blown public controversy after two major disasters early this month that are partially blamed on policy. 

The Nicoll Highway collapse, which killed four, and the crash of a huge support structure that killed two and injured 29, shocked Singaporeans and brought the debate into the open. 

The tender system, for cost-saving intentions, often awards projects to the lowest bidders, critics say. In bad times, this puts pressure on contractors to cut corners, causes bankruptcy and lowers safety standards. 

Ministers defended the system in Parliament this week, saying that selection was not automatically based on the lowest prices but took into consideration quality work and past records. 

There had been a spate of other negative headlines involving HDB works like delays, leaky ceilings, crashing windows and cracks, a contrast to the widespread acclaim HDB once enjoyed. 

They have caused misery to thousands of suffering residents. In June last year, a bus shelter collapsed and injured three workers. 

Construction is not the only cause of discontent. 

During the past couple of years as the economy soured and hardship rose, there were other mistakes that were blamed – fairly and unfairly – on the government.  

They included: 

z Military. Overzealous army training caused the death of three servicemen last year. Earlier, an anti-submarine vessel collided with a Dutch merchant ship, killing four servicewomen. Two officers were convicted of negligence. 

z Land charge. The Public Utilities Board undercharged a golf club for letting it extend its land lease for another 12 years. It relied on an external valuation that had mistakenly included a 50% one-off discount granted in 1992. 

z Schools. One secondary school wrongly deducted S$20 from students’ Edusave accounts without parental approval to fund its concert. 

z Business. Two young entrepreneurs asked the Urban Renewal Authority for permission to operate a meals-on-wheels business. It took the concept, but opened it for a public ballot that excluded the duo. 

z Procrastination. The Manpower Ministry sat on a request for information (involving a case of S$375,324 in foreign worker levy debt) by the Attorney-General’s Chambers for more than 14 years, despite nine reminders. 

Some of these mistakes are the result of a changed, more open society and a new generation of Singaporeans, both the governed and the governing. 

People are more ready to talk of government mistakes. That includes the government and its Members of Parliament.  

Besides, the Internet makes it more difficult for anyone in authority to hide his wrongdoings. 

Secondly, under the “iron” hand of Lee Kuan Yew when he was Prime Minister, civil servants were terrified about making mistakes. They worked harder not to make it or cover it up. 

“If he spotted a piece of litter on the road on his way to the office, Lee would ring up the top man concerned and give him a lecture,” a veteran journalist recalled. 

“The terrified fellow would drive to the spot to pick it up to make sure Lee wouldn’t see it on his way home.” 

Today’s political leaders can’t use fear to ensure things work smoothly. The young generation just won’t stand for it. 

As people became educated, excessive discipline is frowned upon; remember the liberal argument: “Making the trains run on time smacks of fascism.” 

Besides, Singapore is in transition, living in a fast-changing, complex world and coping with uncertainty is a great deal tougher compared to the past. 

Some of the fault-lines were revealed by the recent downturn and new global – and regional – business trends that had showed up its past mistakes. 

In fact, the government has admitted to being too slow in reacting to some of the changes. 

Saying the entire system needed speeding up, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted: “We are not like we were in the 60s and 70s – lean and hungry. You make a decision and you move. 

“It is a very big problem and we have to learn to be fast. It’s not just the ministers and the Economic Development Board; the whole system has to be like that.” 

Part of it was the failure to predict the downturn itself. While dark clouds were gathering, the government was in fact planning to go on a spending spree. Some of the luxurious offices that were to be built were later cancelled and replaced by a Cut Waste campaign. 

Former Parliament Speaker Tan Soo Khoon hit out at what he called “Seven Wonders of Singapore” (gleaming grand new government buildings). They included the Ministry of Education, the new Supreme Court and Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose building sits on a choice District 10 site. 

He likened some of the projects to five-star hotels and wondered aloud whether the ministries and statutory boards housed within were competing to see “which can be better than the Four Seasons Hotel”. 

The campaign would not have been necessary if civil servants had been mindful of how they spend public money. 

“(People) complain because they realise that if you spend so much money, then we will be taxed more. That’s why people are unhappy,” Tan added. 

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew named another miscalculation. It was a mistake to let land prices rise so sharply and quickly because of the impact on business costs. 

But it could not reverse it too quickly because it would be a blow to 90% of Singaporeans who own homes, he said. It would require years of gradual effort. 

In some ways, the government is a prisoner of its past. Singaporeans are assessing its work by looking into a rear mirror of achievements. 

In some areas, the government has done exceptionally well even by their tough criterion, like the combat against SARS and terrorism – and in education. 

For most, everyday services remain generally as efficient and corrupt-free, the only difference being a slight fading of its accumulated premium. 

  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com 

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