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Heng Swee Keat rebuts Zaobao editorial, rejects suggestion that political leadership allowed whole system to “go slack”

Heng has some forceful words for leaders and others who are slack, negligent, or incompetent.

Martino Tan | February 9, 08:41 am

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Heng Swee Keat, Finance Minister and Singapore’s potential fourth prime minister, has addressed concerns highlighted by a Lianhe Zaobao editorial published on Feb. 1.

In his commentary published in Lianhe Zaobao and The Straits Times on Feb. 9, Heng said the Zaobao editorial raised serious questions on the complacency of the whole Singapore system, which he and his colleagues feel the important need to address and reply.

Heng said that the government will not shirk from tacking problems and dismissed the suggestion emphatically that the political leadership and the government have gone below the high standards:

“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.”

What happened

Slightly more than a week ago, the Zaobao editorial called for corrective measures to restore the public’s confidence following several lapses by public service providers and government agencies.

Zaobao: Recent major lapses involving public services may be result of a “muddling along” culture taking root

It listed a litany of recent high profile lapses, ranging from SAF training deaths to Ministry of Health’s Registry HIV data being leaked, misplaced postal mail by SingPost to management of SMRT, unfortunate lapses that were not unfamiliar with the public.

Summing up all the problems, Zaobao said that these lapses were not accidental, but more possibly to do with the deterioration of Singaporeans’ work ethic and a culture of “muddling along” taking root.

Zaobao added that the problem may also be due to how rewards and punishments are meted out.

It noted that the punishment of the rank and file, with senior management taking little to no responsibility, would reinforce negative attitudes and lead to a collective mentality of not taking their work seriously.

However, the editorial called for all Singaporeans to not be complacent and prideful, saying that it is up to the next generations of Singaporeans to keep the Singapore success story going and maintain its “golden” reputation.

Heng: “Leaders have to take command responsibility”

In his commentary, Heng explained that there are larger and more complex systems to manage now.

This means that Singaporeans have to anticipate and manage the new risks.

His 1,035-word commentary cited two ways to address these challenges, namely ensuring accountability and setting the culture from the top to bottom.

On ensuring accountability, Heng said that when failures occur, the government investigate thoroughly.

For instance, he said that the Prime Minister holds ministers accountable for running their ministries properly, and correcting any shortcomings uncovered.

Heng emphasised:

“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”.

However, Heng said that one should not routinely dismiss officials whenever things go wrong, regardless of the facts or circumstances.

On culture, Heng said that while culture is set from the top, every individual is responsible through his or her actions in the organisation.

Heng urged Singaporeans to learn from the Japanese and the Swiss as a society, as they have a strong sense of personal responsibility and a meticulous attention to detail.

He concluded that Singaporeans are “finished” if we ever become “complacent and slack”, and that the political leadership is committed to always striving to do better for Singaporeans and Singapore.

Top photo from Lianhe Zaobao Facebook and Heng Swee Keat Facebook.

About Martino Tan

Martino’s parents named him after an Italian priest, Vatican's 1st ambassador to S’pore. He's inspired by the lives of Robert Kennedy & Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the words of George Orwell & William F. Buckley Jr., & the music of the Beatles.

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