Iswaran case shouldn't cause ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to immediately tighten rules for public servants: Chan Chun Sing

He said that the code of conduct for public servants are reviewed annually.

Julia Yee | February 05, 2024, 05:43 PM



"When an incident happens, we should not have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately tighten or add more rules," said Chan Chun Sing, Minister-in-charge of Public Service, during a parliamentary sitting on Feb. 5, 2024,

He was responding to several questions filed by Members of Parliament (MPs) if there was a need to amend the rules and code of conduct governing public office holders and public servants.

The questions were regarding former transport minister S Iswaran's corruption case.

In his speech, Chan laid out the government's approach to upholding the integrity of the system of governance, which is essential to maintaining public confidence and trust.

Understanding the "spirit" of the rule

Chan stated that the rules are meant to facilitate the work of public servants and keep them from being compromised.

They should not be "so onerous that the officers cannot operate", nor should they be "so lax as to erode discipline and trust in our system".

Rather than having a "knee-jerk reaction" to call for immediate tightening of rules, he urges people to consider three scenarios.

Firstly, if the rules were clear but flouted or ignored, then the next course of action should not be to adjust the rules but to take action against the offender.

Second, if it is a case of the rules being unclear, then the rules should be clarified or simplified.

"But we should be mindful that not every grey area can be clarified," Chan said, adding that judgment would be needed for some matters.

"Our offices should not just understand the letter of the rule, but also the spirit."

Chan said the third scenario is if the rules are too lax or if a new situation arises that wasn't envisaged by the rules.

In this case, the rules should be updated.

"To know which of these apply to the case of former minister Iswaran. We need to know the facts of the case. And we should not prejudge these facts before the court trial."

"We should let the law take its course and not jump to conclusions nor make statements that may prejudice the case or prematurely judge the processes that may have gone right or wrong."

"No system is perfect"

Chan went on to state that maintaining the integrity of our system is a "multi-prong and continuous effort".

He explained that it required efforts on three levels: Individual, team, and system.

At the individual level, officers must have the right ethos and values to "understand both the spirit and letter of the rules and uphold them".

At the team or organisation level, officers must look out for one another to minimise the chances of "being compromised, subverted or succumbing to human frailties".

Finally, at the system level, the offices must have regular internal and external audits, along with institutions like the Auditor-General's Office (AGO) and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), to respond to issues not picked up by the other layers of checks.

While the government aims to "do [their] best and keep improving at the system level, " Chan continued, "no system is ever perfect. "

"Hence, when incidents happen, we respond decisively and transparently to restore trust and confidence in our system. This is what we have done. And this is what we will continue to do."

S$50 rule doesn't mean public servants can keep receiving gifts at S$49

Addressing MPs Edward Chia and Derrick Goh's queries about the rules on gifts, Chan stated that such rules were clear.

"Offices must never ask for gifts or favours, especially when they are in a position to influence or affect any decision involving the other party," Chan voiced.

He elaborated that an officer must not accept any gifts offered to him on account of his official position or his official work:

"Our first instinct must be to decline any unsolicited gifts and return them if possible. If it is not possible or impractical to do so. We declare and account for it according to established processes."

Should an officer wish to keep the gift, he may be allowed to do so if he pays for it after having its value assessed.

An officer may be able to keep a gift below that costs less than S$ 50 for "operational simplicity" if doing so does not affect the integrity of the civil service.

"But should an officer repeatedly accept multiple gifts of S$49? I think we know the answer from the spirit of the rule," Chan said, adding that if such a pattern of behaviour is observed, it "must stop".

Similar principles apply to the acceptance of meals, he said.

"Officers must have good sense to know when they are being cultivated and reject such attempts. When in doubt, offices should inform their supervisors."

However, this does not mean that the officers should refrain from interacting with non-government stakeholders, an important practice for better "understanding the world and governing. "

As a practical measure, Chan always advises officers not to attend such events alone, as the risk of being compromised is harder to manage.

Code reviewed annually to remain relevant

Chan said that the code of conduct for public officers, in place since 1954, is reviewed annually to ensure that it "remains relevant" to current contexts.

He said feedback will be gathered from stakeholders such as unions to aid these reviews, and any changes to the code will be communicated to the officers.

Chan pointed out that the last major changes to the code were made in 2005, and they included clarifications on the rules of acceptance of gifts, declarations of investments, and directorships, among other things.

The public service has an established internal disclosure policy, under which officers can directly report to their heads of agencies any wrongful or doubtful practices they observe, Chan added.

He said that there are also non-confidentiality and non-retaliation provisions in place to protect whistleblowers.

"We need to earn the respect and trust of the public"

MP Edward Chia raised a concern that declining invitations to dinners or events may be perceived as "disrespectful" in certain countries.

As such, he wanted to know what protocols or trainings were provided to public officers who advance trade relations and attract foreign direct investments and how often the materials were updated.

Chan's response came in two parts.

1) Training of public officers

Chan reiterated that the public service not only focuses on the rules, but also the "principles behind the rules. "

He explained that such key principles are articulated in the instruction manuals, with illustrative examples to help officers understand the rules.

Pointing once again to grasping the "spirit" of the rule, Chan elaborated that the code is reinforced through "various channels".

This includes the onboarding of new entrants, annual declarations to remind officers of the rules, annual mandatory quizzes, and the incorporation into milestone programs such as the foundation program for young leaders.

2) Difference between government and private sector

Chan stated that our public service is in the "business of governance", providing public services to a nation of people from diverse backgrounds with different expectations and aspirations.

He noted that this is very different from the private sector, which is more concerned with transactions between private parties.

"We need to earn the respect and trust of the public and to put in place a fair system that is not just about who you know, and whether you can pay to access public services in a fair and transparent manner."

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Top images via MCI and Mothership