Thursday, March 6, 2008

Committee of Inquiry: Institutional Deficiencies vs Personal Liability


It has now been four days since Minister Wong announced the setting up of a three-member Committee of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the escape of Mas Selamat from the Whitley Road Detention Centre. Bloggers, such as Mr Brown, Mr Wang, Mr Giam and Mr Sai Kor, have weighed in on the composition of the committee and provided diverging but equally reasonable assessments. Perhaps the reason for these mixed feelings regarding the appropriateness of the committee selection is a lack of clarity over the mission and powers entrusted to it.

In the 2nd March ST report, Minister Wong affirmed that the mission of the probe was to prepare “an objective, balanced and comprehensive report on what took place and what we must do. He further added that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was separately conducting an “internal inquiry to determine if there is any criminal wrongdoings”.

Without further elaboration, these two statements collectively seem to imply that the COI’s objective is limited to an assessment of the adequateness of operating procedures and physical security (institutional deficiencies), while the CID’s role is to charge, or absolve, individuals directly involved at the detention centre of negligence or criminal abetment (personal liability) – these, and my following arguments, are of course assumptions based on limited information.

What Took Place?

The investigation into “what took place” would thus imply that the COI has been empowered to take testimony of involved personnel and stakeholders, in order to establish if all current standard operating procedures were adhered to (e.g. handling of detainee transfers from cell to visitation areas, placement of sentries when detainees are outside their cells…etc.). Assuming that everything is deemed aboveboard, the line of questioning would then shift to determining how the detainee managed to elude emplaced security personnel, controls and barriers.

What We Must Do?

That is where the “what we must do” aspect comes in. The COI would be expected to furbish a list of improvements to current procedures and security structures to ensure such a security lapse (procedural or structural) cannot be repeated. Therefore I seriously doubt that they will be allowed to name names and assign blame. That aspect, together with the corresponding punitive actions, will likely be handled internally and quietly; assuming of course that there was no criminal wrongdoing. As such, I anticipate that the COI report and its findings will be highly general in nature and would not satisfy those that clamor for blood.

Does the Selection Make Sense?

If the primary role of the COI is limited to unearthing institutional deficiencies, then the appointments make sense on paper as all three have complimentary experiences in the administration of justice (former Supreme Court judge), enforcement (former Commissioner of Police) and policy (seasoned civil servant). All three are however to varying capacities still involved in public service; a presidential advisor, diplomatic ambassador and current MHA deputy Secretary. But to be fair, they were not packaged as an ‘independent’ commission of inquiry in the first place.

Conflict of Interest?

Nonetheless, if institutional knowledge is valued by the authorities over absolute agent autonomy, can we still realistically expect an ‘independent’ investigation?

Perhaps such a seemingly paradoxical premise is plausible. Take for example the internal affairs division in the U.S. Although they come under the Police department, they are tasked to investigate breaches of professional conduct by officers in the force. However, that falls into the realm of personal liability and not institutional deficiencies. Because of this, I share Mr Wang’s discomfort over the appointment of Dr Choong as such deficiencies may have indirectly resulted from poor planning and resource allocation by the upper echelons of the MHA (her current colleagues and bosses?). As such, Dr Choong may operate ‘independently’ (as her day-to-day job probably has more to do with keeping security threats out rather than in) but can she operate ‘objectively’?

Alas, as the days count down to the release of the report, the debate over who should or should not be included becomes more and more academic; leaving us with the resulting report as the only marker of how “objective, balanced and comprehensive” the COI was. Perhaps only then, the independence (or lack thereof) of the investigation will be perceptible to all.

Update: Taken from the Today paper 6 March

"..... The Minister has also established a Committee of Inquiry under the Prisons Act, to discover specifically how the escape occurred and to recommend appropriate actions to prevent such an incident from occurring again...

.... However, the complete facts and circumstances addressing fully the question of how Mas Selamat escaped is now the subject of a criminal investigation and more so, an inquiry by a Committee of Inquiry. We should await their findings.""


Some sections found in the Prisons Act (chapter 247 of the Singapore Constitution)

Committee of inquiry

8. (1) Where it is expedient that the Minister, or such other person as the Minister may appoint to exercise the powers conferred upon the Minister by this Part, should be informed on any matter connected with the discipline, administration or functions of any prison or affecting any prisoner, the Minister or the person appointed by the Minister may convene a committee of inquiry.

Admissibility of evidence

15. No statement made in the course of any inquiry and no report of a committee of inquiry shall be admissible as evidence in any proceedings other than proceedings, whether criminal or disciplinary, for an offence of giving or fabricating false evidence under any written law.

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