Monday, April 21, 2008

COI Report: A Litany of Blunders, A Culture in Need of Change

The ISD has over the years accumulated a reputation for no-nonsense conduct with regards to ensuring the security and sovereignty of Singapore. In our imaginations, their work is steeped with intrigue, skullduggery and secrecy. As such, the ISD unavoidably becomes associated with conspiracy theories ranging from privacy infringements to political manipulations.

Regardless of the outlook one may hold, we have to remember that ultimately, the ISD is a government agency; one that is in need of a culture change.

Reading through the litany of blunders presented by Minister Wong this afternoon, I was hit in the proverbial nose above all by the strong scent of bureaucracy. Two case facts will ellaborate on this.

One, the toilet used by detainees during family visitation had an un-grilled window; a flaw that was blamed on a miscommunication with contractors. The remedy prescribed by the centre's superintendent - to saw off the handle of the window instead of erecting grilles - was indeed a bad judgment call. While miscommunications and bad decision making are part and parcel of human existence, it is far more disturbing that no one (I am assuming) had the courage to speak up and warn the superintendent that it was simply a bad idea.

And two, a sense that something was amiss (Mas Selamat taking too long in the cubicle) was only followed up upon after that peice of information had travelled through four individuals (two gurkha guards, a female junior officer and an assistant case officer). Surely a knock on the cubicle door by the guard standing directly behind it would have sufficed.

In my view, these security control lapses were the result of basic inaction brought about by disempowerment and crippling job scope compartmentalization. Factors I am sure you would agree are synonymous with civil service culture.

We encounter similar situations in mundane everyday dealings with Government bodies. Approval is needed by one department before another can give the green light. Status of applications cannot be checked as assigned officers are on vacation leave. Actions can not be taken without supervisor approval. Everything is strictly by the book and when the book is not available, the world stops rotating.

Was the escape the result of a confluence of personal errors in judgments and infrastructural inadequacies? The simple answer is yes, but life is never simple. A perfect storm of errors may have culminated in Mas Selamat's escape, but the clouds of bureaucracy continue to overcast our skies.

Disciplinary actions on individuals held accountable for these lapses are an expected byproduct. However, there are limits and Minister Wong should be mindful not to merely treat symptoms and not the disease. A willingness to sack people when things go wrong is in itself a culture that will breed further self-preservatory behaviour; popular euphemisms that come to mind are "better cover backside" and "just do your job".

The litany of blunders are laid bare for all to see. While many quiet successes of ISD, past and future, will likely go unnoticed, in the cynical world we inhabit, failures are more readily remembered.

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