The ‘R’ word is a bad word in the Singapore government’s dictionary. The government’s stand on top officers’ resignations was articulated by the PM as the clamour for the heads of the Home Affairs Minister and director of ISD hit a high note in the aftermath of the escape of jailed terrorist Mas Selamat. “We should not encourage a culture where officials and Ministers resign whenever something goes wrong on their watch, regardless of whether or not they are to blame,” he said during a parliamentary debate on the affair nine years ago.
But that policy has not stood the test of time. Soon after the 2011 elections, when public anger poured into the ballot boxes because of the government’s over-liberal policy on immigration, five high-level ministers, including Lee Kuan Yew, quit. Some would say a few of them had to go because of missteps that took place under their watch. Then, just before the 2015 elections, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew quit over the mess caused by the massive train delays. Even the PM couldn’t convince him to change his mind. These two events show that when push comes to shove, and when the ruling party’s electoral fortunes are on the line, even ideology will take a back seat.
A repeat of public angst is being played out as SMRT commits one horrendous mistake after another horrendous mistake. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek are the new targets and their positions seem to be safe, for now at least. And that is because the government is likely to be able to fix things in about a year – and the next election is still some time away.
But why this aversion to resignations? The PAP government has had a hard time convincing Singaporeans to join its ranks. Look at how badly the political succession has gone. With the PM saying that he will step aside soon, a clear successor has yet to be found. In the past, we all knew who our second and third PMS would be long before they took up their positions. Today, as the succession date gets closer and closer, we have yet to know who PM No 4 will be. Asking for the resignations of ministers or a GLC’s head honcho will only make getting newbies into government that much harder. Then, there is the belief that resignations resulting from public pressure will only embolden the public to push for more.
The bigger question: When should a politician or CEO resign? When there are clear signs of criminal behaviour, when moral standards are compromised and when a policy he or she initiates results in an utter failure or in harmful consequences. These seem to be the PAP government’s benchmarks. But these alone are not enough when transparency and trust are becoming the watchwords of a questioning citizenry.
When I became the editor of The New Paper, I asked my editor in chief what are his expectations of me. A man known for making his points crisply, he said: “Balji, we are paying you for one main thing. If the company falls into a crisis, your job is to get it out of that crisis quickly.” That was said 27 years ago and it must hold true, especially in today’s times. Using that yardstick, both Desmond Kuek, who became the SMRT boss five years ago and Khaw Boon Wan, who became Transport Minister two years ago, has only one thing left to do: Resign.