Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Will Reason ever Prevail?

The Commission of Inquiry was set up for at least two reasons. One is to get to the bottom of the escape and two, to show that the government is fairly sincere about getting to the bottom of the escape. The government could have achieved the first action without the show and tell, but the show and tell was necessary because of the severity of the situation. A circus it might be for the ever lurking cynics and critics, but as the show has not started yet, the reasonable among us would think it impatiently ungracious to call for blood yet.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) is not unprecedented. In April 2004, a Committee of Inquiry was set up with regards to the Nicoll Highway collapse which tragically claimed 4 lives. In September that year, the Committee issued its first interim report. The Committee was made up of 3 people - SDJ Richard R Magnus, A/Prof Teh Cee Ing (Head, Div of Geotechncial & Transportation Engineering. Sch of Civil & Env Engineering NTU) and Mr Lau Joo Ming (Director, Building Technology Dept, HDB). Looking at the current Commission which is made up of retired High Court judge Goh Joon Seng, now a member of the Council of Presidential Advisors, former Commissioner of Police Tee Tua Ba, who is now Singapore's Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and Dr Choong May Ling, Deputy Secretary (Security and Corporate Services) of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the government has stuck to its 3 Wise Men framework of a member of the judiciary, an expert and a government representative so that there is balance and direction in the form of questioning presumably.

Rage clouds Reason

Mr Wang made a valid observation that in the current COI, the MHA representative only serves to cast doubt on the independence of the independent commission and that a non-MHA face would basically sell koyok better. He might be right, but to be honest, any government official regardless of ministry sitting on that commission would be argued as a government plant. In fact, the other two can also be deemed as government plants if we extend the cover-up theory that far and damn the commission even before they start.

Which brings me to the important argument stressed by bloggers over the recent hysteria on whether The Online Citizen, or at least one of its members, is a PAP plant. In defence of the TOC, the convincing argument laid out was that emphasis on credibility and objectivity should be placed on the content of the message and not who wrote it. Hence, the eventual report of the COI would be the measure of its credibility. With this in mind, that effectively gives the COI breathing space and subtle pressure that the public expectations of balance in their findings without fear or favour must be met.

Cynics lambasted that the COI need not take one month to release an explanation for the escape as it is an open and shut case. They are right if they want a witch hunt. However, as the weight of the findings is like a White Paper, the COI probably needs to scrutinise the escape - who is to blamed how much, recommended improvements in the system etc and it is a thesis in its intended detailed approach. One month for a thesis is reasonable depending on its scope, assuming that it turns out to be a thesis which we expect and not a last minute term essay handed in for the sake of handing in.

So that brings us to the contentious issue of responsibility and blame in the escape. We each have our own solid prejudices and preconceptions on the sharing of blame and penalties. Nevertheless, let the bureaucrats put forth their arguments and attempt at transparency and accountability before any mob lynching is meted out.

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