Friday, June 27, 2008

All the Minister's Men

The Ministry of Home Affairs has made the news for the wrong reasons again. Following a slip-up by an ICA officer at Changi Airport, a 61-year-old Singaporean traveled to Vietnam on his son’s passport.

In bowling parlance, this incident can perhaps be considered the “turkey” strike; the 1st two strikes being Mas Salamat’s escape in Feb and then the Subcourts escape earlier this month.

Wong Kan Seng said that he is “totally appalled and flabbergasted”, noting that his reminder of the need for vigilance is obviously not sinking in deep enough. He added that Home Team heads of departments would directly take charge and step up checks to ensure vigilance on the ground at all levels and “leave no room for complacency.”

3 incidents in less than 6 months suggests that we have a serious problem. Complacency may be the issue; notwithstanding MSK’s escape (which should have heightened alert levels at all checkpoints), this incident has occurred.

Aside from complacency, the issue of accountability is (once again) awash across the blogosphere, with calls on Wong to do the symbolic hara-kiri and resign. Others – fewer, admittedly, but apparently including the PM – seem to be of the view that the Minister is quite indispensable, and that his resignation would be a loss to the country/government.

My view is that no one is indispensable. Or at least no one should be indispensable. Perhaps DPM Wong has become quite adept as his role, having been the Home Affairs minister since 1994. But on the other hand, one could argue that new blood is needed. Personally, I would not be averse to his resignation.

But it would simply be a political solution to a problem which is really not political.

A full investigation must be held to identify the cause of the slip-up. Was the ICA officer briefed properly? Had he/she been working long hours beyond the usual/extended shifts? Or was he/she simply bo-chap i.e. complacent? Are there any back-up checks? I notice that passports/boarding passes are scrutinized at least 4 times (while checking in, entering the immigration zone, and the immigration checkpoint, and at the boarding gate); does that mean that at least 3 other people also slipped-up? Are there any other systemic issues?

An objective investigation is needed to answer these questions. If it is human error, those involved must be held accountable (including the Minister, if it comes to that). If there are procedural or systemic problems, they must be fixed. Otherwise, these security lapses will continue.

On a wider basis, all Home Team agencies (or even all government departments?) should likewise carry out a review of their existing processes, using independent audits/inspections where applicable. Just as companies use consultants, and retail stores use “mystery shoppers”, government departments should also proactively seek to improve, instead of waiting for problems to surface before they react.

So by all means, the Minister can (be asked to) resign. But that will not solve the problem.

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