These revelations have raised some serious questions, not just over the conduct of the two men but also over the government’s handling of the affair so far.
There is little doubt that there is a strong public interest element in these cases. First, Mr Ng headed a frontline law enforcement agency where the need for probity is all the more critical, while Mr Pang led a force that is an important part of Singapore’s national security setup.
Second, if found guilty of criminal charges (assuming that the charges against the two men are indeed criminal), Messrs Pang and Ng would be the highest ranking civil servants to be indicted since a serving CEO of the then-Trade Development Board was convicted for cheating offences back in 1993. The case, which has already drawn international media attention, might put a serious dent in Singapore’s painstakingly-earned reputation for probity.
Third, the cases, coming as they do on the back of a succession of cheating cases involving less senior officials – two mid-level Singapore Land Authority (SLA) employees were jailed for defrauding government agencies of $12.5 million in 2011 and a MHA clerical officer was convicted earlier this month of cheating the ministry of $600,000 – could severely undermine public confidence about the effectiveness of safeguards against such crimes. Back in November 2011 government ministers had explained away the SLA case as an isolated case due to “human failure”: repeated lapses in quick succession might prompt questions about whether there are systemic problems within the civil service.
In this context, the government’s conduct raises serious questions, particularly over the timing of MHA’s statement. According to the latter, the investigations into Messrs Pang and Ng as well as their suspensions from duty began in late December 2011, so why were these facts only disclosed close to a month later given the strong public interest element in the matter?
The trouble is that the timing smells of politics. It would scarcely have escaped notice that the disclosure came shortly after a much-followed debate in Parliament over reforms to ministerial wages that concluded last week. The investigations into Messrs Pang and Ng – who by all accounts spent their careers as part of the bureaucratic elite – undermine one of the government’s longstanding arguments for paying outsized wages to politicians and top civil servants, in that high pay is supposed to deter corruption. A premature disclosure would most likely have deeply embarrassed the authorities ahead of the parliamentary debate and complicated its case for passing only a modest cut in ministerial wages.
Whatever the reason, the delay over the disclosure is unconscionable. The government should explain why it has been tardy. Ironically, the late disclosure will undoubtedly raise fresh questions about ministerial wages anyway – the new pay guidelines did not specify “maintaining Singapore’s reputation for probity” as one of the factors determining the bonuses for the Prime Minister, so theoretically the latter can still receive his full bonus this year provided GDP and other socio-economic targets are met.
If Messrs Pang and Ng are eventually found to have committed criminal offences, the government should convene a Commission of Inquiry to look into how, in a system that prides itself on a meritocratic approach to promoting talent and stern internal controls, the government ended up entrusting key agencies to officials that had less than the highest standards of integrity. To do any less could undermine public faith in the hard-won reputation of the government for probity.
There is also the matter of ministerial responsibility: given that the officials in question are top civil servants, this time it may be much more difficult for the government to use the excuse – which it used in 2008 when a terrorist suspect escaped from a MHA facility – that the ministers overseeing MHA cannot be held accountable for the rogue actions of low-ranking subordinates.
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