Thursday, January 26, 2012

The SCDF and CNB done in by a local Matahari?

Slowly the story begins to unfold, and the public awaits the sordid details about the dramatic falls from grace of the SCDF and CNB Chiefs. Much has been made of the fact that no money may have changed hands and that they had been done in by booze, makan and a local Matahari.

But I think we might be missing the point here.

Fact is two very big guns from the Ministry of Home Affairs had been so easily snared by the wiles of one woman. A pretty mysterious one at that. So much for our national security. I mean, these were no less than two major units with the Home Ministry! The Mas Selamat debacle pales by comparison.

Methinks our Minister of Home Affairs need to give us a bit more reassurance than to tell us the guilty will be punished.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

High salaries discourages corruption? A reality check.

Singaporeans woke up this morning to the alarming news that the Chiefs of both the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) have been relieved of their position pending investigations by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

This must have shaken the civil services to the core.

Without presuming guilt of these two guys, but if the suspicions are true that they have engaged in corrupt practices, it must surely raise serious concerns about the validity of the logic that corruption is prevented by paying high salaries. These guys have certainly not been paid peanuts.

To my reckoning, if we use money as the main lure into public service, surely that must attract only those for whom money and more money becomes the driving force for their ambitions. Corruption is fueled by greed, and there is never enough to assuage that thirst.

The most effective way to stem corruption is to have an independent, transparent and effective CPIB, and a vigilant public who is prepared to whistleblow. Our CPIB has done an excellent job so far, thankfully. But if we want our politicians to be free from corruption, then the CPIB must have the freedom to investigate all officials including the cabinet and even the Prime Minister. That the CPIB reports to the Prime Minister's Office does not give it a freehand in performing this critical function. Perhaps this line of reporting should be reviewed? Since we have an elected Presidency, should not the CPIB report to the President, rather than to the Prime Minister?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

LTA and regulatory capture? HSA are you listening?

A week ago in the Sunday Times Senior Correspondent  Christopher Tan write a nice article about the recent SMRT wayang and the LTA, raising the issue of a regulatory capture occurring between the transport regulator LTA and the transport industry.

The concept of regulatory capture is very much assocated with Economics Nobel Laureate George Stigler. It refers to the type of government failure when a public sector regulator has a cosy cosy relationship with the regulated service provider, to the extent that the regulator becomes a promoter of the regulated rather than a protector of the public needs.

Is the LTA a victim.... or are we, the public, victims of the regulatory capture between LTA and the transport industry.

This is actually not an isolated problem affecting the LTA, but can be seen to exist in many of Singapore's regulators.

The HSA (Health Sciences Authority) for example may be in such a predicament. Formed in the past from all the disparate MOH subunits in the Ministry of Health that the MOH wanted to decant from the Ministry, the functions of the various parts of the HSA range all the way from service provision, regulatory and promotional. Regulatory capture?...certainly many opportunities for this to develop in the HSA. Successive Board Chairmen and CEs have not made any attempt to deconflict all these functions, choosing instead to keep the easy and cosy relationships which made their work easier. However, unless this regulatory captures are dismantled, one has to question to what extent public needs are sacrificed to meed the needs of the industry.

By the way, George Stigler was also well known in medical circles for his attempt to optimize the daily recommended diet. Like all economic solutions, the result was totally unpalatable.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Experts disagree with NEA

I read with interest the recent disagreement between an expert panel of drainage experts and the National Environment Agency (NEA) with respect to the annual rainfall trends. No discernable trend, sez the NEA. But the expert panel disagreed. You can almost see Prof Lui Pao Chuen shaking his head in disbelief. According to the panel, the annual rainfall has actually been increasing at about 15mm per year between 1968 and 2008.

And it's my turn to shake my head in disbelief. How can something so fundamental be in dispute? I mean, I can understand differences in scientific perspectives and theories, but the interpretation of hard numbers?? There is either a trend or not. How can there be such a fundamental disagreement about whether the rainfall is going up or not?

Intuitively, and not having access to the detailed data, I am more inclined to believe the expert panel. Global warming has been melting the ice caps. There is just so much more water circulating in the environment. Sea levels are rising and projected to rise even more. Surely more rain is cycling through the atmosphere. The increasing spate of ponding, oops, sorry, flooding says a lot about how much more rain has been falling.

It kinda makes me question what's happening at the NEA. How are they, and have they been examining the data they have been collecting? Can we trust their projections for the future? And can we trust any assurances that they are adequately preparing for the future?

This is just one of the indications that we really need our agencies to provide more publicly available information. Hitherto, the public has been trained to accept sanitized proclamations from our public agencies that all is well with the world, and Singapore, and that we should trust only their interpretation of fragmented and cryptic data shown to the public.

This is not acceptable any more.

This episode speaks volumes about why we need data to be made available to the public so that they can be scrutinized independently. More eyes are always better. French philosopher Henri Bergson said, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” How true.

In this case, the NEA mind appears to have been conditioned to comprehend a rather fixed set of reality based on historical weather models; models which are not applicable in today's world anymore.

If it appears I am picking on the NEA, I am not. This problem exists in all our government agencies. They need to break free from historical models, and look at their data/stats with fresh sets of eyes. Today is a very different  world. Importantly, my plea to all the public agencies is that Singapore's interest is best served by placing much more institutional and government data in the public domain so that independent conclusions can be drawn about what is happening, so that more independent options for the future can be contemplated.