‘Makes no sense’: Shanmugam rebuts WP MP’s suggestion for independent ombudsman

MR SHANMUGAM: Mr Leon Perera, I think, reprised a part of the FICA debate. At that time I pointed out to him that in Singapore, we take investigations very seriously. And I explained how the system works and the Prime Minister can be the subject of independent investigations. He didn't respond then. But he's coming back to it today.

Now, what is our structure? If there is wrongdoing by anyone, whether by a minister or civil servant or private sector person, there will be investigations and very few people doubt that … This Government has added checks on itself, which are very rare elsewhere. We institutionalise it such that the CPIB can go straight to the Prime Minister, but where the Prime Minister himself is the possible subject of investigations, or if the Prime Minister doesn't want to do something, the CPIB can go to the President.

Mr Perera’s suggestion, if I understood him correctly, is that why not we set up a separate ombudsman with the resources to carry out all these investigations? He had a question about whether the CPIB was adequately resourced, trained … So my inference from that way of phrasing the question is therefore the agency, whichever agency it is, must replicate many parts of our law enforcement agencies, including our intelligence agencies, so that they can do this on a standalone basis.

However, if that is a suggestion … I would suggest it doesn't make much sense. Because, how do you replicate, (and) at what cost, an entire investigative mechanism outside the government?

Mr Perera referred to New Zealand, and I've often found that whenever we make these references, they sound sexy, but then when you actually look at what's happening, I find that the debates get very academic, without any grounding in reality, without perhaps either understanding or acknowledging what really happens in Singapore. What is our situation? How well have we managed to handle and keep corruption and official wrongdoing low? And how are other countries in this context?

I would ask members to perhaps do their research before they cite various countries and their institutions as models.

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Let me ask: You set up an ombudsman, with or without the full suite of resources and without any oversight from the Government, who then deals with misconduct by the ombudsman or the officers within that office?

Mr Perera said during the FICA debate: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" if I recall correctly. For some reason, I think that phrase seems to have lost favour now. Who guards the guards? Now, take a hypothetical situation – say an organisation where the top leaders engage in wrongdoing, or for example, say they set up a disciplinary committee to cover up what they did rather than actually investigate, I think you can ask “quis custodiet ipsos custodes”. And if Mr Perera was part of any such organisation, we'll be the first one to make such a point.

But for (this) Government, with the systems in place, and the variety of people who can lodge complaints and investigate, be it the Auditor-General, Attorney-General, CPIB, police … Civil servants are obliged, if they think the Minister is being wrong, to take it up to higher authority.

And if they believe that the higher authority is not acting properly, they can take it up all the way. These civil servants are protected through the structure of the Public Service Commission, which in turn is protected through the fact that appointment cannot be interfered with willy-nilly by the Government.

He had a second question on caning … And he suggested there should be, no surprise, an outside commission to decide on institutional caning.

(For) every aspect of government, anyone who is unhappy, go to an ombudsman, you've got to then set up an entire huge structure at the taxpayers expense to investigate this. Rather than having a proper legal process, including a complaint system, an independent investigation set up, say by the police with some outside people sitting on it, or through judicial review.

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