Learn to say sorry

  Public and private sectors must be accountable for botch-ups
  Today
September 30, 2003
SINGAPORE

by Lee Han Shih


W
HY do political and corporate bigwigs find it so difficult to apologise in the public?

Look at the two events that shocked Singapore recently.

At listed Asia Pacific Breweries, a trusted finance manager allegedly embezzled $116 million.

True, the case is now before the courts and the company has acknowledged that it is reviewing some of its procedures to plug loopholes. But has there been an apology? Unfortunately, no.

In the government-run Environmental Health Institute, where a 27-year- old researcher caught the Sars virus, an apology was made eventually, but not on the day the botch-up was announced.

What's more, the person who apologised was Environment Minister Lim Swee Say, who was not even on the frontline of the fight against Sars.

In contrast, Acting Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan preferred to focus on the lessons to be learnt from the episode. And Mr Wang Nan Chee, director-general of public health at the National Environmental Agency, the man so visibly in the public eye when the new Sars case was first discovered, was not present alongside Mr Khaw to take the flak.

It was Mr Wang who had first asserted that the virus could not have come from his labs. His comment had suggested there was another source of Sars in Singapore. This, in turn, raised widespread concerns and caused the stock market to plunge.

His expression of regret came only later when Mr Lim showed the way.

It is sad, but keeping mum in the face of mistakes has become something of a Singapore tradition. Everyone in the public and private sectors does it.

Remember the fiasco where the Infocomm Authority of Singapore "accidentally" overpaid Singapore Telecom $388 million? Were there any apologies to the public? Nope.

Remember when an employee of formerly-listed Centrepoint Properties was convicted for corruption? Not a word of apology was conveyed to investors.

How about the seven-month delay of the North East MRT Line? The Land Transport Authority went silent.

Nothing, however, beats the Housing and Development Board's upgrading job at Marine Parade, which has gone through three contractors and numerous delays.

At first, the HDB refused to apologise. Then its CEO Niam Cheng Meng, did say sorry but directed it mainly at Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, MP for the area.

Singapore likes to boast it has the best government in Asia. This claim is hard to dispute when it comes to economic achievements.

But look at Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Their politicians may behave like thugs and corruption is rampant. But public apology is a way of life.

The higher you climb up the greasy pole of politics, the more publicly you apologise for your misdeeds or your subordinates' mistakes.

In the UK, apologies are often accompanied by resignations.

Never mind that those are mostly perfunctory acts and politicians who resign are reinstated quickly. They still fill a necessary function.

In a democracy, governance is not just something that must be done, but it must be seen to be done.

Public apologies and resignations are, thus, signs to the public that their governments acknowledge their mistakes openly and are willing to take responsibility for them.

This is something Singapore needs to learn, and fast. For decades, the public was content to remain voiceless and minority shareholders gave up their power in exchange for a clean and efficient government and well-run companies that delivered profits regularly .

In the midst of a soul-destroying recession, the mood is less tolerant. Those in charge cannot walk away from mistakes without a full explanation, an apology or even some form of restitution.

The key word is accountability.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

                                                      Home