Singapore Justice Minister refutes Workers’ Party MP’s suggestion for independent ombudsman | Singapore


Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera (left) and Law and Interior Minister K. Shanmugam (right) speaking during an Appropriations Committee debate on March 3, 2022. – CNA screenshot via TODAY

SINGAPORE, March 4 – In his speech on the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) budget, Workers’ Party (WP) MP Leon Perera asked how senior government ministers are vetted for foreign interference and suggested the creation of an ombudsman to ensure independent monitoring.

An ombudsman is usually a civil servant who deals with complaints made by the public against the government.

Perera’s two-minute speech Thursday, March 3, also called for greater “control mechanisms” over the use of extrajudicial caning as punishment for certain offences.

The Aljunied Group Representation Constituency MP’s suggestion received a lengthy rebuttal from Home and Law Minister K Shanmugam.

During the exchange, Shanmugam also recalled a remark Perera made last year during the parliamentary debate on the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (Fica).

“Mr. Perera said during the Fica debate: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. If I remember correctly, for some reason I think that phrase seems to have fallen out of favor now. Who keeps the guards? said Mr. Shanmugam.

Shanmugam seemed to allude to the results from the Conduct Privileges Committee of former WP MP Raeesah Khan when he added: “Now let’s take a hypothetical situation, say, you have an organization where key leaders are committing 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, I suppose, if he was part of such an organization, we would be the first to make such a point.”

Here is an excerpt from their exchange.

Mr Perera: In some of our laws, the government has broad powers over many activities. In the Minister MHA’s summary speech on Fica, he said that while the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) “hypothetically wants to investigate the Prime Minister, there is a higher authority to which he reports”.

I would like to return to an issue that I raised during the debate, namely “who controls the ladies” and, more specifically, with regard to foreign interference.

The world is changing and geopolitical tensions are reaching levels not seen in recent memory. Ministers, including the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister himself, would be extremely valuable targets for foreign interference, especially given what some might say is Singapore’s important role in Asean. (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

What is the nature of the institutional control exercised over senior ministers with regard to foreign interference?

Does it belong to the CPIB, as suggested by the response of the Minister of the Interior to my clarification during the Fica debate? If so, does the CPIB proactively assess the risks of foreign interference against ministers or does it only act reactively, if complaints are filed? Are there officers within the CPIB with the necessary skills and expertise to investigate possible foreign interference?

I would like to reiterate the calls for an ombudsman to provide independent oversight, similar to that in countries like New Zealand. An ombudsman’s office would create investigative resources behind legitimate institutional control that would be perceived as legitimate. In the current climate, there is more of a need for this.

Mr Shanmugam: Mr. Leon Perera, I think, picked up part of the Fica debate. At that time, I pointed out to him that in Singapore, we are conducting surveys very seriously. And I explained how the system works and the Prime Minister can be independently investigated. He then did not answer. But he comes back to it today.

Now, what is our structure? If there is any wrongdoing on the part of anyone, be it a minister, a civil servant or someone in the private sector, there will be investigations and very few people doubt that this government has added checks on itself, which is very rare elsewhere. We are institutionalizing it so that the CPIB can go directly to the Prime Minister, but when the Prime Minister himself is possibly under investigation, or if the Prime Minister does not want to do something, the CPIB can address the president.

Mr. Perera’s suggestion, if I understood him correctly, is: why not create a separate ombudsman with the means to carry out all these investigations? He had a question as to whether the CPIB had adequate resources and training. So my conclusion from that way of phrasing the question then is that whatever agency has to replicate many parts of our law enforcement agencies, including our intelligence agencies, so that they can do it on a stand-alone basis.

However, if that’s a suggestion…. I would say it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Because, how to replicate, (and) at what price, a whole investigative mechanism outside the government?

Perera made reference to New Zealand, and I’ve often found that every time we make those references they sound sexy, but when you actually look at what’s going on, I find the debates become very academic, without any based on reality, without perhaps understanding or acknowledging what is really going on in Singapore.

What is our situation? How successful have we been in managing and limiting official corruption and wrongdoing? And how are the other countries in this context?

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

Let me ask: you have an ombudsman in place, with or without the full range of resources and without any government oversight, who then deals with misconduct by the ombudsman or the officers of that office?

Mr. Perera said during the Fica debate, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, if I remember correctly. For some reason, I think that phrase seems to have fallen out of favor now. Who keeps the guards?

Now let’s take a hypothetical situation – say, an organization where top management commits wrongdoing or, for example, says they set up a disciplinary committee to cover up what they did rather than actually investigating , I think you can ask, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodians”. And if Mr. Perera was part of such an organization, we would be the first to make such a point.

But for (this) government, with the systems in place and the variety of people who can file complaints and investigate, whether it’s the Auditor General, the Attorney General, the CPIB, the police, officials are obligated, if they think the minister is being wrong, to take it to a higher authority.

And if they feel that the higher authority is not doing the right thing, they can take it all the way. These public servants are protected by the structure of the Public Service Commission, which in turn is protected by the fact that the appointment cannot be interfered with willy-nilly by the government.

He had a second question about caning and he suggested that there should be, unsurprisingly, an outside commission to decide on institutional caning.

(For) every aspect of government, anyone unhappy, go to an ombudsman, then you have to set up a whole huge structure at taxpayers’ expense to investigate that, rather than having a proper legal process, including a complaint system, an independent investigation set up, for example, by the police with outsiders sitting on it, or through judicial oversight.

Mr Perera: I thank Mr. Shanmugam for his lengthy comments on my two minutes of cut speech.

My question would be that if instituting an independent organization with investigative powers against the executive government, such as an ombudsman, is such a bad idea, why are so many countries doing this?

Basically, the main argument of this ombudsman stems from the fact that currently, the institutions in charge of applying the law sit in the organizational chart of the executive. They are part of that command and control hierarchy ultimately. An ombudsman would report to Parliament…. And that means they basically sit in a different place organizationally.

So when it investigates allegations of abuse, it seems to be an investigation coming from different parts of the government. Being seen to do this has benefits in terms of the responsibility felt by society. This has advantages in terms of the strength and solidarity of our policy. I would say there are tangible benefits to be had from it.

It is difficult to speak of the practical benefits that would flow from the introduction of this proposal because it is hypothetical, of course, we have never had

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin: Mr. Perera, please stick to clarifications or questions if you can.

Mr Perera: Alright, I’ll wrap up in the next minute. What I can say is that in terms of perceived legitimacy, I think there is an advantage there. The minister mentioned various practical issues that could arise, for example, do we want to have duplicate resources?

There are practical solutions to this. You could design an ombudsman’s office to deal with this problem. Investigations could be led by the office, but they could request resources from other agencies.

Mr Shanmugam: In a way, I’m not sure they’re far off, because I had anticipated that point, which is why I said there were two possible paths.

The first is that you are replicating the entire resource, various parts of its own machines outside, which makes no sense.

The alternative is for the ombudsman to use the machinery of government. I think Mr. Perera forgets, if he uses the machines, these sit in government, they sit in various ministries.

And today, the same agencies can report directly to the president, and I explained how that is. So I don’t understand what the argument is.

Perhaps Mr. Perera did not understand the constitutional structure and how the CPIB can address the President directly. Thank you sir. – TODAY


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