The latest to bear that out is Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. Frankly, that has always seemed to be a bit of an unexciting, boring post -- but boy has he been in the hot seat over the past two months.
It's all thanks to the heavy rain that has variously been ascribed to us being a tropical country (duh), La Nina (which should not be a surprise since it is a cyclical phenomenon), and even Typhoon Conson (despite it being over 2000km away). It even got so that another minister asked PUB, the key agency under Dr Yaacob's charge, to explain the flooding.
And despite a whole barrage of questions in Parliament yesterday (resulting in front page covers, headline news and multiple-page coverage in the Straits Times and other papers), nary a single "sorry". No apology, no admission of error or fault, nada.
Nevermind that the original reason given by Dr Yaacob for the first Orchard flood was that the Stamford Canal was blocked, but otherwise it was adequate -- but now actually it was not adequate and could not drain quickly enough (front page news today). Nevermind that it took three, yes three, floods in two months before our million-dollar salarymen could figure out that it might be a good idea to issue public warnings about potential flooding (and even now that's still not been decided).
Nevermind that his comment that the first flood was a "once in 50 years" event in terms of intensity has now come home to roost, given that the second flood was just as heavy and the third flood even more so. Nevermind that we also had a flood in November 2009, that Dr Yaacob also described as "once in 50 years".
Are we then in the year 2210, since presumably we've had 4 once-in-50-years events?
Today's Straits Times covered the Q&A in Parliament yesterday. The first question was from Ms Lee Bee Wah, referring to "three floods" in one month and without any reference to Orchard Road. Dr Yaacob's opening statement was:
"In the last one month, we have seen three intense storms. Only two caused flooding in Orchard Road, not all three. The June 25 flood did not cause any flooding. No, Orchard Road was not flooded. We have to be precise."
I am a lawyer. Precision is one of my catchwords. But this was not precision. Quite the reverse, this was obfuscating the question. Ms Lee did not refer to Orchard Road. Ms Lee did not mention the flooding of Orchard Road. Ms Lee did not talk about how shops in Liat Towers have given up on re-opening until the flood risk has been addressed. The reply was quite telling and revealing of where Dr Yaacob's head was at.
Perhaps the apparent obsession with Orchard Road was due to the bad press Singapore has received thanks to the floods, for example in Australia. This must all have been a slap in the face for a government so obsessed about foreign rankings and benchmarking against other countries.
I was in Bali when the first flood struck, but it was big news there. A friend was in Lombok then, and he said the locals were laughing at Singapore, asking how could this happen.
How could this happen, indeed. I am normally reluctant to reactively blast the government for mistakes and errors. This is the real world, things go wrong and people make mistakes. On most things (obvious exceptions are national security etc), it is OK for people to make a mistake once -- that is a learning opportunity.
But I have zero to low tolerance for a repeated mistake. Making the same mistake again only suggests that nothing has been learnt from the first mistake, and that is unforgivable. Not confronting the truth squarely and admitting errors simply means that the problem has not been openly acknowledged and so will not be fixed.
Insisting that the system is fine and the problem arose only because of an external circumstance beyond anyone's control (e.g. blocked grating at the Stamford Canal causing the first flood), without properly investigating the reasons why, smacks of groupthink, with the group convincing itself that the system works and the problem must be something else. Telling us that we will never be flood-proof and so we should simply suck it up, smacks of evasion of responsibility. Reversing the position on the cause without admitting an error and apologising, simply smacks of hubris and arrogance.
I contrast this with the apology by DBS CEO Piyush Gupta, when IBM apparently caused the failure of DBS's systems. (I still don't understand how multiple layers of redundancy could be trashed by one single error -- isn't that the whole point of multiple layers of redundancy?) He came out, owned the problem, publicly and openly explained the reasons without taichi-ing, and apologised. Thrice.
Mr Gupta received kudos for that response. This is not some petty demand for an apology to make myself feel better, or some sort of bloodlust for heads to roll. This is about knowing that the people responsible know that they are responsible, which is the first step towards fixing the problem. Because it's not just about widening or deepening the Stamford Canal, this is about re-evaluating how MEWR and PUB do things and designs the flood system and figuring out how to avoid more repetitions.
This is about feeling that our ministers truly and sincerely understand the pain they've caused, and by that I mean pain to all Singaporeans, if only because of the sheer embarrassment around the world. This is about setting an example for all Singaporeans, to say that everyone is accountable, and that leaders are the most accountable.
Very simply, this is about Doing The Right Thing.
There were a couple of debates in Parliament when Mas Selamat escaped. I spoke at one of them, asking for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Mr Wong Kan Seng to apologise to Singaporeans for a whole chain of errors in domestic security (Mas Selamat, letting people through airport security with the wrong passport, etc). The Second Minister for Home Affairs Mr K. Shanmugam replied on his behalf, and neither offered an apology nor touched on it.
This is a flaw that seems to afflict so many, if not most, of our political leaders. It reinforces the disaffection that Catherine Lim first wrote about almost 20 years ago. It suggests an arrogance in those who are supposed to serve the people. It puts into question whether the government feels accountable or responsible to the people.
All we want, is to hear someone responsible say sorry. And yet it seems so hard.