Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

So Elton John once sang. I don't know if our ministers are his fans, but they certainly seem to have taken that to heart as a motto.

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.


Chee Wai Lee said...

Spot on article. Thanks!

Mr Tan said...

I'm sorry to have to point this out to you, but the "50-year flood" phrase is an often misinterpreted one.

Please do take a quick read of http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/100yearflood.html.

A "50-year flood" can very well occur more than once in a given year, especially since weather patterns this year are unusual due to the La Nina effect and possibly global warming.

Apart from that, I'd generally agree with you. Good article!

merlin said...

siew kum, you said exactly what I felt on the reason/excuse given for the first orchard road flood and the subsequent retractment.

I also have a query/issue with the latest statement, which I briefly read in yesterday's papers. I read that HE said that flooding had reduced from xxxx sq-km to xx sq-km (can't remb the numbers).
My first instinct was, numbers/statistics again. Plus what HE said in parliament (info frm your blog above), WHAT *IS* the definition of a flood. I'll be surprised if we previously (many many years ago) used to have xxxx sq-km of floods (as BASED on current-day's definition). even though I do not remember the old major floods (1979 et al) I'm sure the area "DEFINED" as flooded will not be that large, otherwise maybe, probably half of Singapore will have been flooded.

The Pariah said...

As per a Chinese idiom:
(the Chinese word for 'government official' 官 has two mouths 口).

Good for you, Kum Hong, in pointing out Yaacob Ibrahim's reply to MP Lee Bee Wah's parliamentary question was off-mark and deliberately misconstrued to obfuscate issues.

K Shanmugam did likewise in reply to the points made by MP Ellen Lee and NMP Paulin Tay Straughan in connection with en bloc laws on 18 May 2010.

When ministers behave in this way in the House towards their own PAP cadre members, do you seriously believe they are capable of uttering gory sorry?

The Pariah, www.singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com

Alan Wan said...

I like your humour.

Especially when you seem to have lost your patience with our 'million-dollar salarymen' and how each of us will be older by 50 years every time we experience a flood. Our ladies must be the most unhappy persons on earth.

The best part of it now is that the PUB tries to explain that the Marina Barrage has nothing to do with the flooding in Orchard Road areas as the vicinity around Orchard Road is at higher levels compared to the sea level.

Take note everyone : Marina Barrage is only useful for alleviating floods in low lying prone areas. So the next time if a flood do occur in any low lying areas, you can claim for any flood damages against the PUB for negligence because the Marina Barrage did not alleviate the floods as originally intended.

Kevin said...

The broken line of single tier sand bags along the walkway of Liat Towers is a sorry sight. Is it a cry for help, sign of giving up or to garner support that not enough has been done to alleviate the problem? Someone must recorgnise that these sandbags pose a safety issue, during the night, when lighting may be insufficient at certain stretch of the walkway. I hope SCDF or some experts rise up to suggest a better solution.

Recruit Ong said...

Mr Siew, u are asking a rhetorical question. You know as well as everyone they are not accountable to the people LOL.

Siew Kum Hong said...

@Mr Tan: Thanks for the educational tip. But we've had 4 "50-year floods" within 2 months or so. The chances of that are 2% x 2% x 2% = 0.0008%. Just as well we have a $8m Toto draw coming up then! :) But seriously, at those odds (which also set aside the first "50-year-flood" in Nov 2009), the benchmark for "once in 50 years" seems open to criticism.

@Merlin: I think the statement was that the flood-prone areas had been reduced. I don't know what it was like before, but I suspect that would be generally true.

Recruit Ong: But they are accountable -- never forget that. Never forget that ministers serve the people, and never let them forget that either. It helps that the General Elections seem to be drawing near :)

Chee Ken said...

"Sorry" is not in their vocabulary apparently. I don't expect our political leaders to be perfect, especially since new drains will not appear overnight. But to continually dodge and defend what is indefensible is just making them look silly.

ooops said...

Mr Tan pointed a mistake by you and you did not apologise.

It is easy to take cheap shot about repeated mistake. "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". Once the first flood subside, how do you test to find out what really happened (do you pump tonnes of reservoir water to test the system? ) - you can only see some blocked grating after the flood and the experts
deduced that it is probably the blocked grating as the cause. Do you take their word for it?

Once you have a cleared grating and it still flood then you know that the canal is inadequate. Surely, the readers here can see the logic here. There is a strong Hurricane in the States every year, why did the US not anticipate about the bursting of the levee in New Orleans. The weather changed with Global warming, old parameters of once in 50 years may not be applicable any more. Do you frankly expect the Govt or yourself/anyone to predict this when they construct the Stamford Canal? 20 years ago, hardly anoyone predicted global warming. Why not use hundred of millions of public funds and build a 50m wide canal every 1 km apart so that it never floods? Is flood prevention a priority over health, education and other infrastructure works?

Are we a nation so obsessed with apology..other than the satisfaction of seeing who we perceived as more powerful kowtowed to us, what do we actually gain? Yes, make all your remarks and make the public really unhappy and then cower the Govt into overspending on drains/canals, who will lose out in the end except the average taxpayers like us? All for the benefit of rich building owners and well-off rich landed property owners who will enjoy flood free property and enjoy even greater land values (which they would not share with us). I only empathize with shop tenants owners and certain car owners for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and they should be compensated by Govt who should start buying insurance for unforeseen circumstances like floods or falling trees.

Siew Kum Hong said...

@ooops: Actually I'm not sure if that was a mistake that requires an apology, but I have no problem with saying sorry about making that mistake. So yes, I apologise. Having said that, I stand by the underlying sentiment -- something is wrong about saying something was "once in 50 years", if it ends up happening 3 times in 2 months -- that's a 0.0008% chance, just to repeat. I'm not a betting man, but if I were I would not take those odds.

I also have some questions about some of your comments:
- it's not necessary to fill the drains with water to calculate their drainage, it really is pretty much mathematics. And anyway my (mostly implied) point was that they should perhaps have left open the possibility of a structural problem with Stamford Canal, instead of immediately stating that the infrastructure was adequate.

- You suggest that more funds on flood prevention will invariably lead to less funds for other purposes such as education. You are mistaken. Singapore is in the enviable position of having more money that the Government is willing to spend. So it is not a zero-sum game.

- I'm pretty sure I'm not able to cower the Government into doing anything.

- Business owners and homeowners could well have purchased insurance for themselves. I don't see why the Government should buy insurance for them, instead of focusing on flood-risk reduction. By the same logic you've used, would that not be benefiting a certain privileged group (all business owners and landed property and condo owners) over all Singaporeans? I don't think any HDB flat was flooded.

- Finally, I'm pretty sure everyone, not just "rich building owners and well-off rich landed property owners", would like to see less flooding. Certainly, the "shop tenants owners and certain car owners" you empathise with would almost certainly prefer no floods to flood insurance.

anteater said...

Well said! Thank you for reinforcing the importance of doing the right thing and the lack thereof in our communities. We, South of the border, see it daily. The arrogant politicians here need to experience deep personal pain akin to death to understand what it means to do the right thing.

Denz Goh said...

Thank you very much!

You have summarized all that I have been waiting for from our dearest minister.

Not some wise 'ass' remark telling us to face it and start learning to swim!

The said...

/// Mr Tan said...

I'm sorry to have to point this out to you, but the "50-year flood" phrase is an often misinterpreted one.

Please do take a quick read of http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/100yearflood.html.

A "50-year flood" can very well occur more than once in a given year, especially since weather patterns this year are unusual due to the La Nina effect and possibly global warming. ///

Mr Tan, I think it has little to do with global warming and plenty to do with the inadequacy of the drainage system. I went to the link you provided, and it posed more questions than answer. My response in the other thread which I reproduce below:

Interesting article on the 100-year flood. What it says about the once in 50 years flood is that the chance of it occurring in any one year is 2%. So, to have 3 occurrences in 5 weeks (not 50 years), the probability is 0.02 x 0.02 x 0.02, or 0.0008%, or a 1 in 125,000 chance. Now, compare this to the chance of winning the first prize in a 4D draw - which is 1 in 10,000. And don't forget we are talking about 5 weeks. For the full year, if there are more floods, the odds will be exponentially minute.

Bottom line is, the flood data in Singapore is hopelessly out of date. I suspect the main reason is the rapid urbanization.

The Stamford Canal was adequate when the tallest building along Orchard Road was the Cathay Building and the tallest building along Shenton Way was the Asia Insurance Building. Since then, many building have popped up along Orchard Road.

Take the Ion. It used to be a huge piece of land with lush vegetation. When a piece of permeable land is developed, it means that that piece of land is now concreted over. Rainwater, instead of percolating through to the ground, is now run off as surface water into the drainage system. Multiply that by the tens or hundreds of projects over the decades and you can see that unless the drainage system keep pace with developments, its capacity will not be adequate.

The key question is - when was the Stamford Canal last upgraded.


No amount of engineering can prevent flood? Again, why do they have to cast the question as to yes or no. Black or white. One extreme or the other. No one is asking for zero floods - ever. But 3 floods in 5 weeks is too much.

BTW, New Orleans is now in the midst of building a massive storm barrier in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

Sum Kwong said...

And now it is deemed an Act of God.

Shei said...

some are beginning to think they are above the gods...

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