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An elastic commitment to accountability and checks on power

Many Singaporeans pointed to double standards in the Committee of Privileges probe into Raeesah Khan’s lie, compared to the reaction to the government’s admission that promises about the use of TraceTogether data were false. What sort of system of checks and balances do we have in Singapore?

A few weeks ago, when I replaced the weekly wrap with a special issue on the death penalty, I promised that I would circle back to talk about the Committee of Privileges’ (COP) investigation into Raeesah Khan’s behaviour in Parliament. Following the COP’s recommendation, a People’s Action Party-dominated Parliament voted to refer Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Workers’ Party vice-chairman Faisal Manap to the public prosecutor for a further probe (and potentially, criminal proceedings). Multiple PAP ministers and MPs piled on in and out of Parliament, smugly pontificating about integrity and democracy. It’s a little too late now to do a round-up of everything that was said; in any case, I think it’d be more useful to consider oversight and accountability in Singapore more broadly.

Have you ever had an interaction with a government agency or state organ that went badly? What were the avenues that were open to you when that happened? Was there an independent watchdog you could go to with your issue?

From time to time I hear complaints from family members of people who have been incarcerated. They complain about the quality of food, about delays in receiving medical attention or disputes over medication, about unfair treatment or bullying. When this happens, these worried family members are often at a loss. Complaints filed with the prison tend to disappear into the organisation; even if the officers later come back with the result of their internal investigation, family members wonder how credible such an “ownself investigate ownself” system is. (In November 2020, I published a special issue about one such case.) Although incarcerated people are supposed to be able to speak to Visiting Justices about the issues they face, access is mediated by the prison, because they have to submit a request to the authorities to see a VJ in the first place. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a mechanism in which the complainant’s access to those meant to look into the complaint is in the hands of the very institution they want to complain about is not a very useful mechanism.

This is one situation in a which a process of independent external oversight is missing, but it’s not the only one. Complaints about police officers go to the Internal Affairs Office, which is a department within the police force. I know from personal experience that visa applications at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority go straight into a black box, with no explanation for decisions beyond boilerplate responses telling you that each case is “assessed on its own merit in consultation with the relevant government agencies.”

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