MOH didn’t get memo to take views from all Singaporeans

The Workers’ Party (WP) released a statement yesterday calling for the Independent Review Committee looking into the Hep C outbreak in SGH to be reconstituted as a Committee of Inquiry (COI). The WP felt that the SGH incident is at least as grave as the MRT breakdown on 15 and 17 Dec 2011 as well as the Little India riot. And since COIs were formed for the MRT breakdowns and the Little India riot, WP felt that it was necessary for a COI to be formed to restore public confidence in the healthcare sector.

In the statement, WP also suggested that the committee (whether an Independent Review Committee or a COI) should specifically addresses why there was such a long delay between the discovery of the outbreak to the public announcement. It also suggested the inclusion of retired clinicians and healthcare administrators who may be more willing to ask pointed questions because they do not have to fear reprisals from senior civil servants.

No where in WP’s statement is there any insinuation that any of the SGH or MOH staff acted with improper motives. In fact, the whole statement seemed to simply reflect what is on the minds of many Singaporeans. The statement also took into account practical concerns of normal human behaviour in expressing their concern that current clinicians may suffer self-censorship so as not to thread on the toes of senior civil servants who “oversee and administer government policy that affects their work as clinicians on a day-to-day basis”).

In fact, after reading the WP statement over and over again, I find that the statement gave rather sensible suggestions, which they felt would strengthen the committee’s ability to do its job well and be seen to be doing so. No where in the statement does WP make any allegations nor insinuate that they are making any allegations.

Of course, it is the prerogative of MOH to reject the suggestions. It may well be that MOH has very good reasons that an independent review committee is more appropriate to address this issue than a COI, and that it is impractical or unnecessary to have retired clinicians and hospital administrators in the committee. However, if that is the case, MOH certainly did not put those across convincingly.

Instead, the MOH challenged the WP to state directly any questions about “any officer acted with improper motives”. MOH also said that it would convene a COI only if the WP ” is prepared to lead evidence before the COI, to substantiate whatever allegations it might have”. All this while not addressing any of the substantive concerns raised by WP. MOH completely glossed over the concerns of the awkward positions that some of the committee members could be in. MOH totally ignored WP’s point that the SGH outbreak is at least as grave as the MRT breakdowns and the Little India Riot and offered no explanation why a COI should not be convened in this instance when COIs were convened in the other two instances.

The WP has since responded to MOH’s woefully inadequate reply to WP’s initial statement. WP stated categorically once again that they are not making any allegations that SGH or MOH staff acted on improper motives. WP correctly called out MOH’s actions as being “confusing, distracting and unhelpful”.

Indeed, MOH’s responses so far to any suggestions of how the whole review process can be made more rigorous and be seen to be successful in strengthening our healthcare system has been disappointingly defensive. Rather than explaining why they are doing things in a certain way, MOH have resorted to reprimanding and accusing any one who dares to suggest alternative ways for the committee to carry out their work of making baseless allegations against public officers. Is that all MOH is capable of? Why not provide convincing reasons why things MUST be done in the way MOH is doing? For a start, is it really impossible for MOH to explain why an independent review committee is more appropriate to address this incident than a COI?

According to Singapore’s statutes, “the President may whenever he considers it expedient to do so, issue a commission appointing one or more commissioners and authorising such commissioners, or any quorum of them therein mentioned, to inquire into… any matter in which an inquiry would, in the opinion of the President, be for the public welfare or in the public interest.”

In other words, a COI can be convened even if the public officers involved were not acting on improper motives. A COI can be convened so long as the inquiry would be for the public welfare or in the public interest. I would think that an incident like that of Hep C outbreak in SGH which affected 22 people and led to four deaths (with a fifth being suspected to be linked to the case) is something that an inquiry would definitely be for the public welfare and in the public interest. So is it wrong for WP to voice out concerns and suggest to MOH to convene a COI? Shouldn’t MOH then address properly those concerns and clearly explain why an independent review committee is more appropriate to address this incident than a COI?

However, rather than engaging meaningfully with WP, MOH chose to be defensive. This sort of behaviour sends the signal that citizens shouldn’t be questioning what the government does.

Such behaviour contradicts the tone set by PM Lee after GE2015, when he said that “the Government will continue on “the new way forward” – more inclusive focus on social needs, especially for the elderly and the disadvantaged, and more involvement by citizens (emphasis mine)”. Such behaviour also contradicts what DPM Tharman said “We will take views from the opposition (emphasis mine), we will take views from civil society, we will take views from people from different walks of life,” Mr Tharman said, adding: “Everyone will be included in the way we go forward, and everyone must feel included in the way we go forward.”

MOH’s responses related to this case has shown that the government isn’t interested in taking views from people. Instead, it seems to demonstrate that if you say something that the government does not agree with, it will take on an adversarial stance and do everything it can to hammer you down? If that is the case, then doesn’t that make liars of PM Lee and DPM Tharman? I hope somebody reminds MOH not to make liars of PM Lee and DPM Tharman.

[Featured image: SGH’s Wikipedia page]

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