Thursday, August 07, 2003

Another "honest mistake"?

Honestly speaking, I must confess our aspiration to be the leading centre of George Washingtons is almost unrivalled. After all, even at the birthplace of Washington, people are having difficulties owning up to anything.

George (the other George - i.e. Bush Jr, not the honest one), for instance, adamantly refused to admit his less-than-honest mistake of relying on flawed intelligence to form the basis of his Iraqi adventure.

Put this side-by-side with the flurry of admissions on our part, and Singapore appears to (in financial terms) outperform every yardstick for gauging honesty.

While honesty is arguably the best policy (arguably because there's such a thing call a "white lie" - no racial innuendo intended), what we need in Singapore is not an enforcement of such a policy (we already have too many policies around here), but greater transparency by the government.

What you see is not what you get
The lack of transparency recently resulted in associate professor Tan Khee Giap and professor Chen Kang being forced to admit their "honest mistake" for a report claiming that foreigners took three out of every four new jobs created in Singapore between 1997 and 2000.

In the ensuing furore, acting manpower minister Ng Eng Hen lambasted the two Nanyang Technological University economists over the accuracy of their study and supported his verbal abuse with hitherto unreleased data suggesting that nine out of ten jobs actually went to Singaporeans.

The reaction from the Manpower Ministry, while predictably high-handed, raises a few questions.

Firstly, if it is true that the hiring ratio favoured locals, there is no reason why the ministry should withhold the figures, especially when there is so much debate about foreign talent and unemployment is riding high. As Charles Chong, member of parliament for Pasir Ris-Pungol GRC, put it succinctly: "I would not keep it a secret and for political mileage, I'd brag about it."

Although the Manpower Ministry argued that the figures were considered sensitive and were thus held back for reasons of national interest, who is to decide what kind of information is suitable for public consumption? What sort of evaluation criteria is put in place to ensure that the handling of supposedly sensitive data would serve national interest? Could such data be skewed in a specific manner to suit specific agenda at specific times?

Which brings us to the next point. The study conducted by the two professors was based on published data obtained from government websites. It is indeed a scary thought if information made available by the government on public domain couldn't be relied upon. How, then, can we trust that the official -0.4% inflation rate and 4.5% unemployment rate are closer to the truth than public perception?

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