Time for an Ombudsman in Singapore

September 23, 2008



It is not difficult to morally justify the establishment of an Ombudsman. An Ombudsman provides a public service by undertaking independent investigations into complaints that government departments, statutory boards and other government-related institutions have not acted properly or fairly.


An Ombudsman with a well-defined role and clear mechanisms for action can be beneficial.



Role of an Ombudsman


An Ombudsman may investigate complaints about the unfair administrative decisions or actions of a public agency, including delay, rudeness, negligence, arbitrariness, oppressive behaviour, or unlawfulness. 


An Ombudsman may investigate complaints from individuals or groups of people. An Ombudsman has the discretion to decide which complaints are to be investigated and which are not.


An Ombudsman does not have the power to make decisions that are binding on the government. Rather, the Ombudsman makes recommendations for change, as supported by a thorough investigation of the complaint. A crucial element of the Ombudsman is its independence from the executive or administrative branch of government.


Whenever possible, one should try to resolve complaints directly with the public agency in question before turning to the Ombudsman. When all reasonable attempts have failed, the Ombudsman may be able to help:


  1. secure the names of the people one is dealing with;
  2. keep track of their responses and keep copies of all relevant papers and letters;
  3. ask how and why the decision was made;
  4. find out if there is a review or appeal process, and pursue that process where possible.



 A Singaporean Ombudsman


There are many variations of the Ombudsman office around the world. For a list of countries with Ombudsmen offices, see list below. Singapore can and should find a variation that suits local needs and concerns.


The most common type of Ombudsman is the public sector Ombudsman, which has a general jurisdiction over a range of governmental apparatuses. For some countries, this range may include the judiciary, police and military, while in other countries, one or more of these are specifically excluded.


Some countries even form Ombudsmen that tackle only one specific aspect of government such as access to information, licensing regulations, transport services or the ethical conduct of government officers. Meanwhile, in other countries, Ombudsmen have specific missions to deal with environmental issues or to oversee cultural or linguistic rights.


In societies that are making the transition to democratic forms of government, Ombudsmen are created to ensure improved administrative services from de-centralised government agencies.



Changing Socio-political Expectations

Singaporeans today are well-educated, well-travelled and well-informed. This invariably leads to higher citizenry expectations when it comes to political and corporate governance. Higher expectations are not necessarily negative developments for they signify growing interest in local politics and national agenda. The establishment of an Ombudsman will address higher citizenry expectations in two ways.


Firstly, it will signify the Singapore government’s acknowledgement and respect of a maturing Singaporean polity’s desire for a variety of institutions that can reflect the concerns of the ordinary citizen. This will serve to build trust between society and state.


Secondly, it will develop local civil society by empowering institutions. While many would agree that capable and honest leaders are vital for good governance, the sign of a mature and self-sustaining society are de-centralised and independent institutions. An Ombudsman is part of this de-centralising process, and is in keeping with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s call for “active citizenry”.



 Growing Public Cynicism


Higher citizenry expectations can also easily transform into public cynicism when these expectations are not met. The National Kidney Foundation (NFK) saga is a vivid illustration of this. In the case of NKF, cynicism stems from the fact that individuals with early misgivings over NKF’s unethical practices had no institution to turn to.


Though the Singapore government has introduced several measures to tighten regulatory procedures, none of these measures address the source of public cynicism, namely, that complaints of unethical corporate behaviour are easily repressed by the threat of lawsuits. Existing measures do not tackle the perception that the “little guy” has nowhere to turn to for action and protection. Many Singaporeans still feel a sense of helplessness and frustration. An Ombudsman will go a long way in addressing this source of public cynicism.



 Nurturing a Whistle-Blowing Culture


The Singapore government has, on one hand, publicly encouraged the nurturing of a whistle-blowing culture while, on the other, also rejected calls for new laws to protect whistle-blowers. The message is this: it is better to rely on the personal values and conscience of honest individuals to do the right thing than it is to turn Singapore into an overtly legalistic society.  


An Ombudsman strikes the right balance. It offers whistle-blowers an avenue to turn to and assures them of proper investigations. Meanwhile, no new laws need to be introduced as existing ones on corporate misdemeanours and corruption are more than adequate. 



Political Capital


The establishment of an Ombudsman is also in keeping with PM Lee’s vision for an “open and inclusive society” and will most certainly become a defining feature of his administration.


The establishment of an Ombudsman will be a welcomed addition to the Singapore government’s long track record of anticipating and addressing emerging needs and concerns.


 Do Existing Local Institutions Perform the Role of Ombudsman?


Existing institutions are not equipped to perform the role of Ombudsman. REACH merely collects and conveys public feedback to relevant government agencies. It does not have the power or resources to conduct independent enquires. Organisations like the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) are not suited to investigating unethical, but not necessarily criminal or corrupt, behaviour. The Ombudsman, on the other hand, may investigate a broader variety of complaints, with the option of referring to cases of corruption and criminal practices to the CPIB or relevant authorities. As such, there is a clear institutional and strategic role for an Ombudsman to play.



 What an Ombudsman is Not Meant to Do

An Ombudsman is not designed to serve as a check on the government – that’s the Opposition’s role. An Ombudsman should not use its office or mission to disrupt the work of the civil service. It should not mischievously aim to embarrass government agencies and officers or erode public confidence in the civil service.


In order to ensure the Ombudsman maintains the highest possible ethical standards, it should be made to apply for Institute of Public Character (IPC) status under the Income Tax Act. The head of the Ombudsman agency can be appointed by the President.




The Singapore government may be reluctant to set up an Ombudsman because of its historical raison d’être. In 1808, the Swedish Parliament first used the term “Ombudsman” for the office of Justitie-Ombudsman. The office functioned as a defender of the people in their dealings with government.


The Singapore government may thus believe that the establishment of an Ombudsman would send the wrong signal, that is, Singapore citizens need to be defended against the government. Such an interpretation is unhelpful.


The need for an Ombudsman is not based on any inadequacies of the Singapore government but, rather, on the fact that Singaporeans and Singapore society have evolved. Singaporeans are now more politically mature. With maturity comes the need for empowerment. Empowerment is necessary for a sense of ownership to develop. An Ombudsman is a step in this direction.


Countries with Ombudsman Offices

Africa:Angola, Botswana, Burkino Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe


Asia: Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Macao, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand


Australasian & Pacific: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu


Caribbean & Latin America: Antigua/Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela


Europe: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, European Union, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan


North America: Canada, United States of America


 [Source: International Ombudsman Institute; http://www.law.ualberta.ca/centres/ioi/eng/eng_home.html 



3 Responses to “Time for an Ombudsman in Singapore”

  1. […] Time for an Ombudsman in SingaporeCaribbean & Latin America: Antigua/Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia, … […]

  2. […] So which Singaporean blogger and expert, one might ask? The said blogger is the GroundNotes blog: https://groundnotes.wordpress.com/2008/09/23/time-for-an-ombudsman-in-singapore/ […]

  3. Nin Says:

    Do Singapore Govt has a public complaint agency now?

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