March 3, 2009

sop_bookcoverFor a country so obsessed with law and order, Singapore has a strange aversion to standard operating procedures (SOPs). The most recent example of this was the Law Society’s call for the government to show greater transparency in the pre-trial process and for detailed rules to regulate how police interrogate suspects (Straits Times, 3 March 2009). The Law Society’s complaints are not new but it does show what a long running battle it is just to get the government to listen.


Another recent example of aversion to SOPs was the Elected President’s unlocking of the reserves. The President made clear in his press conference that the process of opening up the reserves was a mere series of ad hoc and informal meetings between a selected few. In a matter of 11 days (or less if need be), billions of our reserves were available. Now, there is great virtue in speedy action, especially during an economic crisis of this proportion. However, the sheer lack of formal SOPs that the late Ong Teng Cheong tried to develop must be disconcerting for any Singaporean.

Their book Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris discuss the atrocities of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. They argue that the lack of SOPs as to how to treat the prisoners led some of the American soldiers to abuse them. More broadly and pertinently, they suggest that the lack of SOPs in an institution leaves people in that institution vulnerable to forces such as the prevailing political culture, strong personalities or personal disenchantment. Such forces, when exerted on individuals, often lead to mistakes made in the name of the institution.

Such lessons are important to Singapore too. Other than their lack of clear institutional procedures, our two examples also have another thing in common. Their situation is tilted in such a way that it gives the authorities – the police and the President, in these cases – great leeway in getting on with their duties unfettered by SOPs.


No doubt the police would argue that the lack of transparency during the pre-trail process and absence of detailed rules on police interrogation allows them to extract information and conduct investigation more efficiently. However, the price to pay for this efficiency is an opaque system which may be susceptible to abuse. Moreover, efficiency and transparency are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why a defense lawyer who can advise a suspect of his rights will impede investigations.


As for the Elected Presidency, when asked in Parliament about how the President came to his decision (before his press conference), Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s reply was “This is a system that relies on trust in the individuals who are in charge, including those appointed to the CPA and the Elected President. Do you trust them? Have they made decisions wisely?” For want of a better word, it seems that the relationship between the Executive and the Elected Presidency is one based on social capital. The Executive trusts the President because it knows him personally, while the President is willing to give the Executive the benefit of the doubt because he is familiar with its track record. But how does this ensure the longevity of the Elected Presidency as an institution?


Surely SOPs like a committee of independent economists and experts to assess the government’s request to unlock the reserves, a committee of external policy experts to judge the way in which the government plans to use the money, the publication of conditions and targets that these reserve-fueled policies must meet, or opening of the process to public scrutiny should be considered?


This brings us all back to the age-old debate between men and systems. Clearly, the PAP government believes that it’s better to have good men in a bad system than to have a good system with a bunch of bad men in it. This is why the local press loves to go on about the virtues of our ministers like ‘trust’, ‘competence’, ‘capability’ – they are about public legitimacy. However, it’s a false dilemma to assume that one must make a choice between good men and a good system. Why can’t we have both? What happens when, god forbid, a bunch of rogues enter the system? Our sheer lack of institution-building and SOPs would pave the way for their profit.


And the irony of it all is that the PAP has a clear set of SOPs when picking and choosing ‘good’ and ‘capable’ men. It consults grassroots leaders or colleagues of the person, it invites the person to tea parties to assess him face-to-face, he undergoes psychological tests, his tax and financial records are thoroughly checked, he is interviewed by a panel of ministers, followed by another interview by senior members of the executive. If so many SOPs are in place to pick men to join the ruling party, surely its time to place greater emphasis on SOPs in our major institutions.



2 Responses to “SOP”

  1. sushibar Says:


  2. Shane Says:

    “There is no reason why a defence lawyer who can advise a suspect of his rights will impede investigations.”

    Exactly. Maybe this stems from a serious fear from watching too much CSI or other American TV dramas where the attorneys are portrayed as preventing the righteous policemen from arresting the suspect (whose obvious guilt we as viewers of course have the privilege of vicariously knowing).

    And I’m sure, if we had any comments about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system and the courts, including the law minister’s dubious notions of “acquitted but still guilty” (tantamount to the “guilty before proven innocent stance), we’d be met by a “rational” comparison of how inefficient the alternatives are.

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