COS 2022: Clarifications on Ombudsman

MP Leon Perera

Mr Leon Perera: Thank you, Mr Chairman, Sir, and I thank the Law and Home Affairs Minister Mr Shanmugam for his lengthy comments on my two minutes of cut speech. I would like to just respond to some of his points and pose some clarifications.

He mentioned that he was not surprised at my suggestion of a judicial check on the administration of punishments in prison. I am equally unsurprised at his disagreement with that. He referred to New Zealand and he pointed out many problems that New Zealand has recently been grappling with. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had cited another country, he would point out problems with that country as well.

My question would be that if instituting an independent organisation with investigative powers against the executive government, such as an ombudsman, is such a bad idea, why are so many countries doing that? I made a long speech, which I do not intend to and I cannot anyway repeat, in September of 2020 when I gave detailed arguments for an ombudsman, I addressed the objections to the idea, one by one. I talked about the countries that have that. Many countries do incorporate this institution. And if you were to go to opinion leaders, and if you were to conduct public opinion polls in those countries, I am not at all sure that the majority of people would say that, “Well, this is a bad thing, let us remove this institution and then things will get better”. So that is the first point I wanted put across.

I think fundamentally the main argument for this ombudsman comes down to the fact that currently law enforcement institutions sit on the organisation chart within the executive government, they are within that command and control hierarchy at the end of the day. An ombudsman would report to Parliament in the manner that I outlined in that earlier speech and that means that it sits fundamentally in a different place organisationally. So, when it investigates alleged abuses, it is seen to be an investigation coming from a different part of the government.

I think being seen to be that, to do that, has advantages in terms of vertical accountability, that is felt by the society and that has advantages in terms of the strength and solidarity of our polity. I would say that there are tangible advantages to be gained from that.

It is difficult to speak of practical benefits that would come from instituting this proposal because it is a hypothetical, of course. We have never had —

The Chairman: Mr Perera, if we can keep it to clarifications and questions; if we can. 

Mr Leon Perera: Okay. I will just wrap up in the next one minute.

Because I would not know what sort of cases would be referred to that, how those cases will be dealt with. What I can say is that in terms of the perception of legitimacy, I think there is a benefit there. The Minister mentioned various practical issues that could come about, for example, do we want to duplicate resources. I mean, there are practical solutions to that. You could design an office ombudsman to address that. For example, investigations could be directed by the office but they could seek resources from other agencies.

But I think for the sake of length, I will leave it at that.

5.30 pm

The Chairman : Minister.

Mr K Shanmugam: In a way, I am not sure that we are that far apart because I had anticipated this point, which is why I said that there are two possible ways.

One is you replicate the entire resources, that means you have various parts of the Government machinery outside which makes no sense. The alternate is the ombudsman uses the Government machinery. I think Mr Perera overlooks – if he uses the machinery, those machineries sit within the Government. They sit within various Ministries. Then that is the point I make in my earlier response to him.

And today, the very same agencies can report directly to the President and I have explained how that is so. So, I do not understand what the argument is. Maybe Mr Perera has not understood the constitutional structure and how the CPIB can go direct to the President.

3 March 2022
Ministry of Home Affairs

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