Such occurrences are particularly disturbing because they involve things that people tend to take for granted: trust in the security of banks, for example, or in the authority of scientific tests conducted by government labs. Revelations of the fraud at DBS/POSB prompted frantic checks by hundreds of savers on their accounts. Questions are being asked: why is it that only DBS/POSB, a largely state-owned bank, seems to have been targeted, and not the other major domestic private banks? Do the mistakes in the testing of DNA samples warrant re-checking whether previous tests – particularly those used in cases for capital offences – were incorrectly conducted?
Trust takes time to establish and can be quickly eroded, particularly when it seems that mistakes have not been put right. For instance, after previous instances of flooding in the Orchard area, the government initiated flood-prevention measures that did not seem to have worked when faced again with heavy rains. It would also not have escaped that DBS/POSB was similarly at the center of the storm a few years ago when many small-time investors accused it of mis-selling financial products.
It is a positive sign that the government has reacted with alacrity rather than complacency so far and has promised investigations into the debacles. Allowing public disgruntlement to fester might lead to perceptions about a broader malaise in a government that has taken pride in its reputation for competence.
That said, when repeated mistakes have been made, perhaps questions need to be asked about whether the regulators themselves should be doing a better job. It is instructive to note that the MRT breakdowns occurred despite the train operators apparently complying with all the regulators’ requirements, which could mean that the requirements were overly lax or that the regulators may have been too passive.
Hence the problem may be that things have worked well for so long that expectations the regulators have of their wards are too low. The kind of mass fraud at DBS/POSB or the disruptions on the subway are scarcely what is expected by officials long used to the shine of the country’s hard-won reputation (which was incidentally one of the key reasons why a regional centre promoting public transport excellence was set up in Singapore, ironically being unveiled just shortly after the MRT breakdowns). If so, it is high time for the authorities to tighten up.