Responsibility Without Accountability


In January 2015, the Alliance Lepep-led government issuing from the general election of December 2014 rashly and unilaterally decided to rescind the Betamax contract despite having been advised by the State Law Office (SLO) previously that it would be out of order to do so. This breach of contract found its way to the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), which gave its decision on 5 June 2017 in favour of Betamax. This was subsequently set aside by the Supreme Court. On Monday last, the Privy Council allowed Betamax’s appeal and enforced the Award. Accordingly, the STC will have to pay damages amounting to between $115-125 million (Rs 4.5 – Rs 5 billion) plus interest to Betamax for unjustified breach of contract. The total sum due will likely exceed Rs 6 Billion.

This verdict by the Privy Council raises two fundamental questions: 1. Whether the STC has sufficient funds to pay that sum to Betamax; 2. Can those who took the decision to rescind the contract with Betamax be held accountable for their act and, as a corollary, be made to assume liability for the consequences?

As regards the first question, whether or not STC has the means to pay the award, what is evident is that the money will eventually come from the public exchequer, that is, money belonging to the people. The impact of this on a debt-ridden economy can only be disastrous.

When it comes to accountability, the rule in local politics is to hide behind the screen of ‘collective responsibility,’ whereby decisions taken by Cabinet members are considered to be official acts taken in the line of duty towards the State, with the implication that those who are responsible for the decision are therefore immune from prosecution in case of a negative fallout.

In other words, collective responsibility seems to mean ‘responsibility without accountability’ – everybody is responsible, but nobody is accountable.

And since ‘everybody’ is acting on behalf of the State, it is the country that must bear the consequences and pay the price however heavy when things go wrong.

Perhaps it is time for the country to revisit this system of functioning, or rather malfunctioning? Although collective responsibility is invoked, clearly there must be an originator of such a major decision who then pushes it through to acceptance by the Cabinet. Here the origin is definitely vendetta politics, and some way must be found to buffer the country against this perversion.

Since it is well nigh impossible to identify the main perpetrator, there has to be a possibility built into the system to make the leader of the government be accountable.

One model of interest is that of the state of California in the US, which is one of 19 states that allow recall elections. According to Wikipedia, under state law, any elected official may be subjected to a recall. To trigger a recall election of a statewide elected official, proponents must gather a certain amount of signatures from registered voters within a certain time period. The amount must equal 12 percent of the votes cast in the previous election for that office.

For example, based on the previous election for governor, a 2021 recall petition requires 1,495,709 signatures.

When the secretary of state confirms that a recall petition meets the required amount of signatures, a recall election must be scheduled within 60 to 80 days. In the case of a recall against the governor, the responsibility for scheduling the recall election falls on the lieutenant governor.

Then all registered voters will be mailed a ballot with two questions: whether the incumbent should be recalled, and if recalled, which challenger should replace them. If a majority of voters favour removing the incumbent, then the challenger who receives the most votes finishes out the incumbent’s term in office.

Given the reality of local vendetta politics, it is perhaps high time for legal minds among concerned citizens to frame and canvass a serious proposal along the lines of California’s ‘recall election’ for the country. Since the opposition is also clamouring about this clear-cut case of vendetta politics, it may well be the better placed to make such a move and hold up hope for the country’s future. Should this materialize, that is, framed and eventually legislated – when it regains power someday – it will be the one concrete and game-changing achievement to protect the citizens from the whims and superegos of future vengeance-driven politicians.

Responsibility would then be coupled to accountability at the apex level of the country’s governance, something which is at present totally lacking and is urgently needed.

* Published in print edition on 18 June 2021

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