Democracy best for accountability

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am


When the century-old colonial ruling structure was ditched in favour of a political appointee system in 2002, the government promised better governance and more accountability for its policies and mistakes. Six years later, the team was further expanded with a view to strengthening the system and helping groom political talent, a step said to be essential to prepare the city for universal suffrage in 2017. The system was hailed as the solution to the city's increasingly unsustainable political system.

A decade has passed. Regrettably, the so-called accountability system still leaves a lot to be desired. There appears to be no major breakthrough in the political deadlock. Except for a few new faces drawn from the private sector, civil servants remain the backbone of the ruling team. Their performance, as reflected by public opinion surveys, is far from satisfactory. There is no shortage of misguided policies and political blunders. Public grievances abound.

Some argue that the system is still relatively new and should therefore be given more time to mature. Others dubbed it a total failure. Whatever the verdict, there is little doubt that the quasi-ministerial system has yet to achieve the intended results.

Admittedly, the system represents a step forward in that the chief executive can freely choose lieutenants who share his vision and goals. The ruling team can go beyond the civil service to tap private sector talent. The team is generally more politically sensitive and receptive to public demands. Occasionally, ministers stepped down to shoulder responsibility for political fallout. However, the system has also raised community expectations without meeting them. Policy implementation remains frustratingly slow. Externally, the majority of the second- and third-tier appointees remain faceless to the public. Internally, reporting lines between civil servants and the political team becomes increasingly blurred. With unclear roles and responsibilities, it is difficult to assess whether undersecretaries and political assistants have got the job done. Even the outgoing chief executive conceded that the expansion he pushed for in 2008 had severely damaged his popularity.

Until there is a democratically elected government backed by a ruling majority in the legislature, the deadlock is likely to remain. But the clock cannot be turned back now. Further improvement is the way forward. The best accountability comes from universal suffrage. The system means little unless the appointees and the chief executive are truly accountable to the people who vote them in office. The system must improve in tandem as we move towards universal suffrage.