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When was the last time a minister resigned as a matter of principle?

The buck should stop at leaders who are ultimately responsible

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Former US President Harry Truman poses by his old desk, which has the famous “The buck stops here” sign - WIKIPEDIA

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When any cabinet minister quits his or her post, the decision is often seen as steadfast and honourable.

Ministers usually resign for two reasons:

  • To uphold accountability, in the wake of a contravention of cabinet policies, a gaffe, an error of judgement, or a breach of integrity or fiduciary duty. Ethics dictate that ministers should resign if their actions are deemed dishonest or intended to mislead Parliament or the public and have brought the government to disrepute
  • To accept moral responsibility for a heartbreaking tragedy. When ministers resign as a matter of principle, their resignation speaks volumes about their character and stature. Sometimes ministers may resign when they strongly disagree with the prime minister or president over critical and fundamental matters

Many honourable ministers have resigned even though they were not directly responsible or incriminated in a calamity. A decision to resign under these circumstances underlines and reinforces trustworthiness and denotes accountability. Ministers who hold office have undertaken an oath for their unwavering obligation and answerability to the post they hold.

In 1956, India’s then-railway minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, resigned from his post after accepting moral responsibility for the rail tragedy at Ariyalur, 280km from Madras, in which 152 passengers died and several others were injured. The then-Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, described Shastri as a “man of impeccable integrity”. Shastri’s resignation enhanced his stature, and he later returned to the cabinet and became Prime Minister from 1964 until his untimely demise in 1966.

Two prominent minsters resigned during the tenure of Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister.

In 1982, Peter Carington resigned as British foreign secretary and took full responsibility for his failure to anticipate Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. He regarded the Argentine annexation as a “humiliating affront” to the UK.

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Four years later, in 1986, Michael Heseltine resigned as British defence secretary after a quarrel with then-Prime Minister Thatcher during a cabinet meeting over the future of the Westland helicopter company. Storming out of the meeting, he scoffed that his views were being discarded, adding that “if the basis of trust between the prime minister and her defence secretary no longer exists, then there is no place with honour for me in such a cabinet”.

On 16 April 2014, the Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea claiming the lives of over 300 people, with only 172 passengers surviving the tragedy.

The victims were mainly teachers and students. The tragedy enraged and devastated the nation. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned on 27 April amidst mounting criticism of the government’s handling of the disaster. Deeply disturbed over the misfortune, he said the “cries of the families of those missing still keep me up at night”.

Belgium’s transport minister, Jacqueline Galant, resigned shortly after three coordinated suicide bombings on 22 March 2016. Over 30 were killed and over 200 injured. Two of the bombings were at Brussels Airport in Zaventem and one at Maalbeek metro station. The minister had earlier ignored warnings over shortcomings in security checking and funding at Brussels Airport.

Also in 2016, Aida Hadzialic, Sweden’s minister for upper secondary schools, adult education and training, resigned after Malmo Police hauled her up in southern Sweden. Her offence: driving while over the permitted alcohol level. Hadzialic, a refugee from the Balkans, had only 0.2g per litre of alcohol in her blood, but it was still an offence in Sweden (though this level of alcohol would not have been an offence in most EU countries). Aida had been seen as a rising star in Swedish politics, creating history two years earlier by becoming, at 27, the youngest minister appointed to the cabinet.

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On 20 April this year, Taiwan’s transport minister, Lin Chia-lung, resigned following a train crash which killed 49 people and injured over 200. The 2 April crash took place when a railway maintenance truck slid down an embankment onto a rail track, moments before a high-speed train passed by. Despite not being directly implicated in the incident, the dignified minister took full responsibility for the tragedy.

In June, British health secretary Matt Hancock resigned in disgrace after he breached physical distancing rules by kissing an aide in his departmental office. This appalling behaviour showed up Hancock’s blatant hypocrisy. Besides fellow MPs from both sides of the political divide, the Bereaved Families for Justice Group also called for Hancock’s sacking.

In Malaysia, only Zaid Ibrahim resigned as de facto law minister on a matter of principle. Zaid quit on 15 September 2008 over the government’s use of the harsh Internal Security Act against DAP MP Teresa Kok, blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng. In his letter of resignation, Zaid expressed his disappointments over not implementing reforms, and the arrest without charge of the three civilians was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Regrettably, after Zaid Ibrahim, no other minister in Malaysia has resigned either to acknowledge failure to perform his or her duties or to accept moral responsibility for any fiasco.  

Accountability and integrity are an integral part of politics. When a politician implements policies for the country, the people have a right to reward, vilify or reject the politician. The acceptance or rejection is determined through elections, which can be regarded as a litmus test for the politician.

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Refusing to accept responsibility for something unacceptable or declaring publicly that a deed was unintentional is no defence, as it contravenes the dictum of ministerial responsibility. A minister’s worthiness should dictate adherence to the famed motto of then-US President Harry Truman, who said, “The buck stops here”.

Truman kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. It simply meant that as US president he was ultimately responsible for any decision affecting the country, and only he – and no one else – should be blamed for any adverse consequences.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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